11 April 2017

It's Fun to be a pirate...

... or is it?

Pirates. Mention ‘pirates’ to adults, even more than children, and eyes begin to twinkle, a smile broadens the face and the clichéd ‘Arrr’ erupts from the lips. Given the choice of dressing up as a pirate or a wizard for a fancy dress party the winner, more often than not, is the stereotypical pirate.

Canstock photography © jgroup
The romance of fiction, the novels, TV shows and movies influence our perception of piracy, specifically during the 'Golden Age' of the early 1700s. We have a rose-tinted romantic view of a life On The Account. Say ‘pirate’ and we think Treasure Island, Jack Sparrow, or Captain Hook from Peter Pan, some of us even remember the bumbling but lovable animated character, Captain Pugwash.

Real pirates were not nice people. For 21st century entertainment, though, who, apart from a horror-movie buff, is going to sit through a big-screen movie about drunken, stinking-to-high-heaven louts pillaging, torturing and butchering? The small screen TV dramas such as Black Sails depict some of the rougher side of a life at sea in the early 18th century, but the storyline, especially in the first series, had to be buoyed up by (unnecessary in my opinion) explicit sexual scenes to keep the interest and attention. Factually, it was not accurate.

But do we want accuracy for entertainment? Moonlit nights, calm seas, a gentle breeze ruffling through swaying palm trees? That is the image conjured into our minds. Do we care that the Flying Dutchman does not exist, or the Marie Celeste was probably abandoned because her crew thought escaping vapour from the hold full of alcohol was smoke? Frightened, believing the ship was about to blow up, they abandoned ship. In their panicked haste they did not do so wisely. Leaving all sail set the ship took off without them. In a good following wind with a veseel travelling at seven to nine knots, an oarsman in a small rowing boat would not have been able to keep up. It must have been devastating to see your home, your livelihood – your only way of staying alive – disappearing off towards the horizon without you. The poor unfortunates, however, were not exotically abducted by alien space pirates as film and fiction would have us believe. 

Reality has its place, but so does the world of story and pleasurable escapism.

We like handsome heroes and pretty heroines. We enjoy the breath-taking alarm of danger and engrossing adventurous romps. Pirate stories give us the (safe) dangerous excitement we crave. Pirates seek treasure – don’t we all? Maybe we do not go off to dig at X marks the spot with our trusty, by-chance found treasure map, but several million of us do trot off to the local store every week hoping to buy that illusive winning lottery ticket.

Pirates were on a get-rich-quick mission and did not particularly care how they did it, as long as they had silver in their pockets for the taverns and brothels, and could get it as easily as possible. We all know that pirates plundered the loot then buried the heavily laden treasure chests on remote Caribbean islands. Their captured enemies they made to walk the plank at sword point, leading to inevitable death by drowning or fiercesome sharks.

Pirates went about saying things like, ‘Shiver m’timbers,’ and ‘Where be tha’ rum?’ Their ships were all gloriously fast, and the flag fluttering jauntily – yet menacingly – from the masthead was always a pair of crossed bones beneath a leering skull set against a black background. 

Pirates, we know, wore a gold-hooped earring and had gold-capped teeth. They drank rum (a lot of it), had frequent swashbuckling fights with those sharp-bladed lethal cutlasses they carried, lusted after buxom wenches and died nobly on the long drop with a short stop.
Or did they? Sad to say most of that is untrue, it is the stuff of story.

Where does the fact end and the fiction begin? But  does it really matter if the story is good and the adventure ... well, adventurous?

