One of my favourite films when younger was ‘The Pirate’. It starred Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Judy dreams of being swept away by a dashing pirate — Mack the Black to be specific. She idolises pirates believing them to be swashbuckling, powerful, living the free life. Although the modern day pirate has been cleansed of such notions — characterised as brutal and mercenary, the pirates of old are still romanticised, so I thought it would be fun to dip into the past.
According to the Maritime Museum in London, pirates have existed for hundreds of years. However the ‘golden age’ was in the 17th and 18th Century with more than 5000 on the seas. Their main targets were cargo ships and occasionally coastal towns, looting and plundering gold, jewels, silk as they went.
To be a pirate ideally you needed to be young, with energy and a eye for how to rob those who had more. Hence It was a route that appealed to the illiterate or poor. According to psyche.com, pirate ships were relatively egalitarian and often followed a code of honour : a Captain could be voted in or out of position; booty was divided relatively evenly by hierarchy; payment was made for injuries and pirate ships led the field in diversity by colour and religion (women also became pirates but less conspicuously because the danger to their persons was high). Contrary to the myths — pirates did not make prisoners walk the plank (they were generally tied to the back of the ship and drowned) and not many buried loot as the tales tell (most frittered it away on women, drink and gambling as soon as it had been secured). However skull and cross bone flags were prominent on pirate ships, eye patches and peg legs common due to the high rate of injury and yes some pirates kept parrots as pets!
The risks in a pirates life were high. Articles suggest pirates on average lasted two years in their career before dying of health issues, execution or hanging. The trials of pirates captured at sea by the British Navy took place in London with hangings on the banks of the river Thames. These hangings were long drawn out affairs. Shorter nooses than normal meant death was via strangulation rather than a broken neck and could take an hour to complete.
Varieties of pirates sailed the waters. Corsairs were pirates who operated in the Mediterranean seas. They used oar powered galleys to capture sailors and passengers to sell into slavery. Buccaneers lived in the Caribbean on various islands including one called Tortuga (it does exist!) Initially they were paid by the Caribbean islands to attack Spanish ships but soon struck out on their own. Privateers privately owned ships with guns, operating during times of war on behalf of the Navy to capture merchant vessels.
Today’s pirates are a different breed though they also operate for ransom or loot. Tending to exist where there is vagueness — a lack of legality and policing, converging with lucrative trade — they are found particularly in expansive seas and have been difficult to reign in. The use of modern technology and of weapons has further cemented their existence on open waters making them the scourge of both small local vessels as well as large merchant ships.
Many famous pirates are characterful, associated with menacing or particular reputations. Long John Silver from Treasure Island, Blackbeard, Captain Hook from Peter Pan, Captain Jack Sparrow and of course Captain Pugwash! Here are some of the more interesting personalities I found.
Stede Bonnet a nobleman without sea experience became a pirate because he was fed up of his nagging wife. He began as one of the worst Captains ever seen. He paid his pirates (unusual as they usually survived on what they could steal), had a library put on his boat (most pirates couldn’t read) and without sea navigating experience was very disorganised. But after encountering Edward Teach — better known as Blackbeard, his demeanour changes and he is able to become moderately successful at his trade.
Blackbeard, one of the most fearsome pirates, was believed to have been born in Bristol, in the UK in 1680. Little is known of his early life. During his pirate career, he roamed the seas around the West Indies. Blackbeard was known for his luxuriant black beard which reached to his waist. In order to terrify the unsuspecting, hidden in the dark, he would place matches throughout his beard which he would light, highlighting a crazed look in his eyes. He also cunningly fed gossip and rumour to fuel his unnerving reputation. Blackbeard is famous for buried treasure that has never been found….
Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart was probably the most successful of pirates capturing more than 470 ships in his three years as Captain. He was often well dressed but the reputation for extreme cruelty gave rise to his nickname.
I enjoyed learning of the stories of successful women Captains including this fascinating lady. Cheng Sao re-made the rules of piracy. Born in 1775 she was the most powerful pirate based in the China seas. She had a huge fleet (50–70,000 pirates with more than 2,000 ships — Blackbeard had 4), copious amounts of money and a long career. She married a fellow pirate, working together to oversee their fleet. When he died she managed the business single handedly by placing offices on shore to control the accounts, innovatively built a protection racket (you paid a fee not to be raided by her) and enforced her own pirate code mostly resulting in death if broken. As China haemorrhaged money to her piracy they turned to other counties (including Britain), for help in her capture. But none were able to, so wily was she. Instead as her empire began to fracture, she decided yet again to determine the future, handing herself in. By surrendering she managed to secure a cushy retirement deal from the Chinese eventually dying of old age.
Here’s the link to Mack the Black from The Pirate where Judy Garland justifies the romanticism much better than I do through song. Enjoy.