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Hayes, Bullylocked

(1829– March 1877)
  • David E. Woodard

Hayes, Bully (1829– March 1877), trader, adventurer, and blackbirder, was born William Henry Hayes in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Henry Hayes, a bargeman in and around the Great Lakes; his mother’s name is unknown. Little is known about Hayes’s early life. His first maritime experience came as a saltwater sailor on voyages around Cape Horn to California. Hayes commanded a total of fifteen vessels over his lifetime.

Hayes’s first job as a mate came in 1853 on a trip from New York to Australia, where he planned to search for gold. Failing to find gold or procure any business in Australia, Hayes began his history of questionable commercial practices. In 1854 he sailed to Singapore, where he managed to acquire his first ship. After purchasing merchandise using his craft as collateral, Hayes quickly sailed away without the proper authorization and without making arrangements to pay his debts—a tactic he repeated many times over the next two decades. Engaging in questionable transactions from the South Seas to San Francisco, Hayes frequently was chased by creditors. Conflicting jurisdictions with a mix of European and indigenous legal systems allowed Hayes to keep out of trouble until 1858, when he was forced into bankruptcy. Managing to recover financially, Hayes soon purchased another vessel.

Hayes’s dynamic personality greatly contributed to his success. Strong and handsome, he had a beard, penetrating blue eyes, and a deep baritone voice. In August 1859, while in San Francisco, he bought and outfitted the Ellentia. As before, he managed to depart while owing large sums of money and sailed for Sydney with his creditors close behind. As described in an article in a San Francisco newspaper, Hayes “vamoosed” owing $3,794. Some of his contemporaries maintained that Hayes might have returned to pay those bills had he not run into trouble en route to Australia, but vamoosing remained a standard part of Hayes’s routine.

Hayes took passengers on the Ellentia even though the craft was unseaworthy and uninsured, and in October 1859, before reaching Sydney, the Ellentia was lost. Hayes was sued for obligations and sent to debtors’ prison. His actions attracted the notice of the local press, and he was chastised in the Sydney Morning Herald. Hayes was described as a “pirate,” which marked the beginning of his legendary status. He was briefly incarcerated and for a time lived as an insolvent beachcomber in Sydney.

For several months in 1864 Hayes toured with a minstrel group in and around Sydney. After a short time he was able to purchase the brigantine Black Diamond. Soon defaulting on some commercial arrangements, Hayes sailed to the Croixelles. While his craft was being repaired, Hayes had a yacht accident in which his common-law wife, Rosetta Buckingham; their fourteen-month-old daughter; and her brother and nursemaid were drowned. Hayes survived the wreck only to be arrested again for financial misdeeds.

In the mid-1860s Hayes became involved in a variety of extralegal practices, the most sinister being “blackbirding”—the practice of kidnapping Polynesians and selling them as slaves in the Fiji Islands. Blackbirding had gone on for years in the South Seas, but the practice noticeably increased after the American Civil War. A worldwide cotton shortage led to the growth of plantations in the South Seas, which resulted in a labor shortage, and Hayes joined in the lucrative business of securing workers. When British officials became aware of his activities, Hayes was arrested but released after only a short prison stay.

In 1874 Hayes’s ship, the Leonora, was lost in a storm. Settling in the Caroline Islands with several of his crew, he set up a trading system and generally terrorized the natives. When a British ship arrived, the claims against him were investigated, but before any action could be taken he fled to Guam. In 1875, while in Guam, Hayes was arrested by Spanish authorities and charged with aiding the escape of political prisoners; this time he spent several months in jail before being released.

In 1877 Hayes was back in San Francisco, where he managed to secure the yacht Lotus. Consistent with his history, he appears to have stolen not only the yacht but also the owner’s wife. Hayes sailed the Lotus to Hawaii with a small crew. In March while en route to Samoa he got into an argument with his cook, and a fight ensued. The cook reportedly killed Hayes with a blow to the head, and his body was thrown overboard. A hearing was later held, and evidence was sent to Washington, but no action was taken.

Hayes’s reputation was solidified in the writings of Louis Becke, who had sailed with him briefly in the 1870s and later wrote buccaneer tales in which Hayes is depicted as charismatic and charming—a romantic hero on the grand South Sea stage. While Becke chronicled the romantic side of Bully Hayes, others related darker accounts. He was especially notorious for his mistreatment of women. Documentation is lacking, but it is clear that Hayes was married several times. In 1857 he married Amelia Littleton, an Australian widow. In 1865 he married Emily Butler in New Zealand, while the first Mrs. Hayes was still living in San Francisco. Hayes and Emily Butler had three children. Hayes also lived for various periods with several different women in situations that resembled marriage. One of those women was Rosetta Buckingham, who died in the wreck of the Black Diamond. Hayes was also accused of taking indecent liberties with young girls—twice he had to defend himself against formal charges. The charges were dropped each time, but Hayes acquired a reputation for possessing a violent temper and treating women with little respect.

Although it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in accounts of Bully Hayes’s career, several details of his life stand out. As a sailor, he was skilled; as a trader, crafty; and, just as an individual, unusually resourceful. Despite continual problems with money, he consistently managed to obtain both ships and trade commodities. But the strengths of his character were without a moral anchor. His defrauding of creditors, his highly questionable commercial transactions, his bigamous living arrangements, and his participation in the South Pacific slave trade all stamp him as a man unburdened by conscience or social consciousness. His notorious behavior is his most enduring legacy: he was a buccaneer of modern times and a classic rogue.


Information about Hayes is sketchy and frequently unauthentic. The best attempt at a scholarly biography is Frank Clune, Captain Bully Hayes: Blackbirder and Bigamist (1971). While Clune includes an adequate bibliography, he prefaces his study with the warning that “this book may be classed as fiction because it includes numerous yarns about the career of Bully Hayes that cannot be verified.” Other useful accounts of Hayes include A. T. Saunders, Bully Hayes: Barrator, Bigamist, Buccaneer, Blackbirder, and Pirate (1915; 2d ed., 1932); Alfred Basil Lubbock, Bully Hayes: South Sea Pirate (1931); and J. B. Musser, “Bully Hayes—Pirate de Luxe,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 53 (1927): 956–61. For the swashbuckling accounts of Hayes’s career see Louis Becke, By Reef and Palm (1894) and Bully Hayes: Buccaneer and Other Stories (1913), and also Rolf Boldrewood, A Modern Buccaneer (1894). A valuable biography of Becke is Grove Day, Louis Becke (1966). Other references that discuss Hayes include Scott Russell, ed., “Of Wooden Ships and Iron Men: An Historical and Archaeological Survey of the Brig Leonora,” Micronesian Archaeological Survey Report 15 (1982): 7–26, 103–7; W. B. Churchward, My Consulate in Samoa (1887); and A. R. Headland, Adventures Afloat in Missionary Ships (1929).