The history of piracy conveys chaotic images: beardy buccaneers squandering the day’s loot in rhum and women; legendary maps and treasure-hunts; gambling dens echoing with the sound of gunshots and blood-curling “Arr!” cries. Not everything is wrong. Not everything is right, either. But how to sort one from the other?
Much as sea monsters’ legends were broadcast by terrified seamen, the rumours of the ocean have often distorted the realities of piracy. To top it all, Hollywood filmmakers mixed fact and fiction to draw a stereotyped picture of rhum-drinking, libertarian bandits. Which they obviously weren’t. Pirates roamed the seven seas and the four oceans, and have been doing so for centuries. First came the Northern seamen, or Vikings, sacking French and English harbours as soon as the 9th century A.D. (they would be the first Europeans to set foot in America, four centuries before Columbus). Muslim pirates departed from Algiers, Tunis or Tripoli, along the Barbary Coast, to make money hand over fist in the slave business. Later, corsairs followed suit and looted European or English ships on behalf of French Kings. Eventually came the Caribbean buccaneers, coveting the riches and glory of the New World…
The origins: trade boom and rags-to-riches mentality
Piracy as we know it began with the Age of Discovery in the late-15th century. Trade routes were opening up to massive convoys, their holds full of sugar, tobacco, slaves, spices and gold. Plus, Europeans colonies of the time — usually the point of origin of those riches — were still corrupted and inadequately ruled, and without appropriate deterrence methods, they could not withstand pirate raids. Bandits took advantage of this gaping hole. Well, they were not actually bandits — usually penniless seamen, just out of the Royal Navy, wishing to use their basic training for better profit. Even when that meant flying skull and crossbones.
Leading a pirate life broadly meant an adventurous one, minus the strict discipline of trade or military fleets. In 1718, under cover of darkness, a merry band of British seamen deserted the HMS Phoenix to join the pirates that they were supposed to confront over the next day! Mutinies aside, pirate crews were recruited in taverns or directly on the docks. How many promises of riches and sea adventures have been told there — mirages of pirate liberty? Of course, prisoners of war also joined the newly-formed pirate crews. About a third of the 17th-18th century filibusters were former slaves, freed from their plantations or the galleys where they were kept in chains. Usually pirates were young (27 years old on average) and single (only 4% had married before taking to sea).
Pirates swarmed about anarchist cities in the Caribbean such as Port Royal, a Jamaican pirate utopia whose population skyrocketed in the 1660s. There was one tavern for every ten inhabitants. “Wine and women drained their resources to such extent that some were reduced to begging,” one historian notes. “They sometimes spent between two and three thousand pieces of eight in a single night.” However an earthquake shook the notorious ‘Sodom of the New World’ in 1692, so those sea dogs were forced to spend their loot somewhere else — like Libertalia (Madagascar) or Tortuga (Haiti), two of the most famous pirate dens.
Life on board: more than rhum and bawdy songs
So how did, in concrete terms, the life of a pirate look like? A testimony from 1722 reported “heavy drinking, monstrous curses, terrible blasphemies” aboard. Pretty much what was expected in the bill of specifications… However it is untrue to believe that there was no discipline aboard. Strict rules were implemented in a charter that all crew members must have ratified. They decided how the loot should be parted between the seamen, the punishments expected for every possible offence, everyone’s duties and rights… Among other things.
The following is an extract from Bartholomew Robert’s code — a Welsh captain who sailed across the Americas between 1719 and 1722: “If […] any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.” Furthermore, according to a well-known superstition, women were not allowed on board — to bring one was considered a capital offence, punished by hanging. However ‘walking the plank’ probably never occured. Those who did not respect the rules would be whipped, thrown overboard or marooned.
What about pirate food? It was rather frugal, since it needed to last for several weeks (even months) of sea voyage. Sea biscuit was a steady menu item (it was usually as hard as wood and maggot-infested), as was salted cod, plus an unlimited supply of beer and rhum (water was rarer). However, some corsairs could try out new snacks during their explorations, as 18th-century naturalist William Dampier did, swallowing tortoise, flamingos, ostrich eggs, guacamole and coconuts. Most pirates were not so fortunate…
Retirement plans: the end of the pirates
Contrary to popular belief — probably introduced by Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island — pirates would almost never bury a chest full of gold and pieces of eight on a desert island. Only the famous captain Kidd is said to have buried his loot before returning to New York to clear his name. Why is it so? Because booty was not only gold and silver; the holds of captured galleys were usually full of furs, slaves, cocoa… which would not be worth a penny buried feet beneath the sand, once a year or two had passed. Pirates probably did not think much about their pension plans, anyway. “A merry life and a short one shall be my motto,” Black Bart reputedly said.
In the early 18th century, the Peace of Utrech brought the War of Spanish Succession to an abrupt end. As a result, a number of skilled seamen went unemployed overnight. Most turned to piracy… But it had not wind in its sails anymore. European admiralties had already reinforced their presence on the seven seas, capturing and hanging filibusters day and night. Several famous captains were executed at Gallows Point, Port Royal. In London, on the riverbanks of the Thames, pirates were buried and thrown into unmarked graves. William Kidd’s cadaver was displayed into an iron cage so as to deter pirates-to-be. All those efforts paid off: it took only three quarters of a century, between 1650 and 1715, to witness the rise and fall of the Golden Age of Piracy — and consequently, the last dreams of grandeur of a renegade army.
- Angus Konstam, Pirates 1660-1730, Osprey Publishing, 1998.
- Philip Gosse, The History of Piracy, Dover Publications/New York, 2007.
- All About History n°93, « The Pirate Republic », July 16, 2020.
- Christopher Minster, « The Golden Age of Piracy », ThoughtCo, August 28, 2020.
- Matt Blum, « Pirates: A Reality Check », WIRED, September 17, 2008.
- María Lara Martínez, « Meet the real pirates of the Caribbean », National Geographic, July 2, 2020.
- Rebecca Rupp, « Eat Like a Pirate », National Geographic, August 19, 2014.