Pirates! What vision comes to your mind? Peg-leg, eye patch, frilly blouses, heavy brocaded coats, skull and crossbones, three-corner hats, weird throaty accent? Who-arrrr, matie! Shiver me timbers and all of that? Was Hollywood’s image far off the mark?
What’s a pirate?
The traditional definition is one who robs at sea or plunders the land from the sea without commission from a sovereign nation. For as long as men (and women) have traveled the seas, there have been pirates. Every nation had its share. British pirates had their heyday between the mid and late seventeenth century and congregated in a little Jamaican harbor called Port Royal. They were a diverse group in terms of race, nationality, and socio-economic position. Most were illiterate, however some among their ranks were highly educated and multilingual.
In times of war or territorial disputes, governors of the new-world colonies did not always have the means to defend their charge. European monarchs, unable to finance navies for every colony, permitted the governors to issue Letters of Marque commissioning homegrown maritime militias to protect their coasts and merchant ships and to raid and harass the enemy. Recruiting pirates for such missions was a measured arrangement as there was a fine line between legal and illegal activities.
The original pirates of the Caribbean were West Indian backwoodsmen, mostly French cattlemen called buccaneers. The origin of the word buccaneer
is believed to be the French word boucan, derived from a Tupi Indian word used to describe a frame for smoking or roasting meat. Many common words we now use in the English language originated from such Indian names. Barbeque, hammock, cannibal, canoe, maize, manatee, papaya and even Jamaica (meaning well-watered).
Initially, buccaneers were not considered pirates, but deserters and renegades who hunted the abundant stray cattle that ran wild over the mountainous terrain of Jamaica. Of course, the Spanish claimed ownership to those strays and considered Buccaneers outlaws and poachers. It irritated them even more when they learned that the buccaneers were profiting by selling the meat to passing ships on their way to attack the ports of the Spanish Main. Captains of those ships often recruited buccaneers to bolster their crews, thus the connection between the cattlemen and piracy.
The monarchs who issued the Letters of Marque were results-driven. Pirate leaders who succeeded in obtaining treasure in the name of the crown gained instant fame and unimaginable wealth. Stories of their ventures, in truth or exaggeration, started a gold rush! Hungry for fast fortunes and adventure, others joined the profitable but risky endeavors of the piratical society, The Brethren of the Coast, including members of the upper crust who considered robbing in the name of a king legalized protectionism and a patriotic and honorable pursuit. Under commission, these men were called privateers
The Brethren of the Coast was a centralized semi-criminal organization dependent on theft, murder, extortion, and kidnapping for ransom. Considering the make-up of their ranks it was not surprising that, despite a loose effort to regulate and discipline themselves through a code of honor, they were volatile and uncontrollable. They often turned to piracy when their commission and legal status expired.
The term swashbuckler
, often associated with pirates, was derived from the noise created when swords rubbed against a small shield, strapped on the wrist or handheld, called a buckler. By implication, a swashbuckler was therefore an individual who was handy with his sword, but not so delicate in manners - he had a tendency to be noisy and boastful.
The French issued Letters of Marques that were sometimes called Letters of Course. Thus came the term corsair
. Corsairs were pirates/privateers centered along the Barbary Coast of North Africa. They were particularly vicious and terrorized the Mediterranean for hundreds of years demanding kickbacks and hefty ransoms. Heros or criminals? Patriots or thugs? They all danced a jig on the fine line that separates legal from the hangman’s noose. Let’s look at a few of the noted pirates from our history books and you be the judge.
Of all the pirates of the 16th century, El Draque was the most famous. At one time the Spanish had a bounty on his head of 20,000 ducats. To the English speaking world he was known as Sir Francis Drake and considered a champion and conqueror. Born in Devon, Drake’s navigational skills and maritime exploits gained him notoriety in the court of Elizabeth I. In 1581 Drake was knighted. Drake died of dysentery after a failed attack on Puerto Rico in 1596. When my sons were younger, they played a pirate video game involving decisions to plunder a city or not. Could they withstand the city’s defenses? Did they have enough men to overpower the forces on land? Was there enough space on the ship to take on loot? Did they have enough provisions on board if they chose not to attack? Drake, too, was faced with similar decisions and after a spate of several successful attacks, he then found that his ships were too full to hold further tonnage of gold and silver. So, he buried the treasure. It is possible that the connection of pirates and buried treasure came from Drake. In Taken Aback
, strangers and even acquaintances stalked and badgered Mary Elizabeth Morgan, wife of the famous pirate, Henry Morgan. They wanted to know where Morgan had buried his cache.
Walter Raleigh also came from Devon. He was an accomplished seaman, navigator, explorer, and conqueror. Raleigh made sure the queen knew about his conquests by flamboyantly showering her with gifts from the new world - most of which was stolen gold from the Spanish. When the Spanish ambassadors complained to Queen Elizabeth, she answered their protests by knighting him in 1585. After the queen died, however, Raleigh fell out of favor and was eventually imprisoned in the Tower and was bought to trial on the charge of disloyalty. England wanted peace with the Spanish and to appease them, they offered up the head of Raleigh. He was executed in 1618.The first governor of Jamaica, Thomas Modyford, plays an important role in the lives of the factious characters in Taken Aback
. Before he was aware of a treaty between the British and Spain, Modyford sent Henry Morgan and his pirates to ransack Panama City. The dreadful sacrifice of Raleigh must surely have crossed Modyford’s mind when he was arrested and sent to The Tower.
I mentioned earlier 17th century’s most famous pirate: Henry Morgan – privateer, captain, statesman, planter, and a real character lingering in the background of many Taken Aback
chapters. A mysterious Welshman of shrewd ingenuity and outstanding leadership, he takes his place in history because of his successes and
his failures. Little is known of his earlier life and to me, that didn’t matter, for he was right where I wanted him to be – at the fall of Spanish Jamaica and at the beginning of Port Royal!
What interested me most about Henry Morgan was his tactics. He had a talent for rallying and leading what must have been a most untrustworthy bunch of fellows – runaway slaves, escaped convicts, cut-throats, thieves, murderers. He was a good mariner, clever strategist in battle, and competent statesman who managed to finagle his way into the court of King Charles II. In the end, he succumbed to the excesses of too many vices. He died horribly, but while he lived, he was quite the character!
By the time Henry Morgan died, pirating had lost favor in the Caribbean. Jamaica was being settled and there were profits to be made in planting and trading, providing the seas were safe to navigate. As Lt. Governor and later Acting Governor, Morgan himself hung some of the same pirates that crewed his ships.
When Port Royal sunk into the sea, it put an end to the pirate's favorite haven. Most moved on to Tortola or the Americas, but eventually and systematically they were all hunted down by bigger and faster ships of the navies.