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Who Were the Real Pirates of the Caribbean?

By: elocal staff

Three hundred years ago, a cultural revolution exploded out of East London. The narrow lane of Paternoster Row, today lined with trendy cafés and sushi shops, feels like an unlikely spot for the birth of the pirates of the Caribbean. But this was once the heart of the English capital’s publishing industry—and a place of justice for the most dreaded brigands.

Paternoster Row stands a few blocks away from the Old Bailey courts and Newgate Prison, where so many sea dogs were dragged in chains, tried and sentenced to death. So it was fitting that A General History of the Pirates—a comprehensive biography that shaped perceptions of pirates both then and now—was first sold here in May 1724.

The book’s author, one Captain Charles Johnson, had a best seller on his hands. An expanded version appeared later that year, followed by a third edition in 1725 and a fourth in 1726. Translations into Dutch, German and French also arrived in quick succession. Three centuries later, the blockbuster is still in print. Chapter by chapter, the book introduces readers to pirates who are now household names, from Henry Avery to Blackbeard to Anne Bonny—figures who inspired television hits like “Black Sails” and “One Piece” and fed the $4.5 billion Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Much of what we think we know about the golden age of piracy, though, is not what it seems. Johnson never existed (he was a pseudonym for an author alternatively identified as Daniel Defoe or Nathaniel Mist), and most of the clichés of the era—walking the plank, buried treasure and drunk pirates in the lovable rogue mold of Captain Jack Sparrow—are make-believe, invented by Robert Louis Stevenson for his 1883 novel, Treasure Island.

“The first proper novel written about pirates,” Stevenson’s tale cemented a specific image of buccaneers in the popular imagination, says Rebecca Simon, author of The Pirates’ Code: Laws and Life Aboard Ship. “Virtually everything about pirates in pop culture comes from Treasure Island.”

So, what were the real pirates of the Caribbean like? Were they revolutionaries who founded pirate republics where everyone was free and equal? Or were they terrorists and rapists, enemies of all mankind out to pad their pockets, the world be damned?

Overall, around 4,000 sea dogs plagued the world’s sea lanes during the golden age of piracy. In the 1690s, early pirates sailed between western India and the Red Sea coasts of modern-day Yemen and Saudi Arabia. A few decades later, in the 1710s and 1720s, they turned their attention to Spanish and European shipping routes in the Caribbean and slave traders off West Africa.

At the peak of the mayhem, around 1720, up to 32 pirate ships crewed by 2,400 multiethnic sailors disrupted the Caribbean at any given time. Pirates ranged in age from about 14 to 50, though most were in their mid- to late 20s. Around half were English: A quarter of these English pirates came from the port cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Plymouth, while another third hailed from Greater London. One-quarter of all pirates were Americans from the West Indies and North America. Many sailed out of Boston, Rhode Island, New York and Charleston.

“Pirates were men of the sea, not wronged aristocrats avenging their lost honor, as Hollywood would have us believe,” says Marcus Rediker, author of Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. “A few had been enslaved waterfront workers, some fishermen [and] more privateersmen. The vast majority had been sailors in the Royal Navy and especially the merchant shipping industry, where they had experienced death-defying labor, poor food (biscuit so full of vermin, they said it could walk around by itself) and the captain’s back-scarring cat-o’-nine-tails.”

As the English writer Samuel Johnson put it, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail, for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.”

One in five pirates got their start after mutinies at sea, but the majority volunteered after pirates seized their merchant vessels. Highly skilled carpenters and doctors might be forcibly enlisted, but most captains, like Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, “forced nobody to go with them, and said they would take nobody against their wills,” as one sailor later testified.

Pirate crews were made up of men from all walks of life. Walter Kennedy, a native of Wapping in London, was a poor pickpocket, while Stede Bonnet was “master of a plentiful fortune” amassed through his sugarcane plantation in Barbados, according to A General History. Welshman Bartholomew Roberts bucked the hard reputation of the scowling pirate by dressing in scarlet breeches and tucking a red feather in his hat; he also drank tea rather than rum.

What united these disparate pirates was the dream of making a fortune. Pirates could rake in 100 to 1,000 times the salary of an Anglo-American sailor. And a few diehards hit the jackpot: In July 1693, for example, Thomas Tew of Rhode Island plundered £100,000 of gold and silver, gems, pearls, elephant tusks, spices, silk, and gunpowder from a ship bound for what is now Saudi Arabia.

