Tag Archives: pirates

The career of Calico Jack Rackam, the pirate with two women pirates on his ship

Having already posted about the two famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, it’s time to look at their pirate captain, “Calico Jack” Rackam. In many ways, he’s typical of pirates in the Golden Age of Caribbean piracy, roughly 1713-1730.

The guy with the overextended lower jaw is Carlos II of Spain, whose inability to father children and death began the War of the Spanish Succession

The guy with the overextended lower jaw is Carlos II of Spain, whose inability to father an heir began the War of the Spanish Succession

As with most pirates, we know very little about the early life of Jack Rackam. He was probably English, and I’d guess at a birthdate around 1690. Best guess, based on his subsequent career, is that he had been at sea, possibly as a privateer, in the years before the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ended the War of the Spanish Succession. The end of the war ended large-scale privateering, for the European powers were at peace. They even reduced the size of their navies. Hence there were a lot of unemployed sailors milling around the Caribbean, just looking for decent employment. And if they had been privateers, they wouldn’t have been too averse to engaging in a little violence to make some money, and a lot more violence if a substantial amount of treasure was involved.

Well, lucky for them, a Spanish treasure fleet sank in shallow waters off the coast of Florida on June 30, 1715. All that lovely silver, just waiting for someone to salvage it. In November, 1715, the governor of Jamaica dispatched Captain Henry Jennings to go to Florida and dredge up some of the silver. Jennings arrived at the site of the shipwrecks, only to find that the Spanish government had already sent a salvage crew, which had been working on the wrecks for months.

There was gold in that treasure fleet, too! (Credit: Wikipedia/Augi Garcia)

There was gold in that treasure fleet, too!
(Credit: Wikipedia/Augi Garcia)

At this point, Jennings, shall we say, exceeded his orders. Instead of just leaving, which would have been the proper course, or competing with the Spanish in salvaging the wrecks, which would have been in accordance with his orders if illegal, he attacked and plundered the Spanish camp. Why waste time diving for treasure, when you can just kill some soldiers and take it? He came away with 60,000 pieces of eight. And then he went back again in January, 1716, attacked the Spanish again, and this time picked up 120,000 pieces of eight.

But Jennings’s success came at a price. The Spanish complained to the British, and the British government disavowed Jennings, making him a pirate.

Jennings needed someplace to go, someplace where he and his crew could spend their new wealth, trade for new ship supplies, and use as a base for further plundering. Naturally, the Spanish and British colonies were closed against him, and the French and Dutch didn’t want him either. Legitimate commerce was now more important than piracy to the European powers. What Jennings needed was an island not ruled by any of the colonial powers, a place that would welcome pirates.

As it turned out, there was such a place: New Providence in the Bahamas. Officially, the Bahamas were ruled by the British. But the Spanish had raided the islands during the late war, destroying British authority there. And in November, 1715, a pirate named Benjamin Hornigold sailed into the harbor, occupied the old fort, and established control of the island.

The women look right elegant in Black Sails' version of New Providence

The women look right elegant in Black Sails’ version of New Providence

Recent popular television series, such as Black Sails and Crossbones, have made New Providence into a tropical paradise, a prosperous pirate republic in which wealthy pirates can live in sumptuous mansions, while lesser criminals can patronize elegant whorehouses that would do credit to New Orleans circa 1900. The truth was a lot less elegant. New Providence had been a small, almost ruined settlement when Hornigold arrived, and the influx of pirates and traders meant an awful lot of tents and ramshackle structures had to be put up in a hurry. The place more resembled a goldmining camp than a resort town.

Jennings took up residence in this lawless bustling trading port. One of his subordinates was a man named Charles Vane. And probably by this time, one of Vane’s crew was Calico Jack.

New Providence became a pirate’s haven, and perhaps even a pirate’s heaven, for two years. No doubt Jennings, Vane, and Rackam enjoyed their time there. And then in December, 1717 the news came that Britain was going to reestablish control of the island. A former privateer named Woodes Rogers was going to be the new governor. He would come with ships and guns. And he would also come with a royal pardon. Any pirate that foreswore his lawless ways would be forgiven his former crimes. Any pirate that did not, or any pirate who did and then broke his word, would be hunted down and executed.

