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Pirates: A History

Before we begin this true history of pirates let me begin by reminding you of one simple thing - despite Hollywood and history making it out to be a glamorous profession, “pirate” is not a true profession.

Hollywood's famous Captain Jack Sparrow ("Pirates of the Caribbean", Disney)

Pirates are those that perform the act of piracy which is a crime.

Often pirates are not friendly and smiling like most Disney depictions would have you believe but rather they were violent criminals.

Piracy dates back centuries with some of the earliest recorded tales coming from the 14the century BC when different groups traversed the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, taking vessels hostage and raising ships.

Everyone has heard of Vikings but we don’t tend to associate them with piracy. We know they sacked cities all over the northern lands of Europe and conquered territories but clashes at sea don’t often spring to mind which is ironic given their prowess came on the back of their vast sea exploits.

Wherever there was a sea trade pirates could be found pillaging and plundering. They didn’t just attack ships at sea they also rampaged through the colonial outposts.

In the Caribbean piracy lasted for around 100 years from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century. One thing that the Disney films did highlight correctly was the heavy presence of piracy in Tortuga, Jamaica. In 1655 the English claimed Tortuga from the Spanish and the new English governors were known to grant rights to local “pirates” to operate in the region. Around this time Port Royal, yes the Jamaican port represented in the films, was developing as a more elite colony and pirates could sell their wares for a higher price here. This meant that piracy was rife and basically allowed by the early governors as a sort of trade.

Illustration of Tortuga, 1653 (Source: Museum of Madrid)

In a similar vein the French colonial governors also turned a blind eye to the piracy taking place which was when piracy was at its height.

In 1692 the established order came to a grinding halt when Port Royal was devastated by a major earthquake, thus removing the major market for where a pirate could sell their plunder. By this time piracy was beginning to look beyond the Spanish Main as most colonial outposts had already been exhausted of their goods.3

Authentic and original Jolly Roger (aka pirate flag) from the 19th century. It would have originally been black and white but age has created this current condition (Source: Aland Maritime Museum, Finland)

Having said that piracy did not come to an end as the number of trained seamen suddenly catapulted when the British signed a peace treaty with Spain and stood down most of their privateer seafaring fleet and some of their military. These men who now found themselves at a loose end, many with their own vessels turned to piracy to make ends meet.

By the mid-eighteenth century the number of pirates had entered a decline, especially as local authorities began to work to stamp them out as it was now considered to be a hindrance to trade and the economy (this seems like a no-brainer but okay it took around 100 years to get to this thinking). By the end of the eighteenth century almost all piracy had ended with the laws around piracy tightened and “accessory to piracy” being severely punished.

Notable Pirates

Bartholomew Roberts

Interestingly there was a Pirates Code that was laid out by Bartholomew Roberts and recorded by Captain Johnson. Yes when Elizabeth Swan refers to the Pirates Code in the first pirates film she was referencing a real thing! I must admit I had no idea until I began looking into the history of piracy that this was a real thing. I can’t find a date for the code but Bartholomew lived between 1682-1722 so it would date to the turn of the seventeenth-eighteenth century.

Bartholomew Roberts depicted in Captain Charles Johnson's "History of Pyrates" (c. 1724)

Bartholomew was a Welsh pirate who began his career in the merchant navy before going on to be noted in many sources as the most successful pirate of his era. Despite that I can’t say I’d heard of him, well not by that name. His more common pirate name was “Black Bart” and that I had heard before!

Not only did he introduce the code he is also remembered as using one of the early incarnations of the skull and crossbones flag. He operated in the waters off the Americas and the West African Coast. He died in battle in 1722 when a Royal Navy ship came across his pirate vessel. He was shot whilst standing on deck and before his body could be captured his crew weighted it down and buried him at sea as he had always wanted.

He was just one of three pirates killed during the battle but ultimately the pirates lost and the navy took the remaining 272 crew into custody. Of this number 65 were former African slaves that Bartholomew had emancipated. Upon being captured by the British they were sold into slavery. It is acts like this that helped to turn pirates into that Robin Hood heroic figure.

