Much of what is written goes untold. Much of what is seen goes unnoticed. Much of what once has gone astray. The secret life of pirates along the Caribbean is to be debunked. From Port Royal in Jamaica, Tortuga in Haiti, and Nassau in the Bahamas to the Somali Coast, Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea, piracy reached many a people, causing a chance at glory for some and chaos for others. The Golden Age of Piracy came around 1650 to 1730, which is the time when the most fearsome and famous pirate lords emerged. The origin of piracy dates back to the beginning of sea travel, for the word itself means the practice of assaulting and raiding ships at sea.
First and foremost, pirates flaunted about for a life of formidable reputation, a life of countless adventures, and a life at sea. To be a pirate was to be a servant of another man’s bidding, something all too familiar to billions throughout history, billions today, and billions tomorrow. To some it meant more than that—it meant freedom that could not be found on land. There was only one captain per ship—one man to command his underlings and by extension, if he was at the top of the ladder, the sea itself. Women were not allowed aboard a ship and therefore took to dressing like men if they were so eager to join the crew. Take Anne Bonny for example. She and Mary Read were notorious for dressing and acting like men aboard Calico Jack’s Kingston. Calico Jack arose from being a regular privateer to quartermaster aboard Charles Vane’s Ranger to the commander of his own ship. This was the way of piracy. Few arose to power, many followed orders. When the time came for a new captain to take command, they were usually elected based on skill with a sword, how well they could navigate the seas, and how good a shot they were.
A man chose to go to sea, nine times out of ten, at a young age. It was necessary to learn the ropes and the ways of piracy from a young age. These men dropped everything back home and turned to what they believed was right for them. Some changed their mind young, some grew old, and some died as one with the sea. Piracy was a criminal act that was the easy route for many, and an attractive one at that. Teenagers loved the idea of being on the left side of the law. Some chose to join the cause out of necessity for their poor families, others out of a need for their own self-sustainability and survival. Many were blind to the fact that a life at sea was far more dangerous than they thought possible or probable. Many did not realize that if they had plans to someday part ways with the sea, they could not. Once a man was under the command of a captain, his life was no longer in his own hands.
How often pirate crews grew in size and how often life was changing for a man at sea was subjective to a day’s toil. If, for example, a captain and his crew were to overcome an approaching ship, they had the choice to either secure the remaining detainees as part of their own crew or let them die with the ship. Again, it was up to the victorious captain to decide their fate. He was likely to welcome them aboard his ship, for reputation was particular to the number of men a captain commanded. Evidently, if a captain commanded only ten men, he was not as fearsome as if he commanded three hundred. In the case of William Kidd, commonly known as Captain Kidd, the tables turned from being a commissioned privateer to rid the seas of all piracy—seeing as he was a man of the Church—to being elected pirate captain by his crew. Of course, he was captured in Boston with his wife and hung for treason. Thrice times he was hung, for the first two attempts failed to a broken noose. He was doused in tar and hung by chains along the Thames River. Quite a common tale for a pirate, even if he was a turned one. It is known that a pirate’s life was ever-changing, ever-evolving, and ever-faring. One day you were a privateer, the next you might be a captain, and the next you were hung. To a great many individuals, this was an attractive life and one that was far more appealing than life on land, where the government of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were not, in the slightest bit, stimulating. But not everyone who was a pirate wanted the life for themselves. Those who were forced to join the crew were likely the ones who were part of mutinies.
Mutiny aboard the ship did not go unpunished. There were a few options at hand, at the discretion of the captain of course. In some cases, the mutineer or mutineers would walk the plank or be marooned ashore a secluded island. In others, they would be executed on the spot. The more fearsome pirate captains would take to the latter, leaving no chance of survival. Mutiny was the worst crime in a pirate’s eyes and was dealt with depending upon the severity of the crime. To overthrow the captain was the worst sort of mutiny. To steal away sums of acquired treasures beyond a privateer’s claim was mutiny. To challenge an officer or any sort of superior on board was mutiny. There were strict rules in place that all captains made known to their crew prior to them joining together. The work that pirates faced was demanding and taxing on the body. Captains did not care for pain and commonly punished those who did not obey commands. Lashes were given and cries were heard, though pleas went unheard.
A pirate’s clothing consisted of rags and tunics for the scallywags, plain white shirts for the privateers, and coats and full-fledged garb for the captain. A pirate’s hat was a prized possession and was designated mostly for the captain to mark his title. Mostly, they dressed for the seasons. If the tides favored no clothes at all, that was not such a shocking thing.
Pirates enjoyed a good gamble and a shindy social. They especially took to card games, offering mighty wages and years of service to the captain. For the most part, these games took place on shore, not on board the ship. Gambling on some ships was banned while on others it was widely practiced. The captain had the final say, just the same as everything else.
Pirates’ food and drink supplies were restocked by pillaging the supplies of other ships. Whether they were trade or merchant ships, royal ships, or passing pirates, all held precious cargo. Bombo, also called bumboo, which was a mix of rum, sugar, nutmeg, and water, was the center of all attention. Pirates needed rum like water is needed today. Brandy, gin, ale, and a wide assortment of other drinks were accepted and enjoyed by pirates, as well. Fish were netted, sharks and whales were harpooned, and sea turtles were harvested until they were needed for meat. Of course, the food was often spoiled, for many a rat infested a ship; the supply of fresh water often contaminated; the rise of infection plagued the strongest of pirates. If the food and drink were not stolen, pirates obtained only what they could afford, and thus rum being the go to. It was cheap, tasty, and provided a peaceful night’s rest after a long day at sea.
