The Golden Age of Piracy
Today’s media has created an image of the pirate that is either somewhat romanticized or on the other end of the spectrum, is very bloodthirsty and evil. The truth is, although most pirates could hardly be described as saints, they may have been getting a bit of a bum rap. During the Golden Age of Piracy (from the late 18th century until the early 19th century) piracy was very commonplace (although it is unlikely they all wore typical pirate costumes the media often portrays). Most of the men that ultimately became pirates were men that had formerly been part of mutinous crews from Naval warships. Not willing to put up with the severe punishments that were part of life on these Naval vessels, these men left those ships to become pirates. The opportunity to perhaps obtain great wealth was worth the risky lifestyle for many of these men who already had put up with great hardships at sea and had endured many severe punishments as part of their Naval life.
Many pirates were known as something called Privateers. Privateers were not committing acts of piracy for their own personal gain per se, but were commissioned by various countries to take over the ships of known enemies, to steal the enemies supplies and riches in order to handicap them in any way possible. Privateers were commonly used during various wars during this era to assist in the war effort. The role they played was considered invaluable. The number of Privateer ships available outnumbered the ships of the Continental Navy 11 to 1, so the use of this type of Piracy was actually quite crucial in the early days of establishing the United States. Believe it or not, some of these early Privateers were considered to be quite patriotic. Obviously, they had the ultimate quest of money and riches in mind, but many of these Privateers were fighting for a cause that they actually believed in, too.
For example, Joshua Barney (who commanded a sloop known as the Pomona) sunk or captured many English ships during the Revolutionary War. Of course, he also obtained a great deal of personal riches during his pillaging while doing so, but that was the point. Privateers liked the fact that they could help their country, and may actually get rich while doing so.
Another well-known Privateer, Jean Lafitte was infamous for his very successful acts of piracy in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico during the war of 1812. He bombarded many Spanish and French ships in this area and amassed quite a bit of wealth himself. He became legendary in the locality of New Orleans because he would take much of his acquired treasure troves, which included foodstuffs, wine, cloth and other valuables and sell them to Americans, giving them a very steady supply of things that they both wanted and needed. Although he was engaged in somewhat sketchy dealings, Jean Lafitte considered himself a patriot and in his own way, he felt he was aiding his country.
At some point Jean Lafitte was approached by the British and was offered a hefty bribe in order to help them out on their side. Outraged, Lafitte went immediately to the Governor of Louisiana and told him about the bribe he had received. Unfortunately, the governor didn’t believe him, and he was jailed temporarily along with most of his crew. Eventually when Andrew Jackson came to defend New Orleans he had the pirate released from jail upon the promise that he would aid in defending the city. True to his word, Lafitte supplied weapons, ammunition and enough supplies to the Americans that the assault on the British was very successful and forthright.
Not all pirates were patriots, however, and the image of the scoundrel who is committing all sorts of gruesome and hideous actions is well deserved by many. The truth was, however, in spite of their acts of extreme debauchery, many localities put up with pirates when they came into town because they were very good for the local economy. These pirates were fond of drinking, gambling and frequenting brothels and would spend a good deal of their personal money in local communities.
Although pirates are never going to be known for their sweet gentility, most of them were not as bad as today’s media would like you to believe. Having come from very regulated Naval ships, most pirates required some rules and structure to govern them with something akin to a pirate code. When a group of pirates was about to set sea, a Captain was elected by the group from amongst them, and a set of rules was instituted with appropriate punishments noted. Each pirate was required to add his mark to the drawn up rules, which stated his agreement to them. Stealing was never permitted as trusting your fellow pirate was of critical importance with all the loot that would inevitably be dealt with. Fighting or striking of another pirate, disrespect or insubordination was not allowed either. Any acts of tyranny, (deserting the ship or keeping an important secret from the rest of the crew) was considered a catastrophic offense, and the most feared punishment by pirates might be given. This punishment was known as marooning. Marooning meant that a pirate would be dropped off on a deserted island or in a remote location with no food or water, basically left to just dehydrate and/or starve to death. Once in awhile a pirate would do something so bad it required immediate execution. The pirate code required that the man sentenced to die must select from the crew his own executioner, who would then tie him up and shoot him. Even pirates had to have rules, these rules being very necessary in order to maintain order and to avoid chaos with many men aboard a ship, all living in very confined quarters.
