Tag Archives: piracy

Who was Captain Kidd and why did he become famous?

In class, we briefly discussed Captain Kidd, and I tried to explain why he was so famous. I didn’t do Captain Kidd justice. So here’s an explanation of who he was, and just why he became so famous.

We don’t know much about Captain William Kidd’s early life. He was probably born around 1645, according to tradition in Greenock, the port for Glasgow, Scotland. The first we hear reliably of him, in 1689, he was a buccaneer in the Caribbean. And just like Morgan, he was working with the government, which made him a privateer, not a pirate.[i] He played a role in a successful raid on a French island that gained Kidd personally £2,000 in booty. Not bad.

I, William Kidd, am a gentleman of wealth

I, William Kidd, am a gentleman of wealth

Not bad, except that Kidd’s crew mutinied while he was ashore, and turned piratical, which is to say they ceased to operate under the legal protection of the English government, and declared themselves “enemies of all mankind” (save other pirates). They sailed off with Kidd’s ship, and, worse yet, Kidd’s £2,000.

Still, Kidd had earned the support of the English governor of the island of Nevis, and the governor sent him on his way with another ship. Kidd went to New York, where he married a wealthy widow in 1691 and settled down to being a city man. Wealthy widows will do that to you.[ii]

But the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) raged, interfering with trade. The New York economy was depressed. And maybe Kidd just couldn’t settle down. He decided to sail to London in 1695 and see if he could get a commission as a privateer to attack England’s enemies. He figured that with the sponsorship of some prominent colonial friends and his buccaneering history, it would be easy.

It wasn’t. The Royal Navy was expanding to meet the realm’s military and commercial needs during the war, and had ceased to give out commissions for privateers, because it wanted all the experienced seamen for itself.

But Kidd lucked out. By various means, he won the sponsorship of several of the powerful leaders of the Whig party, which was in power just then. But these men didn’t want to be bothered by any piddling little privateering commission, no. They were after bigger game. They’d heard how Thomas Tew and Henry Every[iii] had made fortunes as pirates. There was said to be a whole community of pirates on Madagascar. Just think of all the loot they must have! The Whig leaders decided that what they wanted was to send out a ship and go hunt pirates. They’d put up the money, Kidd would sail the ship, and they’d split most of the profits when he got back.[iv] They even arranged that anything Kidd seized from the pirates, which would presumably be stolen goods, would not have to be returned to their rightful owners; Kidd and his Whig sponsors would keep all the loot they took from the pirates. Easy money!

What Kidd thought about this at the time is not recorded. He’d been a buccaneer, he knew that pirates weren’t usually rolling in gold, and he knew how hard it was to find ships in the ocean. So he may have had his doubts from the beginning. Who knows, maybe the whole scheme was a cover for something illegal. But on paper, at least, Kidd was off to hunt pirates.

Not the Adventure Galley, but a similar ship

Not the Adventure Galley, but a similar ship

His ship, the Adventure Galley, an unusual vessel carrying 34 guns that used both sail and oars to propel itself, sailed from England in 1696. Kidd stopped in New York to hire on more men, and set a course for the Indian Ocean. For Kidd, it must have been a sweet time, the deck of his own ship under his feet, the sponsorship of influential politicians behind him, and the prospect of pirate booty ahead of him.

Then it all went sour. Once he got to the Indian Ocean, Kidd couldn’t find any pirates at Madagascar just then. Instead, he turned pirate himself. Like Every, he made a big score, taking a rich trading vessel called the Quedah Merchant in 1698. Along with some other lesser prizes, Kidd made some decent money. Each crew member received between £500 and £1,500; Kidd’s share must have been around £40,000. Kidd was no Every, but he’d be bringing back enough money to pay off his backers and take some loot home for himself.

Unfortunately, his piracies had not gone unnoticed in India. The Mughal Empire blamed the British, and put the screws to the British East India Company. “John Company” had to grin and bear it, because, after all, Kidd was English.[v] But they sent complaints back to London. And in London, their supporters used Kidd’s piracy as a political weapon to attack the Whig leadership.

The Whigs, who thought they’d been clever and were going to make an easy profit from Kidd’s voyage, found that Kidd’s whole mission was becoming a political albatross around their necks. His commission was unusual, and looked just like the sort of political corruption it really was.[vi] His activities had damaged the East India Company. The opposition could even claim that Kidd’s commission was actually against the best interests of the realm.[vii] And if he had indeed turned pirate . . . well, the very fact that he had been sent out as a pirate hunter was a sign that England wasn’t going to tolerate piracy anymore. For their pirate hunter to turn pirate, well, that was too much. The Whigs decided that Kidd wasn’t worth the political damage he was causing them. Maybe, just maybe, if he brought back enough loot to spread it around, they could make it right. But otherwise they were determined to make him the sacrificial lamb for the whole scheme.

