Piracy and Pirates
The Buccaneer’s Reef Forum has its own sub-forum that is rich with topics and material concerning the history of all things and people related to pirates. Everyone will be able to peruse its pages very soon.
However, I want to periodically showcase an article on this subject up front. So here we are…
The following article was originally published on PA! and I deleted it after one of their main moderators began deleting my posts left and right which was a main reason for me becoming so militant which ultimately led to my banning over there.
This particular article was VERY popular and got a lot of attention. I provoked a lot of thought on the subject and caused some pretty decent arguments. So back from the dead is one of my favorite articles….enjoy. MK
The Truth about the Perfect Pirate Ship: & what Loot is actually in the Hold.
I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve read some small article or commentary that large pirate ships and great pirate treasures are the stuff of myth and legends – that they didn’t really exist. According to these wise and astute scholars “pirate ships were small fast craft” and treasure was “most often stores and common cargo”.
In my own little article here I would like to take a look at what history has to say about these revisionist ideas about pirates, pirate ships and treasure.
Were Pirate ships small? As with so many other things, there are never absolute answers. Over-generalization most often leads to erroneous conclusions. Were pirate ships usually small? Again “usually” is a word that forces one to generalize. A true historical examination of the these questions begs other questions – namely “when” and “where”.
Late in the Era of Piracy (its decline) we know that the havens of Madagascar had been destroyed. Patrols from Europe’s naval powers haunted the Gold Coast of Guinea – constantly making it dangerous for small time pirates. The last place the pirates had any success was in the Bahamas which favors small craft to this day because of the thousands of shoals, reefs, and small islands. If its this period and place we are talking about then YES, their ships were often small and their hauls were as well. Even in this time however, there are VERY notable exceptions which we will examine shortly.
This short time period of a decade or so cannot define the trends of the entire Era of Piracy which historians usually sub-divide into three smaller eras that cover the whole of the 17th century and the first decades of the 18th century.
What many people fail to realize is that there was a time from around 1655-1695 when pirates were actually a powerful political and military force. The Brethren of the Coast was a real political entity with significant power behind it. Though pirates sometimes shifted their occupational title and quarry to classify themselves as legitimate “Privateers”, they were just as often “Freebooters” and openly confessed pirates “Against ALL Flags”.
These men were often not affiliated with any nation and would sometimes attack the ships of their own nation of origin. The great pirate captains of this time were often referred to as “pyrate lords” and sometimes even “pyrate generals”. These great captains would often not command just one ship, but dozens of vessels (often large warships they had taken by force and with thousands of men aboard). Add to this that when they set their greedy hearts upon a rich town or fleet, they would often band together with other pirate lords.
Some of these historical cooperative ventures and raids are extraordinary. They read like fiction and its fascinating to me that they are overshadowed by the last decades of the age marked by what I call the “small-timers”. When you consider literal Armies of pirates storming large well fortified cities and fortresses, one can see why populations and nations became so terrified by the threat of pirates and why they made such an effort to eradicate piracy – often by lucrative offers of titles and employment to their leaders to take up arms against competing nations.
Among the greatest of these events that come to mind are the recapture of Tortuga by the Brethren of the Coast in 1655 after Spain violently wrested it away from France. The Brethren did not keep it and returned it to France. (although in a funny side story their leader Deschamps actually sold it to the French West India Company for 15,000 livres – a crime for which he was thrown in the Bastille for two years even though Louis XIV gave it to the FWIC anyway).
The raids of Henry Morgan and Christopher Myngs (1650s-1670s) are the stuff of legend. These men would openly attack dozens of Spanish towns, forts and settlements on a single campaign, bringing back literal piles of Spanish gold. These raids were often perpetrated during “peacetime” where the English government seeking to keep the peace – officially condemned the acts and sent privateers after many of the participating captains. In fact Myngs was considered a butcher against the Spanish civilian populations and the Spaniards demanded his extradition on the grounds that he was “an enemy of the Spanish Empire and a Mass Murderer”.
Both of these men were titled and commanded “King’s Ships”, however Morgan always preferred his two decked English warship “Satisfaction” which he commanded throughout his illustrious career. Both men were knighted. Myngs became an Admiral and lost his life to the Dutch in arguably the greatest battle of the Age of Sail.
