Tag Archives: pirates

Now that it is over, a review of the television series Black Sails

Nassau harbor in Black Sails

Since I’m teaching my “Pirates!” course soon, it seemed time to go finish watching the fourth and last season of Black Sails, which only concluded its four year run in 2017. Black Sails pretends to tell the story of the pirates of Nassau in the Bahamas in the Golden Age of piracy, apparently taking place around 1715-20. “Pretends,” sadly, is the operative term, never more so than in the final season. While it has its points, and improves on how pirates have been depicted in movies and on television, it’s best watched as a rousing adventure story. And skip the ending. Please.

The plot of Black Sails revolves around two stories: the British attempt to reimpose their rule in the Bahamas and the pirates’ resistance to that; and the capture of a Spanish treasure galleon and the subsequent fate of the treasure in it. These are both sort of based in history. The British had indeed lost control of the Bahamas during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13), and sent out Woodes Rogers as governor to reassert their control in 1718. And there was a major Spanish treasure loose in the Caribbean, though it was from a treasure fleet wrecked during a storm off the coast of Florida. I’ve already written a bit about this in my post on “Calico” Jack Rackam, one of the pirates of the era.

Long John Silver in the midst of battle

Neither actual bit of history has the melodrama of plots and counterplots so common to soap operas that have made their way into many “historical” television series. So both bits were altered. The pirates organize against the return of British rule and recruit the maroon and slave communities to help them. The treasure takes on the attributes of the Wagnerian Rhine Gold, everyone wanting it, none ever benefiting from it. And a cast of characters is given conflicting motives and a sufficient number of improbable events to allow them to change sides with amazing rapidity.

I do appreciate that the pirates are a dirtier and less respectable group of people than Hollywood used to make them (e.g. 1935’s Captain Blood). And there are some nice moments in the series that reflect a real sense of history, whether it be careening a ship or the ruthless punishment of slaves to quell a revolt. On the other hand, New Providence feels less like the down-at-the-heels frontier community it was circa 1717, and more like a period theme park for middle class tourists, complete with a bordello that would have looked a bit too wealthy even for Charleston in this era.

Flint’s character does dominate the series

Oh, and did I mention that the fictional pirates of Treasure Island are shoehorned into this thing? This is supposed to be the story of Captain Flint and Long John Silver in the years when they sailed together, long before the events in Treasure Island. Easy to forget this, since it doesn’t matter for most of the series.

Over the run of the series, the plot becomes more focused on Captain Flint’s attempt to use the pirates, maroons, and slaves to overthrow colonial rule. The level of violence rises higher and higher. Major characters get killed. The story suggests that greed and the lust for power consume people in a never-ending struggle the violence of which will destroy them all. The viewer comes to expect Götterdämmerung at the end.

The big winner in the series is Max, former prostitute turned successful businesswoman

The viewer will be disappointed, inevitably so. The destruction of all the leading characters would diverge too far from history, and be a real downer for the audience of the series. The developers of the series were not courageous enough to either depart unmistakably from history or teach their audience an unhappy lesson. So we get contrived happy resolutions for all the surviving downtrodden characters we were supposed to sympathize with. At the end, the fictional version of real-life pirate captain Jack Rackam, depicted in the series as a remarkably weak cross between a bad auto salesman and a nervous publicist, waxes philosophical about how real history doesn’t matter, that the stories that get retold become history. Well, at least now we have the series developers’ philosophy.

Should you watch Black Sails? If you’re the type of person for whom movies and television help you visualize and understand a world much different from your own, this isn’t a bad starting place. But do go read a book afterward, preferably some edition of Capt. Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724, 1728), or David Cordingly’s nice introduction to the subject, Under the Black Flag (1996). If you want a rip-roaring adventure filled with violence, betrayals, and occasional sex and nudity, then, yes, this is a series to watch. Just don’t watch the final episode. Imagine a conclusion yourself. You can’t do much worse.

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Sorting through facts and legends of Samuel Bellamy, pirate

In 1984, “Black Sam” Bellamy became New England’s most famous pirate when Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of Bellamy’s ship Whydah off the coast of Cape Cod. Today, one can go to a museum and see some of the material salvaged from the wreck. But who was Bellamy, and what can his story tell us?

