Home » Posts tagged 'pirates'
Tag Archives: pirates
Pirate Ships, Pirate Prey, & Pirate Hunters: Eyewitness Illustrations & Accompanying Stories
Modern histories of so-called Golden Age pirates — those circa 1655 to 1730 — are often filled with images of pirate ships, many of which are implied to be accurate representations. In fact, there are few eyewitness images of actual buccaneer and pirate ships of this era — perhaps no more than five!
Most period images of buccaneer and pirate ships, not mention of pirate prey and pirate hunters, were drawn not by eyewitnesses in the Caribbean or in other places pirates roved but in England and Europe by the professional illustrators of various editions of books on buccaneers and pirates. These artists never saw the vessels they drew, probably had little if any input from eyewitnesses who had seen them, and were often clearly inept when it came to accurate representation (Hollywood also has always often had this problem and still does).
Even when the illustrator had a good description, the result often hit far from the mark, as we’ll see below. There were no professional artists such as the Willem van de Velde father and son, or Pierre Puget, or any of a number of maritime painters of the era to paint the Caribbean and its people, landscapes, and vessels. This is history’s loss.
Modern scholarly reconstructions in the form of illustration or model — Whydah, Queen Anne’s Revenge, &c — are based on limited eyewitness accounts and scarce records of the actual ships, with reference to hopefully similar ships found in period maritime paintings, drawings, and construction records. At best they are intelligently conjectural. But conjectural they are, even if they are the best we might ever do.
Nonetheless, there exist eyewitness illustrations of at least five Golden Age sea roving vessels we can for the most part put names, captains, and adventures to. In other words, they are illustrations of real buccaneer or pirate vessels made by illustrators and painters who actually saw them or were provided a high degree of detail by eyewitnesses. Additionally, there is an illustration of two others that is almost certainly based on eyewitness descriptions taken firsthand by the illustrator.
The first two are Spanish-built pirate/privateer half-galleys, one for certain, the other almost certain. The third and fourth are of a captured Spanish merchantman soon to be converted by flibustiers to piracy, and its captor. The fifth is a pirate which had recently plundered on the Guinea coast. The sixth and seventh are pirates, one English, one French, one of whom was destroyed by a pair of English men-of-war.
Further, we have illustrations of the two most famous Spanish pirate hunting ships — even if unsuccessful more often than successful — along with an excellent, highly detailed, quite accurate drawing of the HMS Drake, a sixth rate used for pirate hunting in the 1680s Caribbean, and the HMS Bonetta, which was dispatched against a pirate but did not engage it — plus a reasonable image each of the pirate hunters HMS Drake and HMS Falcon. At another time we’ll look at a painting of what may be the most famous of all pirate prey of the era; I’ve more research to do before I commit my argument to print.
We’ll take a look at all nine, with accompanying swashbuckling history in depth. As with the eyewitness images of buccaneers and boucaniers I found in the French National Library, I found several, but not all, of these eyewitness images of vessels likewise largely unnoted and unnoticed.
A Spanish Half-Galley (Galeota) Commanded by Cuban-Italian Corsario Mateo Guarín, 1685
Commissioned by the governor of Cuba, Fernández de Córdoba, in 1683 to make reprisals against English and French pirates and smugglers. In January 1684, Guarín led a raid on Siguatey (Cigateo, aka Eleuthera) and New Providence in the Bahamas.
Mateo Guarín (sometimes Marín) was an Italian privateer — a corsario — from Venetia (the surrounding region of Venice, Italy) in Spanish service. In Italian his name was Matteo Guarino. It was not unusual to find Italian adventurers in Spanish service in the Caribbean; another will be discussed in another post soon.
An English account of the raid: “At the beginning of January about two hundred of their choicest men were fitted out from Havana, well armed, in two barco-luengos, the one of forty, the other of thirty oars. They went to a-small uninhabited island called St. Andrews, where they took an English sloop which was there for cutting timber. They made the three men in her their pilots, and came to the back of Providence on 18th January and waited through the night. At daybreak they landed 120 of their men at the town, while fifty assailed the shipping—six vessels—in the harbour. The people in the town being surprised fled from it to the woods, those in the ships also deserted them and fled on board a New England vessel of ten guns. This and one more ship stood out to sea; the rest were all pillaged and three men murdered.
“The Spaniards killed no one in the town, but kept it till four o’clock in the afternoon, in which time they took away all the wrought and unwrought plate that they could find, a quantity of English dry-goods, and such provisions as they wanted, and loaded their booty, valued by the English at 14.000l., in a pink that they took in the harbour. While the Spaniards were in possession of the town, fourteen Englishmen got together and drove all the Spaniards before them. They would have driven them from the town and retaken the plunder if they had had powder and ball enough, and if the inhabitants had known of a rallying point, and had found but fifty firearms they might have saved all. All might also have been saved by the ship of ten guns if she had but stayed. But three men were killed, but many were carried off prisoners by the Spaniards, as suspected of being pirates.” There was a much more brutal raid against New Providence later in 1684; it is unknown if Guarín participated.
In 1684 Guarín was surprised by that famous Dutch flibustier-in-French-service, Laurens de Graff, at the large Isle of Pines (Isla de Pinos, today Isla de Juventud) off the southern coast of Cuba, but escaped the more heavily-armed and -manned buccaneer.
De Graff was the greatest of buccaneers in the 1680s. In fact, certain aspects of Rafael Sabatini’s famous character Captain Blood are based on him. Caribbean Spaniards had great enmity toward the Dutch buccaneer not only because he was so successful, but because he had deserted Spanish service as a gunner of the Armada de Barlovento and later co-led the brutal sacks of Veracruz and Campeche. De Graff had long ranged and raided along the Cuban coast, and gathered intelligence there as well, in particular from a source named [Juan?] Montiel who provided detailed information on ship movements from Havana, doubtless in return for trade goods or money.
This desperate desire for vengeance against buccaneers and against de Graff in particular ranged across the Spanish Main, but would usually turn out poorly for all the Spanish pirate hunters sent against de Graff, including Capitán Guarín who made the bold personal decision to become de Graff’s principal nemesis.
