Friday, 30 October 2015

Captain John Marchante - Pirate or Privateer? (1540-1596) (Week 44) Theme: "Frightening"

It is said that they who live by the sword shall die by the sword.

This week is Hallowe'en and there will probably be some frightening sword-wielding pirates at our doorsteps expecting booty. Their swashbuckling threats will be part of the fun, but real pirates are another matter altogether. Whether or not he was particularly frightening, this seems like a good week for featuring my ancestor privateer/pirate Captain John Marchante.

Pirate Ship Painting by Ambroise-Louis Garneray
Photographed by Poecus
In the Public Domain - Wikimedia Commons

My cousin Michael entertained us by singing a grand version of Stan Roger's "Barrett's Privateers" at our 2000 family reunion at Waterton Lake. Perhaps if Michael had known of our 11th great grandfather John Marchante, he could have adapted the lyrics accordingly. No doubt he will do that for our next reunion.

Technically speaking, a "pirate" is someone who seizes a ship or its cargo from its rightful owner while a "privateer" is someone who does the same thing but is authorized to do so by a government. Labelling someone as either a "pirate" or "privateer" is often a question of perspective. From my admittedly biased perspective, Captain John Marchante was a "privateer".

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I marked the golden age of piracy and privateering. Authorizing private vessels to serve on her behalf saved Elizabeth the cost and trouble of expanding her own navy. She was also able to enjoy her share of the spoils brought back to England. Many of England's greatest heroes were actually privateers - Sir Martin Frobisher, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake included. Their famous explorations were actually secondary goals to their plunders.

John Marchante was born about 1540 in Yeovil, Somerset, England. There he married Eva Cominge on 18 July 1568. In September of 1571, their son John Marchante (my 10th great grandfather) was born and would live out his life in the Yeovil area. Father John ranged much farther afield. He spent his life as a ship's captain, though we don't have any details of just where his voyages took him until he was in his 40's. If he was already serving as one of Queen Elizabeth's privateers, there is no early mention of such activity.

Yeovil, Somerset (marked by red pin) from Google Earth
What we do know is that Captain John served as captain of a ship under Sir Francis Drake beginning in 1585. Francis Drake had been born in about the same year as John and had been a politician, sea captain, privateer, navigator and sometime slaver. By the time our Captain John served under him, Drake had circumnavigated the globe and had been awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth I.

Sir Francis Drake is, of course, a hero to the English, but the Spaniards called him a pirate. No doubt they attached the same label to those who served with Drake. That would have included our Captain John who was one of the captains serving under Drake in the 1585 expedition.

The 1585 expedition was a pre-emptive strike ordered by Queen Elizabeth after Phillip II of Spain had declared war on England. In September of that year, Sir Francis Drake and his fleet (including Captain John aboard the Hopewell) sailed from Plymouth (see map above), first attacking Spain and then the Cape Verde Islands before sailing across the Atlantic where they sacked the port of Santo Domingo and captured Cartagena in what is now Colombia. Not content with that, on their return voyage to England they raided the Spanish fort of St. Augustin in Spanish Florida. They also made a friendlier stop at Roanoke (North Carolina), the settlement started by Sir Walter Raleigh, before returning home to heroes' welcome on 22 July 1586.

Rumours of a planned invasion of England by the Spaniards caused Elizabeth to order another pre-emptive strike in 1587 when Drake sailed into and occupied Cadiz and Corunna and "singed the beard of the King of Spain". John Marchante was Sergeant-Major in this expedition in which 37 Spanish ships were destroyed.

The expedition was not without controversy. At one point Sergeant-Major John Marchante was serving on the Golden Lyon under William Borough and replaced him as Captain after Borough's insubordination. The Golden Lyon had to be evacuated when Borough reportedly attempted mutiny. After this, our Captain John was found aboard the Spy. Drake called a court-martial and sentenced Borough to death, but after Borough blamed the whole fiasco on our Captain John's lack of strength and command, Borough was eventually set free.

Following this, Drake and his fleet patrolled the Iberian coast disrupting ships on the Spanish supply lines. Nevertheless, in 1588 Phillip proceeded with the planned invasion of England by his Spanish Armada. Drake was vice admiral of the English fleet when it pursued and overcame the Armada as it attempted to make its way up the English Channel. Captain John took part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The actions of the English seafarers were not primarily acts of patriotism as it is apparent that plundering the Spanish ships was probably their real motivation. There was much ill will when Sir Martin Frobisher complained bitterly that Sir Francis Drake had claimed more than his fair share of the spoils. We don't know what Captain John Marchante obtained as his own share of the plunder.

Presumably, Captain John was content with whatever payment he was receiving for his services. In 1595 he was still accompanying Drake when they failed to conquer the port of Las Palmas and suffered a number of defeats in Spanish America including San Juan de Puerto Rico.

Both Drake and Captain John were to lose their lives during this expedition. After failing to seize a Spanish treasure ship in Puerto Rico, they made their way to Panama where they took the town of Nombre de Dios. They were hoping to intercept Spanish gold being brought over the isthmus but when Drake's men marched up the hill, they were surprised to discover a Spanish fort on the top. The Spaniards were ready for them and some 20 English men were killed in the action. (Drake would die of dysentry a few weeks later.)

Captain John Marchante was one of the 20 who died at Nombre de Dios on 02 January 1596. It was a sad but not surprising end to the eventful life of English privateer Captain John. He had lived by the sword and had indeed died by it.

Nombre de Dios, Panama, site of death of Captain John Marchante
Google Earth Image


  • Wikipedia articles on "John Marchant (seaman), "Sir Francis Drake" and "Privateers"
  •, Global, Find a Grave Index for Non-Burials, Burials at Sea, and other Select Burial Locations, 1300s-Current
  • Andrews, Kenneth R., "The Last Voyage of Drake and Hawkins", Cambridge University Press, 1972
  • Marchant Family website accessed online 28 September 2015 at
  • "A List of the Participants in the Roanoke Voyages" accessed online 28 September 2015 at


  1. Great Job researching your family tree back this far and then following Captain John across the seas. Great story if ignominious end.

  2. Hello...Captain Marchant was my ancestor grandfather as well. His daughter, JulieAnne married my grandfather Stuckley Westcott..Their daughter Mercy Westcott Stafford is my maternal 10th grandmother😁
    We are ancestral cousins!😊

    1. Thanks for your note, Cousin! Our ancestor sounds to me like an interesting man who lived in interesting times.