So the pirates debated among themselves whether to accept the pardon or not. Jennings probably hadn’t wanted to be a pirate, so he was all for the pardon. So was Hornigold. And so, it turned out, were a majority of the pirates on New Providence. But not all.

On Black Sails, Vane is a violent man, Rackam a sort of 18th c. pirate PR man, and Bonny is a psycho-killer

On Black Sails, Vane is a violent man, Rackam a sort of 18th c. pirate PR man, and Bonny is a psycho-killer

Charles Vane was one of the die-hards. He recruited a crew of other pirates, including Calico Jack, who wanted to continue on as pirates. And in one of those acts of bravado that endeared pirates to the public imagination, Vane waited until after Rogers arrived on July 26, 1718 to take his leave, in spectacular fashion. He filled a captured French ship with combustible materials, set it on fire, and sent it toward the British warships in the harbor. It failed to destroy the warships, but it caused a lot of havoc, especially when its loaded cannons blew up. And in the confusion, Vane escaped in his ship Ranger.

Vane was captain, while Calico Jack was on board the Ranger as quartermaster. These titles don’t quite mean what they do today. As captain, Vane’s authority was absolute in combat situations, and officially nonexistent otherwise. The quartermaster managed the ship’s supplies and treasury, making sure everyone got their fair share, and represented the crew to the captain. While technically subordinate to the captain, in a lot of ways the quartermaster was even more powerful. However, both officers could be voted out of office by the crew.

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

If it wasn’t clear enough, Vane proved himself a pirate by seizing a sloop from the British island of Barbados two days later. And so he became a marked man, the pirate who had openly defied Woodes Rogers and the British Navy. A useful reputation for terrifying merchant ships into surrendering without a fight, but a bad one if he were to be caught.

And with New Providence lost to the pirates, Vane and his crew had to live on what they captured. Trade goods were useless to them, until they found a new friendly port. No, what they needed were supplies: food, clothing, ship stores, medicine. Most ships only carried enough gold and silver coin for trading purposes, and while it was nice to seize, it wouldn’t make the pirates rich.

They did well enough for a while. But tension arose between the crew of the Ranger and the Barbadian sloop they had seized and manned. The pirates on the sloop felt they were getting short-changed, and resolved to go off on their own. Vane naturally took this as an insult, and chased the sloop until it took refuge in shallow waters along the South Carolina coast. The sloop’s crew then appealed for a pardon to the authorities, who granted it. At a stroke, Vane was deprived of a significant part of his strength.

That was always the danger with pirate crews. They were democratic in the most basic sense: you couldn’t do anything without a majority of the crew on the ship backing you up. And that made pirate fleets rare, for each ship’s captain was jealous of his authority and could survive only with the backing of his crew.

Blackbeard's flag: he wanted you to know he could kill you

Blackbeard’s flag: he wanted you to know he could kill you

You’d think Vane would have learned from the sloop’s defection. And if not from that, well, from his get-together with the pirate Blackbeard. The two captains met up in September, 1718, and spent some time in a continual drunken party. It was a great party, but the two captains made no common cause. Blackbeard had an under-the-table arrangement with the governor of North Carolina, and stayed, while Vane sailed north to Long Island.

And then Vane’s downfall began. He challenged what he thought was an armed merchant ship. Instead, it turned out to belong to the French royal navy, and made it clear it was quite willing to fight it out with Vane. Mindful that the French warship outgunned him, Vane decided to run for it. He had absolute authority as captain to make that decision. But the moment they escaped the French, Rackam as quartermaster called for a vote to depose Vane on the grounds he was a coward, and it carried. Rackam became the new captain of the pirate crew on November 24, 1718.

Vane and the minority of the crew who stuck with him were given a small sloop, which they sailed into the Caribbean. After one misadventure after another, Vane first lost his ship and then was taken prisoner by an honest ship captain who recognized him and transported him to Jamaica, where he was thrown into prison for a year. He was tried in Jamaica on March 22, 1721, found guilty of piracy, and hanged a week later.