Morgan became a legitimate instrument of the English Navy with letter of marque and commanding several notable expeditions against the Spanish. His infamous sack of Maracaibo in 1668 with a fleet of twelve warships is among the most famous pirate raids in history. It is interesting to note that on most of these “legitimate” government expeditions, Morgan enlisted the help of many of his pirate captain friends of every nationality. His muster rolls read like a “Who’s Who” of piracy and pirates. Morgan as we know went on to become the Governor of Jamaica.
Morgan and Myngs both commanded several different favorite ships before “going legit”. These were not small vessels. In fact in all the evidence I’ve been able to dig up they were large two decked warships – likely English or Dutch and between 3rd and 4th rate in size.
Laurens de Graaf is another legend of the age. The famous Dutchman rarely fought for his nation of origin and was most often unaffiliated. Every nation at one time or another was after De Graaf. If De Graaf could have claimed citizenship it would have been with the French who idolized him and did occasionally employ his services. De Graaf was never on the run. Even when Morgan sent privateers after him, they would return to tell Morgan that they refused to pursue such quarry and were no match for De Graaf’s “fleet of warships”.
De Graaf like Morgan commanded many other pirate captain notables. We know that De Graaf’s favorite ship was the war galleon San Francisco. The story of it’s capture is quite amusing. After raiding Spanish towns along what’s now the northwest coast of Panama, De Graaf’s small fleet of pinnaces “holed up” in a cove north of Cartegena to make repairs and split the loot.
The Governor of Cartagena heard that they were there and sent out a flotilla of war galleons and pollacres to attack and take the pirates. The pollacres were loaded with hundreds of heavily armed Spanish soldiers. One of De Graaf’s pinnaces scouting on the lookout spotted the Spaniards and alerted the rest of the pirate flotilla, which took to sail to intercept the Spanish force. In the ensuing fight, the smaller Dutch pinnaces/fregates were able to sail circles around the larger Spanish force battering them with superior gunnery for hours. All the Spanish ships finally surrendered except the war galleon San Francisco which DeGraaf’s fleet surrounded and then boarded with swarms of pirates. DeGraaf bravely led the boarding party.
DeGraaf who was known the be a “chivalrous gentlemen” did not harm or kill any of the prisoners and safely set the Spaniards ashore, allowing them to keep one of the polacres for transport. After the battle DeGraaf and his 1st Lieutenant (the famous Dutch pirate Michiel Adrienszoon), drafted a letter to the Spanish governor of Cartagena thanking him for the “Christmas Gift” of the Spanish ships and then sent the letter with the released prisoners with his complements. DeGraaf then made San Francisco his flagship.
De Graaf, joined by several other notable pirate captains is perhaps best known for arguably the greatest pirate raid in history, the sack of the heavily fortified heart and center of Spanish gold distribution in the Americas – Vera Cruz in 1683.
Some other pirates are often given credit for the greatest amassed fortunes like Black Bart or Sam Bellemy because the amounts are known. However, the amount of spoils taken from Vera Cruz was described as “unfathomable” . No accounting was ever taken and one can only assume (as in the case of Morgan as well) that the holds of the ships were full of the gold and silver meant for the Plata Flota treasure fleet when it arrived for its annual loading for the King of Spain. Spain received very little revenues from the Americas that year.
The Dutch pirate Nicholas Van Hoorn truly was a scoundrel and would take the very ships put under his care during escort missions. Van Hoorn was not a particularly great pirate but is mentionable here because of his ship. The historical record is a bit sketchy on this but Van Hoorn was so successful that he is possibly the only pirate (that I know of ) that “Special Ordered” his pirate ship. Van Hoorn supposedly ordered a two decked merchant warship armed with 24 pounders from the dockyards at Plymouth England. The ship named “Saint Nicholas Day” served as Van Hoorn’s flagship for the rest of his career. This ship would have been the size of an English 3rd or 4th rate and similar to the famous Mordaunt – also a specially ordered ship. Other accounts say that the crew turned the ship over to Van Hoorn against the wishes of the ship’s actual owner. Don’t know, but in either event, it was a big ship.
William Kydd is more famous for his story than for his success although he is one of the few pirates we know of that actually buried his treasure. We know from history that Kydd commanded the English privateer warship Adventure Galley. The Adventure Galley was not a small ship by any means. Not as large as some of the others just mentioned but no sloop. The Adventure Galley was probably a ship built for trading in the Levant or escorting ships of the Smyrna convoys in the Mediterranean. She was called a galley because she was pierced for oars or “sweeps”, but looked nothing like the ship commonly associated with that designation. She carried a full deck of decently sized guns and smaller split decks of lighter cannon on either side of her waist on the focsle and quarterdeck. She would have been considered a 4th or 5th rate warship or equivalent armed merchantman and would have resembled frigates built in the decades after. As we know from history Kydd is supposed to have turned pirate and his innocence is debated to this day.