In October 1684 Guarín attacked the HMS Bonneta (Bonito in colonial records; see the section on Bannister below for an image and more information) of no more than four guns along the south coast of Cuba as it was sailing to Santiago de Trinidad, Cuba to demand the return of captured English seamen from a sloop belonging to Derick Cornelison. The small English man-of-war (see also Bannister below) had sent a boat ashore for water, per treaty. Guarín captured the boat and its eight-man crew, stole the English jack it had flown for protection, and hoisted it aboard a pirate-hunting piragua.
In Captain Stanley’s words: “I at once got up sail, but had no sooner done so than I saw the galley and a periago coming under sail and oars, the galley flying the Spanish flag with a red ensign and the periago the King’s jack, which he had taken in my boat. I fired at the galley when she came within range, and she at me, and we were engaged from nine to eleven, when they got into the creek where there was not water for me to follow them.” The English captain slipped away before more galleys and piraguas might arrive: there were two of the former and seven of the latter in Santiago de Trinidad. Afterward he provided protection to nearby English turtling sloops nearby, and soon afterward rescued four English turtling sloops from the French flibustier Captain Bréha who was robbing them of provisions.
In early 1685, commanding a half-galley, known in Spanish as a galeota, Guarín raided Nipe on the island of Hispaniola, not far from the flibustier haven of Petit Goave. The corsario and his crew flew the white flag of France for deception, but also flew it and therefore fought under it — a violation of the laws of war, in addition to any charges of piracy. Guarín and his crew carried away forty slaves, soon declared in Baracoa and Puerto Principe, Cuba, as good plunder worth approximately 8,800 pesos de ocho reals (pieces-of-eight). The corsarios probably carried away little other plunder, given the small agricultural nature of the settlement.
An official French account notes that two demi-galères (half-galleys, galeotas) attacked Nipe for a second time later that year, but that their original intended target was the plantation belonging to Governor de Pouançay via an extortion attempt at ransom. The attackers changed their minds when their threat was rebuffed. The second attack on Nipe failed due to the town becoming alarmed before the raid began. It is unknown whether this second attack was led by Guarín.
By good fortune, French engineer Pierre de Cornuau had been sent to French Hispaniola to survey and draw charts of French ports. His chart of Nipe, drawn the same year as Guarín’s raid, shows the Spanish half-galley (see the image above). It is quite typical of the form (more on this below), and Cornuau, who probably did not see the half-galley himself, certainly had it described to him by eyewitnesses.
As will be seen in the next section, Cornuau’s simple drawing is a very accurate rendering of these vessels as used by the Spanish in the Caribbean. It has a single carriage gun (cannon) mounted at the bow, a pair of gallows for sweeps (oars) amidships, two masts and two furled lateen sails, and a flagstaff at the stern for the ensign. Missing in the drawing, but probably mounted on the actual vessel, are a handful of swivel guns (small cannon mounted on yokes), probably of the chamber-loaded sort known as patereroes in English. “The galleys are what are called half-galleys in the straits, and carry eighty to a hundred and twenty men; the periagos carry from fifty to seventy,” wrote Lieutenant-Governor Hender Molesworth. One account of Guarín’s half-galley arms it with “sixty-five men, one “Cushee-piece” and six patararoes,” another with eight patararoes (breech-loading swivel cannon mounted on the rails).
Soon afterward, in company with corsario Alexandro Thomás de Léon, Guarín captured the small flibustier frigate Coronet, commanded by Jean Baptiste. Interrogated at Trinidad, Cuba, the French captain gave up exceptional detail regarding the plantation of Laurens de Graff on Saint-Domingue, and also on that of Michel, sieur de Grammont, another of the greatest buccaneers of the 1680s. He also learned that at his plantation de Graff had a mulatta wife or mistress he had “seized” from Veracruz, named Olaya de Escurre, with whom he had a son. (De Graff had only two lawfully married wives as far as we know: he divorced Petronilla de Guzman of the Canary Islands to marry the wealthy widow Anne Dieu-le-Veut on Saint-Domingue after he became a French officer.) It is possible that de Escurre was his mistress from his years when he lived in Veracruz in the service of the Armada de Barlovento as a gunner, or that he in fact enslaved her, or otherwise carried her away as human plunder, during the sack of Veracruz.
Guarín, commanding two piraguas, or quite probably galeotas (piragua and pirogue are often used mistakenly for half-galley/galeota), built for the purpose in Havana, possibly including the one shown above, captured the guardhouse then sacked the plantation, taking numerous slaves as plunder and liberating a number of formerly free mulatta women who had been carried away as slaves from Veracruz. Among the prisoners was the young son of de Graff and de Escurre, whose capture the governor of Cuba hoped might force de Graff into negotiations and thereby reduce raids on Spanish ships and towns. De Graff was not present when his plantation was raided.
In February 1686, commanding two piraguas (according to Spanish records) or two “galleys” (according to English records, thus we will assume one was the half-galley shown above), Guarín attacked two English smugglers: the Swallow pink (a flute) of 22 guns commanded by Edward Goffe, and the Ann sloop of 6 guns commanded by [William?] Peartree, off the Tayabacoa River, Cuba, near Trinidad. (Spanish records Hispanicize the names as “Gafi y Peltre.”) The English captains claimed to be seeking to wood and water, as was permitted by treaty, a common, usually false, claim made by smugglers. Rebuffed at Trinidad, they sailed SE ten leagues to the small cays off the Tayabacoa.
The Spaniards soon arrived and attacked; the battle was brutal and bloody. According to Goffe, “the Governor of Trinidad sent two galleys out, one of forty and one of eighty-five men, the latter of which, as the master confesses, was present at the sack of New Providence. Both galleys came up to my ship’s side, and without hailing poured in a volley, which killed two men and wounded five or six, and then making fast to my ship’s side tried to board her. Having the sloop’s crew on board we defended ourselves, and after about half an hour’s engagement, there were about sixty Spanish pirates killed and thirty-eight wounded. The smaller galley managed to clear herself, but the larger we captured and brought into Jamaica.”
