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The Story of Joshua Cushing’s Dagger

The following account first appeared in the Knickerbocker Magazine and was printed in the Republican Standard of August 6, 1857. Captain Joshua Cushing lies buried in Cushing Cemetery in Mattapoisett.

On the fourth day of July in the year eighteen hundred and seven, the schooner Mary Ann, Ichabod Sheffield of Sag Harbor being master, sailed from New York for the Strait of Belle Isle. She was about 120 tons burden and carried a crew of Captain, mate, three foremast hands, a cook, and a cabin boy. Joshua Cushing was the mate. On arrival at Cape Charles, VA, where they awaited a cargo of fish, time was spent in painting on 16 port-holes and dressing the ship to look like a privateer.

Two more foremast hands were added and on the twentieth of September they set sail for a market in the Mediterranean. Nothing occurred worthy of note until the 29th of October about 40 miles west of the Islands of Majorca, a ship-of-war was sighted standing on the wing westward about 8 miles distant. In about half an hour the ship hoisted English colors and tacked toward the Mary Ann. She came up on the weather quarter, hauled down her English colors, hoisted the Algerian flag and threw a shot across the Mary Ann’s bow. These were the Barbary Pirates. More barbarous, ferocious, and desperate men never sailed the seas. At this time the United States made regular payments to the Dey of Algiers for safe passage of its merchant ships since Algeria claimed as a right all property and persons in the Mediterranean. Piracy was a government enterprise and treasury of the Dey was replenished by the sale of captives into slavery.

You can imagine the state of mind of the crew on the Mary Ann. In the words of the mate, Joshua Cushing, the story continues: “The commander of the frigate hailed us and by signs ordered us to lower our boat and come on board. This invitation was respectfully declined giving us a reason that our boat would not float. They then boarded us, took Captain Sheffield and the ship’s papers and returned to the frigate. --I was now master of the schnooer. Various ideas for escape ran through my mind, but being under the broadside of a ship of 44 guns which could sink us with a single volley, it was hopeless. I took the glass and watched the frigate and at the end of an hour men armed with swords, guns, pistols, and dagger were put off in a boat to return to the Mary Ann. At last my heart leaped with joy to see the Captain among the company, but my joy was short lived! On their arrival the pirates brutally boun our foremast hands and threw them into the boat. Only the Captain, the cook, the cabin boy (a lad of 14) and myself remained. We were prisoners of a prize crew of nine men and a cabin boy. Every feature was brutish and their countenances were fiendish. Their dirty beards nearly covered their swarthy faces and swept their breasts. Four of them wore a flat cloth cap of a drab color, a stuffed shirt without a collar, a flannel undershirt and a petticoat pantaloons fastened below the knee with legs bare. Some of the numbers had cloaks with headpieces of singular appearance. The prize-master besides his sword and defensive weapons wore his belt a magnificent pistol about eighteen inches in length and richly encased in silver.

It was about six o’clock in the afternoon and we were informed by signs that we could be at liberty provided we take the vessel to Algiers. We went at our tasks with all orders reinforced by muskets pointed towards us. When the prize-master was being served at our table in the cabin, muskets loaded and cocked were invariably pointed at us from above. In spite of our guards, I managed to get a word with our Captain. From what he learned on board the frigate we were doomed to perpetual slavery Algerian style.

On the 28th of October I had another opportunity to consult the Captain. It was not long before we soberly and deliberately determined never to go in Algerian slavery. Death was preferable. October 29th came in with the wind west southwest and it was our chance! It was a desperate move to undertake the recapture of the vessel. They were nine against our three and it was common belief that one Algerian for fighting purposes on the deck of a vessel was equal to three of any other nation. Besides, they were completely armed for a hand-to-hand encounter. We had two guns belonging to the schooner that they had not found and the Captain had another with a spring bayonet. These we prepared for use by loading and concealing again in the cabin.

October 30th was another light day of west winds. Caught some small fish with the grain staff [1] which requires some skill. This gave us a chance to stow away the pump handles and the grain staves where the pirates could not see them.

At twelve o’ clock on October 31st we sighted land. With the vessel on the wind we laid our plan of action. The cabin boy was to remain below in the cabin with the firearms in his keeping and to pass them up if called for. At one o’clock we came in the sight of the city of Algiers and we now made known to the cook our resolution. I ordered him below to take off his boots and such clothing as would encumber him in hand-to-hand fight. He soon reappeared with nothing on but his pantaloons and shirt with his sleeves rolled up in the most approved fighting style. This caused suspicion and the prize crew cocked their guns and pointed them at us. I then ordered the cook to the fore top-sail yard which allayed their suspicion and the guns were uncocked. At this moment I noticed the prize-master laying his fine sword and pistol in the coop. Our plan was for the Captain to again show how to catch fish with the grain staff. This would draw the prize crew to the side of the vessel - in fact they probably would lean over the rail the better to see the action. At a given signal each of us was to pitch a man overboard. We were now only about 7 miles from Algiers and eternal slavery.

The cook had come down from aloft and had taken the wheel. One man with a double barreled gun was reclining on the cable tier. The rest of the prize crew were leaning over the rail. The signal was given! In an instant of time three men had plunged into the sea. The Captain had sprung like a lion on the man in the cable tier on the lee quarter. The gun was wrenched from his grasp and thrown on the deck before he could bring it to bear. He dragged the pilot to the side of the vessel with superhuman strength and had thrown him over the rail, but could not shake him from his death grasp. I came to his assistance with the grain staff and the harpooned Turk dropped into the water. The pump brake of the cook on the lee side was doing terrible execution while I stood off three men at the break of the quarter deck. I had a grain staff and faced the turk with the dagger. The grain staff from its length could be brought to bear before the dagger of the Turk but he threw it with such violence that it almost buried itself in the deck after just grazing my side. The grain staff then did its work. Before it could be raised again, the most powerful of the pirates had grappled with me. The struggle was to be of short duration for his companion had raised his horrid knife to plunge it in my side. Ten thousand thoughts raced through my mind as I saw the glistening knife descend, but just at the fatal moment the pump break of the cook came down with the velocity of lightning and the crash of thunder spattering blood and brains in all directions. The last man was thrown overboard and the bloody grapple that lasted no more than five minutes was over.

The silver cased pistol; and dagger of the prize-master was lying untouched on the coop. Guns and pistols were strewn about the deck or thrown overboard with their owners. Four horribly mangled corpses in their piratical habiliments lay motionless on the deck. A gloomy silence brooded over all.

We were now ourselves again and the Mary Ann was at our command. You can readily believe that the vessel was not long in going about. All sails were set and our course was up the straits. The decks were cleared and we all thanked God for our deliverance.”

Below is the actual dagger used in the battle on the Mary Ann. It was given to Noah Hammond after Joshua's death and donated to the the Plymouth Society's collection. After the Mattapoisett Museum opened its doors the dagger was deaccessioned from the Plymouth Society in the mid-1980s and now remains in the Mattapoisett Museum's collection.

A two foot dagger owned by an Algerian pirate in 1804.
The dagger which they carried in their belt was of singular construction and intended to be thrown in the right hand with the thumb over the right hilt. It was about two feet in length, and so skillful were the pirates in the use of it, they would dart it to a considerable distance and with great precision and force.

[1] grain staff: a kind of multi-pronged spear used on whaling vessels

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