Pirates; Legend and reality

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In search of the historical terrors of the Spanish main

Pirates; Legend and reality
Fact from fiction (Getty Thinkstock)

"... if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was."

— A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Charles Johnson

Between about 1660 and about 1730, a combination of political and economic factors made the Caribbean Sea -- and, to a lesser extent, shipping lanes in other parts of the world -- a rich hunting ground for pirates. This period saw the rise of pirate captains whose names are still known today; men such as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Bartholomew Roberts, Pierre L'Olonnais and Calico Jack Rackham have captured the popular imagination. But what was the world of golden age of piracy actually like? How much of the pirate legend is a later invention?

The pirates' Caribbean

Pirates; Legend and reality
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Pirate movies have given us an image of pirate bases as sun-drenched tropic islands, with buried treasure, clear blue water and few people about. In some cases, this was true -- but the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries was a major hub of shipping, and populations were growing. The politics of settlement created the environment in which piracy thrived.

During the golden age of piracy, the islands of the Caribbean were owned by a number of colonial powers, including Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Communications between the colonies and home governments were often slow, and troops and ships were in short supply. The same was true of many of the British, Spanish, Dutch and French colonies in the Americas.

The most famous pirate haven was probably New Providence in the Bahamas, although other settlements, such as Port Royal in Jamaica and the harbour towns of North Carolina, were also well-known for their pirates. From time to time, governments attempted to assert control over these pirate havens. For instance, in 1718 the arrival of a new governor for New Providence drove the pirate crews which had used it as a base away. Many of these crews made their way to the Carolinas, until yet another crackdown cleared them out.

Piracy and politics

Pirates; Legend and reality
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Government efforts to stamp out piracy were seldom completely successful; indeed, they were often a little half-hearted. In fact, pirates often served government agendas, both officially and unofficially.

Legalised piracy was a major instrument of policy during this period, particularly for the British. Armed vessels, known as privateers, received a letter of marque from one or more of the colonial governments, authorising them to capture ships belonging to an enemy country.

However, privateering was not the only form of government involvement in piracy. Colonial governments often turned a blind eye to piratical activity when it served their purposes. For instance, in 1671 Henry Morgan attacked the Spanish colony of Panama. Morgan had a letter of marque from Britain, but Britain and Spain were at peace at the time, having signed a treaty in 1670. Technically, therefore, the raid on Panama was an act of piracy. Morgan was arrested and taken to England. Instead of being executed, however, he was knighted and returned to Jamaica in 1674 to become the island's Lieutenant Governor -- hardly a stern reprimand.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this type of collusion between pirates and the authorities does not appear in most pirate films, books or games.

The Legend begins

Pirates; Legend and reality
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Many modern images relating to pirates come from works of fiction such as Treasure Island or Peter Pan. Images such as "walking the plank" or the pirate with his peg leg originally come from works like these. But pirates such as Edward "Blackbeard" Teach were already becoming legends within only a few years of their deaths, and their reputations have not stopped growing since.

Probably the most significant part of creating the modern pirate mystique was a book called "A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates," published in London in 1724. The author, Captain Charles Johnson, is almost certainly a pseudonym for another writer, possibly Daniel Defoe, author of "Robinson Crusoe."

Johnson's book contains many of the elements we now associate with classic pirate stories, including the jovially bloodthirsty character of pirate chiefs such as Blackbeard. Blackbeard had been killed by the Royal Navy after a fierce battle at Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, in 1718. Within only a few years of his death, then, Blackbeard was already being portrayed as a larger-than-life, almost demonic figure with a streak of dark humour, an image that has stayed more or less consistent for nearly three hundred years.

Buried treasure and the black flag

Walking the plank may be a later fictional invention, and wooden legs were common in sailors whether pirates or not. But other parts of the pirate mystique do have their roots in the real history of the golden age of piracy.

One of most enduring images associated with pirates and piracy is, of course, buried treasure. Most pirates did not bury their treasure, simply because they did not have much treasure to bury. Merchant ships, the most common prey of pirates, were more likely to have cargoes such as rum, sugar, cloth or even slaves. Pirates typically sold these, often at reduced prices, and lived on the proceeds.

Occasionally, however, treasure was buried. The only pirate genuinely known to have buried his treasure was privateer-turned-pirate William Kidd, who buried a large sum of money on Long Island, apparently in hopes that he could use it as leverage to buy his way out of criminal charges. Kidd was mistaken; he had angered the powerful East India Company, and no amount of loot could save him. He was arrested, returned to England, and hanged. His treasure was probably completely retrieved soon after, although rumours of its existence continue to this day.

Another part of the pirate legend with genuine historical roots is the black flag or Jolly Roger. In fact, the name probably comes from the French "jolie rouge," indicating a red flag, but both red and black flags were flown to show that the pirates would offer no quarter. The famous pirate flag featuring a skull and crossbones belonged to a pirate captain named Edward England, but other captains had their own variations, all with symbols of death such as skulls, swords, skeletons, hourglasses or -- in the case of the pirate leader Bartholomew Roberts -- a pirate stamping on the severed heads of his enemies.

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