Guarín’s account is similar, but with ugly accusations of murder. He states that he lost 24 men killed in the battle, with 50 more abused and murdered after the battle, including his lieutenant hanged by the English victors, and 30 more of his men put ashore. He himself was severely wounded, and, along with his surgeon, carpenter (a Maltese), and a mulatto from Havana named Juan Cristián, was carried into Jamaica.
Guarín and his comrades were tried for piracy; he and Juan Cristián were sentenced to hang. Although Guarín’s commission was sufficient to protect him from prosecution for piracy for his attack on the Swallow and the Ann, it could not protect him from prosecution for his attack on New Providence and for seizing the boat and eight crewmen of the HMS Bonetta. Even so, by good fortune both men were reprieved when the Spanish Assiento (slave trade) representative in Jamaica, Don Santiago del Castillo, contacted the Spanish ambassador in London, Don Pedro de Ronquillo, who petitioned King James II to release the convicted pirates.
In fact, Lieutenant-Governor Molesworth had already reprieved him pending the recommendation of King James II: “The Spanish captain referred to in my last has been found guilty of piracy, for robbing a sloop from Nevis and stealing Capt. Stanley’s boat. For reasons relating to our Spanish trade, and understanding that he had treated those under his power well and had apologised to Captain Stanley, soon after committing the fact, for not knowing his to be a King’s ship, I have granted his reprieve. I am since glad that I did so, for I find that the Spanish Governors will be very much concerned for him, and particularly those who have obliged me most by granting restitution of prisoners. Lately I have received a letter from the Governor of Santiago, in Cuba, demanding him in the same manner as I have demanded prisoners, and making such excuses for him that I conceive, if he had been executed, it would have passed current among Spanish Governors that he had suffered only for carrying out the Spanish King’s Commission. This would have raised a great clamour against us and would have endangered all our traders who are or may in future fall into their power. I have therefore reprieved him till the King’s pleasure be known.”
By October, 1686, Guarín and his comrades were free men again but his adventures afterward were tame by comparison. With a new vessel provided by investors, possibly another half-galley, he transported the governor of Florida to St. Augustine, patrolled the Cuban coast, and sought but did not find the notorious Dutch flibustier-in-French-service Jan Willems aka Captain Yanky. He soon found himself imprisoned again, but this time not by his English or French enemies, but by his compatriot cubanos in Havana. His vessel was seized after he was accused by some local hidalgos of having sold slaves captured at the Bahamas and Saint-Domingue that actually had belonged to them before being plundered by English and French buccaneers. One scholar suggests this was a false accusation to protect the governor against accusations of engaging in contraband.
According to Spanish law, as a Capitán de Mar y de Guerra, a title accorded him by his privateering commission (patente de corso), he should have been immune to such accusations. Even so, Guarín spent a year and a half in jail, and the last we hear of him is that his case was pending at the Council of the Indies. There is no record of this bold corsario taking to sea again.
For more information on this and other Cuban corsarios, see El Corso en Cuba Siglo XVII by César García del Pino (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2001), and La Defensa de la Isla de Cuba en la Segunda Mitad del Siglo XVII by Francisco Castillo Meléndez (Seville: Diputación Provincial, Sevilla, 1986). The English eyewitness account and associated correspondence can be found in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, 1685-1688.
A Captured Spanish Half-Galley Commanded by Nicolás Brigaut in 1686
By the mid-1680s most major Spanish ports had at least one galeota used for intercepting smugglers, pirate hunting, and raids of reprisal, and also as an advice (dispatch) vessel. Of shallow draft, with the ability to maneuver under both sail and oar, the vessels were ideal for their purpose. They could attack from and escape over shallow waters, attack in calms at the bow or stern of smugglers and pirates and thereby avoid their broadsides, and could travel close inshore and up-river for raids on French and English settlements.
Most had two masts with a single lateen sail on each, approximately thirty oars or sweeps, a long thrusting prow or beakhead, one or two carriage guns in the bow, and often four or more patereroes (swivel cannon) on the rails at the bow and stern. Sweeps were stowed on gallows amidships when not in use. Recognizing their utility, both the French and English began using them, either constructing them themselves or using captured Spanish ones. In English the vessel was typically referred to as a half-galley, in French as a demi-galère or sometimes, confusingly, a pirogue, and in Spanish as a galeota or occasionally, again confusingly, a piragua.
Michel, sieur de Grammont, the “general” of the buccaneers at the sack of Campeche (Laurens de Graff was the buccaneer “admiral”), brought away a half-galley with him after the town and surrounding region were attacked at length and then abandoned in 1685. In April of the following year Grammont’ set about to attack St. Augustine, Florida via the southern passage at Matanzas.
With Grammont’s flotilla was the half-galley captured at Campeche, armed with two carriage guns (remember, at sea a cannon is called a gun, back then and even today) at the bow and now commanded by Capitaine Nicolás Brigaut. His job was to collect intelligence, secure provisions, capture Native American interpreters, and prevent a warning from getting to St. Augustine while doing so. He easily captured a few soldiers from the watchtower—they rowed out to find out who he was and thereby discovered to their dismay who he was. The buccaneers tortured at least two of them for information regarding the defenses of St. Augustine.
It wasn’t long before word got to St. Augustine in spite of Brigaut’s precautions, and a small force commanded by José Begambre was sent against Brigaut and his marooned flibustiers. According to one account, the pirate captain sent two boatloads of men ashore, and according to another they fought from the half-galley. In any case, after a four hour battle the small Spanish force withdrew with casualties.
First point to Brigaut and his men! But plans seldom work as well in reality as in theory. Fortune turned against the pirates in the form of accident or ignorance of the local waters, and the half-galley wrecked on Matanzas Bar.
