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

Captain_Bartholomew_Roberts_with_two_Ships

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!

Comments:

  1. Pieter Boelen

    Nice one, mate! Interesting read for sure. :cheers

    When it comes to adding all these characters into a game, I figure they should actually have their personalities too.
    Sid Meier’s Pirates! has them, but basically only in name.

  2. Armada

    Fascinating article, MK! Admittedly, a lot of this information surprised me, especially Bellamy’s fleet size. :shock
    With so many other pirates having such incredible lives, it sort of makes Blackbeard seem unworthy of all the mainstream attention.

  3. HundertzehnGustav

    Dude i could listen to you / read you all day long.
    You leave me speechless and asking for more at the same time.

  4. Hylie Pistof

    Good reading! I learned more again. I was confusing Blackbeard and Black Sam and the Whydah. It looks like the closest ship we have to the Whydah is La Licorne in POTC. Or is that one is too big, then the NL_Pinnace in POTC or the midden pinnacschip(?) in ERAS.
    TheWhy4.jpg

  5. Luke McReady

    I once heard a historian say: History mainly remembers the losers when it comes to pirates. The real successful ones are those youve never heard of, who retired with their names under the radar with all their winnings.

  6. Captain.Sparrow

    Most pirates started with small vessels like brigs, sloops, schooners like Calico Jack, Stede Bonnet, Charles Vane, Edward England, Blackbeard(Edward Theach-Thatch) etc. But only small nuber of them captured bigger vessels.

    P.S Sorry For My English

  7. Pieter Boelen

    I linked to this story on our Facebook profile too and it is doing VERY well.
    Often, hardly anybody Likes the various posts and when people do, it may only be 1-2.
    You managed 7 already in quite a short space of time. Looks like you did something right! :onya

  8. modernknight1

    Let’s rephrase your statement mate: “Most pirates (OPERATING OUT OF NASSAU AND NEW PROVIDENCE DURING THE LAST TWO DECADES OF THE AGE OF PIRACY) started with small vessels like brigs, sloops, schooners like Calico Jack, Stede Bonnet, Charles Vane, Edward England, Blackbeard(Edward Theach-Thatch) etc. But only small nuber of them captured bigger vessels.”

    Now your statement is correct.

    Read my fourth paragraph below. Every pirate you just mentioned was from that time and area – as I clearly spelled out. As for the majority of the 17th century you are very wrong. Which was the purpose for writing this article. I wanted to debunk the common misconception you just stated. The pirates of Bermuda that hunted the northern Caribbean and East Coast of North America from 1700-1725 make up a very small segment of pirate history – but unfortunately its the one everybody seems to focus on and care about – why??? I just don’t completely understand.

    QUOTE FROM ARTICLE: Para 4;
    “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.”

  9. modernknight1

    I’m glad people like the article. Nothing has gone according to plan or schedule in my life for the last two weeks so I have time today and have been doing some writing. I did also reskin another ship as well.

  10. modernknight1

    Thanks Gustav! Appreciate the compliment. MK

  11. modernknight1

    Agree. Something I’ve been pointing out to other pirate aficionados for a long time.

  12. modernknight1

    Well I don’t think those ships you mention match up very well Hylie. The Greyhound actually resembles them much more. Look at the picture I posted at the beginning of the article. That has a similar appearance. Have you encountered any Bristol Merchantmen in GOF Eras2 yet? That ship is indeed a Guineaman and the right type of ship that were talking about. Feel free to import any of my ships into New Horizons.

    MK

  13. modernknight1

    I agree partially with that, however some of these great acts were so amazingly audacious like De Graff going for the most fortified possible place in Spanish America that they can’t help but be remembered. I equate that to a modern very organized leader of professional thieves openly attacking and breaking into Fort Knox and successfully stealing its gold.

    Your comment makes me think of Henry Avery, who I almost included. The reason I didn’t is because I couldn’t find enough out about his ships. We know that the ship he attacked the Great Moghul’s ship with had to have been large with lots of men to take on such a well armed prize.

    I consider Avery to be the MOST audacious pirate of history. I also believe that his haul was the largest ever in the shortest amount of time.

    So Avery goes after the Mecca and Medina bound convoys from India to the Red Sea and captures the Great Moghul’s largest ship (which was probably a large English Man’O War purchased by the Emperor from the East India Company). Avery takes the Grand Moghul’s ship as his own and gives his own large warship to Alexander Dalzeel (another notable butcher of a pirate).

    Then Avery has the audacity to take the Emperor of India’s own daughter as his wife.

    You can imagine the uproar this caused and the strain on Anglo-India relations and the pucker factor the East India Company was feeling from this one act.