Rackam as depicted by contemporaries

Rackam as depicted by contemporaries

Rackam was now captain of a pirate ship. In his General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), Capt. Charles Johnson offers an account of what Rackam did next, and also accounts of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. They’re colorful accounts. But stripped of the more romantic details, what they really amount to is that Rackam and his fellow pirates survived. They escaped capture. They took several prizes. But none of the prizes made them rich.

Maybe that’s the reason Rackam petitioned for the King’s Pardon and was accepted in May of 1719, and so ceased to be a pirate. But that probably wasn’t his only reason. For war had broken out again between Britain and Spain in December, 1718, and the British government decided it was desperate enough for sailors to pardon some more pirates so they could serve as privateers. Kind of short-sighted of the British government, since the war was wrapped up with a peace treaty in February, 1720.

So let’s give Rackam some points for being clever. It was not the first time. Taking the ship away from Vane was probably the first. And Johnson mentions an episode where Rackam’s ship got trapped behind an island by a Spanish coast guard ship which was accompanied by a prize sloop the coast guard had taken earlier. Rackam waited until nightfall, loaded his crew into a boat, quietly rowed it over to the prize, boarded and seized it, and then used it to escape.

But Rackam’s cleverness had limits. With the coming of peace, Rackam was out of a job as a privateer (assuming he had become one). So he fell back on his old trade, and by August, 1720, he was back at sea as a pirate. Given his past track record, this wasn’t a wise move; worse, it certainly meant he’d never get another chance at a pardon. Still, he had Anne Bonny as his mistress with him. And Mary Read was with him, though they were not lovers. Sadly, the one thing that wasn’t with him was luck. His men took only a few small boats before being pursued and captured by an armed merchant vessel sent out to hunt for them. They were brought to trial in Jamaica on November 16, 1720. Rackam, along with most of the crew, was found guilty and condemned to death. Probably the death sentence hurt him less than being scorned as a coward by Anne Bonny while he awaited execution, which occurred the next day.

Apart from his association with Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Rackam’s career was too typical of pirates in his time. They were privateers when they could be and pirates when they could not. Their prizes could keep them fed, clothed, and drunk, but gave them neither wealth nor safety. Becoming a leader put you at risk of your crew turning against you. And by 1720, the odds were good that you’d be captured and hanged before too long.


Pirates, states, and international law

WorldMapLongLat-eq-circles-tropics-nonToday, if you look at a map of the world, its land mass is likely to be divided up into about 200 nations, each marked in a distinctive color, which collectively take up the entire land surface of the earth.[i] The idea that the world should be divided up into nations, each of which occupies its exclusive territory, seems so natural that it’s hard to realize that in its fullest form this idea is only about a century and a half old.

For European rulers at the dawn of the modern era, sovereignty wasn’t primarily about uniform control of territory under one set of laws, nor about a nation of people. It was about rights held by the rulers over people, communities, institutions, and lands, rights which were not necessarily territorial in nature. For example, the rulers of a city might have the right to use the water from a spring that was several miles away on land ruled by someone else. Or a king might be able to regulate market days in his kingdom, except for certain cities which had purchased the right to regulate their own market days from the king’s predecessors. Or some individual might be ruler of several lands, and yet he might have different rights in each land, each land might have different laws, and their union under that individual might not survive his death. England and Scotland were ruled by the same people from 1603 onward, but they didn’t have a common government until 1707, and still have some different laws. That combination has endured for a long time, while the union of Sweden and Poland under the same king didn’t even last seven years (1592-99).

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was another example of two states under one monarch. Note how it consisted of many peoples, several of which have their own nations today.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was another example of two states under one monarch. Note how it consisted of many peoples, several of which have their own nations today.

“But what does this have to do with piracy?” you ask. Well, the rise of piracy in the Caribbean between 1630 and 1730 has to do with how European rulers tried to extend their sovereignty over the New World.

It helped the Spanish that Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503) was himself Spanish

It helped the Spanish that Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503) was himself Spanish

Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World in 1492 led the Pope in 1493 to give the Spanish monarchs the right to conquer the heathen lands of the New World and bring Christianity to the natives there.[ii] This set up two important principles for staking a claim to lands in the New World: discover it, and get the Pope to ratify your claim.