Then, in September 1695, Avery disarmed the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s treasure ship and helped himself to £600,000 in gold, silver and jewels (about $130 million today)—the largest single haul in pirate history. Despite today’s emphasis on pirates of the Caribbean, the richest ships sailed between the Red Sea ports of Jeddah in modern Saudi Arabia, Mocha in Yemen and Surat in India. But pirates didn’t always spend their windfalls wisely. In the late 17th century, the Dutch surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin wrote that pirates used their money “according to their custom, wasted in a few days in taverns … by giving themselves to all manner of debauchery with strumpets and wine.”

During the War of the Spanish Succession, which spanned 1701 to 1714, privateers contracted by European governments to seize enemy ships got to keep about 80 percent of their loot. As soon as the peace was signed, this lucrative source of income vanished. The British Royal Navy demobilized its warships, decreasing its number of sailors from 49,860 in 1712 to 13,475 just two years later. Jobs dried up, and families went hungry.

“By the time the golden age of piracy was brought to a bloody end [in the 1720s], after royal governors had hanged hundreds of pirates,” says Rediker, “the ‘gentlemen of fortune’ had captured and plundered more than 2,400 vessels, 400 by Roberts and his crew alone. During their peak years, 1716 to 1726, pirates had done more damage to British Atlantic trade than France and Spain in the recent War of the Spanish Succession.”

The pirate ship was a world turned upside down. Crews called no country home but came instead “from the seas.” As floating Towers of Babel crewed by poor men of mixed religions and nations, pirate ships welcomed everyone into the brotherhood—except for women, who were considered bad luck. (Bonny and Mary Read’s adventures with Calico Jack Rackham lasted just two months.) On pirate decks, there was no social ranking. Everyone got to vote on decisions and take a fair cut of the spoils.

Far from the Hollywood image of anarchy, pirate crews signed articles to strictly control life at sea. Edward Low, the meanest pirate of the golden age, banned drunkenness at times of attack. Roberts forbade the lighting of candles after 8 p.m. George Lowther’s articles included compensation for the loss of a limb in an assault. Pirate lords could certainly be quirky. After Low’s wife died, he blocked married men from his fleet in a rare act of sentimentality. Bonnet sought solace at sea due to “some discomforts he found in a married state” that brought about “a disorder of the mind,” notes A General History. Bonnet, who had no sailing experience, didn’t just run away from his wife. “There is a suggestion that he had a strong preference to surround himself with other men,” says historian Katherine Howe, editor of The Penguin Book of Pirates and the descendant of a Massachusetts merchant who was hanged from a ship’s yardarm by pirates who wanted him to give up his valuables.

Male friendships on pirate vessels could be extremely close, to such an extent that matelotage, “a kind of civil union [performed] in front of witnesses and the captain,” was allowed, says Simon. “Two sailors would join into a bond to enable their property, in the event of their death, to be sent back to their families or willed to each other.” Simon notes that some scholars have speculated that matelotage was akin to “legalized gay marriage on pirate ships,” but the written documents are ambiguous. “Sexual relationships were banned on most ships, pirate ships as well, and this included sodomy, which was against the law,” she explains. “Some civil unions would have been out of very deep friendships, but it is very possible” that men who shared close quarters for long stretches of time engaged in sexual activity.

Not even the captain’s power was sacrosanct. If he showed just one sign of weakness or dishonesty, he could be marooned on a desert island or killed outright. Authority was governed by majority rule, and the crew “only permit him to be captain on condition that they may be captain over him,” according to A General History.

While violence was sometimes inevitable, pirates’ main goal was to persuade victims to give up their cargoes without a fight. “It was a bit of a spectrum, but pirates weren’t as deadly as we think,” says Simon. “If you’re going to engage in a massive battle, that means you’re going to be losing massive numbers of your own crew as well, and pirates don’t want to do that. They want to get in and get out as fast as they can.”

