Disney’s franchise series Pirates of the Caribbean, developed from the theme park ride of the same name, has made pirates sexy and fun. Women swoon over Johnny Depp as the mincing endearing rogue, Captain Jack Sparrow, soon to grace screens again in the fifth instalment of the franchise. To some extent, we’ve all grown up with the stereotype image of a pirate – someone with a peg leg, maybe a hook on his hand and a parrot on his shoulder. But who were they really? And where were their Caribbean strongholds?
The real pirates of the Caribbean were bloodthirsty thieves and murderers who sowed terror on the high seas. In the 1600s, one of their strongholds was Port Royal in Jamaica. It became a pirate haven when its governors offered the pirates a safe haven in exchange for protection from the Spanish. During the Golden Age of Piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was one of the most popular ports for pirates, especially British and French privateers. After the age of privateering, Port Royal became known as ‘one of the wickedest cities on Earth’ as it attracted a new kind of lawless freelance pirate. However, in 1720 Port Royal’s colonial authorities began to clean up its act and many pirates were hung as a result.
Another buccaneer haven was the island of Tortuga (now part of Haiti). Tortuga was the chief stronghold of a motley crew of thieves, raiders and murderers who preyed on Spanish treasure ships. The first band of these pirates was French and the dreaded word ‘buccaneer’ comes from the French word ‘boucaner’ which was a way to cure meat.
The Bahamian island of New Providence was also a pirate haven. The island was in a good position as it was situated in the center of the trade-lanes between Europe and the East Indies. By the 1700s the island had become a popular gathering place for notorious pirates such as Blackbeard, Steve Bonnet and Charles Vane.
Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach was the most famous of the bloodthirsty pirates of his generation. He terrorized Atlantic shipping in the Caribbean. When he went into battle he placed lit fuses in his hair and beard which gave off smoke and made him look like a devil. He would wear a fur or large hat, high leather boots and a long black coat. According to Christopher Minster, “No one who ever saw him in action forgot it, and soon Blackbeard had an air of supernatural terror about him”. Blackbeard’s flagship was The Queen Anne’s Revenge. According to myths, Blackbeard deliberately ran it aground when he decided to disperse his crew. It was re-discovered in 1996. Blackbeard was killed in 1718 in a battle with pirate hunters.
Blackbeard appears in the fourth movie of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise : On Stranger Tides. He is based on the historical pirate (but with a few changes) and even sails on the Queen Anne’s Revenge. In the movie Blackbeard is a master of the black arts looking for the Fountain of Youth. It is not surprising that he was brought in as a character as he is one of the most notorious pirates and often associated with the supernatural.
Bartholomew ‘Black Bart’ Roberts was the most successful pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy. He was a Welshman who captured more ships and loot than any other pirate. At the height of his power, according to Minster, he had four ships under his control and hundreds of pirates. He became a pirate after the ship he was sailing on was captured by pirates and he was forced to join the crew. When the captain was killed, he became captain and the rest as they say, is legend.
Captain William Kidd was a pirate hunter and privateer who later became a pirate. Kidd had wealthy backers in London probably at the Royal Court and these very backers were the ones who abandoned him to his death. He was later imprisoned and hanged but people are still fascinated with the tale of William Kidd because of the scandal surrounding him.
The most famous of the English privateers was Captain Henry Morgan. He was given permission by the English to hunt the Spanish treasure ships and became Spain’s worst enemy since Sir Francis Drake. Morgan’s most famous raids were the sack of Portobello (1668), the raid on Maracaibo (1669) and the attack on Panama (1771). He was knighted by King Charles II of England and died a rich man in Jamaica.
Although it was not the norm, there were two famous (or infamous if you prefer) female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Reade. They were ferocious and bloodthirsty pirates who dressed in men’s clothing. They were part of Captain Jack ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham’s crew and one of the reasons that he is remembered. Calico Jack’s whole crew were captured and executed but the two women were supposedly pregnant so escaped execution. Mary Reade died of a fever but mystery shrouds what happened to Anne Bonny.
The Pirate Flags
Nothing struck more terror into the hearts of people than the sight of the Jolly Roger, a flag or ‘jack’, which flew on pirate ships to identify them to their friends and foes. In the article The Ultimate Pirate Branding Symbol, M R Reese noted that “historically, a pirate ship which was attacking would fly a solid black flag. This would indicate that, so long as no one resisted the attack of the pirates, all would be given quarter. However, upon resistance the flag would be changed to a solid red flag indicating.” The solid red flag, on the other hand, meant that it had been dipped in blood and blood would be shed if there was no surrender. Christopher Minster suggests that the term ‘Jolly Roger’ is probably an Anglicanization of the French words ‘jolie rouge’ (pretty red).
Today the Jolly Roger with its skull and crossbones has become a universal symbol of piracy. However, it was not so during the Golden Age of Piracy as some of the pirates had their own distinctive version of this flag. For example, Blackbeard’s flag was a skeleton spearing a heart. This meant that no quarter would be given. Black Bart had more than one flag but the one that was usually associated with him was black with a skeleton and a pirate holding an hourglass between them. This meant that time was about to run out for his victims. Others had different versions of the Jolly Roger but the three main colors were white, black and red.
A visit to the Caribbean these days is unlikely to be met with the sight of a pirate ship and skull and crossbones. Exploring the history of this fascinating time period, however, means that we have the opportunity to relive the adventure and mystique of its ancient days.