Alas for the Spanish, the Protestant Reformation turned England and the Netherlands into Protestant countries, which didn’t care one bit what the Pope said. So along with the first two principles came a third: a European ruler could lay claim to territory in the New World simply by occupying it in force with settlers and soldiers.

Hence from 1600 onward, the Caribbean became the scene of a conflict between the Spanish, who thought they had an exclusive right to the region[iii], while the English, Dutch, and French, along with some minor powers, simply tried to seize and hold islands and coastal settlements in the region, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. And, as we’ll discuss in class, they found the buccaneers useful auxiliaries in supporting their wars against the Spanish as late as the 1690s.

Supposedly cannons in the early modern era could throw their shot three miles, hence the three-mile territorial waters limit. (Credit: Wikipedia/GrahamColm)

Supposedly cannons in the early modern era could throw their shot three miles, hence the three-mile territorial waters limit.
(Credit: Wikipedia/GrahamColm)

Meanwhile, powerful rulers were beginning to transforms their domains into states more closely resembling the ones we have today, with uniform laws and exclusive territorial control. Curiously, that development raised a problem in prosecuting pirates. For states only controlled their territorial waters. No state controlled the high seas, the waters more than 3 miles offshore. So if pirates operated on the high seas, who had the right to prosecute them?

Legal theorists had developed the idea of international law, law that applied to relations between states (not necessarily what we would call nations these days, but close enough). The idea was that there should be laws that apply universally to all humans, laws that could even constrain the actions of states. Who would enforce these laws was a good question, but the concept was there.

Since piracy on the high seas could not be prosecuted under the laws of any state, it seemed a good candidate for treatment by the international law. And so European legal theorists borrowed the idea from ancient Rome that that piracy was a crime against all humanity, because the pirates robbed and harmed people without regard to law or decency. While that resolved the status of piracy as a crime, it still left unclear who had the authority to prosecute piracy on the high seas. But the legal theorists had an answer for that as well. While no country could, on its own authority, prosecute piracy on the high seas, they could, as stewards for humanity and international law, take it upon themselves to prosecute piracy on the high seas for the offense against all humanity it was.

And so the laws of European states were extended over the oceans to which they had no proper claim, even in their own eyes, for the sake of ridding the world of piracy.

Barbary (Muslim North African) pirates attacking a Frech ship in the Mediterranean

Barbary (Muslim North African) pirates attacking a Frech ship in the Mediterranean


[i] There are a few exceptions, including colonial possessions, disputed territories, and officially unclaimed territories.

[ii] Brazil was the exception, granted to the Portuguese because of their prior voyages of exploration, and due to the geographical accident of being east of the line drawn in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) between Spain and Portugal modifying the Pope’s ruling.

[iii] Officially conditional on converting the natives to Christianity, which, it must be said, the Spanish often did, never mind how or that they then proceeded to exploit the natives. The English policy of effectively driving the Native Americans off their lands wasn’t any better.

Summer “Pirates!” class postings

Now that summer’s here, and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s “Pirates!” course is in session, I expect I’ll be posting every week while the class is running.

However, due to a singular misadventure, the post I planned to put up for Sunday will not go up until Monday noon. My apologies to my students. In the meantime, I suggest they look at the previous posts on how Henry “Long Ben” Avery was linked to the fictional realm of Libertalia and the women pirates of the Caribbean.

Has the Adventure Galley of Captain Kidd been found?

Barry Clifford, famous for discovering the wreck of pirate captain Samuel Bellamy’s ship Whydah off of Cape Cod, has surfaced in the news with the claim that he has recovered a silver bar from the wreck of Captain William Kidd’s “pirate ship,” the Adventure Galley, off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. If so, it would be one of the very few pirate ships ever salvaged, along with the Whydah and another pirate ship, the Quedah Merchant, also one of Kidd’s ships.

