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.”
The Mediterranean pirates of the Barbary Coast were called corsairs and operated from Algiers, Tunis, Salé, and other North African ports where the Muslim rulers issued them licenses to attack Christian shipping. Using swift galleys powered by oars and sail, they attacked heavily laden, slow-moving merchantmen; they looted the cargoes, captured the passengers and crew, and held them for ransom or sold them into slavery. Since he was licensed, the corsair was technically a privateer and the term was used without a particular geographic designation in French, Italian, and Portuguese, but in English it applied more restrictively to the Barbary raiders. Piracy was business for the Barbary rulers, and the corsairs formed a guild that tried to regulate it. Although the Barbary states justified their actions as a form of religious warfare, many Christian renegades were prominent in the corsair fleet.
The Barbary corsairs thrived in the shifting and ambiguous maritime zone between Ottoman and Spanish sea power in the Mediterranean. Their bases were strategically placed to prey on the merchant ships using the Strait of Gibraltar. They were most active between 1580 and the late seventeenth century, and returned with increased firepower during the long European wars between 1792 and 1815. “The depredations committed by the Algerine corsairs, on the commerce of the United States” provided the justification for a reluctant Congress in 1794 to approve the construction of the frigates that marked the beginning of the permanent navy. The United States fought a series of indecisive naval engagements with the corsairs between 1801 and 1815, when the Barbary fleet was led by the Glaswegian Peter Lisle, who had converted to Islam, taken the name of Murat Reis, and married the daughter of the Pasha of Tripoli. The phrase in the US Marine Corps anthem “to the shores of Tripoli” refers to the seven marines who took part in a harrowing march across the Libyan desert to capture Derna in 1805 on orders from President Thomas Jefferson. Despite this victory, the United States was still obliged to pay a humiliating $60,000 ransom for the crew of the frigate Philadelphia, captured by Peter Lisle when the vessel ran aground on a sand bar while trying to mount a blockade of Tripoli harbor.
The literary image of the Barbary pirates, like that of the buccaneers, emerged with their increasing notoriety. Lord Byron’s The Corsair told the story in couplets of the proud and tyrannical pirate Conrad, who, Cordingly observes, had “the vices of a Gothic villain with the ideals of the noble outlaw.” And to confuse matters further, although the poem was set in the Aegean, Byron was inspired by a newspaper account of Jean Lafitte’s heroism at the Battle of New Orleans. On its day of publication in 1814, The Corsair, which would later inspire works by Verdi and Berlioz, sold 10,000 copies and went through seven editions within a month. Ironically, in 1816, a mere two years later, a combined British and Dutch fleet bombarded Algiers, virtually destroying the real corsairs as a serious threat to merchant shipping. Cordingly uses the painting The Bombardment of Algiersby George Chambers from the National Maritime Museum in London as the cover illustration of his book, even though he has very little to say about the corsairs and criticizes the moviemakers of Hollywood for putting their pirates into precisely the sort of large, three-masted, heavily gunned vessels from a later phase of warfare, far removed from the smaller, swifter vessels preferred by the buccaneers in the Caribbean.
Robert Louis Stevenson was more accurate in Treasure Island with Long John Silver’s parrot, “Cap’n Flint,” as when Silver told Jack Hawkins that the bird had been “at Madagascar, and at Malabar, and Surinam, and Providence, and Portobello. She was at the fishing up of the wrecked plate ships. It’s there she learned ‘Pieces of Eight,’ and little wonder; three hundred and fifty thousand of ’em, Hawkins!”
“Pieces of eight” were the most famous coins associated with pirate lore. These coins were eight reales—silver coins. “Pieces of eight” minted in Peru and Mexico bore the Spanish coat of arms on one side and a design representing the pillars of Hercules on the other, symbolizing the limits of the ancient world at the Straits of Gibraltar. To this design, by the eighteenth century, two hemispheres were added in the space between the pillars, representing the New and Old Worlds. The pieces of eight became so familiar in oceanic commerce that the twin pillars eventually became the dollar sign. (Gold coins were escudos and the famous doubloon was an eight-escudo gold coin.)
