Ah, pirates. We love pirates! I love pirates! Don’t you love pirates? We all love pirates!
But like me…you probably don’t know a damn thing about them. So that’s what this article is for. It’s a look into what pirates were and when they existed. It’s an examination of the times in which they lived, how they lived, what they did and how they did it…during the Golden Age of Piracy.
What do we ‘know’ about pirates?
Pirates have existed for centuries, even the 21st century, what with Somalian pirates being in the news of late, attacking ships and holding their captains and crews hostage and with the navys of the world’s superpowers trying to put a stop to their felonious, maritime activities. But when most people think of pirates, we think of the classic pirate – Peg-leg, eyepatch, hook-hand, bandana, boots, buckles, belts, striped shirt, waistcoat, neckerchief, pistol and cutlass. We think that pirates sailed around attacking ships, killing their crews or stealing them of their cargoes, which they would later bury on tropical island paradises, going back there later with maps to dig up their hordes of booty and then sail off into retirement.
But how much of this is true? What were classic pirates really like? A lot of what we think of pirates comes from popular fiction, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and “The Pirates of the Carribean” or “Hook” and the stories of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. We think that pirates drank rum and that they spoke a strange language full of phrases that nobody else would understand, like “Pieces of Eight” and “Avast” and “walking the plank”. They say that all myth has a basis in fact. But which facts and how many of these ‘facts’ are actually real?
The ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ ran, with stops and starts, from about 1620 until about 1780, a period of roughly a hundred and sixty years. Pirates came from all countries, including Great Britain, Colonial America, France and Spain. During this era, which was occasionally interrupted by wars, outbreaks of disease or fantastic natural disasters, pirates sailed around attacking ships, stealing their cargo and either killing the crews and sinking their ships or marooning them on an island and sailing off their newer, much better ship (the one with central heating and surround-sound home-theater).
What kind of people were Pirates?
In many cases, pirates were actually privateers. A privateer was a bit like a ‘government pirate’. You were given a letter of authority (officially, a “Letter of Marque”) that said you could hunt down, attack, capture or sink any ships bearing an enemy flag. Privateers were often spawn during warfare as an easy way to deprive the enemy of its weapons, foodstuffs, ammunition and other essential wartime supplies. But what happened when the war ended? Privateers were out of a job! So the natural thing to do was to put your seafaring skills to good use and turn into the oceangoing version of a highway robber, sticking up ships on the open seas and stealing their treasures. In the days before government social security, this was pretty much the only way a sailor out of work could ensure his own ‘social security’. Like most desperate criminals, pirates had a lot to gain and nothing to lose and plenty of time to do one and not the other.
As I mentioned earlier, pirates came from all over what was then the known world, although the majority of pirates (about one third, according to my research) were English, probably not surprising when you consider that the Royal Navy was the most powerful in the world at the time. Indeed, one of the main reasons why people became pirates was to escape the harsh realities of naval life. You didn’t have to be flogged, you could get better food and you could sail to where-ever it was you wished to go.
Common Pirate Stereotypes
Pirates have been so swamped in literary and filmic fantasy that it’s sometimes hard to determine fact from fiction with piracy. So how many of the famous aspects of piracy are actually true?
The Jolly Roger is the classic pirate flag. A black rectangle with a skull and a pair of bones in a diagonal ‘St. Andrews’-style cross. It’s believed that this flag was probably created in the late 17th century, but it was by no means the only pirate flag that existed. Variations of black flags with skulls, skeletons or swords existed throughout the Golden Age of Piracy and each pirate ship and captain had his own particular design. In general, a black pirate flag (with or without its morbid artwork) was used as a sign to the enemy that the crew onboard would fight to the death and were beholden to no laws other than their own.
Peglegs and hook-hands really were part of pirate folklore. Sea-battles were fierce and dangerous affairs and it wasn’t uncommon for pirates to lose limbs or to have them so badly injured that they’d require them to be amputated later. Most pirate ships had absolutely no professional medical help onboard at all, except for the ship’s cook (the only person around with any experience with knives). The ship’s cook would perform the amputation, after which the bloody stump would be bandaged and cauterised using blackpowder. Pouring gunpowder on a bleeding stump and lighting it was a quick and dirty way to stop bleeding. The intense heat from the burning powder would sear the wound shut and prevent continued bleeding and eventual infection. Afterwards, a prosthetic limb such as a hook-hand or a peg-leg would be fashioned out of whatever spare wood, metal and leather (to act as a securing strap) that the pirates could lay their hands on.
Eyepatches were used, both for covering an eye-socket when someone lost an eye in a fight, or, as was actually more common, to preserve sight when moving around the ship. It was often dark inside ships and very bright outside. Due to the extreme contrast between the different light-levels, wearing an eyepatch was a way of ensuring that a pirate’s eyes could adapt quickly between extreme brightness and extremely low light.