Worse, two more forces under the commands of Capitán Antonio de Argüelles, who had successfully ambushed attacking pirates in 1683, and Sargento Mayor (in other words, “Major”) Pedro de Aranda y Avellaneda, the former with nine soldiers and the latter with forty, arrived the following morning. The pirates had come ashore and, according to one account, made simple trenches from which to defend against a counterattack. After a second firefight, the Spanish again withdrew with casualties. The pirates had lost the element of surprise and feared more reinforcements. Brigaut sent several men in a ship’s boat to warn Grammont with instructions to pick the stranded pirates up at Mosquito Bar, the location today of New Smyrna Beach. The pirates headed south during the night.
Five leagues shy of their destination the gallant Brigaut and his gallant crew — or so we suppose they were gallant, at least in battle — were set upon by fifty or sixty Native Americans intent upon freeing the pirates’ prisoners. Again Brigaut’s flibusters put their attackers to flight. Unfortunately, one of Brigaut’s prisoners, Juan López, escaped and brought word to St. Augustine. Almost immediately gallant Capitán Francisco de Fuentes and fifty gallant men — again, we suppose they were gallant — headed south in two pirogues to attack Brigaut and his men at Mosquito Bar. Meanwhile, news spread fast in St. Augustine that as many as seven pirate ships had been seen, and that Grammont and his sloop were preparing to make a landing to the north now that the southern approach had been thwarted. Clearly the attack was not yet defeated.
And at Mosquito Bar the substance was of life and death, of raw survival, and, unfortunately for the buccaneers, luck was on the side of the Spanish by means of the timely accident that Brigaut’s men were separated into two parties. Luck, or Fortune if you will, often has poor timing, almost as if on purpose. The Spaniards slaughtered the nineteen pirates in the smaller group, then attacked the larger and massacred all but three, their desperate courage notwithstanding. Those they spared were not, by the way, any of the four remaining Spanish prisoners held by the pirates, which strongly suggests either that nearly everyone was slaughtered in an orgy of violent fear and rage that refused to distinguish between friend and foe, or that the Spanish believed the prisoners had deserted to the pirates, which Spaniards sometimes did, and so they put them to the sword as well.
Only here, in this description of slaughter, does our Hollywood image of Hollywood actors acting in Hollywood style — our cultural interpretation, in other words — begin to fail us as we — rather, if we — imagine soldiers and pirates sweating profusely in the combination of heat, humidity, rage, and fear, their hands and faces blackened with spent gunpowder, their burning eyes squinting from salt and the sea glare; as we imagine the sand sticking to the blood of those killing and of those dying or dead, most of whom probably called upon God both to kill and to save; as we imagine the flies swarming over and upon the dark purple that now stained, however briefly, the windswept battlefield dotted with the living and the dead among the coastal scrub.
We don’t know for sure if the Spaniards simply refused to grant quarter and slaughtered the pirates and prisoners in battle, or massacred them immediately after they surrendered, and it’s even possible that the pirates killed their prisoners themselves. Pirates liked to hold hostages, and French pirates sometimes decapitated their terror-stricken hostages — well, most were probably terror-stricken, but there may have been a few stubbornly courageous hold-outs who were merely afraid but not terror-stricken — when their demands weren’t met. Of course, hostage- and head-taking is something we find deplorable today, at least in “the real world,” but we generally condone in film and on television, at least if the hostage takers are the good guys and they don’t decapitate except in a fair fight. Terrorists and drug cartels behead the innocent — but surely our beloved swashbucklers don’t.
Even so, the pirates probably shouted something on the order of “Matamos los rehenes!” in Spanish at their attackers, which means “We are going to kill the hostages!” although the Spanish is actually in the present indicative tense, not the future simple, which is a more common usage in Spanish than in English when threatening future action. Just so you know.
A fair number of pirates could speak Spanish as a second language because it was useful for interrogating and torturing and tactical pretending and such. And some pirates were Spanish, siding with the English buccaneers and French flibustiers and against their own for profit, and probably a few for revenge — conversos and “crypto-Jews,” for example, although the Spanish interrogations of Spanish-born pirates I’ve seen are silent on the issue. Still, it’s likely some were.
At any rate, “Matadlos, no nos importa!” the Spaniards probably shouted back at the pirates, which means, more or less, “Go ahead and kill them, we don’t care!” although the phrase was more likely something on the order of “Go ahead and kill them you murdering French dogs, you pirates, thieves, and cutthroats, you sons of whores and cuckolds, you mostly Lutheran [which is what Spaniards called all Protestants] therefore un-Christian except in name French cowards who torture the innocent and rape virgins and bugger each other, and bugger your ugly French-pox’d mothers too!” Or likely something along these lines. Such language is common among soldiers and sailors of all eras.
As for the battle itself, likely the truth lies betwixt, as often it does: most of the pirates probably died in battle, and the rest, given that there was some quarter given, were summarily put to the sword in a violent assault right after they surrendered, which seems a reasonable if uncivilized thing to do to the pirates who had sacked Veracruz and Campeche, raping and murdering and torturing as they did. There is speculation that the Spaniards may have given no quarter due to the mistaken belief, carried by escaped prisoner Juan López to St. Augustine, that the Spanish renegade Alonso de Avesilla, who had guided the pirates during the 1683 attack on the city, was in command of the half-galley.
However, Avesilla (possibly the same Spanish corsario known as Augustino Alvares who commanded a barco luengo in 1683) reportedly had died at the flibustier home port Petit Goave two years before; his name may have been given out by the pirates as a joke. The three spared pirates were the white French captain Brigaut and a black pirate named Diego, a “native” of St. Christopher’s (therefore his real name might have been James or Jacques), until they could be interrogated, and a boy on account of his age. Diego, by the way, given that he was spared with Brigaut, may even have been Brigaut’s quartermaster, that is, his second-in-command, making him the highest ranking black — of full African origin, in other words — pirate officer of the so-called “golden age” discovered to date.
Brigaut confessed and was put to death — “Confess and be hanged!” has a long history in literature as well as in murderous hypocrisy of both the religious and political sort — at St. Augustine alongside Diego the Black Pirate who probably thought that piracy was a far better way of life than slavery (assuming he had been a slave), or at least until it came time to be hanged or garroted. Long before this Grammont had abandoned his attack on St. Augustine.