The ubiquity of Spanish silver and gold coins in pirate narratives was not accidental and helps to explain the historical and geographical background of piracy, something largely missing from Cordingly’s book. The early appearance of French, English, and Dutch privateers in Caribbean waters was a response by seafaring nations to Spanish claims of monopoly in the New World and their exploitation of the silver mines in northern Mexico and the High Andes. By the 1570s, Spanish-American silver fed the great demand in Europe and Asia for coinage, trade, and metal for the decorative arts; Spanish silver had a huge effect on Atlantic, and later Pacific, commerce and navigation.
Word of the riches of the New World had spread fast. Only two years after the fall of the Aztec capital in 1521, a French pirate, Jean Fleury, captured two Spanish caravels off Cape St. Vincent, Portugal, and stumbled upon an astounding Aztec treasure plundered by Cortez: three enormous chests of gold ingots, 500 pounds of gold dust, 680 pounds of pearls, emeralds, topazes, golden masks set with gems, helmets, and feathered cloaks. French privateers soon arrived in the Caribbean. Captain François le Clerc, known as “Jambe de Bois” because of his wooden leg, sacked Santiago de Cuba in 1554, and the English, in the formidable persons of Hawkins and Drake, followed.
By the late sixteenth century, in order to protect their ships from raiders, the Spanish established a system of armed convoys between the Caribbean and Europe. Mexican treasure was embarked at Vera Cruz, while the silver from Peru was transported from Nombre de Dios, and later Portobello, on the isthmus of Panama. At Havana the galleons would rendezvous and take on water and supplies for the voyage to Spain. The outbound fleets from Europe wintered in the well-fortified and sheltered harbor of Cartagena on the northern coast of South America.
The timing of pirate, privateer, and buccaneer attacks on these Spanish ports and treasure fleets thus followed a logical strategy, one governed by geography. French privateers seized and burned Cartagena and Havana in 1559. Sir Francis Drake attacked Nombre de Dios in 1572, and sacked Cartagena in 1585. Spain went to great pains to make the defenses of these harbors as near to being impregnable as was possible, as one can still see from the ramparts of the port of Havana; but by concentrating its forces so largely on protection of the treasure fleets, Spain virtually abandoned the rest of the Caribbean to the freebooters, and the Dutch, French, and English soon filled this void.
The cruising grounds of the buccaneers and the strategic location of their lairs were largely determined by the shipping lanes of the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Indian oceans—the Bahamas were used to prey on Spanish ships that had left the treasure ports of the Panama isthmus and Mexico and were en route to Europe; Tortuga was the place from which to attack merchant ships inbound from Europe and Africa for Jamaica and the Caribbean; and Madagascar was perfectly placed on the path of ships trading in the Indian Ocean. There was also a seasonal pattern to the pirate voyages. The winter months were spent in the Caribbean. In April or May, the buccaneer might head north. Blackbeard was on the coast of Virginia in October 1717. In 1718 he raided Charleston, South Carolina, blockaded the harbor, and held the town to ransom. In the intervening winters, he plundered ships off St. Kitts and in the Bay of Honduras. Pirates also scavenged off the coast of West Africa in search of gold, ivory, and slaves or rounded the tip of South America as Drake had done to prey on Spanish treasure ships in the Pacific.
Cordingly provides some fresh insights into the rough democracy of pirate life. On a pirate ship the captain was elected, and occasionally deposed, by the votes of the majority of the crew. In most cases it was the crew, not the captain, that decided the destination of pirate voyages and when to attack. John Rackam, known also as Calico Jack because of his colorful clothes, took command of a pirate vessel in 1718 by challenging a captain who had declined to attack a French frigate in the windward passage and was elected in his place. Henry Avery, also known as Long Ben, was a former Royal Navy midshipman who took over the privateer Charles in 1694 in Spanish waters when her captain was found wanting and was incapacitated by drink. Avery renamed the ship Fancy and set sail for Madagascar and the Red Sea where, lying in wait for pilgrim ships outbound from India to Mecca, he captured and looted the Ganj-i-Sawai, the largest ship belonging to the Great Mogul of India, a raid that earned each man a thousand pounds. Avery’s feat soon was soon celebrated on the London stage at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1713 in a long-running melodrama titled The Successful Pirate, which, Cordingly observes, began a long line of pirate melodramas, later parodied in Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera. Avery himself died a pauper in the fishing port of Bideford, in Devon, having been cheated out of his riches by local traders and “not being worth as much as would buy a coffin.”