“Pieces of Eight” refers to money. Traditionally, prize-money at sea was divided up into eighths and shared out among the crew accordingly. ‘Pieces of Eight’ were also Spanish dollars, Spanish gold being a popular target of English pirates during the 17th century.
Parrots are as commonly associated with pirates as dogs are with the blind. Pirates travelled all over the world so it is possible that they picked up parrots and kept them as pets during their travels.
Tropical Locations are always associated with pirates. And you can hardly blame them. After all that pirating, you would want to relax in a tropical island paradise for a few years. And the Johnny Depp film franchise would have us believe that pirates loved hanging out under the Carribbean sun when they weren’t doing anything else. But is this true? Probably yes. Pirates preyed on ships sailing around the equatorial Atlantic Ocean, sailing along the “Triangle of Trade”. Ships sailed from England to Africa to pick up slaves (stop one), then across to the southern reaches of North America (stop two) to drop off slaves, before provisioning their ships, picking up spices and cloth and other goodies, like the latest bootleg DVDs, and then sailing back to England (stop three). Hanging around in waters like these, it’s not hard to see why pirates are associated with tropical locales such as the Carribbean.
Pirates love Drinking Rum! It’s well-known that pirates (and maritime types in general) loved drinking rum and grog! Is this true? The answer is probably yes. Rum, an alcoholic beverage created from molasses, has been distilled since the mid 1600s, right around when pirates were rocking the waves. It was produced in sugar-growing areas of the world such as the southern areas of North America and the Carribbean, where pirates were known to hang out.
Rum started being given to British seamen in 1655, replacing their previous tipple, brandy, so successfully that by the 1740s, rum had to be watered down, creating the slightly less alcoholic beverage…grog. The introduction of rum was directly linked to the British colonisation of Jamaica. Sailors took such a liking to rum that when they turned into pirates, they kept rum around them at all times. Attacking ships is thirsty work, after all.
Buried Treasure! Everyone knows that pirates buried their treasure! They parked off of a tropical island, dug a hole, chucked in their gold, buried it, drew a map to its location and then sailed off, coming back years later when it became a necessity to access their little nest-egg. But is this true?
“Treasure Island” as drawn by Robert Louis Stevenson
Sorry folks. No it isn’t. History (and reliable records) says that only ONE pirate…Captain Kidd (Capt. William Kidd; 1645-1701) ever buried any treasure at all (the location is believed to be Long Island, New York). But this was hardly a widespread practice, so for all intents and purposes, no, pirates did not bury their treasure, and as Indiana Jones said: “X never, ever marks the spot”.
Pirates were all ruthless cutthroats and indeed they were. At least, to other seafarers. In actuality though, pirates were a pretty disciplined bunch. Surprising, huh? Below, you will see a partial list of rules and regulations from various Pirating Codes that existed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
Walking the Plank was a pirate’s favourite way of getting rid of troublesome people. Again, not nearly as common as we’d like to think. Although instances of walking the plank have been recorded throughout history, it appears that it wasn’t a widespread practice and was rarely used by pirates. It was most likely glamorised by writers and Hollywood.
There was such thing as a Pirates’ Code In “Pirates of the Carribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, we are told that there is a ‘Brethren Code’. Did such a code ever exist? Research suggests that a code (or more likely, several codes) did exist, and that these codes were the rules that pirates were obliged to follow. Sadly, no original written documents of such codes from the 1600s survive, but copies stated that among other things…
– Fighting was forbidden onboard ship. Any such arguments or disagreements that might arise were to be settled onshore in the prescribed gentlemanly manner (ehm…duelling).
– Fighting onboard ship was punishable by flogging.
– Smoking tobacco or using a naked flame without also using a protective cover was punishable by flogging (fire was a big hazard on wooden sailing-ships).
– Thievery was punishable by marooning or death.
– In instances of marooning, a pirate would be given a bottle of water, a charge of blackpowder, a single shot and a flintlock pistol.
– Rape was not to be tolerated. Any pirate caught raping (or even having consensual sex) with a female faced death by shooting.
– It was against the rules to stay up past a certain hour. All lights to be doused at 8:00pm SHARP.
– Gambling was strictly forbidden.
– All members of the crew were expected to have their pistols and swords (and any other appropriate weaponry) in good repair and in working order for battle at all times.
– Any members of the crew who provided entertainment through the playing of musical instruments were allowed every Sunday off, as was their right.
– The right of an enemy or rival captain to demand Parley (‘negotiations’) with the master of the ship and his expectation not to be harmed, was to be upheld at all times.