I’ve summarized Kidd’s career as a pirate-hunter turned pirate here. (For more details, Robert Ritchie’s Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (1986) does an excellent job of combining scholarship with a lively narrative.) The Adventure Galley was the original pirate-hunting ship Kidd sailed to the Indian Ocean. Kidd abandoned it in 1698 on the island of Sainte Marie, a popular pirate haven just off the east coast of Madagascar, because the vessel was unseaworthy. The Quedah Merchant had been Kidd’s most lucrative prize as a pirate; he sailed that vessel from Madagascar to Hispaniola, before abandoning it in 1699 as too obvious an indication that he had indeed become a pirate.

Is Clifford’s find the Adventure Galley? As I’ve mentioned, many other pirates used Sainte Marie. In fact, a whole series of legendary tales developed around the pirates of Madagascar. (I’ll be offering a transcription of one of the oldest such stories sometime before July.) So while Clifford has the Whydah to his credit, Ritchie is right: there are other possibilities, and the silver bar in itself doesn’t tell us which ship it came from. It’s not like the Whydah, where Clifford found the ship’s bell inscribed with the ship’s name on it. I have to wonder if Clifford has seized on Kidd because his name is better known than that of the other Indian Ocean pirates. Nevertheless, I’m rooting for him to at least have found a pirate ship.

There are no surviving pictures of the Adventure Galley, but this is of a very similar ship, the Charles Galley

There are no surviving pictures of the Adventure Galley, but this is of a very similar ship, the Charles Galley

As low as one can go: the pirate captain Ned Low

Gentlemen pirates like Drake are knighted by the Queen

Gentlemen pirates like Drake are knighted by the Queen

Thanks to Rafael Sabatini and Hollywood, we have the popular image of the pirate captain as a heroic, and sometimes even noble figure. There’s something to be said about this when one talks about people such as Sir Francis Drake. But the Golden Age pirate captains were a common lot, and not known for their virtues. Oh, occasionally you run into the likes of Major Stede Bonnet, who was definitely a gentleman and not very good as a pirate captain. Or Edward England, who could so admire the fighting spirit of a merchant captain who fought against him that England set him free and let him go his way unharmed, instead of killing him as his pirate crew desired.

But those characters were exceptional. By and large, the only virtue pirate captains had was bravery in battle. They were thieves, plain and simple, leaders of thieving crews, capable of unreasoning violence.

And sometimes they were much, much worse. How bad? Consider the case of Ned Low.

Keep in mind that by the 1713-1730 “Golden Age of Piracy,” there were a lot of pirates who had served on merchantmen. They had not enjoyed the low pay or harsh discipline imposed by many captains. And they sometimes took vengeance on captains of ships they seized as prizes. They’d ask the seamen on that ship if the captain was a good man or bad, and treat him accordingly. Good captains often got their ships back, and even much of their cargo. Bad captains might be killed.

Nope, no oil portraits of Ned Low for some reason. Instead we have this engraving, which you would think is symbolic of what Ned did to commerce, but is really about an actual incident when a  storm almost sank his ship

Nope, no oil portraits of Ned Low for some reason. Instead we have this engraving, which you would think is symbolic of what Ned did to commerce, but is really about an actual incident when a storm almost sank his ship

But this does not explain Ned Low. Ned seems to have combined innate viciousness with a lust for vengeance, and, to make matters worse, easily took offense. His career as a pirate captain began on May 28, 1722, when pirate captain George Lowther decided he would better be rid of a trouble causer like Ned, and turned over a new prize to him. That tells you something about Ned right there, that a pirate captain considered him too wild.

Many pirates would ransack the cargoes of the ships they captured, taking what they wanted, and sometimes casually destroying the rest. But that wasn’t enough for Ned Low. No, during much of his career as a pirate Ned preferred to set fire to the ships and destroy them and their remaining cargo. New England and Portuguese ships in particular got this treatment due to grudges Ned held.

Still, that was better than his treatment of the people on board of the ships he captured. He’d captured a French ship of 34 guns in July, but decided to scrap her after taking a pink (a square-rigged narrow-stern cargo ship) that sailed better. Apparently the French ship’s cook had been unsatisfactory, his cooking too greasy, because Ned had him bound to the mainmast before he burned the ship. The joke was watching the cook burn, to see if he was also too greasy.