Though most pirates avoided violence when possible, some relished it. Blackbeard supposedly lit fuses in his beard when approaching enemy prizes, looking like a demon straight out of hell. But no sea dog rivaled Low’s cruelty. When the pirate found out that the captain of a seized Portuguese ship had dropped a bag of 11,000 gold coins into the sea rather than hand it over, he had the man’s lips cut off, broiled and fed to the ship’s mate. Low and his men then murdered the captain and his crew of 31. Terror was a common tactic to persuade victims to reveal hidden treasures, and it often involved dramatic theatrics. Crews led by Bellamy and Paulsgrave Williams took the St. Marie by charging the French ship while stripped completely naked. Read was said to fight bare-breasted for the same reason, providing a diversion that stunned onlookers while her fellow pirates swung into action. The ultimate prop was the pirate flag, which could be decorated with a skull and crossbones (as in the classic Jolly Roger design), bleeding hearts, hourglasses, spears, cutlasses and skeletons. A black flag told terrified crews that the pirates were willing to give quarter if they surrendered. When all else failed, a blood-red flag signaled that no mercy would be shown.

Pirate raids were “much less about torture for its own sake than about active persuasion,” says Howe. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a terrifying thing. It could still be a very ugly business.”

The legends who lived to enjoy their ill-gotten gains were a tiny minority. Avery vanished into thin air before buying a royal pardon and joining the writer Defoe as a spy to protect England’s crown from the threat of Catholic France, a new theory suggests. Christopher Condent, more commonly known as Billy One-Hand, arranged a royal pardon and retired to the old pirate haunt of St. Malo in northern France.

As for the rest of the big guns, William Kidd, Charles Vane, Bonnet, Rackham and Olivier Levasseur were all executed by hanging. Tew died in the Red Sea in September 1695, when he was disemboweled by a cannonball. Blackbeard was decapitated in a skirmish with the Royal Navy off North Carolina in 1718. Bellamy and all but two of his crew drowned off Cape Cod in 1717, while Roberts was shot dead by a Royal Navy frigate off Sierra Leone in 1722. Around 25 to 30 percent of pirate crews were Black, research conducted by historian Kenneth J. Kinkor suggests. Though much has been made of African pirates fighting and dying alongside their white brethren, these men’s fates were very different. Colonial officials rarely gave Black pirates the right to a trial. “Many were sold back into slavery,” says Simon. “It was more egalitarian [on pirate decks] than you might expect for the time period, but it’s not as perfect as we’d like to think.” Howe adds, “Pirates were interested in money. They weren’t interested in people.”

Ultimately, piracy was not a way of life, but rather a brief act of defiance. Most sea dogs dreamed of one large prize and melting into polite society. Reality rarely worked out so well. Almost all pirates failed and went on to meet an unhappy end. So why have they stuck so firmly in the popular imagination?

“Pirates have remained popular because of their ‘it’ factor—a strange magnetism that attracts both sexes,” writes Simon in The Pirates’ Code.

Howe, meanwhile, says: They’re beloved for what they represent: the romance and the glamour, the idea of freedom, of overthrowing authority. … My more cynical side also says that it is a way for us to be romantic about maritime life in the age of sail and not to have to think about slavery, a way of creating a glamorous overlay over some of the harsher realities of life, not just for enslaved people but for working people in general [at the time].

When all was said and done, many pirates were criminals, terrorists and rapists. “There was no altruism behind the motives of those pirates,” says Simon. “There was nothing they wanted to give back. They were operating against the law, attacking people, kidnapping [them].”

What cannot be denied is that the pirates of the Caribbean lived and died in their own way. They partied hard, swore, took God’s name in vain and joked heartily. When Philip Lyne captured official documents of the Lords of the Admiralty in 1721, his men “wiped their backsides” with them, proclaiming “that they were [now] the lords of the sea.” The crews of both Bellamy and Roberts were stinking drunk or hungover when they were caught or killed.

Most men sailing under the black flag did so for just a year or two before the law or a hurricane caught up with them. The way of the pirates, then, was less “dead men tell no tales” than “live fast, die young.” Or, as Roberts put it, “In an honest service, there is thin commons, low wages and hard labor. In this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power. … No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.”

“The first proper novel written about pirates,” Stevenson’s tale cemented a specific image of buccaneers in the popular imagination, says Rebecca Simon, author of The Pirates’ Code: Laws and Life Aboard Ship. “Virtually everything about pirates in pop culture comes from Treasure Island.”

As the English writer Samuel Johnson put it, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail, for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.”

When all was said and done, many pirates were criminals, terrorists and rapists. “There was no altruism behind the motives of those pirates,” says Simon. “There was nothing they wanted to give back. They were operating against the law, attacking people, kidnapping [them].”

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elocal Digital Edition – June 2024 (#278)

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