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

In brief, Samuel Bellamy was born in 1689, tried to salvage treasure from the wrecked Spanish treasure fleet of 1715, and when he had little success at that, turned pirate. In February, 1717, he captured the Whydah, a newly-built slave ship, while sailing in the Caribbean. Subsequently he headed up the coast. Late in the evening of April 26, 1717, the Whydah was caught in a thunderstorm and driven onto the reefs, where the ship broke up, with the loss of all but two hands. Bellamy himself perished, along with 143 crewmen.

As such, it’s not that interesting a story, and it’s not surprising that Capt. Charles Johnson didn’t get to it until the second volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1728. And he probably got his information from two newspaper accounts and a sermon printed in 1717.

However, Johnson wasn’t above embellishing the accounts to make a political point or two. Typically, Johnson embellished to establish the criminal nature of the pirates and how their sins contributed to their downfall. That explains his probably fictional account of Avery’s (Every’s) downfall. But sporadically through his work, Johnson had pirates speak out against the established social order and its injustices. He even invented a pirate captain named Misson to show what a utopia based on reason, justice, and mercy might look like.

Johnson wrote his account of Bellamy along the latter lines. Twice he related speeches in which he suggested that states are founded by force of arms and therefore have no more moral authority than any pirate! He had Bellamy declare at one point that “I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has one hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field . . .” What’s curious is that while Johnson probably made up one of the speeches out of whole cloth, the one I’ve quoted has a factual basis, as it was taken from the account of a ship captain robbed by Bellamy and his crew!

Stories of romances between outlaws and reputable women still pull in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Bellamy’s and Hallett’s romance still pulls in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Nor was Johnson the only person to embellish Bellamy’s life. There is a possibility that Bellamy was sailing by Cape Cod in order to rekindle a romance with a young woman, Mary Hallett, who lived on the Cape. According to legend, he had met and romanced Mary on a previous visit, and even promised marriage. Mary succumbed to his charms, he sailed off, and she found herself pregnant. She hid her pregnancy, but was exposed when her dead child was discovered. Depending on which version of the story you hear, either she went mad pining away for her missing love, she became a witch and caused the storm that wrecked him, or he escaped the wreck of the Whydah, and the two ran off to have a happy life together. All of which suggests that a legend has overtaken the facts. There was a young Mary Hallett living in Eastham in that era, but the rest is legend, and she died decades later, unmarried.

Strangely, Johnson had little to say about the wealth Bellamy’s crew discovered when they took the Whydah: “elephants’ teeth, gold dust, and other rich merchandise.” Later historians added “sugar, indigo [used for dying] and Jesuit’s bark [used in the treatment of malaria].” The money on board was reported to run to £20,000, or £30,000, portioned out in 50-pound bags. If true, then the Whydah had 4.5 tons of gold and silver money on board. By some estimates, that would make Bellamy and his crew the richest pirates in history.

Whydah treasure

Whydah treasure

The (Pseudo-)Shakespearean Tragedy of Edward England

It’s hard to have sympathy for pirates. Oh, they’re cool in movies, but they’re really ship-based thieves. And yet, there is one pirate described by Capt. Charles Johnson in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724) who might qualify as a tragic hero of even Shakespearean quality: Captain Edward England. So here read,

The Noble Tragedy of Edward England, Pirate Captain

pirate_englandACT I

We meet our tragic hero living in the pirate haven of New Providence in 1718. Capt. Woodes Rogers is soon to arrive with the King’s Pardon for those pirates who will take it. At a great assembly of pirates, Capt. Benjamin Hornigold speaks in favor of the pardon, while Capt. Charles Vane speaks against it. The pirates cannot agree, and so the meeting breaks up.

Charles Vane

Charles Vane

Vane finds he has lost many men who hope for the pardon, so he goes out recruiting new men for the several ships he commands. In a tavern he finds Edward England. Vane and England are old friends; England served as quartermaster aboard Vane’s ship on its last cruise. Vane offers England the captaincy of one of Vane’s ships.

England had been leaning in favor of the pardon, as he wants peace and happiness now. But the lure of command of his own ship and Vane’s friendly persuasions, together with a bit too much drink, get the better of him. England agrees to Vane’s proposition. They depart from the tavern, arm in arm, but not before England stumbles on the threshold.

ACT II

We see England on the deck, pleased with his new pirate ship. A call from above tells him a sail’s been sighted. Within moments, the pirates catch up to the other ship and force it to surrender.

Captain Skinner, the commander of the other vessel, comes on board, a prisoner lightly guarded. England begins explaining to Skinner that his pirates will seize whatever cargo they like, but if no resistance is offered, no harm will come to him or his crew.