Ned's crew thought that stringing up people was entertaining

Ned’s crew thought that stringing up people was entertaining

At least the poor cook wasn’t Portuguese. Low seems to have disliked them even more than the French. He captured a ship in August with Portuguese passengers. His crew delighted in stringing up two Portuguese friars to the foreyard mast by their arms until they were almost dead, bringing them down to recover, and then repeating this feat. One of the other Portuguese passengers on deck was disemboweled with a cutlass for looking sorrowfully upon the treatment of the friars.

On yet another occasion, Low took a Portuguese ship and tortured several of the men to find out whether there was money on board. There indeed had been, but the captain had tossed the money overboard, rather than let the pirates have it. For his pains, Low had the captain’s lips cut off and broiled them up as a delicacy right before the poor captain’s eyes. Only then did Low order the murder of the entire 32-man crew of the Portuguese ship. After all, one can only torture them before they’re dead.

Back in his early days, Ned had been a logwood man, cutting logs in the Bay of Honduras. Logwood men hated the Spanish, for the Spanish considered the Bay their territory, and often attacked the logwood men. So when Ned Low decided to pay a visit to the Bay in May of 1723 and captured a Spanish ship that had taken some logwood cutters prisoner, it is no wonder he decided to kill the entire Spanish crew. Some of the Spanish escaped by jumping overboard, but Ned ordered a boat out to hunt those men down and kill them.

Ned on one of his "off" days: he actually gave the captain a choice between taking a drink or being shot. The captain drank.

Ned on one of his “off” days: he actually gave the captain a choice between taking a drink or being shot. The captain drank.

About a month later, Low took a New England ship sailing from Jamaica. As I’ve said, Low had an animosity toward New Englanders because they had sent out ships to hunt him. So he took the captain and cut off his ears, slit his nose, and “cut him in several places of his body.” The next ship Ned took wasn’t from New England, but Ned decided to torture the crew anyway, Besides the usual slashes with a cutlass, he had burning matches tied between their fingers to burn away the flesh.

After barely getting away from an encounter with a Royal Navy ship, Ned became even more vicious. He had the captain of the next ship he took whipped naked around his deck before cutting off his ears. Only then did he kill the captain and sink his boat. (The crew survived.) He was a bit more lenient with the next boat he took, only cutting off the captain’s head. But then he returned to his usual habits. One particularly unfortunate captain had his ears cut off and then was forced to eat them. At least he got to season them with salt and pepper.

In short, Edward Low was no gentleman. Did he have any redeeming features? Well, yes, one. He’d apparently been happily married to a woman who died in childbirth. Supposedly that was one reason why, when he needed more crew members, he preferred to force single men and not married ones. And that’s the whole of Ned Low’s virtues.

Curiously, we don’t know what happened to Ned. One account has him hanged by the French, another that he was deposed by his crew and marooned on an island where he died. Frankly, I think a fitting end would have been for him to end up the victim of cannibals.

Barbary corsairs and the United States

The USS Enterprise vs. the corsair Tripoli, August 1, 1801

The USS Enterprise vs. the corsair Tripoli, August 1, 1801

Americans in the Middle East are being captured by terrorists. They are tortured, abused, enslaved, held for ransom, used as pawns in international politics, and even killed. The United States sends in its military, only to suffer an embarrassing defeat. So the Federal Government decides to topple a hostile regime and put our puppet in charge. You’re thinking maybe ISIS today, or Iraq in 2003, or maybe the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, or even the CIA’s overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953? Think again: 1801-1805, when the United States went to war against the Barbary pirates.

Muslims and Christians had been at war for centuries in the Mediterranean. Sometimes this led to a clash of navies, notably in the 16th century. But always there was commerce raiding, seizing ships that belonged to the other side and raiding their coasts. Captives were enslaved. The richer ones might be ransomed. The poorer ones would end their days as slaves. Ironically, they might end up serving as galley slaves, forced to row on the very ships that had taken them prisoner. These raiders weren’t just run-of-the-mill pirates. They were corsairs, really more privateers, sponsored and organized by governments. On the Christian side, the Knights of St. John of Malta were the most notable corsairs. And on the Muslim side were the Barbary “pirates.” They sailed from four realms on the North African coast: Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli (the last in modern Libya). In theory, these realms were monarchies that recognized the Ottoman sultan as their suzerain; in practice, they generally ran their own affairs.

