Pirates

Occasionally upon election of a new captain, men who favored other leadership drew up new articles and sailed away from their former mates. The social organization constructed by pirates, although flexible, was unable to accommodate severe, sustained conflict. Those who had experienced the claustrophobic and authoritarian world of the merchant ship cherished the freedom to separate. The egalitarian and collective exercise of authority by pirates had both negative and positive effects. Although it produced a chronic instability, it also guaranteed continuity. The very process by which new crews were established helped to ensure a social uniformity and, as we shall see, a consciousness of kind among pirates.

One important mechanism in this continuity can be seen by charting the connections among pirate crews. The accompanying diagram of connections among Atlantic pirate crews, arranged according to vessel captaincy, demonstrates that by splintering, by sailing in consorts, or by other associations, roughly 3,600 pirates—more than 70 percent of all those active between 1716 and 1726—fit into two main lines of genealogical descent. Captain Benjamin Hornigold and the pirate rendezvous in the Bahamas stood at the origin of an intricate lineage that ended with the hanging of John Phillips’s crew in June 1724. The second line, spawned in the chance meeting of the lately mutinous crews of George Lowther and Edward Low in 1722, culminated in the executions of William Fly and his men in July 1726. It was primarily within and through this network that the social organization of the pirate ship took on its significance, transmitting and preserving customs and meanings and helping to structure and perpetuate the pirates’ social world.

Writing to the Board of Trade in 1724, Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia lamented his lack of “some safe opportunity to get home” to London. He insisted that he would travel only in a well-armed man-of-war.

Your Lordships will easily conceive my Meaning when you reflect on the Vigorous part I’ve acted to suppress Pirates: and if those barbarous Wretches can be moved to cut off the Nose & Ears of a Master for but correcting his own Sailors, what inhuman treatment must I expect, should I fall within their power, who have been markt as the principle object of their vengeance, for cutting off their arch Pirate Thatch [Teach, also known as Blackbeard], with all his grand Designs, & making so many of their Fraternity to swing in the open air of Virginia.

Spotswood knew these pirates well. He had authorized the expedition that returned to Virginia boasting Blackbeard’s head as a trophy. He had done his share to see that many pirates swung on Virginia gallows. He knew that pirates had a fondness for revenge, that they often punished ship captains for “correcting” their crews, and that a kind of “fraternity” prevailed among them. He had good reason to fear them.

Between 1716 and 1726 Atlantic pirates created an imperial crisis with their relentless and successful attacks upon merchants’ property and international commerce. Accordingly, these freebooters occupy a grand position in the long history of robbery at sea. Their numbers, near five thousand, were extraordinary, and their plunderings were exceptional in both volume and value. This chapter explores the social and cultural dimensions of piracy, focusing on pirates’ experience, the organization of their ships, and their social relations and consciousness. It concludes with observations on the social and economic context of the crime and its culture. Piracy represented “crime” on a massive scale. It was a way of life voluntarily chosen, for the most part, by large numbers of men who directly challenged the ways of the society from which they excepted themselves. How did piracy look from the inside and what kinds of social order did pirates forge beyond the reach of traditional authority? Beneath the Jolly Roger, “the banner of King Death,” a new social world took shape once pirates had, as one of them put it, “the choice in themselves.” It was a world profoundly shaped and textured by the experiences of work, wages, culture, and authority accumulated in the normal, rugged course of maritime life and labor in the early eighteenth century.

Contemporary estimates of the pirate population during the period under consideration placed the number between 1,000 and 2,000 at any one time. From records that describe the activities of pirate ships and from reports or projections of crew sizes, it appears that 1,800 to 2,400 Atlantic pirates prowled the seas between 1716 and 1718; 1,500 to 2,000 between 1719 and 1722; and 1,000 to 1,500, declining to fewer than 200, between 1723 and 1726. In the only estimate we have from the other side of the law, a band of pirates in 1716 claimed that “30 Company of them,” or roughly 2,400 men, plied the oceans of the globe. In all, some 4,500 to 5,500 men went, as they called it, “upon the account.” The pirates’ chief military enemy, the British Royal Navy, employed an average of only 13,000 men in any given year between 1716 and 1726.

These sea robbers followed lucrative trade and, like their predecessors, sought bases for their depredations in the Caribbean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Bahama Islands, undefended and ungoverned by the crown, began in 1716 to attract pirates by the hundreds. By 1718 a torrent of complaints had moved George I to commission Woodes Rogers to lead an expedition to bring the islands under control. Rogers’s efforts largely succeeded, and pirates scattered to the unpeopled inlets of the Carolinas and to Africa. They had frequented African shores as early as 1691; by 1718, Madagascar served as both an entrepôt for booty and a spot for temporary settlement. At the mouth of the Sierra Leone River on Africa’s western coast, pirates stopped off for “whoring and drinking” and to unload goods. Theaters of operation among pirates shifted, however, according to the policing designs of the Royal Navy. Pirates favored the Caribbean’s small, unsettled cays and shallow waters, which proved hard to negotiate for men-of-war in chase. But generally, as one pirate noted, these rovers were “dispers’t into several parts of the World.” Sea robbers sought and usually found bases near major trade routes, as distant as possible from the powers of the state.