England's flag

England’s flag

However, he is interrupted when a sailor comes up, sees Skinner, and begins cursing him. He says he served under Skinner, and that Skinner is a brute and a cheat. With one mind, England’s crew descends on Skinner, beating him savagely until one pirate pulls out a pistol and shoots Skinner dead. The crew exit the stage, leaving Skinner, dead, on the deck.

England has been standing by all this time, horrified. He kneels down and shakes Skinner’s body in the forlorn hope that Skinner is still alive. England realizes that he runs a ship of cruel men, and that he will survive only so long as he equals them in cruelty. The realization troubles him so much that he goes down to his cabin to get drunk. His second-in-command, John Taylor, watches him go. Taylor wants to be captain, and he now begins to see how he might engineer England’s downfall.

ACT III

England is on deck as before, but the deck is a shambles from a vicious fight with a merchantman, blood everywhere. The crew is drunk and disorderly, having pillaged the merchantman of all its booze. England himself is drunk, disgusted with himself.

Some crew members of the pirate ship bring the captain of the merchantman, Macrae, aboard. The pirates are vexed with Macrae, because he caused many casualties among them before surrendering. They verbally abuse him, and suggest ways he can be tortured. England flinches at the notion. Taylor, his second-in-command, sees his chance, and demands that Macrae be tortured right then and there. England pleads with his crew not to do it, but he can tell he is losing and in danger of being overthrown as captain.

Abruptly, a whiskered pirate, Peg-Leg, comes up on deck. He swears in bloody language that he will see Macrae or else. England feels he can’t oppose Peg-Leg, and Taylor thinks Peg-Leg will strike Macrae, so he doesn’t interfere, either. Macrae thinks he is about to die, and prays under his breath.

Peg-Leg sees Macrae, rushes up to him, throws his arms around him, and says he is damned happy to see him. To the astonishment of everyone, Peg-Leg proceeds to praise Macrae in glowing terms as one of the best captains, and best men, ever to sail the seas. And he finishes by saying that anyone who wants to harm Macrae will have to go through him first.

England is ashamed that it is one of his crew standing up for Macrae. He tosses his bottle over the side of the ship, and swears to himself that he will be captain of this ship and he will save Macrae.

ACT IV

Taylor still wants to use Macrae as a weapon to overthrow England. He talks up all the harm Macrae’s fight caused the pirate crew, plying them with drink, getting them riled up so they’ll take on Peg-Leg, then depose England, then kill Macrae.

Peg-Leg, seeing which way the wind is blowing, goes down to England’s cabin where England and Macrae are having a friendly talk. Peg-Leg wants to arm the three of them and go down fighting.

England tells him, no, that he is the captain, and he will solve this problem himself. He tells Peg-Leg to help Macrae get ready to escape in the ship’s longboat.

Not sure quite what he is going to do, England spies on his crew. He sees them drinking and arguing, and decides to use their weaknesses against them, just as Taylor was hoping to use England’s weakness against him. England joins the crew and encourages them to talk and argue and swear, all the time plying them with drink. Eventually, they all get so drunk they fall asleep.

England returns to the cabin and assists Peg-Leg in helping get Macrae away on the longboat.

When the pirates wake up, Macrae is gone. England lies and blames the crew for losing their fun by getting too drunk. They sullenly go back to work, but resentments linger. Taylor openly tells England that England has betrayed the crew, and that a day of reckoning is coming.

ACT V

Back on the deck again, England is still in command, but barely, a sullen Taylor beside him. They have just taken another prize at sea and the crew brings the captain, John Tawke, on board. Under England’s and Taylor’s questioning, Tawke reveals that Macrae escaped to India, where the British East India Company gave him a ship to hunt the very pirates who had once captured him. There is a general uproar on the ship, Taylor calls for England to be overthrown, and in the tumult gets elected captain. He orders England imprisoned in the brig.

The next day, Taylor has England brought up from the brig. England looks a bit bedraggled. Taylor informs him that they are going to maroon him on the island, along with three crew members loyal to him, one of them Peg-Leg. Upon hearing this, England stands tall, in a loud voice proclaims that he alone bears the responsibility for helping Macrae to escape, that he’d do it again, and that he takes pride in their marooning him.

A beach on Mauritius (Credit: Wikipedia/Romeodesign)

A beach on Mauritius
(Credit: Wikipedia/Romeodesign)

Now on the island, England helps Peg-Leg and the other sailors build a boat to escape. They have few supplies, so England only pretends to eat and returns his food to the common stores.