Kidd got wind of some of this. He knew his piratical activities hadn’t gone unnoticed. He knew the East India Company hated him. And he got some idea from letters he received from New York[viii] that his powerful friends might not be so friendly anymore. So he decided to stage a cover-up. He destroyed his logs and let much of his crew desert to another pirate ship.[ix] And before he returned to New York in 1699, he made some earlier stops to off-load some of his booty, to make sure he’d get his share and to use it as a bargaining chip with his now-reluctant sponsors.

Kidd's body was hung in chains along the shore of the Thames as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

Kidd’s body was hung in chains along the shore of the Thames as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

One of Kidd’s Whig sponsors was governor of New York and Massachusetts. He invited Kidd to meet him in Boston. Once Kidd arrived, he was thrown in jail, and then sent back to England for trial. By this time, Kidd’s name was so notorious, and the Tory opposition was so concerned about keeping the Whigs from staging a cover-up, that they had Kidd summoned before Parliament to be questioned, twice even! Kidd argued that he had only acted as a privateer, but Parliament wasn’t having it. The East India Company wanted his head, the Tories wanted to use him as a weapon against the Whigs, and the Whigs would rather see him hang than defend him.[x] He was tried, convicted, and executed in 1701. And so ended the life of Captain William Kidd, a victim of changing times, political maneuvering, and his own bad judgment.

From this account, you can understand three of the reasons why Kidd became famous. He was a pirate hunter who had turned pirate. His name was linked with Tew and Every and the other Indian Ocean pirates who had gained fabulous wealth. Finally, he was summoned before Parliament, a rare “honor,” one I’m sure he would rather have foregone.

However, there is one other reason why Kidd became famous, especially in America. The Whig sponsors of Kidd’s voyage were disappointed by how little booty Kidd had when he returned from the Indian Ocean. They were only able to recover £14,000, which was peanuts compared to what Every had taken. They wondered if Kidd had hidden some of the loot. Kidd’s actions immediately prior to his return to New York suggested that he had turned over some of his loot to friends in New York or New Jersey. And Kidd himself suggested that he had indeed hidden much of the loot, and that there was still as much as £100,000 where he had hidden the Quedah Merchant in the Caribbean. Maybe he did hide some of the loot, but maybe he was just using the hope of more loot to obtain his freedom. Certainly the Quedah Merchant had been stripped bare before he left it in the Caribbean, so that part was definitely a lie. That he kept suggesting to his Whig sponsors that they give him a ship to go salvage what was left on the Quedah Merchant suggests he was looking for an escape.

Which pirate did Howard Pyle show burying treasure? Why, Captain Kidd, of course!

Which pirate did Howard Pyle show burying treasure? Why, Captain Kidd, of course!

The idea that Kidd had secreted his treasure took hold. Maybe it was in the Caribbean. Maybe it was somewhere in the Hudson Valley. Maybe it was in the “Money Pit” on Oak Island in Nova Scotia. But it was there, somewhere, waiting for some lucky person to find it, dig it up, and enjoy extravagant wealth.

So there you have it. Kidd was a buccaneer, a failed pirate hunter turned pirate, and a patsy in a political intrigue that cost him his life. Politics made him famous. Treasure has kept him so.

[i] Just a reminder that a privateer is basically a licensed pirate: he is allowed to go after the commerce of enemy nations, but only that of enemy nations, and he will be protected by his nation’s laws. Pirates operate outside every nation’s laws.

[ii] Sarah Bradley Cox Oort had been married twice before, and after Kidd’s death would marry once again. She also had at least three children. In an era when men typically buried their wives, often because of complications in childbirth, Sarah outlived all her husbands and died in 1744.

[iii] Remember him from the first class? He made possibly as much as £600,000 from taking the Ganj-i-sawai in 1695.

[iv] Crew members got shares, too. In fact, they sailed under a “no prey, no pay” arrangement, typical for privateers and pirates. What was unusual was that Kidd & co. got such a disproportionately large amount, 40 shares, when the average hand got just one.

[v] Okay, Scottish, but he was sailing on an English ship under an English commission. That made him English.

[vi] Never mind that almost everyone used political office for private gains. The key was to do it quietly through successful ventures and to pay off enough supporters and opponents that no one wanted to prosecute you.

[vii] By siphoning off experienced seamen, by not compensating the legitimate owners of the pirate goods they seized, etc. None of the terms of Kidd’s commission were unprecedented, but they looked sinister in light of Kidd’s piratical activities.

[viii] Possibly the most amazing aspect of life at sea in those days is that people ashore and on ships did successfully communicate with each other by letter. They’d frequently have to send out several copies on different ships, the letters might get lost or turn up in the wrong place, and the news would be months old. But people did communicate this way. Kidd got news of some of the political developments from his New York friends while in Madagascar.