The crews of the pirate vessels often signed written articles. These set the rules for behavior aboard the ship and for the distribution of plunder, and established rates of compensation for injuries (600 pieces of eight for the loss of the right arm, 500 for a left arm, 100 each for the loss of an eye or a finger). Cheating fellow pirates brought severe retribution. Under the articles drawn up by the men led by Bartholomew Roberts, defrauding the company was punished by marooning—that is, by setting the offending sailor ashore on some uninhabited cape or island. Where “robbery was only betwixt one another,” after the “slitting of ears and nose of him that was guilty” the offending pirate was left off in a region known to be inhabited. The articles of Roberts’s crew set the time for lights out at eight o’clock. After that hour those “still… inclined for drinking” had to go on the open deck.
Pirate flags were red and black, emblazoned with skulls, bleeding hearts, hourglasses, spears, cutlasses, and whole skeletons. By 1730, the skull and crossbones on a black cloth had edged out other symbols and was adopted by English, French, and Spanish pirates in the West Indies. Captain Richard Hawkins, captured by pirates in 1724, described how they “hoisted Jolly Roger (for so they call their black ensign, in the middle of which is a large white skeleton with a dart in one hand, striking a bleeding heart, and in the other an hourglass). When they fight under Jolly Roger, they give quarter, which they do not when they fight under the red or bloody flag.”
During the early eighteenth century, pirates were young men whose average age was twenty-seven. Many pirate captains refused to take on married men. Edward Low of Boston was adamant that “he might have none with him under the influence of such powerful attractives as a wife and children, lest they should grow uneasy in his service….” Article Six of one pirate code of conduct decreed that “no boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.” The historian B.R. Burg suggested some years ago that all-male pirate crews were often homosexual.3 Cordingly is not convinced (nor was Christopher Hill in these pages),4 though he is less sure about the proclivities of the naval ship captains and their young servants and cabin boys. He points to the case of Samuel Norman, which he discovered among the papers of the High Court of Admiralty. Captain Norman was being bathed by the fourteen-year-old Richard Mandervell while his ship was anchored in Oporto, and “had the carnal use of him & was then guilty of the crime commonly called buggery or sodomy & he twice afterwards used the Informant in the same way….”
Captain Norman’s behavior, however, does not really get at the broader question that Burg raised. Portuguese shopkeepers in Brazil, their sexual activity in no way constrained by the all-male companionship of a ship at sea, were regularly investigated by the Inquisition for their pursuit of shopboys. And Captain Norman, anchored off Oporto, could have gone ashore for female companionship had he so desired. Rogoziå«nski is more to the point in Pirates! when he describes how buccaneers recognized a same-sex relationship called matelotage—comrades who were “mates,” shared hardships, fought side-by-side, and pooled possessions.5 The pirate captain Edmund Cook sailed for many years with an unnamed servant who was captured and forced to confess that “his Master had oft times Buggered him in England…in Jamaica…; and once in these seas before Darien.” The confession apparently did not offend the rest of the crew. Bartholomew Sharp returned to England in 1682 with a sixteen year-old Spanish boy captured in South America, and Captain George Shelvocke infuriated his crew by promoting his cabin boy to first mate.