American commerce had been protected against the Barbary pirates by the British so long as they were loyal colonies. But with independence, the Americans lost that protection and fell prey to the corsairs. The American government had three choices: let American commerce be strangled in the Mediterranean, pay tribute, or send a naval squadron to intimidate the Barbary states into leaving Americans alone. Of course, it helps to have money in the Treasury or warships mighty enough to take on the pirates, and in the early years of the Republic, the Americans had neither. American merchantmen suffered, and the cries of families of men enslaved by the “barbarians” put pressure on the new Federal Government to come to terms. After years of negotiation, the United States concluded treaties with all four Barbary states in the 1790s, agreeing to pay tribute to keep American ships safe.

But once you start paying tribute, you set yourself up to demands for more tribute. The Pasha of Tripoli decided the $56,484 he had received wasn’t enough. He wanted $225,000, and an annual tribute of $20,000. When President Jefferson refused, the pasha declared war by cutting down the flagpole in front of the American consulate in Tripoli.

Despite Jefferson’s belief that the United States should only deploy small gunboats as a defensive measure, the Navy had built some frigates, medium-sized warships with two gun decks and between 28 guns and 55 guns. These the Navy deployed in 1802 to blockade Tripoli’s harbor as a way of shutting down the corsairs and strangling Tripoli’s commerce. It looked like it might be a simple war, if a prolonged one.

And then disaster struck. On October 31, 1803, the 36-gun frigate Philadelphia ran aground on a reef outside of Tripoli harbor. The corsairs captured the ship, took the crew hostage, and brought it into the harbor to be repaired and join the Tripolitan fleet. It mortified the U.S. Navy to see one of their few ships about to become a powerful addition to their enemy’s fleet. But they could see no way to recapture the Philadelphia, stationed as it was under the shore batteries in the harbor. But there was a way, maybe. Lt. Stephen Decatur volunteered to try to sneak in under the cover of night and destroy the Philadelphia. At least that way the enemy wouldn’t have the ship. It was a desperate ploy, for the American sailors would have to approach in an unarmed ketch. If they were detected, they would be dead men.

The "Philidelphia" burns

The “Philidelphia” burns

In fact, they were detected when they attacked on the night of February 16, 1804, but it was too late to help the pirates. Decatur’s men fought their way on board the Philadelphia, and managed to fire her before retreating to the ketch and rowing their way back out of the harbor. Stephen Decatur became the Navy’s first hero, and went on to serve valiantly until his death in a duel in 1820.

Blockading Tripoli harbor, even apart from the Philadelphia fiasco, was not working fast enough. So in a plot that combines elements of a Cold War spy novel and farce, “General” William Eaton, an American diplomat, was sent to Egypt in March, 1804 to organize an army of mercenaries to topple the Pasha of Tripoli and place his elder brother on the throne instead. (The older brother had been deposed in 1793 by the Ottomans in favor of his younger brother.) Supported by eight U.S. Marines and two Navy midshipmen, Eaton led his ragged army across hundreds of miles of desert coast to seize Tripoli’s second city, Derna, on April 27, 1805.

The American attack on Derna

The American attack on Derna

That was enough for the Pasha of Tripoli. He signed a peace treaty with the Americans on June 10, 1805, forswearing tribute in exchange for the Americans withdrawing support for his brother. Eaton was displeased, but most Americans were satisfied. It didn’t end Barbary pirates preying on American ships, but it was the beginning of the end. Another short war with Algiers in 1815, with Stephen Decatur once again on the scene, ended the threat to American merchantmen for good.

What I couldn't find: the Tripoli Monument

What I couldn’t find: the Tripoli Monument

Although forgotten by Americans now, the war left some enduring marks on the Marines and Navy. The Marines celebrate “the shores of Tripoli” in their hymn, and their dress uniform still includes a Mameluke-style sword to commemorate Lt. Presley O’Bannon’s role in the march on Derna. In 1806, the Navy erected an elaborate marble monument in Washington, D.C. to commemorate their officers who died in the war. I read about this monument when I was a teenager, and with my love of history went looking for it repeatedly in Washington, unaware that it had been moved to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1860!