The official French account of the incident at Matanzas, sent from Governor de Cussy of Tortuga and Saint-Domingue to his superior in France, the Marquis de Seigneley, only barely resembled reality. Brigaut wasn’t a pirate, he was merely seeking provisions. The law permitted this seeking of provisions, water, and shelter in extremis. In fact, Brigaut wasn’t even mentioned by name, although his commander, the sieur de Grammont, briefly was.
Most of the few lines describing the incident were devoted to the sad story of a young Parisian of good family, the sieur de Chauvelin, who was reportedly given quarter, taken before the governor of St. Augustine, then put to death in spite of his quality as a gentleman. Further, during the battle itself it was twenty, or maybe seventy, pirates — or rather, twenty or seventy innocent French privateers attacked while innocently seeking provisions per international agreement — standing valiantly against three hundred Spaniards, who prevailed only after reinforcements arrived.
Governor de Cussy heard this story from a flibustier captain named du Marc, who had recently escaped from Spanish imprisonment and who probably had the story second hand, or even third or fourth hand. In any event, according to the French version, the beastly Spaniards weren’t hanging pirates who had come to sack St. Augustine, to plunder, murder, and rape. Rather, they were murdering young Parisian gentlemen who were only seeking provisions. Or murdering at least one young Parisian gentleman, and if one, then probably others, naturally. All we really know from du Marc’s version of this story is that a young man named Chauvelin, of adventurous spirit, joined a band of flibustiers and probably died on or near a pretty Florida beach.
So, was the half-galley depicted above the one commanded by Brigaut? Probably, or more than probably, for my research strongly suggests that there were only two half-galleys at French Hispaniola in the late 1680s: Nicolás Brigaut’s, captured at Campeche in 1685 by the sieur de Grammont, then home-ported at Petit Goave, and lost in 1686 at Matanzas, Florida; and one built by the French and apparently home-ported at Cap François, the French capital of Saint-Domingue. The latter was sent in 1686 to look for remnants the pirate Banister’s crew at Samana after a pair of English men-of-war destroyed his ship, the Golden Fleece. A third, Spanish, which I originally believed to have been captured in 1687 at Petit Goave, in fact escaped to Cuba.
Brigaut’s half-galley would have been home-ported at Petit Goave, and the illustration is part of a 1688 chart of Petit Goave. Paul Cornuau, who drew the chart, had been at Hispaniola since at least 1684 and would have been familiar with the vessel. In fact, it is entirely possible that the two flibustiers standing in the foreground might be members of its crew, perhaps even Brigaut and Diego, but unfortunately we’ll never know.
I’ve used numerous sources for this account, more than I’m inclined to list here. However, interested readers can start with “Grammont’s Landing at Little Matanza’s Inlet, 1686,” by Luis R. Arana and Eugenia B. Arana in El Escribano: The St. Augustine Journal of History, 9, no. 3 (1972); “The Testimony of Thomás de la Torre, a Spanish Slave” by Alejandra Dubcovsky in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 3 (July 2013); and The Struggle for the Georgia Coast by John E. Worth (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007).
The 14-gun Saint-Roze & a 6-gun Bark Commanded by Laurens de Graff & Jean Charpin
It is no accident that Laurens de Graff looms large in these histories of eyewitness images of piratical vessels: he was the greatest of buccaneers in the 1680s, a period also in which French engineers were drafting charts of French Caribbean ports and illustrating them with local ships and buccaneers.
In the year 1687 de Graff was still cruising as a buccaneer in French service, but had been offered and accepted a commission as a regular military officer in the service of the French king. However, before he could take up said commission, he must first receive his pardon for the death of Captain Nicolas Van Horn in a duel at Campeche in 1685, his letters of naturalization as a French citizen, and his commission as an officer.
So while he waiting he did what he knew best: he cruised for Spanish plunder. Late in the previous year he lost his famous Neptune, with which he had fought the two greatest ships of the Armada de Barlovento, forcing them to withdraw. While chasing a Spanish bark near Cartagena de Indias, he ran aground on an unknown rock or reef. The crew of the Spanish bark ran their vessel aground and set it afire, but Laurens quickly set out in a canoe, boarded it, put the fire out, and put his crew aboard
This small six-gun bark, which may be seen on the right side of the image above, replaced his grounded and foundered Neptune. In March 1687 Laurens and his one hundred fifty men — imagine them all crammed into the small bark! — raided the coast of Costa Rica and ascended the Matina Valley. In August thirty of his crew abandoned the cruise and returned to Petit Goave, and in October Laurens and the rest of his crew returned, having first captured the Santa Rosa of seventy-six tons (probably toneladas de mercante, roughly equal to ninety de guerra, close to English tonnage) and fourteen guns near Cartagena. The small Assiento ship was en routed to Curacao to buy slaves, and therefore had approximately 75,000 pieces-of-eight aboard — and each man’s share would come to roughly 500 pieces-of-eight, quite a profitable cruise in the end!
At Petit Goave Laurens received his pardon, naturalization, and commission as an officer, and also orders from Governor de Cussy to occupy Île-à-Vache. Everyone knew war was coming, and preparations had begun in earnest. Unfortunately, in spite of his now official status as a French major responsible for helping defend Saint-Domingue, de Graff had almost immediately set sail again as a buccaneer, with the Saint-Roze as his flagship and the small Spanish bark, the latter almost certainly commanded by his lieutenant Jean Charpin.
Receiving word of this, Governor de Cussy set sail in the French man-of-war Le Marin and intercepted de Graff and Charpin and ordered them to abandon their plans to cruise against the Spanish, and return to Petit Goave. The incident, illustrated by Parthenay, is shown below.
To pacify the restive buccaneers, de Cussy granted land at Cul de Sac to one hundred fifty of them. The remainder sailed with de Graff and Charpin sailed to Île-à-Vache to follow de Cussy’s orders and occupy the often disputed island.
Well, sort of.
