Saturday, February 6, 2010

Misunderstood Mariners: Pirate Legends

The release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl a few years ago led to a pirate-mania of sorts, sure to be re-stoked next year when the fourth movie in the series comes out. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies may be fun to watch, but they are based on an amusement park ride, which gets its concept of pirates from Hollywood and comic books. Johnny Depp may be fun to watch, but he bears little resemblance to modern-day pirates. In fact, he bears little resemblance to the actual pirates of the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy."

Blackbeard. Edward Teach, or possibly Edward Thatch, is the archetypical pirate, possibly the inspiration for Long John Silver in Robert Louis Steven's Treasure Island. An alleged treasure burier, the legend was so commonly believed that people used to dig up North Carolina beaches during the American Revolution looking for his loot. Blackbeard used his large beard to intimidate victims; a common (unsubstantiated) legend claims he lit long matches in his beard to add to the fearsome effect.

Anne Bonny. One of the rare "lady pirates," Bonny began her career as an abused wife. Her husband James had married her for her estate, but she was disinherited, and he later had her flogged for her adulterous affair with the pirate "Calico Jack" Rackham. She would eventually bear Rackham two children, and it was in fact her pregnancy that earned her a stay of execution after her capture. Some sources say she died in childbirth or prison, but others claim she lived to her eighties. She never disguised herself as a man and never commanded a ship of her own.

Buried Treasure. "X" rarely marked the spot since most plunder a pirate got his hands on quickly disappeared into the bars and brothels of the nearest port. Rare was the pirate who would live long enough to come back later and dig up a buried treasure and most of them knew it. And despite the fearsome reputation of many pirate captains, most crews would not tolerate squirreling away cash they had just risked life and limb for. "Immediate gratification" was the pirate way.

Calico Jack. Jack Rackham is another pirate given credit for designing the Jolly Roger. In his case it just might be true. Rackham was also one of the few captains to dismiss the superstition about having women on board ship, letting both Anne Bonny and Mary Read serve in his crew. Rackham has been cited as the source for the Capt. Jack Sparrow character in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Captain Kidd. William Kidd was probably more privateer than pirate, although the definition might depend on which end of his sword you were on. One of the more far-ranging pirates of this era, Kidd may have sailed as far as Japan. While charged with many heinous acts of piracy, Kidd was in fact known for making his crew return ill-gotten loot. He is also a source of many of the "buried treasure" myths surrounding pirates.

The Gentleman Pirate. Stede Bonnet was a somewhat wealthy landowner on Barbados who turned to piracy because of marital and financial problems. In the early 1700s he worked with Blackbeard. He is given credit for designing the skull and crossbones flag and being one of the only pirate captains to force prisoners to walk the plank. Neither claim is true. What is true is that Bonnet claimed at his trial that he did not actually take part in piracy, and in fact he was asleep on some occasions when his vessel attacked another. His crew, he said, simply disobeyed him, preferring to follow the more charismatic Blackbeard or the vessel's quartermaster, Robert Tucker. The court didn't believe him and he was hanged December 10, 1718.

Henry Morgan. Like Kidd, Morgan was more privateer than pirate (although the line between the two was hazy and frequently crossed). A farmer's son, one source says he was an indentured man when he first came to the Caribbean, although he successfully sued a contemporaneous biographer who made that claim. Morgan was one of the few pirates to live to enjoy his retirement, having years before "gone straight," and even serving as Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.

The Pirates' Code. There is no honor among thieves, and the idea of a chivalrous pirate is a contradiction in terms. There were indeed rules for divvying up loot and following orders on a ship but these were "more what you call 'guidelines' than actual rules" as Captain Barbossa would say. Any pirate who saw a chance to kill his captain or a shipmate and make a profit by doing so would have few ethical qualms about it.

Walking The Plank. Probably a fictional form of execution. A quick stab to the belly from a dagger or cutlass and a shove overboard was all that was needed. For those with time on their hands, or simply a sadistic streak, keel hauling was preferred, in which the prisoner was dragged across the bottom of the ship. This often lead to drowning or being cut to shreds by barnacles attached to the hull.

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