Boysie Singh 20th Century Pirate of the Caribbean

"BOYSIE SINGH? I was a small boy at the time but I remember it well, the whole town turned out for his funeral," reminisced Renrick Nick of TIDCO when I mentioned I was thinking of writing about one of the most, if not the most notorious thief, pander, arsonist, gambler, pirate, smuggler, mass murderer in the history of Trinidad in next edition Sunday’s Newsday.

If they have heard his name or heard tell of his fame, for many young and even middle-aged people Boysie Singh is an old, old story; his crimes pale before the gang-and drug-related murders reported almost daily in the national press. Yet it’s said Boysie Singh once held the world record for the number of murders he was believed to have committed — far more, so it would seem, than any gang leader or drug baron today.

How many of us passing Number 17, Luis Street, in Woodbrook realise we are going past the birthplace of a cold-blooded mass murderer whose crimes are listed in an Encyclopaedia of Mass Murder and his cases included in lists of famous trials?

Little seems to be known of his early life. According to a story appearing on Dr Selwyn Cudjoe’s website for June last year, Boysie Singh’s father, Bhagrang Singh, was himself a fugitive from justice, that he came of warrior stock in India and fled to Trinidad after killing "a man of high rank".

We know Boysie was born on April 5, 1908, there seems to be no record of his schooling, Fr de Verteuil notes that, beginning with petty crime, he progressed to crimes serious enough to be sentenced to hard labour and short rations on Carrera.

Gambling being one way of passing the time in prison, he realised that bookmakers rarely, if ever, lost. On his release from prison (we haven’t been able to check the exact date) which must have been about 1940-41, he got involved in gambling clubs in San Juan; then, when the US entered World War II and American servicemen poured into Trinidad, Boysie Singh ran gambling clubs and brothels on Queen Street, Port-of-Spain.

When the war was over and US Servicemen departed, leaving only the naval base in Chaguaramas, Boysie graduated to the protections racket, with arson as his preferred method of "persuading" his "clients" to pay up, setting fires to cars and, when that failed to produce the cash, to buildings.

Then, tiring, so it would seem, of terrifying local businessmen, or wanting a change of scene, he reckoned there was good money to be made by smuggling goods across the Gulf from Cedros to Venezuela. However, he found he had bitten off more than he could chew because then and (if fishermen’s tales are to be believed) as now, the criminal element on the other side of the Gulf was as tough, if not tougher, than Boysie Singh.

However, the northern waters of the Gulf of Paria were more profitable hunting grounds. With gambling clubs and brothels providing a steady source of income, Boysie turned pirate. For almost ten years, from 1947 to 1956 Singh and his henchmen terrorized local fishermen and Venezuelan "contrabandistas" (smugglers) alike. They would board the boat, murder the crew, steal the engine for sale in Venezuela, and sink the boat. If the cargo were valuable, (liquor, tobacco, etc) that, too would be stolen and sold wherever there was a market for the goods.

From piracy he moved on to people smuggling. Stories told of his brutality are the stuff of legend. Some say he murdered 70 people in cold blood, others put the tally at an astonishing 400. The truth lies somewhere in between: only he would know — if he could remember how many he killed.

How could he kill so many for so long without getting caught? Fr de Verteuil points out that those wanting to immigrate to Venezuela without troubling the Immigration Authorities would contact Boysie, pay their passage, pack up all their valuables, their jewelry and cold, hard cash in, one supposes, US dollars (because illegal immigrants should never advertise their intentions to the authorities by buying travellers’ cheques). Without telling anyone where and when they were going (one imagines Boysie insisted on this as part-payment for their very expensive passage across the Gulf) they went to the Leper Asylum jetty at Cocorite to board Boysie’s launch.

No one knows exactly where and when Boysie turned on his passengers demanding that they hand over all their money and valuables and ordering his henchmen to "help" them. The legend goes that at this point Boysie ordered them to "get out and walk" — in the time-honoured tradition of old-time Caribbean pirates, the fictional Long John Silver and Captain Hook ordering their victims to walk the plank. He couldn’t let them live — even if he wanted to, which is doubtful in the extreme. He murdered (or ordered his henchmen to kill) every one.

Bodies have an inconvenient habit of floating when stomach gases expand after death, bringing the corpse to the surface. Floating corpses would be bound to attract the attention of coastguards on either side of the Gulf, as well as fishermen and merchant ships.

More legends abound of how Boysie and Co disposed of the remains of their passengers. One version tells of victims being forced to sit with their feet in a bucket of quick-drying cement; as soon as the cement set the victim was tipped over the side wearing the concrete "boots" that would anchor him to the sea bed.

Another far-fetched tale tells of Boysie stowing a dead donkey on board; once the passengers were relieved of their cash, valuables and life, he’d have the donkey’s body cut up and flung in the water to attract sharks for a feeding frenzy on human flesh when the murdered passengers followed the butchered donkey into the sea. One would think one butchered human body should be enough to attract man-eating sharks . . . The most believable story is that Boysie roped the bodies to pieces of iron he had previously stowed aboard, then flung them over the side.

Boysie was well known to almost everyone in Trinidad. In her novel Bruised Hibiscus Elizabeth Nunez writes: "Boysie Singh, a notorious gangster, reputedly cut out the hearts of young women to rub on the hooves of his racehorses." That sounds a bit far-fetched; even so, since, it seems, he owned racehorses, society appears to have turned a blind eye to his crimes where the Sport of Kings was concerned.

Criminal and showman par excellence (if all the tales told about him are true), according to his brief biography in Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia on the Internet, John "Boysie" Singh was "held in awe and dread by most of the population of Trinidad and was frequently seen strolling grandly about Port-of-Spain in the early 1950s wearing bright, stylish clothes." Parents threatened naughty children that if they didn’t behave Boysie Singh would come to get them.

Boysie seemed to bear a charmed life, thumbing his nose at the police, and anyone else who tried to call a halt to his career of crime. But it couldn’t last forever; sooner or later the police collected enough evidence to arrest him — but the jury failed to agree (one wonders why, but has one’s suspicions...) and the case was dismissed.

Once again the police collected evidence — the floating corpse of his homosexual henchman "Bumper". Boysie was arrested and brought to trial, he was convicted but on appeal he was released. Maybe his second escape from justice brought about his religious conversion. Boysie took to preaching, loudly lamenting his criminal past — but it couldn’t last. He reverted to crime.

Renrick Nick told me that Boysie did not commit the crime that was his undoing. He was accused of murdering a dancer (some say she was his niece) who had disappeared, but her body was never found. The trial is listed among famous trials of the 20th century as The Case of the Missing Corpse. This time all appeals failed, he was sentenced to death.

Fr de Verteuil writes that Boysie Singh died "like a saint", quoting his last message to his favourite son: "Thank God that I knew when I had to die. That I had time to prepare for my death. Son, I have offended God most grievious . . . I must be punished by God and this is my portion. Son, pray to God, go often as you can to Church. God will bless you. Son I leave my blessing from God to you."

He was hung by the neck until he was dead in the Royal Gaol on August 20, 1957. So ended the criminal career of Boysie Singh, gambler, womaniser, thief, pirate, mass murderer.


"Boysie Singh 20th Century Pirate of the Caribbean"

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