I hate to mention Edward Teach “Blackbeard”, because I consider him one of the “small-timers”, but have to because of the famous Queen Anne’s Revenge. This ship was originally the Concord and was built in England as a Guinea trade slave ship (often called “Guineaman”). She was no warship by any means, but she was not a small ship at all. Guineamen most often only carried guns on the weatherdeck because she was built to accommodate large cargoes ( human and otherwise – sugar on the return trip to Europe). Benjamin Hornigold captured her from the French and gave her to his famous Lieutenant Edward Teach who eventually ran her aground and abandoned her. Blackbeard had pierced her below-decks so that in her “heyday” she mounted 40 guns taken from prizes. She would have been a formidable pirate ship indeed, but not the ridiculous huge sterned monstrosity introduced by Disney during the last POTC movie. What a joke.
Christopher Condent is also known for amassing a great fortune at the very end of the Pirate Era but is also known for having a large ship. He haunted the Cape Verde islands and Guinea coast and joined forces with other pirate captains for protection. His ranks swelled and they finally felt bold enough to attack a large two decked Dutch warship on patrol along the Guinea coastline. He made this his flagship and named her “Flying Dragon”. He went on to terrorize the Brazilian coastline before successfully retiring.
“Black Sam” – otherwise known as Samuel Bellamy is another notable who plied his trade at the end of the era. Sam like some of the others commanded an entire fleet of ships(at one time numbering as many as 40 ships). Sam is indeed credited by modern historians at having the largest treasure haul in history, but that means little to me when we have no idea what the actual amounts are of so many of the others because they were never recorded. We only know the amounts of Bellamy’s great treasure haul because of his unfortunate demise. The wreck of the Whydah galley (his flagship) was found and its treasure found and catalogued. Many of its artifacts and treasure can be seen in the museum at Cape Cod, MA. USA. The Whydah would have been much like I described Kydd’s or Teach’s ship – NOT a small ship.
It’s fitting that I end with Bartholomew Roberts who though we don’t know how much treasure he took, some say it was every bit as large or larger than Bellamy because of the shear number of prizes seized. Roberts although at the end of the age has numbers more similar to the great Sea Dogs and Sea Beggar privateers of the early 17th century like Piet Heyn and Francis Drake.
Roberts took over 400 prizes. He is also known to have had a respectably sized warship as his flagship, the “Royal Fortune“. This was no merchantman. She was probably a British escort warship of at least 4th rate in size. The fate of this ship, Roberts and his crew is one of the last stories of an engagement between authorities sent to pursue pirates and their antagonists. The narratives read like fiction and in fact I wrote about it here: http://www.piratesahoy.net/threads/the-great-pirate-roberts.20200/
So what do you think now that we have looked at a little history? Were pirate ships small? …and were pirate hauls mainly ship’s stores and common cargoes? Hmmmm…. I am baffled about why folks would write such things when history tells us otherwise. There are many other less prominent pirates that I could have listed that had above your average size pirate ship but I didn’t want to go on forever. The article has to end sometime and I have often been accused of being way too verbose.
I also must ask the question: would piracy have been so popular that thousands of pirates swelled the ranks of these great captain’s fleets if all they thought they were going to ever get was a cargo of “stores” – tobacco or vanilla? I know a little about human nature and my gut just says….ummmm no.
I just have to point out as well that only three of the people I mention above actually came to their ends by the authorities hunting them, Kydd, Teach, and Roberts. Myngs was killed in battle, Van Hoorn was killed as a result of his famous duel with De Graaf, Bellamy drowned from the storm that took his ship.
The rest of these guys retired comfortably as many more not mentioned. But that is another article for another day. And now you know….the rest of the story……from MK…..Good Day.
Post Script: You know it occurs to me that there has never been a pirate game that includes all or even most of the great notable pirates of history. Sid Meier’s Pirates has quite a few. The old 1997 game Buccaneer by SSI has a few as well(great game BTW). I wonder why no one has ever sought to bring us a game with all of these awesome historical personalities in it? Is it that they just don’t bother looking at history?
No one has bothered that is….except for me in my current mod for COAS available right here at Buccaneer’s Reef!
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