The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

The best thing about The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodward is that it confirms that everything you’ve always believed about pirates is true:

On the morning of November 9, as the pirates cruised the wide passage between Thomas and St. Croix, the rising sun revealed a sloop approaching from the west. It was a still morning, the wind barely filling their sails, but it was still behind them … Bellamy ordered his gunner to fire a cannon over the sloop’s bow, while La Buse had a large black flag “with a death’s head and bones across” hoisted to the top of the Postillion‘s mast. The captain of the sloop, Abijah Savage, saw there was no point in resisting.

For the pirates, the important thing was to seize ships without actually engaging in violence, so it was important to actually look the part. Basically, they prospered by working in teams, and seizing bigger and bigger boats. Actually fighting for their prize risked damaging both the vessel they had and the one they wanted to board.

They had to keep capturing new vessels both to improve their fighting chances, and also because the timbers of their ships used to get devastated by shipworm. Pirates didn’t have the facility to bring their boats into port for the necessary maintenance, being persona non grata. As a result, their ships literally fell to pieces through wear and tear.

Not that they cared that much. The pirates led a helter-skelter life, always on the run whilst occasionally landing vast riches. Things got especially lucrative after a 1715 hurricane sank the Spanish treasure fleet on its way back to Europe. A pirate free-for-fall ensued as everyone sprinted to get their hands on pieces of eight (a real silver coin that is the forerunner of the modern US dollar).

Like the drug barons of modern Colombia, these pirates soon found themselves the possessors of wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Also like the twentieth-century Narcos, the next problem was how to profit from it, as there were few friendly ports around or fences willing to take a cut.

Which beggars the question of why someone would want to become a pirate in the first place. Woodward is excellent here, showing the awful conditions aboard Royal Navy and merchant ships of the time.

Sailors were often forced into service via press gangs and subjected to abysmal treatment aboard, for miserable pay. The everyday cruelty of their lives made piracy an attractive option. Additionally, many identified themselves with Robin Hood, like Sam Bellamy, who captured the sloop above:

“Damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security, for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by their knavery … Damn ye altogether! Damn them as a pack of crafty rascals. And you … who serve them, as a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls!”

It wasn’t all about the boys either. There were indeed female pirates, such as Mary Read and Anne Bonny. They were as unlikely to give quarter as any of the men. Mary Read once opened fire on her own crew when they were hiding below decks to avoid engaging with a hostile privateer.

For her part, when Anne Bonny went to see her pirate lover in jail just before his execution, she reportedly told him

“I’m sorry to see you here … but if you had fought like a man, you need not have hanged like a dog.”

So much of studying history is an exercise in disappointment, discovering that the myths and legends of the past have no basis in fact. Thankfully, The Republic of Pirates is a glorious exception to the rule.

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6 responses to “The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

  1. What about the skull and crossbones flag, myth or no myth? I always wondered why pirates needed a flag. I mean, they’re pirates. Whose idea was it? Did they have some sort of pirate flag meeting? A committee that poured over design submissions? “Arr, this be the one!”

    • Well, it seems that a black flag was a clear sign that you were a pirate and you’d raise it in the hope of an immediate surrender. Most other ships would be flying their national flag, although some pirates still flew the English or French flag since they wouldn’t attack their own country’s ships.
      The pirate flying the skull and crossbones in the quote at the start of the post was French pirate Olivier La Buse (“the buzzard”), who worked with Sam Bellamy on and off in a true show of international cooperation. His flag actually had a full skeleton on it so I’m not sure when the classic skull and cross bones first appeared (Woodward doesn’t mention it in the book).

  2. This is history! Full of drama, colour, blood and the need for a quick profit. I want to read this, pirates with none of that terrible hamming it up like Depp. The first film put me to sleep in 20 minutes.

    • Quite! I have to admit that I had to take notes while reading this to keep track of all the pirates and their ever-changing ships. I also had an Atlas open at the page for the Caribbean to figure out where everyone was. I felt a bit like a ship’s captain myself.

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