• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Pirate Democracy

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates

by David Cordingly
Random House, 296 pp., $25.00


The first books about pirates appeared surprisingly soon after the piracy they described. The most successful of all the early pirates, Henry Morgan, who sacked the Spanish colonial city of Panama in 1671, was portrayed as a monster of depravity and cruelty in Alexander Exquemelin’s best-selling Buccaneers of America, first published in Dutch in 1678, and in English in 1684. Morgan brought suit for defamation of character. He strongly objected to a passage which said that he had first gone to the West Indies as an indentured servant and argued that, because the governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford, authorized his raids against the Spanish possessions, he was not a pirate. The matter was settled out of court and Morgan received substantial damages.

Recalled to London in order to placate the Spaniards, Morgan was soon knighted by Charles II and later returned to Jamaica as lieutenant governor, where he acquired landed estates and over a hundred slaves. He died a rich man. It was his gargantuan drinking bouts that did him in. “Falling after into his old course of life and not taking any advice to the contrary, his belly swelled so as not to be contained in his coat,” Hans Sloane, who attended him, reported. Whereupon Morgan turned to an African shaman who plastered him with mud and made him drink urine. “But he languished and, his cough augmenting, died soon after.”

The governor of Jamaica ordered a state funeral for Sir Harry. A solemn service took place at Saint Peter’s Church, of which Morgan was a benefactor. When the warships in the harbor honored the old villain with a twenty-one gun salute, the cannons of the merchant vessels answered with their own disorderly but thunderous barrage. But in all this Henry Morgan was an exception. Most of his fellow pirates had short careers, met early and nasty ends, and died penniless, having lost their spoils in the taverns and brothels of Port Royal, Jamaica’s capital, and one of the Caribbean’s great buccaneer havens until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692—a suitable punishment for its past crimes and misdemeanors, some argued at the time.

One thing, however, seems certain. Books about pirates tend to make more money than did most pirates. The London Maritime Museum’s 1992 exhibition “Pirates: Fact and Fiction,” a show planned to last four months, remained open for three years by popular demand. So it was not surprising that a New York literary agent encouraged David Cordingly, one of the curators, to take up the theme of the exhibition in a book contrasting the fictional image of pirates with historical reality.

Cordingly concentrates principally on the great age of piracy between the last half of the seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, essentially the 1650s through 1725. For the “real world” of the pirates, he examined contemporary English language sources, principally the logbooks of the Royal Navy vessels sent out against the pirates, reports from colonial governors, and the depositions of captured pirates and their victims. He also has much to say about the popular image of pirates based on three centuries of ballads, melodramas, epic poems, films, and romantic novels, as well as the two classics of pirate lore, Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson and Peter Pan (1904) by J.M. Barrie. He draws extensively, as he acknowledges, on the work of the historians Robert Ritchie, Marcus Rediker, Peter Earle, and Nicholas Rodger, each of whom, in different ways, has revolutionized the study of everyday life at sea during this period.1

Cordingly concedes almost immediately that the popular conception of how pirates dressed turns out to be surprisingly accurate. As other mariners in this period did, they wore short blue jackets, a checkered shirt, a pair of long canvass trousers or baggy petticoat breeches, and often a red waistcoat and neckerchief. Pirates did indeed tie scarves or large handkerchiefs around their heads (a sensible and practical protection from the rays of the sun at sea or in the tropics); they slung several pistols on ribbons around their shoulders (also a wise precaution, since flintlock pistols were unreliable at sea and if one failed owing to a damp charge, a second or third backup came in handy); they wielded cutlasses and their elected chiefs were flamboyant and charismatic characters. The pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts, known as “Black Bart,” said to have captured four hundred vessels, fought his last sea battle in 1722, clad “in a rich crimson damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather in his hat, a gold chain round his neck, with a diamond cross hanging to it.”

But dress is one thing, behavior is another. The pirates we meet in Cordingly’s book are a bloodthirsty bunch, far from the grandees fallen on hard times depicted by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan in their Pirates of Penzance. The Boston Gazette in March 1726 gave a graphic description of Philip Lyne, the notorious pirate who, when he was tried in Barbados, confessed to killing thirty-seven masters of vessels and an unspecified number of seamen; the commander walked to the trial

with about 20 other pirates, with their black silk flag before them…. As they were much wounded, and no care taken in dressing, they were very offensive, and stunk as they went along, particularly Line the commander; he had one eye shot out, which with part of his nose, hung down on his face.

Pirate” was a very specific designation and the distinction between pirate and privateer was an important one, at least in law if not in practice. A privateer was an armed vessel, or the commander and crew of a vessel, that was licensed to attack and seize the vessels of a hostile nation. The license took the form of a “letter of marque and reprisal.” By the sixteenth century, the licensing system provided all the European seafaring nations with a cheap way of attacking enemy shipping in time of war. The letter of marque was an impressive and ponderous legal document, and the privateer captain was expected to keep a journal and hand over the ship and goods he had seized to an admiralty court, where the sovereign took his share (or her share in the case of Queen Elizabeth, who always displayed a greedy interest in such divisions of spoils). The rest of the loot was divided among the ship owners, captain, and crew. A “pirate,” on the other hand, was legally defined in England from the time of Henry VIII as someone who robs and plunders on the sea; and the laws against piracy provided for punishment for “felonies, robberies, and murders committed in any haven, river, creek, or place where the Lord High Admiral had jurisdiction.”