Pirate Daily Life
Although undoubtedly pirates had some excitement from time to time, the daily life aboard the pirate ship was very unglamorous. Surviving mainly on salted meat and hard tack, even these meager supplies were difficult to keep from rotting or from becoming infested with weevils. Water supplies were often corrupted and because nothing was ever wasted, everything was consumed anyway, even if it had gone bad. There is no doubt why many pirates would become sick with various diseases including scurvy, dysentery, malaria, tuberculosis, typhus, small pox and many other random illnesses. The truth was, most pirates died from sickness than from any other reason.
That isn’t to say that accidents didn’t happen. Life on a ship can be dangerous and men were known to fall overboard, in which case they were sometimes left in the sea to drown, as most pirates ironically couldn’t swim, or worse yet would be eaten by sharks. Sometimes while working on the sails one could easily fall from very high up and be instantly killed. Other dangers inherent to life at sea such as shipwrecks and natural disasters were also a constant risk for the seafaring pirate. In spite of the very tough conditions and the known risks, these largely very young men assumed these dangers because of the allure and the possibility of obtaining wealth and riches.
There are many stereotypical parts of the pirate image that continue to endure to this day. One of these is the keeping of a large parrot on board the ship. This parrot, thought to sit on the shoulder of the captain of the pirate ship, is usually loudly squawking out various lines of pirate lingo. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” is the most likely source of the pirate’s pet parrot. In this book we became acquainted with Long John Silver’s constant parrot companion, who was affectionately known as Captain Flint. The truth is that because of the very high price that exotic pets could command in various market places, some pirates actually did obtain parrots and other such animals.
Another common part of the popular pirate persona (e.g. Captain Hook) is the wooden peg leg, the hook hand, or the eye patch over one eye. These popular pirate associated prosthetics are probably largely the work of books such as Treasure Island or Peter Pan, as pirates were no more likely to have the sorts of injuries that would require them, than any other seaman.
Many legends surrounding pirates also speak of buried treasure, and there has been a great deal of time and money spent searching for supposed pirate booty that has been put in the ground somewhere. (With a legendary map of course that leads right to it.) Unfortunately, there is little evidence that there are more than a couple of instances of pirates actually burying any treasure. Pirates were known squanderers and it’s unlikely that any of them ever obtained a vast enough fortune to require them to bury it in a secret location. The facts are, much of the pirate loot contained spices, fabrics, dry goods, tobacco and food items that weren’t conducive to burying, nor did it make sense to do so. Gold and silver were part of their take at times, but this was more rare than the innocuous nature of their usual pilfering.
Walking the plank is thought to be one of the most widely used punishments by pirates. Pirates committed many cruel deeds during their acts of extortion, but not many victims ever actually walked the plank, or at least there certainly is no record of this ever really occurring beyond an isolated incidence. “Sweating” was a favorite punishment used by pirates, which entailed hostages being forced into running around and around the mast of the pirate ship until they would eventually fall over from exhaustion. Other times glass bottles would be thrown hard at hostages in order to force them into telling the pirates where their valuables were. Pirates committed many barbarous as well as evil deeds, walking the plank was just not one of them.
Most people also associate pirates with wearing large gold earrings. There is some thought that these earrings were worn by pirates to ensure that if they were ever lost at sea, when their body was eventually found there would be enough gold in the earrings to ensure a proper burial as well as a funeral. More likely than not, the earrings were worn simply because it was a popular fashion trend that was indeed quite in vogue during those days.
Pirate speech, as we know it today, full of “arrrrr’s”, “matey’s”, and “aye’s” is somewhat of a misnomer as well. Real pirates came from all parts of the world and from many diverse backgrounds. It seems unlikely that this vast array of men all adopted the same accent and type of speaking just because of their status as a pirate. Once again, the media has probably helped out a lot with this bit of myth, although talking like a pirate as we think of him today, certainly has it’s own degree of roguish charm.
Pirates will always be one of the most quintessentially favorite costume choices at Halloween. The combination of vileness, depravity, immorality and greed, tossed in with a lot of interesting seafaring history is almost too good to resist. Knowing the history of this colorful maritime character is bound to make your Halloween pirate adventures all the more interesting. Yo-ho, yo-ho, to a pirate’s life; not really easy, but still freaking awesome.