A fast-moving ship appears on the horizon – she flies a skull and crossbones flag! The ship draws alongside and hordes of bearded ruffians with gold rings in their ears and daggers between their teeth swarm on board. They plunder the hold for booty, make the crew walk the plank and send the ship to the bottom of the sea, returning to their desert island to bury their stolen treasure in a chest under the sand… This is the traditional image of the pirate, gained from adventure stories like Treasure Island and countless Hollywood motion pictures. A fantastical element has been added by creations such as J M Barrie’s Captain Hook in Peter Pan, the Corsairs of Umbar in The Lord of the Rings and the Pirate Lord Kennit, villain (and some time anti-hero) of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy. Of course, say the word ‘pirate’ these days, post-Pirates of the Caribbean, and the image that immediately comes to most people’s minds is that of the irrepressible, cocksure Jack Sparrow, memorably played by Johnny Depp in the Disney films based on the theme park ride. Featuring ghost ships, sea monsters, zombie pirates, Blackbeard and even Davy Jones himself, the Pirates of the Caribbean films amply demonstrate that a vast body of supernatural lore and larger-than-life myths have over the years attached themselves to the reavers who sailed the seven seas. However, the real-life pirates who historically plagued the lives of sea-goers, while often equally as colourful as their fictional counterparts, were often a great deal more cruel and ruthless.
As terrifying tales of Somali pirates today illustrate, piracy is by no means a crime that has been consigned to the distant past – indeed, it was very common until about 150 years ago. Piracy has been carried on since very early times, when the seas were empty of all except comparatively small and defenceless ships. Julius Caesar, for instance, was captured and ransomed by pirates as a young man in the 1st century BC (he captured and crucified them after his release). In the 16th century reavers from North Africa began to attack ships in the Mediterranean Sea, carrying off people to sell as slaves. At one time it was said that these Barbary pirates, as they were called (Barbary is an old name for North Africa), held more than 20,000 prisoners in Algiers alone. It was not until 1830 , when France conquered Algiers, that the Barbary pirates were stamped out completely. Piracy was common around the coasts of the British Isles up to the 16th century, particularly in the south of Ireland and in the Scilly Isles. Gradually, however, the coasts of Europe became too carefully watched for pirates to have an easy life, and many would-be reavers went further afield to practice piracy, some to the New World, while others haunted the Red Sea and the Tropics. The West Indies, for example, became the centre of the Buccaneers at the beginning of the 17th century – a group of English, French, Dutch and Portuguese pirates who joined together against Spain, then the ruler of the West Indies.
There were various ways in which men became pirates. Sometimes, of course, they were simply men who liked the idea of piracy better than that of making an honest living. Sometimes corsairs boarding a ship would seize part of the crew and either force or persuade them to become pirates. Often some members of the crew of an ordinary ship would either kill or imprison the other people on board and take over the ship to use it for piracy. When a crew of pirates was formed, they made certain rules to follow and chose a flag that would terrify the ships they overtook. The usual one was the famous ‘Jolly Roger’, or skull and crossbones. Such pirates were those under Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island, who sang the pirates’ song: “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum! Drink and the Devil had done for the rest – Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!” Many pirates came to a bad end – either at the end of a hangman’s rope or finishing their lives in poverty. Some pirates, however, enjoyed great fame in their day and their names live on to inspire dread and admiration in others to this day.
Long John Avery, also known as the Arch-Pirate, led a mutiny while he was the mate of a merchant ship and was elected captain by the mutineers. He went on to have a successful piratical career raiding ships off the coast of West Africa and in the West Indies. He seized a ship belonging to no less than the Mogul emperor of India, which was carrying a cargo of about 100,000 pieces of gold – as well as the emperor’s lovely young daughter. Avery took both to Madagascar, where he settled down and lived like a king. Eventually however, he lost all his money, returned to England and died in poverty. The Welsh pirate Black Bart Roberts was famous for allowing no women or gambling on board his ships. He and his crew of cutthroats and blackguards went plundering all the way from Newfoundland to the West Indies and on to Africa. Here they captured a large ship which they named The Royal Fortune – on whose deck Roberts eventually perished in a boarding action in 1722.
Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was the most famous of all of the buccaneers of the West Indies. In a stolen ship which he had re-named Queen Anne’s Revenge, Teach cruised along the East Coast of North America, capturing many ships and making himself much feared in the process. A fierce and brutal man, even to his own companions, Teach was betrayed and shot dead in 1718. Another famous buccaneer was the Welshman Henry Morgan. Despite the fact that he attacked Dutch and Spanish settlements in the Caribbean, many of Morgan’s raids had the support of the English government, eager to see the downfall of the wealthy Spanish empire in that part of the world. In 1674 Morgan was knighted and he ended his days as deputy governor of Jamaica. Captain William Kidd is often regarded as a pirate but, although he was hanged for piracy in 1701 at Execution Dock in London, he may actually have been innocent. Hanging was also the fate of Mary Read, one of the few female pirates on record, who was convicted in 1720.
The golden age of piracy ended in the 19th century but the exploits of pirates have never been forgotten. A Dutchman called Alexander Exquemelin wrote a book about the buccaneers which was widely read in its day and ensured that they left their mark on history. For all the harm that they did, it should be noted that interest in the buccaneers inspired later voyages of exploration in the Pacific and led to the foundation of the South Sea Company. We have also been left with the indelible image of the cutlass-wielding reaver, sailing the seven seas in search of plunder, a gleam in his eye and a skull and crossbones flag flying overhead.