[ix] Ironically, the ship was commanded by one of the men, named Culliford, who had mutinied against Kidd in 1689. This didn’t keep Kidd and Culliford from having a swell time together in Madagascar. For a man who was trying to cover up his piracies, hanging out with Culliford was simply not a bright idea. It would count against Kidd at his trial.

[x] Indeed, they may have greased the skids by conspiring to withhold evidence that would have legally exculpated Kidd of charges of piracy against two vessels.

The women pirates of the Caribbean: Anne Bonny and Mary Read

General_History_of_the_Pyrates_-_Ann_Bonny_and_Mary_Read_(coloured)There aren’t many women pirates in the Caribbean that we know of. However, Captain Johnson immortalized two such women: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Much of what he tells us about them is probably untrue. Still, it’s worth looking even at his fibs to see what they tell us about women in the early 18th century.

(There are footnotes in this blog post. You don’t have to read them. But if you want to, they are hyperlinked both ways. Click on the footnote number in the text, and you go to the footnote. Click on the footnote number at the beginning of the footnote, and you return back to your place in the text.)

In his book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, Captain Johnson[i] devotes a whole chapter to each of the women pirates, and they are entertaining reading. But if you want to understand them in context, you should read the preceding chapters on Captains Vane and Rackam[ii] first. And I need to explain a few things about piracy in the Caribbean in the late 1710s.

The War of the Spanish Succession had been an all-out struggle between all the major European powers from its beginning in 1701.[iii] In the Caribbean, the war pitted the French and the Spanish against the English and Dutch. They all had built up their naval fleets, and the English in particular had given commissions to many privateers.[iv]

Charles Vane, who would not accept the King's pardon

Charles Vane, who would not accept the King’s pardon

And then when peace came with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713,[v] the major powers revoked their privateering commissions and laid up much of their naval fleets. This left a great many seamen unemployed. For those who had been privateers in particular, switching to being pirates was easy.[vi] And if that wasn’t enough encouragement, a Spanish treasure fleet went down in shallow waters off the coast of Florida in 1715. Treasure? Did someone say treasure? Every sailor with a ship and idle time on his hands suddenly found the prospect of a trip to Florida quite attractive. Maybe they could engage in some salvage. Or maybe that would be too much effort, and they’d just steal the silver from the salvagers!

So there was a major eruption of pirates after 1713. Remember my third rule about pirates? They needed a base. And they found one in the Bahamas, on the island of New Providence. You see, the Bahamas were a British possession,[vii] but the Spanish had raided the islands in the late war, and driven out the colonial government. So they had become a lawless land, and hence a good place for pirates to congregate.

Woodes Rogers and his family

Woodes Rogers and his family

The days of the buccaneers were long past,[viii] and the British were making more money from lawful trade than they ever could from piracy, so they decided to put down the pirates. They tapped Woodes Rogers, a former privateer who had written a famous account of his circumnavigation of the world,[ix] gave him some warships, and sent him out to govern and civilize the Bahamas. Not that they expected him to rely just on brute force; they also decided to use persuasion. By the authority of the King as embodied in a 1717 proclamation, Rogers was allowed to issue pardons to any pirate who agreed to stop being a pirate and pursued a lawful existence thereafter.

"Calico Jack" Rackam, Anne Bonny's lover

“Calico Jack” Rackam, Anne Bonny’s lover

Charles Vane and “Calico Jack” Rackam were uninterested in taking the pardon. They decided to demonstrate their contempt for those pirates who did take the pardon, and for the British government as well. So when Rogers arrived in the Bahamas, Vane and Rackam sent a fire ship against Rogers’ naval vessels before fleeing the harbor.[x] And that sets the stage for the stories of Vane, Rackam, Read, and Bonny.

So what do we know for sure about Read and Bonny? They were definitely serving on Calico Jack Rackam’s ship. They were vicious, foul-mouthed, and courageous fighters. They lived and dressed openly as women aboard ship, but dressed in men’s clothes when fighting, which makes good sense. Bonny was Rackam’s mistress and had a husband still living somewhere. When both women were convicted of piracy, both claimed, accurately, to be pregnant.[xi] Mary Read died in captivity before giving birth, while Anne Bonny’s fate is unknown.

Anne Bonny, depicted by someone with a lot of imagination and little sense

Anne Bonny, depicted by someone with a lot of imagination and little sense

Captain Johnson has a lot more to say about both women. But we should take what he says with a grain . . . no, make that a truckload of salt. Johnson’s accounts blend the genres of the repentant criminal confession and sensational journalistic story and are quite suspect. Why this is so reflects the predicaments both the women and Johnson found themselves in.

