Arts and Leisure

John Bernard, 18th Century Comedian, Dodges Pirates

John Bernard's career in the theater was waning in Britain when an offer came from America in 1797. Actor, comedian, promoter and theater manager, Bernard came to the United States, where a love of theater was taking hold, and he was tremendously popular.

Before he could begin his career here, however, he and his wife had to get across the ocean to Boston. And along the way, he encountered pirates.

Bernard lived to tell the tale in his humorous way in Retrospections of America, 1797-1811:

John Bernard, actor and comedian

John Bernard, actor and comedian

"It would have been out of keeping with the adventurous tenor of my life if this voyage had passed over without some unusual source of excitement; and, accordingly, all fear of monotony was dissipated one morning, after we had cleared the Azores, by the sun suddenly drawing up a veil of mist and disclosing a vessel not far off. Her features were unmistakably those of a pirate -- long, low, and roomy, with a row of teeth, to use the sea-phrase -- which gave ample assurance that she never barked without biting. The breeze being faint, she lay and looked at us for half an hour, as a cat does at a canary, and then a shot came skipping and dipping before our bows to bring us to, and a large square sail was hoisted to lay her alongside. We could now perceive that her deck was crowded with an ugly assortment of walking armories, with bushy black hair on their crowns and under their chins, looking indeed complete "Kydds,"and by no means lambkins.

"To describe the confusion on board our packet would be impossible. We stared, with sinking hearts, in each other's faces, and then all glances converged upon the captain, but he proved to be suffering under a sudden and severe attack of paralysis. Seeing him utterly at a loss how to act, I advised him to crowd all the sail he could and make as expeditious a retreat as possible, while a Virginian merchant, who had property on board, called upon him, if flight were impracticable, to attest his character as a true-born Englishman and at once prepare to fight. But the crew, including the cook, numbered only twelve, and as to the others on board, setting aside the tailor, who was a Methodist and disliked drawing any one's blood but his own; the comedian, who was a philanthropist and hated fighting for " Nipperkin's " reason, "because it's so plaguey quarrelsome," and the captain, who, being a coward, was no doubt a philosopher and believed in "Necessity," there were only fourteen individuals to guard our deck against at least a hundred.

"But emergencies are the opportunities of heroes. The Irishman who had been so supine all the voyage no sooner heard the captain's tremulous remark that he should be compelled to surrender, than he jumped three feet from the deck, whirled his cap in the air, and shouted, " Surrender be (damned); we'll sink first, and then let him take us. If the captain won't fight the ship, I will." The crew, who did not want for pluck, whatever might be the case with their commander, welcomed the proposition with a cheer, and forthwith proceeded to cast off the lashings of four small guns which represented our ordnance. What all our heroism could have done for us beyond irritating the enemy it is difficult to say, but happily at this decisive-moment the wind, suddenly freshening, gave our vessel a start which enabled us, before dusk, to run the wretch out of sight.

"On reaching Boston I met many London acquaintances at the theatre there, who varied in the reception they gave me. One said I "had come too late by five years;" another that I was "a great fool to come at all;" a third that, as I "looked a florid habit, there was every chance of my being packed in a black box before the spring." The better tempered cheered me in the way an army agent does a cadet in war time. "The yellow fever," said they, "thins the Green Room of at least twenty every summer, so that in a short time the field will be your own!"

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  1. Pingback: John Bernard Learns About The Connecticut Blue Laws - New England Historical Society

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