By the day the boat is ready to launch, England is clearly weak and dying. He orders Peg-Leg and the other sailors to sail without him, saying that he regrets having been a pirate captain and wishes to end his life in peace. Peg-Leg refuses to leave, saying England should not die alone. The last we see are of Peg-Leg holding England as he breathes his last.

Finis

How much of this is true? In outline, all of it. I’ve taken considerable license, dramatically compressing England’s career and fleshing out his character. He was indeed once quartermaster to Vane and rejected the 1718 pardon. Skinner and Macrae are real, as is Peg-Leg, though the latter has no name in Johnson’s book. England did get Taylor drunk to spirit off Macrae. Subsequently, Taylor did overthrow England and maroon him on Mauritius. On the other hand, Macrae wasn’t commissioned to hunt down England, though the pirates were told he was. And England actually did escape with the others to Madagascar, though he died not long after.

England does indeed seem to have been something of a gentleman. I’ll leave you with Capt. Johnson’s description of his character:

England was one of these men, who had a great deal of good nature, and did not want for courage; he was not avaricious, and always averse to the ill usage prisoners received. He would have been contented with moderate plunder, and less mischievous pranks, could his companions have been brought to the same temper, but he was generally overruled, and as he was engaged in that abominable society, he was obliged to be a partner in all their vile actions.

Let’s go live the glamorous life as pirates!

At least one feminist historian argued Black Bart was a woman because of his taste and style

At least one feminist historian argued Black Bart was a woman because of his taste and style

In his A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), Capt. Charles Johnson, whoever he is, quotes “Black Bart” Roberts as saying that pirates have “Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power . . . ‘a merry life and a short one,’ shall be my motto.” Sounds great! Let’s go a-pirating!

Not so fast. First, you have to get a ship. Now, Henry Every started off with an actual warship, but they aren’t just lying around everywhere. Captain Worley set off from New York harbor in September of 1718 with eight companions in an open boat, carrying “a few Biscuits, and a dry’d Tongue or two, a little Cag of Water, [and] half a dozen old Musquets and Ammunition accordingly.” Hardly a Caribbean cruise ship! Although it’s been done in the same style in the Caribbean: Ned Lowe began with 12 men in a boat, and in 1722 John Evans began with a canoe and “three or four” companions on the coast of Jamaica.

How unfortunate was Major Stede Bonnet? This unfortunate!

How unfortunate was Major Stede Bonnet? This unfortunate!

But just think of the riches you’ll enjoy! Again, Every and his crew came away from seizing the Ganj-i-sawai with enough wealth to retire to Madagascar, the Bahamas, Pennsylvania, or England. Making the big score was the dream, one which the crews of the other ships Every cheated did not get to share in. And neither did most pirate crews. There just weren’t that many poorly defended ships with treasure sailing about. You were more likely to encounter coastal sailing ships carrying provisions, as the unfortunate Major Stede Bonnet did in his cruise off the Virginia coast in July, 1718.

Woe betide the pirate captain who failed to find enough treasure for his crew! At best, they were likely to lose crew members who took one of the prizes and sailed off in the night, as happened to Bonnet, and which happened multiple times to Black Bart. Worse, your crew might depose you or, if they were really unhappy with your performance, kill you. Capt. Thomas Anstis was shot in 1723 by some of his crew members while lying in his hammock, ending his career with his life. In the same year, Captain Lowther saved his crew the trouble: he shot himself after losing his ship while it was being careened.

But think of the plentiful supplies you’ll have, the clothes you’ll wear, the food you’ll eat! Pirates did love looting ships for fancy clothes. That’s because sea water ruined all but the sturdiest of their clothes, so they had to be replaced frequently. And no horror was worse for pirates than to run short of food and water. Why it was even worse than running short of liquor! Yet it happened far too often, for pirate crews were not careful to budget their supplies, always figuring they could steal more from the next ship they seized.

Sometimes there was no next ship when they needed one. This happened at least twice to Black Bart Roberts in 1720, in both cases because his voyage turned out to be much longer than expected. The second occasion was the more dreadful. Roberts had been sailing to Africa, but thanks to poor navigation got caught in trade winds that forced him to turn back to the Caribbean. He had 700 leagues (2400 miles) to sail with only one hogshead (maybe 60 gallons) of water for a crew of 124! As Johnson describes it,

They continued their Course, and came to an Allowance of one single Mouthful of Water for 24 Hours; many of them drank their Urine, or Sea Water, which instead of allaying, gave them an inextinguishable thirst, that killed them: Others pined and wasted a little more Time in Fluxes and Apyrexies, so that  they dropped away daily: Those that sustain’d the Misery best, were such as almost starved themselves, forbearing all Sorts of Food, unless a Mouthful or two of Bread the whole Day, so that those who survived were as weak as possible for Men to be, and alive.