Bartholomew’s death for the most part did mark the end of the great era of piracy.

Blackbeard (Edward Teach)

The most well known pirate was without doubt Blackbeard so I can’t finish this history of piracy without mentioning him. Blackbeard was born Edward Teach and originated from the British mainland.

Edward Teach, better known as "Blackbeard" depicted here c. 1726 (Unknown Source)

Not much is known of his early life until he entered the global stage as a pirate to be reckoned with. It was around 1716 that we get the first references to him as a pirate but he was operating under another mans authority. By the following year, 1717 he had amassed a small fleet of his own (by overpowering the crews of course) and was sailing the waters of the Caribbean.

Within a year he had granted himself the title of Commodore and gained a reputation for blockading port towns.

The year 1718 must have been a VERY busy year for Blackbeard, as he was now known.

He sailed to Bath, North Carolina (USA) where he met with the local Governor and received a pardon for him and his crew for their actions. Whilst there it is thought that he married a local plantation owner’s daughter but evidence is sketchy.

To remove Blackbeard and his crew from his port, Governor Eden granted them a commission as a privateer company. Despite this within two months of this clemency Blackbeard and his crew had returned to piracy.

The history of Blackbeard is long, not in years (as he really didn’t reign for very long) but in terms of what he did. His legacy has outlived his lifetime with Blackbeard’s death coming whilst he was at the height of his power in 1718. It is thought he was only in his late 30s when he died and despite being one of the world’s most famous pirates he only ruled the seas for just over one year!

On 22 November 1718 Blackbeard was killed in battle with the English in North Carolina. He was both shot and stabbed with his head removed by the valiant crew so they could claim the bounty on his life. Following his death the rest of his crew were located in Bath, so perhaps he was planning on establishing roots their with a young wife? History doesn’t tell us but we do know that his crew were all arrested.

Blackbeard’s death came just a few years before Black Bart with his death and imprisonment of his crew also helping to bring the piracy era to an end.

The final battle for Blackbeard depicted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

While the profession of pirate was traditionally a male dominated industry there were a few female pirates. One of the most noted was Anne Bonny.

She was an Irish pirate who operated in the Caribbean around the same time as Blackbeard and Black Bart. She moved to the Americas when she was just 10 years old and married when she was about 18. She then moved to Nassau in the Bahamas where she met pirate Calico Jack Rackman. The two became lovers and pirate partners, however Anne remained in disguise as a man.

Rackman had a second female in his crew, Mary Read. Unlike Anne, Mary is noted as having dressed like a man to gain entry into the British military. She did marry but upon her husband’s death she moved to the Caribbean where she joined Rackman’s crew. At the time neither Anne or Rackman knew Mary was a man and it is said that the two women only found out about the other’s sex when one revealed she was attracted to the other (thinking she was a man).

Anne subsequently told Rackman that Mary was a male and it is possible that a romantic relationship then ensued. In 1720 the three; Rackman, Anne and Mary were all captured and while Rackman was executed the two women were granted pardons as they were both pregnant. Having said that the pardon only extended until the birth of their children.

Mary never made it that far and died from complications during childbirth on 28 April 1721. What happened to Anne is a bit of a mystery. We know that she was never executed but that she did remain in prison until her child’s birth. Records show that a woman by her name died in the same Jamaican town in 1733 so it seems likely that either she remained in prison or was freed and lived a low-key life for another 12 years.

Images (left to Right): Anne Bonney and Mary Read as depicted in Captain Charles Johnson's "History of Pyrates" (c. 1724)

Piracy Today

Piracy isn’t a dead profession and in some dangerous waters piracy is undertaken still today, especially in the oceans around Africa.

These pirates don’t look like the pirates of he golden era but they are undertaking the same sort of task – a criminal one that seeks to plunder and sack trade and cruise vessels.

Society has glorified historic piracy but condemned current piracy which itself is a gross contradiction.


Further Reading:

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