For the women, the problem was that they were going to be hanged. They were pirates. That was bad enough. They were foul-mouthed and violent, which made them definitely unladylike. Bonny had definitely abandoned a husband to live in adultery with Rackam. And, perhaps worst of all, both women dressed in men’s clothes, upsetting the natural order of the universe, which mandates that men dress like men and women dress like women, else chaos will destroy civilization.[xii]

Well, one way to try to avoid being hanged is to suck up to the authorities, tell them what they want to hear, make them want to show mercy to you. Portray yourself as someone who would have led a blameless life, had you not been misled into a career of crime. There’s an entire genre of “confessions” issued by condemned criminals in this era, in which they all explain how they fell into criminality through no fault of their own, and how they have seen the light, that they admit their past sinfulness, and claim they would go straight if they weren’t hanged.[xiii]

Mary Reed, armed and dangerous, possibly hoping to distract her enemies with her "very white" breasts

Mary Reed, armed and dangerous, possibly hoping to distract her enemies with her “very white” breasts

And this is what Read and Bonny did. Both of them claimed that it was an erring parent who made them dress up as boys when they were young. Both made it clear that they sinned sexually not due to any of their own viciousness, but due to the wicked ways of men. Bonny had the harder task, since she was known to have abandoned a husband and lived as Rackam’s mistress, so her account is less satisfactory on that score, although more salacious by the standard of the times.

But confessions and apologies, while morally pleasing, don’t bring in the readers the way a good scandal does. So somewhere along the line, someone, perhaps Johnson himself, decided to make the biographies of the two women more sensational by adding all sorts of improbable stories.[xiv] Mary Read was given a career as a soldier whose chronology would put her age in her mid-forties. That is most unlikely. Life as a soldier or sailor was rough, and tended to age people, while Mary Read was young and healthy enough to get pregnant, and was said to have attractive breasts, besides.[xv] Anne Bonny was given a quasi-respectable past as the illegitimate daughter of a maid and a lawyer, respectable enough to make her fall from grace entertaining, while disreputable enough to explain why she was such an awful creature.

Both biographies had to walk a narrow line. The women had to be shown as naturally innocent to evoke pity. At the same time, they have to have encountered unusual circumstances that turned them into monsters. Because no normal woman would ever turn pirate, curse, thieve, shoot people, fornicate and commit adultery, and, as bad as the rest, dress up in men’s clothes. They had to be monsters. Don’t dress up your daughter in boy’s clothes, or else she’ll become a pirate! It was sort of the 18th century’s equivalent of saying that if you let your little boy play with dolls, he’ll turn gay.

It worked well enough that Bonny and Read earned woodcuts depicting them both in Johnson’s General History. Keep in mind that none of these were done from life. My understanding is that the engraving with both of them came first, and is fairly realistic. The later pair of engravings at least demonstrate that the artist knew what to give his audience: a hint of breasts. I doubt either woman fought looking like that.[xvi]

In the end, what do we know about these women? They were pirates, fiercely so. Anne was married before she met Rackam. Johnson probably gets the meetings of Rackam and the two women wrong; they probably met in the Bahamas in 1720 when Rackam had taken the pardon he had earlier spurned. Rackam turned pirate again, and had a career of only a few months before he was captured. Both women were found guilty, and “pled their bellies” to escape immediate execution. Mary Read died, probably still pregnant, while in prison. Anne Bonny apparently did have a father who was well-off, so she may have eventually been released.

The rest is legend.

[i] Don’t know who I’m talking about? Well, in a manner of speaking, neither do I. Captain Charles Johnson is the putative author of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724-28), which is available online and in many print editions. (I like the Dover edition, myself.) We don’t know who Captain Johnson really was. But his book is one of the major sources for contemporary information on the pirates of the 1690-1724 period.

[ii] Calico Jack’s surname is sometimes spelled “Rackham.”

[iii] The war was over who would get Spain and its empire after the last Spanish Habsburg, Carlos II, an inbred freak, died in 1700. The major powers had agreed through various partition treaties how to carve up Spain’s empire. But Carlos II disregarded those treaties and left it all to one of French King Louis XIV’s younger grandsons (i.e., not the one who would inherit the throne of France). Louis faced a grim choice: let his grandson take the inheritance, and face a war against all the other major European powers, or let the partition treaties go into effect, in which case he and his Bourbon dynasty would get much less. Louis decided to risk war, and that’s what happened. Besides the colonial powers, the Austrian Habsburgs were also a major player in this war, as they felt that Habsburg territories should stay Habsburg territories. In the end, Louis XIV’s grandson did get Spain and its overseas empire, under the condition that the thrones of France and Spain never be united. Various other powers got bits and pieces; notably, the Austrian Habsburgs ended up with what is now roughly Belgium. The French and Spanish thrones, now both held by Bourbons, would often act in alliance during the 18th century.