Pirates had different regional names. “Buccaneer” was used in the Caribbean and along the Atlantic seaboard of the Americas. The term was first applied to hunters in the woods and valleys of western Hispaniola (today’s Haiti) who lived off the herds of feral hogs and cattle, whose numbers rapidly increased after the first Spanish settlers introduced them into a land without natural predators. Mostly French frontiersmen, these hunters cooked and dried strips of meat over open barbecues, a method borrowed from the indigenous Arawak inhabitants. The word for this process, boucaner(meaning to smoke-dry or cure), gave the men their name. They dressed in leather and, with their knives and bloodstained appearance, “looked and smelled like a man from a slaughterhouse,” according to Cordingly. By the 1630s, the buccaneers were established on Tortuga, off the north coast of what is now Haiti, and an ideal launching ground for attacks on the merchant vessels using the windward passage between Hispaniola and Cuba. Here the buccaneers formed a loose confederation calling itself the “Brethren of the Coast.”

Much of what is known of the Caribbean pirates of Harry Morgan’s time comes from Alexander Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America. He claimed in his book to “give no stories taken on hearsay, but only those to which I was eyewitness.” Born in the French channel port of Honfleur, Exquemelin had arrived on Tortuga about 1666 as an indentured servant. He was sold to a barber-surgeon, learned his master’s trade, and gained his freedom. Being “naked and destitute of all human necessities,” he wrote, “I determined to enter into the wicked order of the pirates.” For five years, he served with the buccaneers under both Henry Morgan and François l’Olonnais, joined them in their raids out of Tortuga and Port Royal, and was paid handsomely for his medical skills. He broke with Morgan after the attack on Panama, in which he participated. Like many of the buccaneers, he believed that Morgan had cheated him. After the raid, Exquemelin returned to Europe where, in Amsterdam, he published his best-seller. He later returned to the Caribbean and in 1697 joined in the combined French and buccaneer attack on Cartagena, again serving as a surgeon to the pirates.

Exquemelin’s account of the activities of François l’Olonnais, born Jean David Nau in western France at Les Sables d’Olonne (hence his nickname, “the man from Olonne”), fully justified l’Olonnais’s other designation: “Fléau des Espagnols,” or Flail of the Spaniards. A former indentured servant like Exquemelin, he had joined the cattle hunters on Hispaniola and then turned buccaneer. He was a psychopath whose torture and murder of prisoners became so feared throughout the Caribbean that he began to meet with far more determined opposition than most pirates. The merchant ships, Exquemelin said, “fought until they could fight no more.”

As well they might, since the man from Olonne was merciless. It was common practice for pirates to torture their prisoners, as Morgan’s men had done in Panama to obtain informa-tion. The favorite pirate torture was “woolding,” after the word for the binding of cords around a mast. Exquemelin describes how slender cords were “twisted about [the] heads, till [the] eyes burst out of the skull.” But l’Olonnais clearly enjoyed torturing men as much as he did taking their valuables: “When l’Olonnais had a victim on the rack, if the wretch did not instantly answer his questions he would hack the man to pieces with his cutlass and lick the blood from the blade with this tongue, wishing it might have been the last Spaniard in the world he had thus killed.” Eventually l’Olonnais met with a suitably bizarre fate, if we can believe Exquemelin’s story that he was captured on the Gulf of Darien, near Panama, by cannibals, hacked to pieces, and roasted limb by limb.

Together with Exquemelin’s book, the other major source is Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 General History of the Pirates. Since the early 1930s, this book has been attributed to Daniel Defoe and is so listed in most library catalogues. This attribution is retained by Jan Rogoziå«nski in his comprehensive encyclopedia Pirates!2 But Cordingly, following the research of P.N. Furbank and L.R. Owens, claims that not a single piece of documentation links Defoe to the General History. Unfortunately nothing much is known about the mysterious Captain Johnson, although his history is the origin of most later accounts, film scripts, and myths about pirates; so that, even if Defoe is not the author, the problem of distinguishing fact from fiction remains. In one notorious case, however, that of Edward Teach, famous as Blackbeard, Cordingly demonstrates convincingly that Johnson’s description was close to the truth. Lieutenant Maynard, who fought him to the death on the deck of his ship in Ocracoke Inlet of Pamlico Sound, North Carolina, in November 1718, wrote later of Captain Teach that he “went by the name of Blackbeard, because he let his beard grow, and tied it up in black ribbons.” According to Johnson, Teach used these ribbons to twist his beard up into small tails about his ears, and stuck lighted matches under his hat when ready for action, so that “his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure, that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury, from Hell, to look more frightful.”

  1. 1

    Robert C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Harvard University Press, 1986); Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 (Cambridge University Press, 1987); Peter Earle, The Sack of Panama: Sir Henry Morgan’s Adventures on the Spanish Main (Viking, 1982); N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Naval Institute Press, 1986).

  2. 2

    Jan Rogoziå«nski. Pirates! An A-Z Encyclopedia: Brigands, Buccaneers, and Privateers in Fact, Fiction, and Legend (Da Capo, 1996).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print