Whether instigated by de Graff who would profit from the voyage, or by French buccaneers who had no intention of sitting on their butts occupying an island when they could be cruising against the Spanish, seventy or eighty of them signed articles, with Jean Charpin as their captain and Mathurin Desmarestz as their quartermaster, and set sail aboard the Saint-Roze with de Graff’s blessing — after all, as owner of the ship, he would profit handsomely from a successful cruise.
The articles are notable because they are one of the few original sets that exist; most sets of known articles are described accurately in other sources, for example, in Alexandre Exquemelin’s works. However, although their articles are described in such sources, they are not recorded as written in individual sets of articles. For this reason I’ve included those of the Saint-Roze here, in their original French and in translation. The translation is mine, and any errors in it are therefore mine. I’ve annotated the English translation. (Additional extensive details on buccaneer articles can be found in The Buccaneer’s Realm.)
Copie de la charte-partie faite entre
M. Charpin, commandant la Sainte-Rose, et son équipage qui sont convenus entre eux de lui donner dix lots pour lui, que pour son commandement et pour son navire.
Tous les bâtiments pris en mer ou à l’ancre portant huniers qui ne se donneront point voyage; les bâtiments seront brûlés et les agrès seront pour le bâtiment de guerre.
Item. Tous les bâtiments pris, le capitaine aura le choix; et le non-choix demeurera à l’équipage sans que le capitaine y puisse rien prétendre.
Item. Le capitaine se réserve ses chaudières et son canot de guerre; et les chaudières qui seront prises seront pour l’équipage.
Item. Tous bâtiments pris hors de la portée du canon avec les canots de guerre seront pillage. Tous ballots entamés entre deux ponts ou au fond de cale, pillage.
Item. Or, argent, perle, diamant, musc, ambre, civette et toutes sortes de pierreries, pillage.
Item. Celui qui aura la vue des bâtiments aura 100 pièces de 8 si la prise est de valeur ou double pillage.
Item. Tout homme estropié au service du bâtiment aura 600 pièces de 8 ou 6 nègres a choix s’il s’en prend.
Item. Tout homme convaincu de lâcheté perdra son voyage.
Item. Tout homme faisant faux serment et convaincu de vol perdra son voyage et sera dégradé sur la première caye.
Item. Tout canot de guerre qui sortira en course qui prendra au-dessus de 500 pièces sera pour l’équipage dudit canot.
Item. Tous nègres et autres esclaves qui seront pris par le canot reviendront au pied du mât.
Item. Pour les Espagnols qui ne seront point guéris, étant arrivé en lieu, l’équipage s’oblige de donner une pièce de 8 pour lesdits malades pour le chirurgien par jour l’espace de 3 mois étant arrivé à terre.
Item. M. de La Borderie et M. Jocom se sont obligés de servir l’équipage de tout ce qui leur sera nécessaire pendant le voyage; et l’équipage s’oblige de leur donner 180 pièces de 8 pour leur coffre; et ceux des chirurgiens qui seront pris avec les instruments qui ne seront point garnis d’argent seront pour le chirurgien.
Ladite charte ne pourra se casser ni annuler que nous n’ayons fait voyage tous ensemble.
Fait à l’île à Vache, ancré et affourché le 18 de février 1688.
Ainsi signé : Jean Charpin et Mathurin Desmarestz, quartier-maître de l’équipage.
Copy of the charter-party made between
Mr. Charpin, commander of the Sainte-Rose, and his crew who agreed among themselves to give him ten shares for himself, for his command and for his ship. [Captains were typically given extra shares as “owners” of their vessels; this is how they could get rich. Charpin’s ten shares would include two for his service as captain, as compared to the common buccaneer’s single share. This leaves eight shares for the vessel; such determination was based on the size and state of the vessel, and its armament, as judged by the crew. Such determination often worked out to roughly one share per ten tons or per gun (a general rule of thumb is one gun per ten tons for determining a vessels’s armament), although it was just as often less than this, as it is here.]
All vessels taken at sea or at anchor carrying topsails which will not give themselves a voyage [i.e. be kept as prizes]; the vessels will be burned and the rigging will be [used] for the man-of-war [the Saint-Roze].
Item. All vessels taken, the captain will have a choice; and those he does not choose will remain with the crew without the captain being able to claim anything from it. [Typically this means that the captain could swap his ship for another, if better.]
Item. The captain reserves his cauldrons and his war canoe [canoes and pirogues were often used in the Caribbean instead of common ship’s boats]; and the cauldrons that will be taken will be for the crew. [Cauldrons, whether for cooking or for boiling cane juice were valuable and were common plunder. Here, the captain is probably claiming ownership over the ship’s cookroom cauldrons and the ship’s main boat or canoe.]
Item. Any vessels taken out of cannon range with war canoes [armed canoes or boats] will be plundered. All bales [already] started [opened] between two decks or in the hold, pillage. [There was a distinction between plunder and pillage; the former was shared among the entire crew, owners, and government, the latter was usually shared only among the crew. The article indicates that bales found already open ‘tween decks or in the hold are pillage, not plunder. Of course, it would be hard to prove how many were already “started”…]
Item. Gold, silver, pearl, diamond, musk, amber, civet and all kinds of precious stones, pillage. [This is a significant article, indicating that much valuable plunder will remain in the crew’s hands, not the owner’s or government’s. However, coin/specie is almost certainly excluded by custom from the definitions of gold and silver.]
Item. Whoever has the [first] sighting of the [captured] vessels will have 100 pieces-of-8 if the catch is valuable or double plunder [double share, if it is not valuable].
Item. Any man crippled [maimed] in the service of the vessel [cruise] will have 600 pieces-of-8 or 6 blacks [slaves] according to his choice. [See also the article on surgeon payment below.]
Item. Any man convicted of cowardice will lose his voyage [his shares and other profit will be confiscated and divided among the rest of the crew].
Item. Any man falsely sworn and convicted of theft will lose his voyage [see article above] and be degraded [stripped of the name and quality of a flibustier and marooned without food or clothes, according to a 1697 source] on the first key [the first island encountered].
Item. Any war canoe that goes out cruising that takes [captures] over 500 pieces [-of-eight] [it] will be for [divided among] the crew of said boat.