[iv] Presumably the French and Dutch did so as well. The Spanish tended to keep a tighter rein on such matters, not giving their colonial governors much discretion.

[v] Some secondary conflicts continued until 1715.

[vi] Keep in mind that privateers are basically pirates licensed to go after the ships of enemy powers in wartime.

[vii] I’m using the term “British” instead of “English” now when referring to the government, since the Kingdoms of England and Scotland had been combined into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. If you heard about the Scottish independence referendum held in 2014, its aim was to reverse this unification, which has also included Northern Ireland since 1801. It did not pass, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland endures, though the Prime Minister has promised the Scots greater autonomy.

[viii] What is usually called the last major buccaneering raid was a French-led action against the Spanish port of Cartagena (in modern-day Colombia) in 1689. That Jamaica’s old buccaneering capital of Port Royal was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692 also helped end the era of the buccaneers.

[ix] Rogers’ 1712 account is entitled A Cruising Voyage Round the World. In sending an ex-privateer to put down pirates, it would seem the British government was following the old policy of “set a thief to catch a thief.”

[x] They failed, but the sight of the fire ship, its double-shotted cannons going off while the ship burned, was quite spectacular. Initially, Vane was captain and Rackam the quartermaster on the Ranger, the sloop they sailed out of the harbor.

[xi] Who the fathers were is a good question. Both women had been in prison so long that it was unlikely to be Jack Rackam. It’s possible that both women found guards willing to have sex with them in order to become pregnant. British law did not allow the hanging of a pregnant woman, so being pregnant won a woman a temporary reprieve, and hope that she could get her case reconsidered at a later date. For who would want to hang the mother of a newborn child?

[xii] It’s hard to imagine these days just how ingrained the idea of distinct attire for men and women was in Western culture. Did you know that in medieval Iceland, a woman could actually divorce her husband for wearing clothes that were effeminate? And even in my childhood, my local school system had a dress code that forbade long hair for boys and slacks for girls. Fancy restaurants would refuse entrance to women wearing pants. I fondly remember a TV show from 1973 starring Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother) which showed how absurd, or at least sexist, this could be. In an episode, Danner enters a restaurant in a stylish pants suit. She is told pants are not allowed on women because they are immodest attire. Whereupon she drops her pants, revealing a miniskirt underneath. That is considered acceptable, though clearly less modest. Or perhaps it was acceptable because it was immodest in an acceptable way?

[xiii] Or how they hope to make it to Heaven anyhow, but understand that they deserve Hell. Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (1998) by Karen Halttunen describes this genre in detail, and explains how it was transformed into sensational criminal stories in the 19th century.

[xiv] Considering that Johnson wrote an entire chapter on the fictional Captain Misson, inventing some stories about these two women would hardly have been a challenge to him. Although it’s possible that the two women spun some tall tales themselves to make themselves sound more colorful. Or perhaps the 18th century equivalent of urban legends sprung up about these two.

[xv] I am not saying it’s impossible for a woman in her forties to have attractive breasts. And, because this blog does not discriminate on the basis of gender, I should note it’s quite possible for a man in his forties to have an attractive chest.

[xvi] Female superheroes in comic books get similar treatment: their uniforms are not meant so much to protect them as to highlight their sexual charms. DC’s Power Girl is a prime example.

The pirate as comedy: Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Major Stede Bonnet

All these years I’d never seen the Disney Peter Pan movie (that I remember). And for that matter, I’d never read Peter and Wendy, J. M. Barrie’s “novelization” of his own play. Since Captain Hook is one of those iconic pirates, albeit a comic one, I figured it was time to fill up the gaps in my education. So I read the story and watched the film.

Captain Hook fighting Peter Pan, original illustration from "Peter and Wendy"

Captain Hook fighting Peter Pan, original illustration from “Peter and Wendy”

First, let’s disentangle what’s going on here. James Matthew Barrie (1860 – 1937) originally wrote a novel called The Little White Bird (1902) in which Peter Pan figured through several chapters. Then he wrote the play Peter Pan (1904, though he kept revising it until 1928), and finally he wrote the “novelization” of the play under the title Peter and Wendy (1911). The Peter Pan of The Little White Bird differs significantly from the later Peters, and Hook does not appear, so we may ignore it here. What most people are talking about when they refer to “Peter Pan” is some adaptation of the 1928 play text. Peter and Wendy is Barrie telling us adults what to think about the play as he reproduces its action. And Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) is an adaptation of the play. Got it?