– A pirate injured in the course of his duties was entitled to compensation! Loss of an eye or a finger was 100 pieces of eight. Loss of the right hand was 600 pieces of eight. Loss of right leg was 500 pieces of eight. Loss of left arm was 500 pieces of eight. Loss of left leg was 400 pieces of eight. Most pirates who fulfilled the job of ‘Ship’s Cook’ was usually a pirate who had been injured and was unfit to do any other kind of meaningful (and more phsyical) labour.
Pirates of the Carribbean
What is Port Royal?
Port Royal was a city located in British Jamaica. It was built and colonised during the second half of the 1600s. It was a safe haven for pirates during this time and pirates were even called upon by the Port’s governor to help defend the city in the case of Spanish or French naval attacks. In its time, Port Royal was famous for whoring, boozing, drunken brawls and alcoholism…charming place. There was said to be a public house, tavern, bar or other less-than-reputable drinking-establishment for every ten people that lived in Port Royal. When you consider that Port Royal was once home to about 6,500 people, that’s a hell of a lot of drinking. In 1687, Port Royal tried to clean up its act and passsed Anti-Piracy laws. Dozens of pirates were arrested and hanged for their crimes. The Port was destroyed in 1692 by a powerful earthquake, which many believed was God’s punishment for all the prostitution, drinking, gambling and vice that existed in the city. Port Royal barely exists as a city today. It was destroyed again by earthquake in January of 1907 and the city has struggled ever since.
Where is Tortuga?
Ilsa Tortuga, the Island of Turtles, is located off of the coast of Haiti, northeast of the Jamaican city of Port Royal. Colonised in 1625, it was a notorious pirate hangout during the 17th century. French and English pirates existed in an uneasy harmony here for several years. It was attacked in 1654 by the Spanish and by 1670, pirating connections with Tortuga were in serious decline. Pirates who used Tortuga as a home-base began to turn to legitimate work in the years that followed since piracy wasn’t exactly bringing in the gold anymore.
Were Pirates Really Marooned on Desert Islands?
Yes indeed they were. As mentioned above (although not in great detail), marooning a pirate on a desert island was a genuine pirate punishment of the 17th century. The offending party was lowered on a ship’s boat, rowed ashore and then the rest of the pirates rowed back to the ship and sailed off. The marooned party was given a bottle of water (or rum; whichever was more readily available), a flintlock pistol, a round of pistol-shot and a charge of blackpowder. The decision was simple, really. You could drink the water and ration it out and see how long you survived until you starved to death…Or you could load the pistol and commit suicide and have it all over in a heartbeat.
What is the ‘Black Spot’?
Jack Sparrow is given the Black Spot in one of the PotC movies. In the film, Jack Sparrow has the mark on the palm of his hand, but in real life, the Black Spot was either a black, filled-in circle on a sheet of paper, or the Ace of Spades out of a deck of cards. The Black Spot was given to someone suspected of being a government informer or a traitor to his pirate brethren.
Some Famous Pirates
So, who are some famous pirates that we know of? Captain Jack Sparrow? Long John Silver? Captain Hook? Captain Feathersword!? Pffft. Here’s some real pirates for yah…
Real Name: Edward Teach.
Born: Ca. 1680, England.
Died: 22nd Nov., 1718, of twenty sword-wounds and five bullet-wounds sustained in battle.
– Blackbeard is believed to have had over a dozen wives!
– Blackbeard blockaded the city of Charles Town (Charleston) South Carolina and threatened to open fire on it with his ships and kill hostages (prominent city officials) unless his ransom (a chest of medical supplies) was met. The supplies were produced and Blackbeard set sail without firing a single shot.
– Always ready for action, Blackbeard carried no less than three braces of pistols on him during battles (‘brace’ is an old term for a pair. So in all…six pistols).
Real Name: William Kidd.
Died: 23rd May, 1701.
– One of the few pirates who actually buried treasure.
– Was once a privateer for the English government.
– Tried to bribe his way out of the charge of piracy.
– Eventually arrested, brought back to England from Colonial America.
– He was found guilty of five counts of piracy and one count of murder. He was hanged in London.
Real Name: Samuel Bellamy.
Born: 23rd February, 1689.
Died: 27th April, 1717.
– Called ‘The Prince of Pirates’ for showing mercy to prisoners.
– Ammassed one of the greatest pirate fortunes ever.
– His flagship, the Whydah Gally sank off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was rediscovered in 1984.
The End of Piracy
To be fair…piracy never really ended. The classic, romantic, Hollywood swashbuckling pirate is still alive…in classic, romantic Hollywood films. And piracy is still a big threat today in the waters around the African continent. But classic piracy of the kind we associate with ‘Treasure Island’ did eventually peter out as the 18th century progressed. In 1717, King George I of England issued an amnesty to all pirates, basically saying that all their crimes would be absolved, on the condition that they stopped being pirates. Some pirates were glad to give up the life and took advantage of His Majesty’s mercy. Others stuck their tongues out at the king and went right on pirating.