The pirates managed to make the coast of South America, where they obtained water from a river mouth at the coast, and soon seized provisions from a passing ship. But this no doubt explained why some of Roberts’s crew left him in another ship the next time he sailed for Africa!

Captain Maynard hung Blackbeard's head from the bowsprit of his ship

Captain Maynard hung Blackbeard’s head from the bowsprit of his ship

It could be a miserable life, and worse yet, a short one, as Roberts admitted. He did well enough, but didn’t last three years (1719-22) as a pirate. Others had an even briefer run. Blackbeard was a pirate captain for only two years (1717-18). Howel Davis, actually one of the more clever pirates, was a captain but one single year before he was killed in an ambush in 1719. Johnson describes a Captain Worley (mentioned above) whose entire career ran from September, 1718 to February 17, 1719. And no doubt there were many pirates whose careers were even shorter and escaped Capt. Johnson’s attention!

Walking the cinematic plank: Cutthroat Island

Cutthroat_island_ver2There are some pirate movies that reworked the image of piracy successfully, such as Treasure Island (1950), Peter Pan (in several versions and adaptations) and most recently Pirates of the Caribbean (2003 – present). And then there are bad pirate flicks. While there have always been bad pirate flicks, such as Double Crossbones (1951), for about forty years, 1960 – 2000, that seemed to be all Hollywood could make. I recently tracked down and watched one of these forgotten “gems,” 1995’s Cutthroat Island, to see if I could figure out just why Hollywood couldn’t get it right for so long.

Cutthroat Island has it all, apparently: great sets, fast-paced action, a naval engagement, a treasure, a love interest, backstabbing, family disputes, a monkey, and the ritualized rape and murder of thousands of innocent civilians. Just kidding about that last one. This is a PG-13 movie, which means they can only hint at sex, and while extensive violence is allowed, it has to be relatively bloodless.

But they ARE great action scenes!

But they ARE great action scenes!

Bloodless. or maybe bodiless: that’s a major problem with this film. The movie spends so much time on its action scenes, from tavern fights to ship flights, that the characters get little change to develop. Everything looks so clean and antiseptic most of the time, even cleaner than the Disney-produced Pirates of the Caribbean films. And although Geena Davis could play a hot gal or a determined woman, in this film she always looks like someone’s suburban mother . . . even when she’s supposed to be playing a hot gal or a determined pirate captain.

This could have been hot

This could have been hot

Cutthroat Island apparently was trying to mix serious spectacle with self-parodying humor. This can be a successful formula: Against All Flags and The Crimson Pirate both did it in the 1950s, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films at their best do likewise. But the poorly developed characters undermine both aspects of this film. It’s significant that the single funniest joke in the film is Geena David cracking a double entendre at the beginning, so unexpected given her motherly appearance; while Matthew Modine’s character has his most amusing scenes when he first appears and has a chance to strut his stuff, before he gets sucked into the main plot and all character development is sacrificed.

History? Perish the thought! Apart from being set at Port Royal during the heyday of the buccaneers, history has no role in this film. And the film doesn’t even take advantage of that! Here we have Geena Davis playing a female pirate captain when there was no such thing in the Caribbean, and yet most of the time it passes unnoticed and unremarked.

What we’re left with is a film that’s probably best suited for kids immediately on either side of puberty. 8-year-olds will enjoy the action scenes while the sexual references pass over their heads. While 14-year-olds would snicker at the sexual references.

Cutthroat Island bombed at the box office in 1995, and almost killed Geena Davis’s career. Partly that was due to the film itself, partly to its troubled production and distribution history. Hollywood took it as evidence that pirate films wouldn’t work as mainstream films, as they did with Roman Polanski’s Pirates a decade earlier. Instead, they should have realized that they needed stronger characters and either better humor (the route Pirates of the Caribbean took) or grittier stories (which is where the first season of Black Sails went).

Getting rid of a pirate captain in the Golden Age of Piracy

The pirate crew thinks their captain has screwed up. So how do they get rid of him?