Captain Hook from the Disney film (Copyright resides with Disney)

Captain Hook from the Disney film
(Copyright resides with Disney)

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the Disney Peter Pan first. There, Captain Hook, like Mr. Darling (Wendy’s father), is a comic figure, inept, cowardly, and a bit thick. His crew is even thicker, both mentally and in waist measurements. Were it not for his hook, he would be simply a figure of fun. Indeed, the entire pirate ship and crew are a child’s idea of what a pirate is like. The sole exception is that Hook can be treacherous when he uses his hook, which, however, he rarely actually uses for violence in the movie. Barrie’s Captain Jas. Hook in Peter and Wendy is a more complex character. We find out that he was a member of the nobility, attended a notable “public” school (what we’d call a private school in the United States), and is obsessed with “good form” as defined in elite public schools. That said, he’s a more vicious and smarter individual than in the Disney movie. His crew has reason to fear his hook, because he uses it to kill them when angered. And he defeats the Indians by simple cunning. If Disney made the pirates adult children at their most foolish, Barrie made Hook an adult child in that he is haunted by a childhood standard of behavior, good form. Like Peter, he has never grown up, really. Oddly enough, there is a real parallel to Barrie’s Captain Hook: Major Stede Bonnet. To quote from Johnson’s General History,

The major was a gentleman of good reputation in the island of Barbados, was master of a plentiful fortune, and had the advantage of a liberal education. He had the least temptation of any man to follow such a course of life [piracy], from the condition of his circumstances. It was very surprising to every one, to hear of the major’s enterprise, in the island where he lived; and as he was generally esteemed and honored, before he broke out into open acts of piracy, so he was afterward rather pitied than condemned, by those that were acquainted with him, believing that this humor of going a-pirating, proceeded from a disorder in his mind . . .

Major Stede Bonnet (from Johnson's 1724 book)

Major Stede Bonnet (from Johnson’s 1724 book)

Bonnet was unfortunate in his piratical career. It began in 1717 when he bought his own ship, an unusual course for a man about to turn pirate. On some of his early exploits he actually paid for the goods he took! The pirate Blackbeard, a more ferocious character than the gentlemanly Bonnet, took over the Major’s ship at one point in 1717, and then ditched him in 1718, cheating Bonnet and his crew of their share of the loot from past captures. Bonnet was captured later in 1718 by a naval expedition that was actually hunting for a different pirate. He managed to escape, only with his customary luck to be quickly recaptured, tried, and hanged on November 13. Whether Barrie ever knew of Major Stede Bonnet I can’t say. But the resemblance to the Captain Hook of Peter and Wendy is there.

Piracy: some basic history

Since quite a few posts to come are going to be on piracy because I’m teaching a course on the subject starting in January, this seems like a good moment to discuss the basic history of piracy as we know it, or at least think we know it.

He's more than just a name for a brand of rum. Henry Morgan was a successful buccaneer who was knighted for his efforts!

He’s more than just a name for a brand of rum. Henry Morgan was a successful buccaneer who was knighted for his efforts!

Piracy is the act of robbing people at sea, in contravention to the law. It’s a slippery definition. Who decides what law applies on the high seas? What about governments who sponsor robbery on the high seas? And what about people we might call pirates who raid the land? These are all questions worth considering at length. We call Captain Morgan a pirate, even though his most famous action was a raid by land on the city of Panama. But we don’t usually call Vikings pirates, though raiding shore towns was their most famous activity. The reasons why have a lot to do with history and culture, which I’ll be getting into in later posts.

Piracy seems to have existed ever since people took to the seas in ships. Pirates once captured Julius Caesar and held him for ransom. And pirates ply their trade today off the coast of Somalia and in the Straits of Malacca between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

However, when people think of “pirates,” what they are usually thinking of are the pirates who operated mostly in and around the Caribbean during the years between about 1640 and 1730. By convention, the earlier period, from about 1640 to 1690, is called the era of the buccaneers, while the years after, especially after 1715, are the “Golden Age of Piracy.”

What was so special about the Caribbean in those days? Piracy flourishes when there are valuable cargoes, weak enforcement of the law on the seas, plenty of trained sailors, and friendly ports. And the Caribbean had all of those things in between 1640 and 1730.

All of the land surrounding the Caribbean fell under the control of Spain in the 16th century. And Spain exploited the New World to fill its treasuries. Silver, gold, and jewels, even silks and porcelain shipped across the Pacific from the Spanish colony in the Philippines, all flowed through the Caribbean on their way to Spain. And the Spanish colonists in the New World demanded luxuries and manufactures in return. Oh, there were rich pickings!

Tortuga in its buccaneering heyday

Tortuga in its buccaneering heyday

Spain devoted its money to wars in Europe, and had little to spend guarding the Caribbean coasts. So interlopers settled on the islands: the Dutch on various small islands in the Lesser Antilles, the French on Tortuga and the adjacent parts of Hispaniola (today’s Haiti), and the English on Jamaica, seized in 1655. The didn’t find gold, but they did learn that sugar could be a profitable crop, when they could use slaves. So valuable cargoes of molasses, rum, and slaves flowed through the Caribbean as well.