Backgrounds

Almost all pirates had labored as merchant seamen, Royal Navy sailors, or privateersmen. The vast majority came from captured merchantmen as volunteers, for reasons suggested by Dr. Samuel Johnson’s observation that “no man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in jail with the chance of being drowned. . . . A man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.” Dr. Johnson’s class condescension aside, he had a point. Incarceration on a ship did not differ essentially from incarceration in a jail. Merchant seamen had an extremely difficult lot in the early eighteenth century. They got a hard, close look at death. Disease and accidents were commonplace in their occupation, natural disasters threatened incessantly, rations were often meager, and discipline was brutal, even murderous on occasion. Peacetime wages were low, fraud and irregularities in the distribution of pay general. A prime purpose of eighteenth-century maritime laws was “to assure a ready supply of cheap, docile labor.” Merchant seamen also had to contend with impressment by the Royal Navy.

Some pirates had served in the navy, where conditions aboard ship were no less harsh. Food supplies often ran short, wages were low, mortality was high, discipline severe, and desertion consequently chronic. As one officer reported, the navy had trouble fighting pirates because the king’s ships were “so much disabled by sickness, death, and desertion of their seamen.” In 1722 the crown sent the Weymouth and the Swallow in search of a pirate convoy. Royal surgeon John Atkins, noting that merchant seamen were frequently pressed, underlined precisely what these sailors had to fear when he recorded that the “Weymouth, who brought out of England a Compliment [sic] of 240 Men,” had “at the end of the Voyage 280 dead upon her Books.” The same point was made by the captain of a man-of-war sent to Jamaica to guard against pirates in 1720–21. He faithfully recorded the names of the thirty-five seamen who died during the year of duty. Epidemics, consumption, and scurvy raged on royal ships, and the men were “caught in a machine from which there was no escape, bar desertion, incapacitation, or death.” Or piracy.

Pirates who had served on privateering vessels knew well that such employment was far less onerous than on merchant or naval ships. Food was usually more plentiful, the pay considerably higher, and the work shifts generally shorter. Even so, owing to rigid discipline and other grievances, mutinies were not uncommon. On Woodes Rogers’s spectacularly successful privateering expedition of 1708–11, Peter Clark was thrown into irons for wishing himself “aboard a Pirate” and saying that “he should be glad that an Enemy, who could overpower us, was a-long-side of us.”

Most men became pirates when their merchant vessels were taken. Colonel Benjamin Bennet wrote to the Council of Trade and Plantations in 1718, setting forth his worries about freebooters in the West Indies: “I fear they will soon multiply for so many are willing to joyn with them when taken.” The seizure of a merchant ship was followed by a moment of great confrontational drama. The pirate captain or quartermaster asked the seamen of the captured vessel who among them would serve under black colors, and frequently several stepped forward. Many fewer pirates originated as mutineers who had boldly and collectively seized control of a merchant vessel. But regardless of their methods, pirates necessarily came from seafaring employments, whether the merchant service, the navy, or privateering. Piracy emphatically was not an option open to landlubbers, since sea robbers “entertain’d so contemptible a Notion of Landmen.” Men who became pirates were grimly familiar with the rigors of life at sea and with a single-sex community of work.

Ages are known for 169 pirates active between 1716 and 1726. The range was 14 to 50 years, the mean 28.2, and the median 27; the 20–24 and 25–29 age categories had the highest concentrations, with 57 and 39 men, respectively. Almost three in five pirates were in their twenties. Compared with merchant seamen more broadly in the first half of the eighteenth century, there were fewer teenagers and more men in their thirties among the pirates, but not many. The age distribution among the outlaws was similar to that of the larger community of labor, suggesting that piracy held roughly equal attraction for sailors of all ages. Though evidence is sketchy, most pirates seem not to have been bound to land and home by familial ties or obligations. Wives and children were rarely mentioned in the records of trials of pirates, and pirate vessels, to forestall desertion, often would “take no Married Man.” Almost without exception, pirates, like the larger body of seafaring men, came from the lower class of humanity. They were, as a royal official condescendingly observed, “desperate Rogues” who could have little hope in life ashore. These traits served as bases of unity when men of the sea decided, in search of something better, to become pirates.

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