    This event marks the first time in history that a Global manhunt was launched. They scoured the world looking for Avery. Where did he go?

    Him and his mates headed for —-you guessed it New Providence in the Bahamas. There he sold the ship and split the loot between his mates and crew. The total loot just from the one ship and this doesn’t include the loot he took from other ships off Bombay and the Red Sea, Guinea Coast and Caribbean. The loot totalled over 600,000 English pounds. I have no idea how much that is in todays money but it has to be hundreds of millions of dollars.

    From there Avery and his mates took on new names and disappeared. Most believe that they bought land and settled down in the North American British colonies somewhere. They were never found, never caught, and never heard from again.

    Now in my book that’s better than any Ocean’s 11 to 13 movie. LOL

    MK

  14. HundertzehnGustav

    Translating that to modern times is like having a Go and Capturing an Aircraft Carrier, Subs including Nukes, Missile cruisers, Destroyers and stuff. and then roam the seas off Murgaishu and take tankers and cargoes alike.
    And then , like, getting a Russian passport and marrying Obama’s Daughter.

    I can see the fascination these men spread among the regular populace…

    Oceans 13 is indeed… merely a Joke in that kind of Focus.

  15. Knorris

    absolutely fabulous post. thank you very much..

  16. kipper

    I like this article the best of all the ones you have done UA. You should show this one to Sterling

  17. Backpacker

    Then you know what an impression he must have made to leave such a mark in the history pages… He did something right.

    Nice article, learned a lot. thanks for the enlightenment.

  18. Refund

    While I agree that this is a nice write-up, and it is describing real events (although it includes fictionalized elements), its main statement is wrong. MOST pirates where operating small ships. This is true for most of history, and even in modern times.

    There where some who captured bigger ships, some became hugely successful, received a royal pardon and settled with their wealth. This is true. But there where just so much more small ships sailing in those days that it can be hardly surprising that most pirate vessels where also small. Shipping registers indicate that most piracy happened to small time merchant ships, who where easy prey. The merchant crews did not want to risk risk their lives against a well armed bunch of pirates. The pirates, being opportunistic, choose the vessels were least resistance could be expected.

    So, nice write-up, but your main conclusion does not match with historic evidence.

  19. modernknight1

    Funny! You’re falling into the same tunnel-vision trap as so many others. What conclusions? What fictionalization? Please quantify your position. I simply asked the question “were most pirate ships small?” My conclusion was to debunk the belief that ALL pirate ships were small and took small hauls and that treasure was usually simple stores and such. My purpose was to get people to think about other possible considerations which are historically valid.

    I think I successfully debunked that conclusion and showed that there are a lot of exceptions to that bad over generalization. I even produced evidence of real historical events and real ships.

    Please produce your own evidence if you’re going take a counter position. Where are all these registries you’re talking about? Please produce them. If you want to use insurance as a means it will go against you, because if you examine contemporary insurance documents (which I have) usually the insurers were forced to cover complete losses. Studying the history of piracy is a hobby of mine and has been for years. I have a library of thousands of books and access to numerous archives as well as a MA in history and historical research. So I didn’t make these comments without looking at a few facts to back me up.

    Lets also examine the early years of the Golden Age (1620s-1640s) when piracy was at its very worst outside Dunkirk and Oostend. Pirates were USUALLY found in packs of fast medium warships at this time because they were going after well armed convoys. Did you consider that? Thousands of prizes were taken during this time. This is also the time of the great Sea Beggars who also USUALLY used well armed mechantmen or fast medium warships – men such as Piet Heyn who captured hundreds of prizes.

    Also lets last consider a little science and commonsense. For half of the era of piracy small ships would not have been making the Atlantic crossing. So most pirate ships that were small would have been built in the New World. Fast ships like the Bermuda Sloops were not even invented until the late 1670s and even then not wide spread. All this to say that most small ships would not have been present OR able to keep up with many of the bigger ships. People assume a smaller ship will be faster but there are physical laws governing whetted surface, LOA, and amount of sail that often favor larger craft when it comes to speed. Most 46-55 footers will leave my sleeker 26 foot Hake Seaward in the dust. They would have also had to have kept their small ship constantly maintained if they were staying in the tropics because marine fouling happens fast and would have robbed them of any speed advantage they would enjoy if they were indeed faster than their quarry.

    Spanish built Galleons would have been the slowest going vessels during most of the era of piracy. So they would have been easily caught. However, every passenger with the exception of females were required to carry arms and by Spanish law they were not allowed to travel alone but in convoy for protection against pirates. They were not worried about one little poorly armed pirate ship. They were worried about a flotilla of well armed fast medium warships.

    So, nice comment, but where is your historical evidence? If you’re going to say something like that – then produce the evidence please.

    MK

 

 


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