There were cross-dressing female pirates, the most famous being Mary Read and Anne Bonny, who sailed with Captain John “Calico Jack” Rackam, out of New Providence in the Bahamas. At their trial for piracy in 1720, in the town of St. Jago de la Vega, today Spanish Town on Jamaica, one of the witnesses against them, Dorothy Thomas, said: “Each of them had a machet and pistol in their hands, and cursed and swore at the men, to murder the deponent [i.e. Thomas]; and that they should kill her, to prevent her coming against them; and the deponent further said, that the reason of her knowing and believing them to be women then was by the largeness of their breasts.” Read and Bonny, “largeness of their breasts” notwithstanding, had fallen in love, each thinking the other to be a man, or so they told Calico Jack. Convicted of piracy, they were sentenced to death by hanging, but were reprieved at the last moment when both were found to be pregnant. Calico Jack suffered the fate of many convicted of piracy. He was put in an iron cage, hanged from a gibbet on Deadman’s Cay, a small island within sight of Port Royal now known as Rackam’s Cay, and his corpse was coated in tar to preserve it as a warning to others.
The pirate crews were multinational and multiracial. Dutch smugglers and pirates appeared in the Caribbean after Dutch traders were expelled from the Iberian peninsula in 1598 and Dutch freelance marauders continued to attack ships in the West Indies into the early eighteenth century. French privateers were active in the Caribbean in the early eighteenth century, and Spanish coast guards often launched freelance attacks on the English colonies. Cordingly finds that the pirates based on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas between 1715 and 1725 were mostly English-speaking—35 percent of them were from England, 25 percent from the American colonies, 20 percent from the West Indies, 10 percent Scots. The rest were Swedes, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Among the English, most came from London and the West Country.
The crews of the pirate vessels often included black Africans. Cordingly assumes that they were slaves and believes that however contemptuous the white pirates might have been of the customs of their day, they were not likely to accept blacks as equal partners. But this seems a hasty judgment. African seamen had participated in the oceanic voyages of the Portuguese for over two centuries before the buccaneers roamed the same seas. The Japanese screen paintings depicting the arrival of the Portuguese carracks in Nagasaki Bay in the sixteenth century show African sailors on the riggings. That pirates stole and sold slaves as part of their booty in no way precluded the participation of black pirates in the looting and selling of human cargoes, any more than it prevented Africans from selling other Africans into slavery.
Yet as the power of Spain declined and that of France and Britain rose, the pirates began to be perceived in a very different manner; they were no longer seen as potential allies in times of adversity, as the old privateers had been, but as enemies of good commerce. How, Cordingly asks, was it that the pirates acquired a heroic and relatively benign image? The answer lies in early pirate literature in English, which often conflates the anti-Spanish privateers of Elizabethan England with the predators of a later epoch. Against the background of a powerful anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic tradition, it is not surprising that the people who read pirate stories in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries displayed no great sympathy for the Spanish victims. In any case, “singeing King Philip’s beard,” and those of his successors, was seen as the patriotic duty of any good Englishman (or Welshman), pirate or privateer; and such was in essence Captain Morgan’s justification for his atrocities in Panama.
Already by Morgan’s later years, however, there was grumbling about his unsuitability to hold official positions in Jamaica and, in many ways, he was identified with the old Caribbean at a time when the prospects for freelance plunder were rapidly diminishing. Sugar cane cultivation was rapidly expanding in the West Indies as was sugar consumption in Britain, and so too was the importation of slaves from Africa. The merchants and the slave traders backed by powerful commercial and political interests in London, Bristol, and Liverpool had little time for the buccaneers; and following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 the English obtained the formal right (the Asiento) to supply slaves to the Spanish American markets. By the eighteenth century, the British were learning, as were the French, that it was easier to subvert the Spanish Empire from within than to attack it on the high seas. It was better to use the credits of London merchants to take indirect control of Spanish-American trade, and smuggle and barter along the coasts of South and Central America than to loot and destroy potential customers. And the pirates no longer confined their attacks to the Spanish. As wealth and power shifted in the Atlantic shipping lanes, it was the English who became the object of pirate assaults.