And there was no one to enforce the law on the waters of the Caribbean! The other nations hadn’t just come to trade, but to make war on the Spanish and each other. Yet it was a secondary theater in the European wars of the era. Each power could devote only a fraction of its strength to the Caribbean, and they were more interested in fighting each other than in fighting pirates.

With so many islands and ports, the Caribbean had many sailors, and they quickly realized the opportunities for plunder. Better yet, if they promised one power they would attack only its enemies, they could be sure of a friendly harbor among the islands controlled by that power. Captain Morgan is a good example. He based himself in Jamaica, and usually attacked only the enemies of England.

By some accounts the most successful pirate, Henry Every's capture of a Mughal treasure ship made him and his crew rich

By some accounts the most successful pirate, Henry Every’s capture of a Mughal treasure ship made him and his crew rich

So long as piracy paid better than honest commerce, and the European powers couldn’t devote much attention to the Caribbean, so long did piracy flourish. But by about 1690, neither of those conditions were true anymore, and the pirates either retired (as did Morgan) or headed to more congenial waters, as did Henry Every, who rose to fame operating in the Indian Ocean.

And yet piracy flared up in the Caribbean once again after 1715. What happened is that 1715 marked the end of a long war, the War of the Spanish Succession. (The King of Spain had died in 1700 without an immediate heir, and the European powers fought over who would take his throne. Yeah, something like Game of Thrones, but for real.) Many sailors had served as privateers, essentially pirates hired by one country and given license to attack only its enemies, rather like the more successful pirates before 1690. With the end of the war, they all became unemployed, and many decided to continue being pirates, though now without a license.

The man in command of the Bahamas expedition, Woodes Rogers and his family

The man in command of the Bahamas expedition, Woodes Rogers and his family

However, conditions were not so propitious as before 1690. The European powers were less interested in tolerating piracy, and clamped down much faster. The English, for example, began hanging entire pirate crews when they captured them, instead of just the leaders. They even sent a major expedition to the Bahamas in 1718 to deprive the pirates of their base. The “Golden Age” turned out to be only a decade or so long.

So why is it the “Golden Age of Piracy?” We can thank Captain Charles Johnson (whoever he really was) for that. In 1724, his book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates was published and became a best seller.

The fictional Israel Hands confronting the boy hero of "Treasure Island," Jim Hawkins

The fictional Israel Hands confronting the boy hero of “Treasure Island,” Jim Hawkins

The book would quickly run through four editions and double in size as Johnson added more pirate biographies. Johnson’s book became the source for pirate history and lore. Historians would plagiarize from it, writers would be inspired by it and borrow facts from it. Treasure Island? We know Robert Louis Stevenson read Johnson’s book; among other things, the name of the pirate Israel Hands is lifted directly from Johnson’s book.

As for the earlier period, we also have a contemporary work, De Americaensche Zee-Rovers, by Alexander Oliver Exquemelin, published in 1678 and then translated into English in 1684 as The Buccaneers of America (or variations on that title). Between Exquemalin and Johnson, we have two engaging works about pirates that have fascinated readers and created much of the popular image of what it means to be a pirate.

Pirates in fiction: Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica

Pirate literature, and more recently pirate movies and TV shows, have shaped our ideas of what pirates are like. But they also remind us of aspects of piracy we are liable to forget. A High Wind in Jamaica (or, The Innocent Voyage), Richard Hughes’s 1928 novel, is more in the latter category than the former. For it is a rare piece of fiction that reminds us how mundane and ordinary pirates could be.


Somehow, they made this book into a movie, which is actually considered quite good by critics. I’m going to try to track down a copy to see both how good it is and how much they had to change the book to make the movie work.

The story is set sometime between 1833, when the slaves were emancipated in Jamaica, and 1860, which in itself is unusual. There had been a major wave of piracy in the Caribbean as Spain’s Latin American empire collapsed in the 1810s and 1820s; many of the pirates had claimed to be privateers operating under the authority of one short-lived Latin American rebel state or another. But the end of the Latin American wars of independence and vigorous efforts against the pirates by the American and British navies had put the vast majority of Caribbean pirates out of business by 1833.

Hughes knows this, and the portrayal of pirates in the story reflects the decay of their trade. The pirates claim to sail under a commission from Colombia, but even they know that’s a pathetic fiction. Their ship has no cannons, they never deliberately kill a single person during the entire story, and they never take a ship carrying treasure. In fact, the most valuable thing they find on either of the ships they do take are ship’s stores, supplies they need to keep their own ship in good order. As for what loot they find, they auction it off for a fraction of its value in a somnolent Cuban port that has seen better days. These pirates are so banal as to be tiresome. They are ordinary people who somehow got stuck with an illegal career. Walter White from Breaking Bad would make mincemeat of them.

