Seeing as we’re about 1/3 of the way to International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I felt it was high time to celebrate pirate history. I recently read The Republic of Pirates: Being The True And Surprising Story Of The Caribbean Pirates And The Man Who Brought Them Down. It’s an excellent and entertaining account, and I recommend it. This isn’t actually a review of the book, though; more of a meditation on its subject, the Golden Age of Piracy.
It turns out that English pirates in the Caribbean in the late 1600s and early 1700s had a lot going for them.
They weren’t just about seizing ships and cargo–they aspired to control entire colonies, notably the Bahamas, where many small islands offered lots of great places to hide or lurk. At times, they commanded fleets. The largest I found mention of in The Republic consisted of nine vessels, but that was pretty impressive for the Caribbean at that time.
The pirates were fairly egalitarian–everyone in the ship’s company had a vote when major decisions were made, and the captain’s share of loot wasn’t as outsized, relative to the crew, as it was aboard privateers.
Tolerance (well, mostly).
English pirates would often have French crew members, and sometimes even teamed up with French ships. Many West Indian blacks joined pirate crews (though unlucky slaves fresh from Africa, who didn’t speak English, were usually treated as cargo). As far as I could tell, though, no Spaniards need apply.
I found it a bit hard to imagine why any sailor, when given the opportunity, wouldn’t join a pirate company. True, you might get killed in a fight with the Royal Navy, or even hanged. But given the prevailing quality of life for sailors at that time, you couldn’t count on reaching old, or even middle, age anyway. On slave ships, for example, the crew tended to die at nearly the same rate as the slaves did. So I think it would have been pretty tempting to have at least a shot at a wealthy retirement.
I was struck by how confusing life on the seas would have been in the Golden Age. If pirates didn’t happen to be flying their battle flags, you might moor next to one of their ships without suspecting anything. You might even have thought it was a vessel you recognized–and you might have been right. Pirates were always looking to upgrade, seizing new ships and moving their crew and loot from one to another–especially if the captured vessel was a “ship of force”, with enough guns and mass to make even the Royal Navy think twice about taking it on.
Ships’ names could be a source of confusion, too. Often the pirates would rename ships they took, much like a Grand Theft Auto operation putting new license plates on stolen cars. Henry Avery, active in the early Golden Age, called his ship the Fancy, and that name was reused by a later pirate, Edward England. Stede Bonnet, who sailed with Blackbeard, named his flagship the Revenge. Not to be outdone, Blackbeard named his own ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. At times there were two different pirate ships in action called, respectively, the Mary Ann and the Mariane. Or possibly they were the same ship–no one’s really certain. And at some point, not Bonnet himself, but Benjamin Hornigold named his ship the Bonnet. Hornigold also, more helpfully if not modestly, named another of his vessels the Benjamin.
Then there was the Whydah, a swift, eighteen-gun slave ship commanded by a Captain Prince. When Black Sam Bellamy’s pirates took his ship, he was given another and even a bit of gold into the bargain, since he had a reputation for treating his crew fairly. The pirates then went on to wreck the Whydah on the New England coast, killing almost everyone on board. Captain Prince, who really should have known better, then accepted command of a ship called the Whydah II, which was almost captured by a different batch of pirates, escaping only at the last moment.
Luckily, for crew members on merchant ships, being captured by a pirate didn’t necessarily mean all was lost. You could always join the pirate company yourself. Even if you didn’t, you might get your ship back, or a different vessel if the pirates had one to spare but happened to like yours better. At worst, your ship might be crippled to slow it down, or you might get set ashore at some point where it would take you a while to get back to civilization and warn the authorities. Your chances of being forced to walk the plank were minimal. Some pirates were more brutal than others, but again, given the standards of the time, not especially so. Blackbeard, for example, apparently didn’t kill anyone in any of his raids. Relying on scary displays and a fast-growing reputation, he usually captured vessels without firing a shot.
Some of the pirates even saw themselves as many tend to see them now–outlaws with a touch of the romantic about them. Sam Bellamy called himself “The Robin Hood of the Seas”, and his crew were said to play the part of Robin’s merry men. Bellamy argued that the pirates should emulate the famous outlaw, taking from the wealthy merchants and giving to poor sailors.
Assuming the pirates considered themselves to be the “poor sailors”, they succeeded…for a while. Long enough to make a Golden Age that still shines in our imagination.