Item. All blacks and other slaves [Native Americans, mulattos, and mestizos were often taken as slaves] who will be taken by the canoe will return to the foot of the mast [i.e. will be considered as pillage; pillage was typically divided at the foot of the mainmast, as were other division of spoils].
Item. For the Spaniards [wounded Spanish prisoners] who will not [cannot] be cured, having arrived in place [to put them ashore?], the crew undertakes to give a piece of 8 for the said patients for the surgeon per day for the space of 3 months having arrived on land. [This appears to be payment to the ship’s surgeon for having treated wounded Spaniards. It probably also applies to any wounded, as an eyewitness description suggests: a piece-of-eight a day per patient to the surgeon for up to forty days, and the same to each wounded flibuster.]
Item. M. de La Borderie and M. Jocom are obliged to supply the crew with everything they will need during the voyage; and the crew undertakes to give them 180 pieces of 8 for their chest; and those of the [Spanish] surgeons who will be captured with the instruments which will not be lined with silver will be for the [ship’s] surgeon. [This article applies to the two surgeons: they must supply all instruments and medicines for the voyage, for which they are to be paid 180 pieces-of-eight for their surgeon’s chests. Any captured surgeon’s chests belong to the ship’s surgeons unless the instruments &c are of silver, in which case they are pillage.]
Said charter cannot be broken or canceled until we have cruised together.
Done at Ile à Vache, at anchor and in harbor, 18 February 1688.
Thus signed: Jean Charpin and Mathurin Desmarestz, quartermaster of the crew.
Captain Jean Charpin, known among Caribbean Spaniards as Juanillo, was of mixed race, probably white and Native American. A native of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Spain, his father French, his mother Spanish, he was, like his former captain Laurens de Graff, a renegade who had deserted Spanish service. He had served at de Graff’s side since at least 1683.
The Saint-Roze set a course for the ile of Roatan in the Gulf of Honduras and careened there. The island was a well-known rendezvous of buccaneers, and soon the crew of the Saint-Roze was increased by the addition of a group of buccaneers — or more correctly, pirates — who according to French and Spanish records had returned overland from the South Sea (here, the Pacific coast of the Spanish Main) via the Coco River on the borders of Nicaragua and Honduras. Without doubt they were part of Pierre Picard’s expedition (as was buccaneer-author Raveneau de Lussan). Some scholars suggest instead that they many have recently left service under Jan Willems aka Yankey after he attacked the bodegas on the Rio Dulce and the Honduras urca at Puerto Caballos.
In any case, the new arrivals were commanded by a Huguenot named Jean Fantin who had previously served under the mutineer captain Pierre Pain aboard the French man-of-war La Trompeuse as quartermaster, and then under the Dutch flibustier-in-French-service (there were a lot of them) Captain Yankey aboard the Hardy. Having careened, the buccaneers set sail and plundered Trujillo and Olancho in Honduras, gaining only small plunder, six thousand pieces-of-eight of which were acquired via the ransom of local officials. From Honduras the buccaneers sailed to Cuba, cruised off Havana to no profit, went ashore to shoot pigs and cattle for provisions, and slipped away from an armadilla sent after them.
From Cuba the buccaneers sailed to New Castle in Pennsylvania (modern Delaware), capturing en route a Dutch merchantman of 120 tons and fourteen guns. They also captured an English sloop trading from Barbados to the Bermudas. After plundering the sloop and taking it as a prize the buccaneers gave the merchant crew the Saint-Roze which was becoming unseaworthy, and was certainly unfit for a voyage to the far side of the world. The merchant seamen sailed the Saint-Roze to Barbados where it was eventually sold for scrap, having been determined to be unfit for sea anymore and unrepairable — buccaneers had a deserved reputation as lazy seamen, often failing to do necessary maintenance and repairs. Charpin’s rovers soon released the merchant captain too, and returned his sloop to him as well.
The buccaneers sold the cargo of the Dutch prize, now named the Dauphin, in New Castle, “Pennsylvania” (the region, including New England, was always a haven for pirates) for provisions. The buccaneers sailed to Boa Vista in the Cape Verdes, originally intending to plunder the Guinea Coast. Here they debated their next course: Guinea, the Red Sea, or the South Sea. Conflict set in: Jean Fantin was elected captain and claimed the Dutch prize as his own, contrary to the articles of the Saint-Roze. While there, a flotilla under the command of Jean du Casse arrived, en route to raid Surinam. Charpin appealed to du Casse regarding the Dutch prize, but was rebuffed. Du Casse also turned a blind eye to the buccaneers’ capture of a richly-laden sixteen-gun Spanish merchantman, commanded by Francisco Dias de Padilla, from Havana, other than to attach it as a fireship to his squadron, and persuade, by threat of force, the buccaneers to join his expedition.
After du Casse’s desultory and generally unprofitable raid on Surinam, Charpin returned to Petit Goave in command of the Dauphin and, at least until 1695 and probably until King William’s War ended in 1697, served as a French flibustier corsaire (a buccaneer-privateer), operating largely in the Caribbean although at one point, in concert with Captain Picard and other flibustiers, he cruised far north to raid Rhode Island.
His quartermaster Mathurin Desmarestz (a nomme de guerre, his real name was Isaac Veyret) upon his return took a commission as captain of a French privateer flute, the Machine, of three hundred tons and eight guns out of Martinique. In 1690, in consort with a barque commanded by the sieur de Montauban, he captured a rich Spanish galleon, the Jesús Nazarena y Nuestra Señora del Carmen, nicknamed the Ballestera and commanded by Pedro Fernandez de Valenzuela. Desmarestz and the Ballestera cruised the Caribbean for another year, then, having armed the ship with thirty-two guns and manned it with three hundred men, set sail for the Red Sea, to include encounters with Henry Every… But that’s another story!