The "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies departed even further from the truth by making the black spot a supernatural thing

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies departed even further from the truth by making the black spot a supernatural thing

Well, if you read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, they slip him the black spot, a piece of paper marked black on one side, and the crew’s decision on the other. Late in the novel, the pirates want to depose Long John Silver as captain, but they’re a little short of paper. So they cut out a round spot from the last page of a Bible one of the pirates carries!

It’s a great story, but there’s no truth to it. Stevenson probably made it up himself.

Which raises the question of just how did a pirate crew in the Golden Age of Piracy deal with an unsatisfactory captain. Oh, Stevenson has the right of it in one respect. There really was a commonly understood procedure to deal with complaints about the captain. Which is not to say it was always followed.

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Let’s follow one instance where it was done right. Charles Vane was one of the red hots among the pirates who wouldn’t accept the King’s Pardon in August, 1718. He recruited a crew of other red hots who didn’t want to give up piracy, gathered them in his ship, the Ranger, and sailed out of New Providence harbor. Oh, and he used a fireship to try to burn up the Royal Navy ships in the harbor as he left. He failed, but what brass! Clearly Vane was a daring pirate captain.

Vane knew that the best way to keep his crew happy was to take as many prizes as possible. That way they’d have enough food and drink. And if they got lucky, they might capture a ship with a lot of gold and silver on board. They did well enough for a while. But then Vane lost a prize when the pirates crewing it went off on their own, and spent a month heading south without taking a single ship. The crew grumbled.

Someone really ought to do a movie about Roberts' last fight

Someone really ought to do a movie about Roberts’ last fight

On November 23, Vane saw a ship, pursued it, and ran up the pirate colors. Instead of surrendering, the other vessel raised the French colors and let loose a broadside. It was a French Navy ship! Vane decided the best course was to get away, as fast as he possibly could. It was probably the right decision. It was suicidal for pirates to engage a navy ship most of the time. The navy’s professionalism and strict discipline usually gave them an edge, even against pirate ships mounting more guns. This was so well understood that when “Black Bart” Roberts, one of the most successful pirates of that era, found himself trapped and forced to fight a Royal Navy ship, he tried his best to run past it in a storm. And even then, he thought it so likely he’d be defeated that he gave orders to try to run the ship aground to let the crew escape should they not evade the warship.

The Navy ship Vane confronted actually outgunned his ship. So Vane was very wise to turn heels and run rather than engage the ship. But for some reason the crew didn’t see it that way. Maybe they’d seized so little loot they were desperate. Maybe they were drunk and foolhardy. But they wanted to fight that Navy ship, and they loudly told Vane as much. However, it was a rule that in times of combat or chase, a pirate captain’s authority was absolute. Vane invoked that rule, and the pirates had no choice but to comply, then.

A pirate captain’s authority counted for nothing once the ship was not in a combat situation. Instead, the quartermaster became the most powerful officer. Originally the officer responsible for keeping track of supplies and sharing out the loot, the quartermaster had become a sort of crew’s tribune, responsible for presenting the crew’s concerns to the captain. On board the Ranger, the quartermaster was “Calico Jack” Rackam. Rackam called the crew and captain together the very next day, explained that the crew was dissatisfied with Vane’s performance, and called for a vote to label Vane a coward and depose him. The majority so voted, and Vane was deposed. And that was that.

Well, except for the question of who would be the next captain. The most obvious choice was the other major officer, the quartermaster. And that’s how Calico Jack Rackam became captain of the Ranger.

And there was the little problem of what to do with Vane. Pirates might often be drunk and illiterate, but they weren’t incredibly stupid. They realized that a man might not enjoy losing his position as captain, and might intrigue with his loyal followers to retake command. So the usual procedure was to get rid of the captain somehow. In Vane’s case, they had a prize, a small sloop, accompanying the Ranger. They gave the sloop to Vane and the handful of crewmen who were loyal to him, and the two pirate ships went their separate ways.

Weird fact: One of the "forced" men who overthrew Phillips was President Millard Fillmore's great-grandfather!

Weird fact: One of the “forced” men who overthrew Phillips was President Millard Fillmore’s great-grandfather!