In addition to the possibility of contaminated supplies, life at sea was ripe for disease. Many went sick just by being on the water. Scurvy, typhus, smallpox, yellow fever, and dysentery were just a few that killed thousands. Medical attention was limited to those on board, for the nearest port was likely leagues and leagues off. For the most part, the will to endure the horrors of the sea was all there was. Those who wished for an early death purposely infected themselves by mere interaction with other privateers. If the captain went ill, Hell found way to Earth for all. In necessary conditions, the food and drink were rationed and men were killed because they were liabilities to the captain and his officers. In some cases, cannibalism came to life. If the crew happened to overcome a deadly disease, it only strengthened their bond as one unit as one family, and as one crew. If they were overcome by the symptoms, which was more than likely, they would die with the rest, lost to the hardships of life at sea and to the ages. Those who believed in God might have repented at the last, for fear of their terrible, lively deeds. Those who believed in the gods might have believed they were cursed for some act they committed. On that note, many a crew were felt bewitched and often pirated not only for fame and credit but to free themselves of the curse on their head.
Quests were taken up to seek out the wonders of the world, the fabled fountain of youth, and the islands known to house fortunes of gold, silver, pearls, emeralds, and various trinkets and oddments. Lives were lost, sanity was taken, and truth was told.
Those with bounties on their heads would go to the ends of the Earth to find solitude, peace, and liberty. The sea was their freedom, and so being at sea, in itself, was freedom. If they were captured, that freedom went away the moment they stepped foot on land. Whether they were trialed or executed, or trialed and executed was no longer up to them, but to those of English, French, or Spanish authority. A fair amount of pirates felt tied to the sea, as in an oath, and often took to calling the sea “Her” because they felt they were married to no one and nothing but the sea. Piracy itself was a heinous, criminal, and damnable act, in the eyes of the kings, queens, and rulers of the lands. What remained true for pirates was the omnipotent idea of life completely of choice and not of an invisible hand working against their favor.
Pirates were known to frequent many ports. The most notable were Port Royal, Nassau, and Tortuga, as mentioned earlier, and also Madagascar. Whilst on land, they settled any debts they owed, drank through the night with prostitutes in hand, and voiced hearty cheers along with their crew during a moment’s rest.
War during these times was inevitable; pirates were either at the center of attention or kept to the shadows to hide themselves away. Naval battles were gruesome and terrifying to some. To others, they were welcomed in open arms. Cannon fire laid waste to numerous ships and countless lives, spilling guts and blood. If the rain did not wash away the mess, the sharks did. Ships might lay siege to nearby ports; if they were won over, they were used as a base of operation. As much as the sea was a pirate’s home, owning a piece of land only came as a benefit to them and their captain. Nighttime raids were fairly common between ships. When everyone was asleep, they would come in the night and leave no trace of breath behind. Death was constantly on everyone’s mind, ranging from battles to attacks to toil to suicides. Storms at sea swallowed ships and crews whole and were often long-drawn-out battles in and of themselves. Monstrous waves, deafening thunder, and down pouring rain came for any and all that stood in their way. Flotsam and jetsam were tossed away in hope of lightening the load and making it through the oncoming calamities. Ships that survived were seen to be all the more formidable; captains more so.
Loot that was taken or won was hardly ever enjoyed. It was rare that a pirate would settle after one raid. The constant yearning for gold was mighty, but the constant desire for the actual process of pillaging and sea battles was too great. To a great many captains, piracy was for life and would not end until they conquered the entire sea. Even then, they would have wishes to rule and to be feared. The world was and is 70% sea. A lifetime most certainly is not enough to conquer such waters, but it was worth a shot to them.
Slavery was very common during this time. Pirates took slaves of their own and put them to work, not as one with the crew, but as arduous laborers. They were treated like scum and killed if they stepped out of line. Death was welcomed by these slaves, as life aboard a pirate’s ship could often be a fate far worse than death for them.
A code was established on every vessel; the pirates lived, breathed, and died by it. It was a system of beliefs of which all lived by, providing rules of discipline, remedies for wrongs done to other pirates of the same ship, recompense for the wounded, and claims for each crewman on stolen goods.
Some pirates rose to great power and conquered a multitude of ships and a fair amount of land. Bartholomew Roberts was the last great pirate of the Golden Age and conquered over 400 ships. His boldness and daring approach made his dreams a reality. Edward Teach, commonly known as the legendary Blackbeard, was said to be the most fearsome and famous pirate and pirate captain in all the seas; he harassed many ships in the Caribbean and commanded the mighty Queen Anne’s Revenge. It was said that he was a man who tried to live out of morality and honor, but the call of the sea was too great to let up; he gave in to the praise and glory that came with the name Blackbeard. These are but two sundry pirates who have lived on in literary work, film, and cultural studies of the last century.
The Golden Age of Piracy came to an end when the combined forces of Europe and America weeded it out in the year 1730. Piracy came and went for many years thereafter, though nothing like the past. It returned for a time but was eliminated in 1820 in Central America and 1850 in Asian waters. Today, piracy still occurs in the Somali coast. The word “piracy” has evolved to meaning something entirely new, in addition to the seafaring remains. Today, to “pirate” something is to illegally get hands on something like movies, television shows, audiobooks, and so much more on the World Wide Web. This draws back to the Golden Age of Piracy, giving rise to the fact that it is not and will not ever truly be dead. It is quite a powerful thing when a noun becomes a verb. The tale lives on and will continue to. Perhaps in a hundred years’ time, we will all be back at sea, given the overpopulation of countries, settlements, and lands today.