* Original text from Pirates Truth and Tales by Helen Hollick

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A Brief Timeline

1492  Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Caribbean and the Americas
1509  Permanent (European) settlement of Port Royal (Caguay) Jamaica 
1570  Lady Mary Killigrew organising piracy off the Cornish coast
1581  Lady Elizabeth Killigrew involved in piracy off the Cornish coast
1593  Grace O’Malley of Ireland meets with Elizabeth I of England
1651  William Dampier born
1659  Oliver Cromwell dies 
1660  Charles II returns from exile and is restored to the English throne
1665  Henry Morgan raiding in the Spanish Main
         Plague in London
1666  Great Fire of London
1671  Henry Morgan sacks Panama
1674  War with Spain
1675  Henry Morgan made Governor of Jamaica
1676  Daniel (de)Foe born
                Governor Alexander Spotswood born
1677 William of Orange marries Mary, daughter of James II
1679  (circa) Woodes Rogers born 
1680  Edward Teach born
(1680-1690?) Charles Vane born
1682  Jack ‘Calico’ Rackham born 
                Bartholomew Roberts born
1683  Henry Morgan is removed from Port Royal Council for being drunk - October
1685  Charles II dies his brother, James, becomes King 
11th June Monmouth lands at Lyme Bay 
6th July   Monmouth defeated at Sedgemoor
                Judge Jeffries and the Bloody Assizes: hundreds of rebels hanged or sold as slaves
1686  Dampier’s second circumnavigation
1684  Alexandre Oliver Exquemelin's The Buccaneers of America published
                Tortuga now deserted by pirates. The term ‘buccaneer being widely adopted
1687  Dr Hans Sloan and Duke and Duchess of Albemarle arrive in Port Royal
1688  Henry Morgan dies 25th August
                Pirates using Port Royal, Jamaica
5th November William of Orange lands at Torbay; James II flees to France 
1689 War with France 
                Sam Bellamy born 
1690 William defeats James at Battle of the Boyne 1st 
                Howell Davies born
1692 7th June Port Royal devastated by earthquake 
1693  Fictional pirate Jesamiah Acorne born 
                William and Mary College, Virginia founded
1694 Bank of England founded
1695  Death of Queen Mary
1697 End of war with France
1700  Death of Charles II of Spain
  (circa)   Anne Bonny born
1701       War of Spanish Succession declared
               James II dies of a stroke
               Act of Union between England and Scotland ‘British Isles’ formed
1702       William II dies Sister-in-law Anne becomes Queen 
                First daily English newspaper – the Daily Courant
1703 Work begins on Buckingham House (Palace)
1704 English capture Gibraltar
                Battle of Blenheim
1706 Building of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg began
1707 Act of Union (Scotland and England to form Great Britain
1708 Planned Jacobite rebellion with a French landing in Scotland – James caught measles
1709  17th February Andrew Selkirk rescued from being marooned
1710 St Paul’s Cathedral completed
                Alexander Spotswood appointed Governor of Virginia
1711 Woodes Rogers Madagascar, at pirate community in almost ended 
1713 War with Spain over, privateers expect full pardons for acts of piracy
1714 Bahamas raided by French and Spanish
                Nassau sacked three times
                Death of Queen Anne, accession of George of Hanover
                End of the War of the Spanish succession
1715 Spanish treasure fleet wrecked 31st July
1717 Piracy in its height in the Bahamas, Caribbean and the East coast of America
                Whydah Galley sinks 
17th November Blackbeard captures the Queen Anne’s Revenge
1718  Woodes Rogers arrives in Nassau 
  May       Blackbeard blockades Charlestown harbour
June         Queen Anne’s Revenge runs aground 
September/October Blackbeard meets other pirates on the beaches of Ocracoke  
November Governor Spotswood sends Lt. Robert Maynard to capture/kill Blackbeard
22nd November Blackbeard killed
1719  War with Spain
                Royal Pardon extended to 1st July
               Robinson Crusoe published by Daniel Defoe
19th June Howell Davies is shot dead
                Anne Bonney and Mary Read become pirates
                Edward Teach’s remaining crew hanged at Williamsburg
                Charles Vane arrested
1720  Gov. Woodes Rogers hangs all pirates who refuse to give up piracy 
February  Battle of Nassau 
18th November Calico Jack Rackham hanged at Port Royal
                South Sea Bubble bursts – financial ruin for many 
                Robert Walpole becomes the first Prime Minister of Great Britain
                First daily newspaper in England
1721  Charles Vane hanged (?)
                Pirate community in Madagascar coming to life again.
                 Bartholomew Roberts of the Royal Fortune killed in battle 
1722  February Bartholomew Roberts dies
1723  Charles Johnson’s A General History of Robberies and Murders of Notorious Pyrates published
1727  Death of George of Hanover (George I) succession of George II 
1732   15th July Woodes Rogers dies

The Fiction

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and the Fact
where most pirates ended up
© Stocksnapper
What do you prefer? The fiction or the fact?


  1. Ha! So now I've been singing "Give me a career as a buccaneer, oh the life of a pirate for me" Except it ends: "When your neck's in a noose, and you can't get loose, then the life of a pirate is done. Oooohhh, the life of a pirate is done." If I may say so myself, I looked very fetching as a very young, very blonde pirate :)

    1. At the risk of being accused of excessive flattery you look very fetching as a 'slightly older' pirate! And no wish to scare anyone but the next full-length adventure in the Sea Witch Voyages is called Gallows Wake....

  2. Such an interesting timeline, Helen! I like that you mixed fact with fiction and included a broad spectrum of worldly facts. Very useful post!

    1. thanks Elaine - I mix fact with fiction in the book (Truth & Tales) as well - I think both are equally as important and interesting!


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