That was the right way to do things. Even so, Vane was relatively lucky. Sometimes ex-captains were put off in a small boat, as Henry Every did to the legitimate captain of the vessel he seized to turn pirate back in 1694. Or he might be marooned on a small island, as Edward England was after he was deposed for being too kind to a merchant captain in 1720. Or, worse yet, he could be killed, as John Phillips was in 1724. Although perhaps the last example is unfair: Phillips was killed when the “forced” men (men who had been forced to join the pirates from legitimate ships) rose up and took over the vessel to end their piratical career. Hardly a voting situation!

Vane’s fate points to another way pirates broke with their captain, or sometimes vice versa. Pirates would sometimes keep ships they had taken, and split their numbers across two or more ships. Usually each ship would have its own captain, but the senior captain would have authority over all of them. Black Bart Roberts styled himself as “Admiral” and had as many as four ships under his command at one time. In practice, this was a recipe for dissension. It was natural for the overall commander to favor his own ship, and the captains of the other ships were often tempted to sneak away during the night or during a storm to strike out on their own. It happened at least twice to Roberts. Indeed, it was after Walter Kennedy made off with a ship in 1719 that Roberts drew up his articles which expressly forbade desertion.

There were many variations of the Jolly Roger; here is Walter Kennedy's

There were many variations of the Jolly Roger; here is Walter Kennedy’s

At least once, the trick was turned the other way. Blackbeard commanded a fleet of four ships in 1718, and they had accumulated a nice amount of loot. Blackbeard decided to cut most of his pirates out of their share. So he ran his two largest ships aground as if by accident. He sent off one of the other captains, Stede Bonnet, on pretext of securing a pardon, transferred all the loot into the smaller of his two remaining vessels, stripped the other one of its ship stores, and then sailed off with his favorite crew, leaving over 200 pirates stranded behind. So much for pirate honor!

They left Kidd's body to hang as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

They left Kidd’s body to hang as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

Then of course there were the other ways to end a captain’s rule. He could drown in a shipwreck, as Samuel Bellamy did off Cape Cod in 1717. Or he could die in combat when his ship was attacked, as happened to Blackbeard in 1718 or Roberts in 1722. Or he could be hanged after he has been captured and brought to trial, as happened with Captain Kidd in 1700, and both Vane and Rackam in 1720.

Pirate codes of conduct from the Golden Age (1721-24)

It seems odd for pirates to have rules. After all, are they not the lawless ones, the enemies to all nations? Yet pirates need to keep order among themselves, if they are to cooperate successfully in the taking and plundering of other ships, as well as managing their own ships.

In the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" film, Keith Richards gets to play the keeper of the pirate code

In the third “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, Keith Richards gets to play the keeper of the pirate code

The pirates of the “Golden Age of Piracy” (roughly 1713 – 1730) took as their model the articles apprentices signed when they joined a profession. It is these articles that describe the pirates’ codes of conducts. We have at least four examples of pirate articles adopted by crews during the Golden Age, specifically between 1721 and 1724: those of Capt. “Black Bart” Roberts and Capt. John Phillips, who at one point sailed with Roberts, and those of Capt. George Lowther and Capt. Ned Low, who at one time sailed with Lowther. (Wikipedia gives the text of all four, plus that of Capt. John Gow, which I’ve excluded because it’s not clear whether his crew ever actually sailed under them.) Their many commonalities reflect not just a common pirate culture, but a recognition of the need for certain rules on any pirate ship.

Maybe his lesser share as captain explains why John Phillips once forced a man to drink at gunpoint

Maybe his lesser share as captain explains why John Phillips once forced a man to drink at gunpoint

The highest priority in the pirate articles was the equality of the crew members. Every code stated that crew members equally share in the plunder. Roberts’ code, the most elaborate, also called for equality in voting, provisioning, and joining boarding parties. The captain, quartermaster, and a few other officers got somewhat larger shares (typically two for the captain, though Capt. Phillips had to make do with only a share-and-a-half), but that’s about the only exception to equality on pirate ships. This put them in marked contrast to merchant vessels and navy ships, in which authority and pay were structured very hierarchically. It’s no wonder sailors sometimes chose to join a pirate vessel that attacked them. Pirate ships offered sailors more authority over their own lives, as well as a chance at more money, so long as you didn’t also mind the risk of being hanged.

Next in the articles came discipline. Pirates by their nature had to be ready and willing to engage in combat whenever they came upon a potential prize. Roberts and Phillips made this explicit in their codes: weapons were to be kept in a state of readiness at all times. Perhaps even more importantly, cowardice and desertion were forbidden according to all four of the codes. The most typical punishment for those crimes: death by being marooned.