Their comeuppance begins when they encounter the Clorinda, a barque carrying six children as passengers to England. The pirates take the children off as hostages to ensure the good behavior of the captain of the Clorinda. But he mistakenly assumes that the pirates have killed the children, and takes off with the Clorinda before the pirates can return the children. That sets the tone for the rest of the story: everybody not on the pirate ship believes the pirates are vicious creatures, while the pirates are desperately trying to find a way to get rid of the children without bringing the authorities down on them.

The real heart of Hughes’s story is his depiction of the children, which he portrays as thinking and acting very much unlike adults, to the mutual misunderstanding of both. Emily, the ten-year-old girl who dominates the story, finds the earthquake and the death of the family’s cat to be much more interesting events than her time among the pirates. When she is rescued and quizzed by authorities in England, her account of the pirates is about what she thinks important, not what adults would consider so, leading the authorities to despair of using her testimony to convict the pirates. Ironically, it is due to a misunderstanding the adults have about Emily that leads the pirates to be convicted of a murder which Emily herself unintentionally committed!

As a story about children, A High Wind in Jamaica is disturbing. As a story about pirates, it is a useful antidote to the common portrayals of pirates as romantic, heroic, or even comic swashbucklers. It is also a useful reminder that piracy was not confined to its “great ages,” and could be a humdrum and unprofitable affair.

Going to see the Whydah

The Whydah Pirate Museum

The Whydah Pirate Museum

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1717, Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, pirate commodore, died along with most of his crew when his ship, the Whydah, ran aground and broke up in a storm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1984, Barry Clifford found what remained of the wreck of the Whydah. It was the first pirate ship wreck from the “Golden Age of Piracy” to be discovered, and the first to have some of its treasures recovered. Clifford set up a museum on the wharf in Provincetown on the Cape to exhibit some of the recovered objects from the ship and to explain their significance. That’s where I went on August 12.

Cape Cod is a summer tourist spot, and its space and economy are structured accordingly. The south coast of the upper Cape is for kitschy family entertainment. I’d never seen a mini-golf course with multiple waterfalls, at least one 20 feet high, until we hit route 28 east of Hyannis. The north coast of the upper Cape is by contrast more rural and a bit quieter. The east coast of the lower Cape is enveloped by the National Seashore (the first one established), which keeps that stretch of the coast relatively unspoiled. There’s only one main road running the length of the lower Cape, and it tends to drop and add lanes seemingly at random. Expect to get caught in at least one traffic jam if you travel to the lower Cape in the summer. And that includes Provincetown, where the museum is. There’s a ferry from Boston to Provincetown, which sits at the very end of the Cape; it’s an alternative, albeit an expensive one, to driving there.

While Provincetown has a reputation as a gay-friendly community, it’s really a compact and walkable tourist trap. Every business is geared toward housing and feeding tourists, or finding other ways to separate them from their money for an experience. It’s the sort of place that would be fun to spend a day being a tourist in. But after a day or two, you’d either have to get away from downtown, or be bored stiff. (Though I could see spending a few months conducting a sociological study of the community.)

Whydah treasure

Whydah treasure (credit: Wikipedia/Theodore Scott)

The Whydah Museum sits on the same wharf as the ferry to Boston. I gather Clifford wanted to set it up elsewhere (Boston and Tampa were floated as possible sites), and still plans to build a bigger and more permanent museum. So this museum is a small one. Still, you can spend a few hours in it, if you watch the video, read the material posted on the walls, and examine the exhibits with some care.

The exhibits and the information posted on the walls are structured as self-contained modules, which can be examined in any order. That probably makes the museum easier to visit when it is crowded; one can skip from one display to another and eventually cover the whole museum without losing the thread of the story. On the other hand, it means there really isn’t a single story line running through most of the exhibits. If you don’t know who Bellamy was or have any other context to understand the exhibits, then definitely watch the introductory video. Otherwise you’ll be seeing a lot of information that you won’t be able to pull together unless you have an eidetic memory.

On the positive side, nowhere else (with one exception, see below) can you see exhibits from an actual pirate wreck, whether silver coins, cannonballs, or even the ship’s bell. And one of the three “rooms” of exhibits covers Clifford’s most recent project, to salvage the remains of a pirate ship that went down near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. On the negative side, if you want to get a solid understanding of the Golden Age of Piracy, read a book instead. The information displays in the museum only cover some aspects of the subject, and doesn’t pull the pieces together.

The proof the wreck was the Whydah: its bell (credit: Wikipedia/jjsala)

The proof the wreck was the Whydah: its bell (credit: Wikipedia/jjsala)

Oh, the other place you can see exhibits from an actual pirate wreck? Some of the Whydah exhibits are on tour, including the famous ship’s bell. Catch it on tour, or wait until it returns, if you have your heart set on seeing the object that proved Clifford had found the Whydah.