Around 1720, at the time of peak pirate activity in the Atlantic, the pirates were thought to number about two thousand in all. Within a decade they were reduced to fewer than two hundred. As soon as the British government decided to respond in force, the pirates stood little chance. The Royal Navy in 1718 had sixty-seven ships of the line. Even the smallest of these had fifty guns, equal in force to Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, the largest pirate vessel. Changes in the law in 1700 made it possible thereafter to try to impose the death sentence in Vice-Admiralty Courts overseas. One of the first cases took place in Boston in 1704, when John Quelch, after plundering along the coast of Brazil, made the mistake of returning to the port of Marblehead, where he had seized his vessel. Quelch and six of his crew were sentenced to death. After a barrage of sermons from the Reverend Cotton Mather, they were hanged on the shoreline by Hudson’s Point.
To comply with the jurisdiction of the Lord High Admiral, all such hangings took place from gallows set up “within the flood marks,” since his authority was held to extend up to the low tide line. Between 1716 and 1726, four hundred men were hanged for piracy by such courts around the Atlantic seaboard, from Port Royal to Barbados, to New Providence, to London, and from Boston to the Cape coast of West Africa. Captain Woodes Rogers, a famous former privateer, was sent to New Providence as governor of the Bahamas in 1718 at the request of the merchants of Bristol and London, and proved to be one of the most effective scourges of the pirates. Woodes Rogers, accompanied by the buccaneer William Dampier, had captured a Manila Galleon in 1709, one of only two English privateers to do so, and circumnavigating the world, returned to London in 1711 with gold bullion, precious stones, and silks valued at 800,000 English pounds. He had also rescued the castaway sailor Alexander Selkirk, said to be the model for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), from the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile. A poacher turned gamekeeper, Woodes Rogers sent out the naval ships to capture Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read. The coat of arms granted to the colony of Bahamas in 1728 summed up the new situation. It portrayed a Royal Navy warship with three more in the background, and bears the motto Expulsis Piratis Restituta Commercia. Woodes Rogers commissioned a family portrait from the young William Hogarth in 1729. In it he sits comfortably in an armchair before the Fort at Nassau, a globe by his side represents his voyage around the world, his son holds open a map of New Providence Island, and in the harbor a warship fires a salute. After the 1730s, pirates were best left to novelists and playwrights. Commerce replaced plunder.
Yet out of the rich mixture of fact and fiction of the early eighteenth century, the pirate genre emerged in which the works of J.M. Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson were sold along with adventures of earnest amateur sleuths and treasure hunters; where ancient sea chests were found to have secret compartments, and ambiguous ink blots on old charts were claimed to represent, at the same time, Pacific atolls, islets of the coast of Indochina, or Gardiner’s Island off Montauk. The early eighteenth-century pirate narratives, cleaned up a bit, of course, have been taken over by Disney World and dozens of Hollywood B movies.
I was delighted to find, the other day, my well-thumbed copy of Treasure Island, a present from my father when I was seven. It brought back memories of summer rambles along the coastlines and bays of Devon and Cornwall. Doubtless with the intention of keeping me quiet, he used to promise that around the corner of some profusely hedgerowed seaside lane, or beyond some bracken-clad headland, or at the edge of some rocky inlet or cove, we would find the Admiral Benbow Inn. For boys growing up in the west of England, Drake, Hawkins, Raleigh, and assorted sea dogs, freebooters, smugglers, and pirates, real or invented, were part of popular culture. Cordingly has, to some degree, set out to clarify and debunk this rich imagined heritage. So it was some relief to discover in his book, all these years later, that even if the Admiral Benbow Inn did not exist, Admiral John Benbow did. An opponent of pirates, Spaniards, and the French, he died heroically of his wounds off Cartagena in 1702, after his right leg was smashed by chain shot and he refused to leave the quarter-deck.
March 6, 1997
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). ↩
Jan Rogoziå«nski. Pirates! An A-Z Encyclopedia: Brigands, Buccaneers, and Privateers in Fact, Fiction, and Legend (Da Capo, 1996). ↩
B.R. Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean (New York University Press, 1983). ↩
Christopher Hill, “Jolly Rogers,” in The New York Review, May 12, 1983. ↩
Rogoziå«nski, Pirates!, pp. 217-218. ↩