Marooned (1909) by Howard Pyle (1853 - 1911)

Marooned (1909) by Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911)

Marooning was a simple and devilish punishment. The idea was to strand the offending pirate on a small island that lacked food, shelter, or fresh water. Preferably the island should be far away from the shipping lanes, such that the chance of rescue was unlikely. The marooned sailor was sometimes given a bottle of water or rum. But he was always given a pistol, and enough powder and shot to blow his own brains out. So the marooned sailor had two choices: die quickly from a bullet to the head, or die slowly from starvation and dehydration while hoping that maybe a ship might come by and rescue him.

Most marooned pirates probably died. Without witnesses, their ultimate fate was lost to history. But some survived. Captain Edward England was marooned by his crew over a dispute on the treatment of captives, was left on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean in 1720, along with three pirates who had taken his side in the dispute. They managed to escape to Madagascar.

Said to be Captain Lowther

Said to be Captain Lowther

Capt. Lowther, whose articles are among those we are examining, was marooned, so to speak, not as a punishment, but due to misadventure. He had taken his ship to a small island to be careened, that is, to be rolled on its side on a beach to scrape off marine growths and repair the hull.  Unfortunately for Lowther, an armed merchant vessel spied the pirates and attacked them, damaging the ship and taking much of the crew prisoner. Caught on a small island with no hope of rescue, Lowther is said to have shot himself in the head.

But piracy wasn’t all hard rules and tragic endings. Three of the codes contained incentives for good performance at helping find loot, such as sighting a prize or being part of the boarding party. (And probably the fourth vessel offered the same rewards, but just didn’t put them in their code.) And should you be injured in combat, all four codes offered you compensation according to the severity of your injuries. Lose a leg? Three out of the four sets of articles would pay you 800 Spanish dollars; Ned Low’s crew cheaped out and would only pay you 600. However, if you ever felt a little envious of some legless crew member for getting cash up front, and tried to take treasure for yourself instead of turning it over to the common treasury, you were violating the equality of sharing, and that would get you marooned.

Howard Pyle did a LOT of pictures about pirates, as well as writing about them

Howard Pyle did a LOT of pictures about pirates, as well as writing about them

Piracy was a violent life, no doubt, and the captains and crews knew it. So they set rules to keep from destroying themselves. Quarreling on board was absolutely prohibited, and was punished at the crew’s discretion. Roberts’ code contains what was probably the “safety valve” for this rule: if you wanted to fight, you had to take it ashore.

More curious to the modern eye, but just as essential, was the rule common to all four codes against gaming on board. Why? Think about it. The premise of piracy is that all will share and share alike. But if gaming is allowed, some will leave the ship much the richer, while others will have little to show for their efforts. Gaming would breed dissention and internal conflicts among the crew. It would increase dissatisfaction among those that no longer were making a profit from the voyage. So it was bad for the unity of the crew, for the happiness of the crew, and for the success of the voyage. This rule was so old it can be traced back to buccaneers like Henry Morgan. For much the same reason, Roberts’ rules include one that the crew will not break up until everyone makes a fortune of £1000. With the threat of death by execution hanging over them, pirate ships needed committed crews.

Only Roberts’ and his one-time crew member Phillips’ rules say anything about keeping women off the ship, or prohibiting pirates from molesting “prudent” women. I suspect this is yet another attempt to maintain discipline and keep the crew from internal conflicts. It was unlikely that a pirate ship would encounter sufficient women at sea to keep their entire crew happy. Best that everyone go without until the next time the ship visits a port. Not all crews felt that way; Low’s gang-raped and tortured at least one woman. But then Low was a psychopath, and probably inspired his crew to such deeds.

Sorry, JSB, yours is not a sick beat as far as pirates are concerned

Sorry, JSB, yours is not a sick beat as far as pirates are concerned

No women, no gambling: life on a pirate ship could get pretty dull. What to do for a diversion? Why, music, of course. Pirates loved music. I doubt they were great fans of Johann Sebastian Bach; they probably liked country airs and other old traditional songs. So when they took prizes, if they found any musicians aboard, they often “forced” them to join the pirate crew. But the pirates were not without some humanity. Roberts’ code contains a provision that the musicians are guaranteed Sunday as a day of rest. But they couldn’t refuse to perform any other day!

And that’s symbolic of these pirate articles in general: a mix of concern for the free and equal members of the crew, combined with the need for iron discipline among a society of violent men. Because that’s what these pirates were: an egalitarian society of criminals.