Floating armories and other ways to fight pirates

The Wall Street Journal just ran an article recently about combating pirates off Somalia. The novel approach is to set up ships outside the danger zone as floating armories. Provided they are willing to pay for the service, merchant vessels passing through the area can take on a private security team with weapons for their voyage past Somalia, and the drop them off at another “floating armory” later. This is a new twist on an old strategy. When confronted with pirates, one has three choices: try to eradicate them, try to buy them off, or arm vessels passing through the seas they frequent. The floating armories are a variation on the third strategy.

A 17th century East Indiaman

A 17th century East Indiaman

Back in the Golden Age of Piracy (the century before 1730), the European ships armed their vessels by other methods. The two most important methods were arming the ships themselves, and sailing in convoys. If you read much of Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, you’ll find that many of the merchant ships mentioned were armed. Johnson’s account of Captain “Black Bart” Roberts mentions merchant ships carrying 12, 40, 10, 26, 22, 10, 16, and 30 cannons. Yet all of these ships fell victim to Roberts and his pirates. The problem was a matter of crew size and motivation. Pirate ships in those days carried large crews, sometimes well over 100, so that they would be irresistible when they boarded a merchant ship. On the other side of the coin, merchants were forever trying to find ways to reduce the size of their crews to keep expenses down. Perhaps there might be a score of them on a ship (more or less, varying by size of the ship). Such a small crew would have trouble manning all the cannons properly, let alone try to defend the ship against being boarded. And why should they? They were being paid little, and they had no interest in the ship or cargo. Far from resisting the pirates, often enough sailors on a merchant ship would join them when their ships were taken. As Black Bart put it, “In an honest service, there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour; in this [piracy], plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power . . .”

WWII convoys even had airplanes as part of their escorts

WWII convoys even had airplanes as part of their escorts, more so in the latter part of the war

The other method during the Golden Age of Piracy for defending ships was for the government to institute a convoy system, in which armed naval vessels sailed with the merchant ships, and engaged any hostile craft that appear. Although it’s out of this time period, the Allies did a great job during World War II in using convoys to protect merchant ships from German U-boats. Unfortunately, circumstances were not so favorable during the Golden Age. Generally, piracy had to reach crisis proportions before governments would agree to this. And not all merchant captains liked the system. Naval vessels were often slow sailors, retarding the progress of the convoy. It was tempting for a merchant ship’s captain to sail on ahead, to be the first ship to reach a destination, and make a bigger profit on their cargo before the other ships in the convoy arrive. Of course, that fast-sailing vessel was then unprotected, and could fall victim to pirates.

The Ganj-i-sawai that Henry Every captured in 1695 had been part of the naval convoy guarding the Muslim pilgrimage on its return from Mecca. The pilgrimage fleet was a rich target, and often sailed with an armed escort of naval vessels. Sometimes this worked. In 1697, Captain Kidd was driven away from the pilgrimage fleet by an armed escort provided by the British East India Company. Other times, as with Every, it did not.

Why aren’t any of these alternatives being used in the Indian Ocean off Somalia today? Well, most countries don’t like foreign ships with weapons of any kind operating in their territorial waters or coming into port. So the floating armories stay in international waters. The merchant ships who use them take on their security teams in international waters, they sail through international waters, and they give up their security teams at another floating armory in, you guessed it, international waters. That model works well off Somalia. It doesn’t work in the seas between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, even though there are a lot of pirates there, because the main shipping channels go through waters controlled by one or more nations. Those nations may not be able to suppress pirates themselves, but they aren’t about to welcome more armed vessels into their waters.

One last historical reflection on the floating armories. Some nations are worried about the armories being attacked and seized by pirates. The armory owners think they’ve taken adequate precautions. Let’s hope for their sake that today’s pirates aren’t as ingenious as the Golden Age’s Howel Davis, who once took a fortress by subterfuge, as detailed on this page.

Painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray (1783-1857) who once sailed as a privateer himself

Painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray (1783-1857) who once sailed as a privateer himself