But as or more interesting perhaps is the tale of the Spanish prize captured at the Cape Verdes, now commanded by Jean Fantin. The Huguenot captain and his crew returned to Martinique where they were commissioned as corsaires. Joining du Casse’s flotilla again, they sailed to St. Christopher where approximately one hundred ten of the crew assisted du Casse in mounting a six-gun battery ashore to dislodge the English defenders. As they did so, the remaining eight English aboard mutinied, “overcame” the dozen remaining French buccaneers, and set sail for Antigua where they were commissioned as an English privateer and recruited another seventy to eighty buccaneers for their crew.
Why does this matter? Because among these eight mutineer Englishmen were William Kidd and Robert Culliford (also Colliver), both of whom would meet again on the far side of the world, one as a failed pirate hunter, the other as a Red Sea pirate. In fact, both may have been with Fantin in the South Sea under Picard or with Yankey when he raided Honduras, or even were with Charpin aboard the Saint-Roze at Île-à-Vache. Kidd was made captain of the former French privateer, now named the Blessed William — and his crew would soon run away with the ship while Kidd was ashore, and turn pirate. The rest is history.
And to add a curious footnote: the Santa Rosa is almost certainly the same Spanish Assiento slave ship owned by the company of Don Juan Coymans that in January 1686 was intended to carry 600 slaves to Portobello from Jamaica. In December 1684 it had sailed from Jamaica to Portobello with 304 slaves aboard. In March 1686 Lieutenant-Governor Hender Molesworth of Jamaica, having lost the service of the HMS Ruby, ordered the ship impressed and fitted out to hunt the pirate Bannister (see below), in company with the HMS Bonneta. However, the expedition does not appear to have actually sailed; the arrival of the HMS Falcon and HMS Drake precluded any need to impress the Spanish ship.
For more details on Charpin, Fantin, and Veyret, see the Dictionnaire des Flibustiers des Caraïbes by Jacques Gasser (Les Sables d’Olonne, France: Editions Beaupre, 2017). Details on the Coymans Assiento can be found in numerous scholarly studies.
A Pirate Ship Captured at Baradaires, Saint-Domingue in 1687 by Flibustier Jean de Bernanos
In October 1687, upon hearing word that a pirate — described in French as a forbin, that is, a true pirate, not a flibustier — was on the coast, after having plundered the Guinea Coast of Africa and probably attempting to sell a cargo of slaves illicitly — Governor de Cussy dispatched the sieur de Franquesney aboard the man-of-war Le Marin to seize the pirate. No fool when it came to dealing with pirates, Franquesney recruited veteran buccaneer Jean de Bernanos, who recruited fifteen flibustiers to augment the naval seamen in case push came to shove.
At Baradieres the French man-of-war trapped the pirate who, hoping to ingratiate its crew with the warship’s captain and crew, fired a twelve-gun salute, but to no avail. Bernanos and his men boarded and seized the small frigate and its cargo. For his service, Bernanos was awarded the ship, although almost certainly not its cargo which would have been seized by the local government as piratical goods. To date, I have found no records indicating who the captain and crew of the pirate ship were, nor even their nationality.
Little is known of Jean de Bernanos, aka Captain La Sound or Lessone, prior to his becoming a flibustier except that he had formerly been a captain of cavalry, in France as far as we know. One author reports his birth place and year as Metz, France, 1645, while others suggest his birth date and place are unknown. He is found first in written records as having crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1679 with eighty-five buccaneers under his command and two hundred Native American allies. Forewarned of his coming by the leader of rival tribe, Spanish forces from Panama intercepted Bernanos at Cheapo and forced the buccaneers to retreat.
In 1680 Bernanos and his flibustiers aboard their ninety-ton, six-gun frigate joined John Coxon and company in the sack of Portobello, but declined to join the English buccaneers on their journey across the Isthmus of Darien and into the South Sea, a voyage made famous by the adventures of escapades primarily under the command of the famous rogue Bartholomew Sharp. Bernanos and his buccaneers turned back after the attack on the Spanish gold mines.
Bernanos next appears in command of a five-vessel flotilla: his Schitié of eight guns and eighty men; Grogniet’s Saint-Joseph of six guns and seventy men; Blot’s Guagone (or Quagone) of eight guns and ninety men; Vigneron’s barque Louise of four guns and thirty men; and Petit’s “bateau” Rusé of four guns and forty men. In May 1684 Bernanos’s buccaneers and their Native American allies ascended the Orinoco River and attacked Santo Tome de Guyana, capturing the local fort after a six-hour battle. Little plunder was found. Bernanos and his buccaneers burned the small town and carried away several important prisoners whom they ransomed at Port of Spain, Trinidad, for ten thousand pieces-of-eight and various goods and supplies. One scholar suggests the expedition up the Orinoco was in search of fabled treasure that did not exist.
Bernanos appears to have afterward retired to his plantation on Tortuga until brought back into service against the pirate at Baradieres. King William’s War broke out effectively in 1688, and in 1689 we find Bernanos in command of a twenty-gun, one-hundred fifty-man privateer, quite possibly the captured pirate vessel in the image above.
In May 1690 he attacked a flotilla of English turtle fishing vessels, but all escaped except for one bark, the Calapatch (a calapatch is the top shell of a turtle), who valiantly attacked the privateer, permitting the escape of its companions.
Soon afterward Bernanos captured a considerable Spanish prize but the prize crew mutinied, sold the cargo at the pirate haven of St. Thomas — a Danish colony — where they recruited more men and turned pirate “against all flags” but reportedly perished in the end.
In 1692 Bernanos was commissioned as a major in the French army and was given command of the fortification at Port-de-Paix, Saint-Domingue. Described as a “brave man…, captain of cavalry, who had been a privateer…,” he died defending Port-de-Paix against a combined English and Spanish attack in 1695.
For more information on Bernanos, see the Dictionnaire des Flibustiers des Caraïbes by Jacques Gasser (Les Sables d’Olonne, France: Editions Beaupre, 2017).
The Golden Fleece of Joseph Banister and the Saint-Nicolas aka Le Favori aka La Chavale of Michel Andresson and soon François Rolle, 1686
The image above shows two ships, the Golden Fleece, a pirate, commanded by Joseph Bannister, and La Chavale, a flibustier but soon to be pirate, commanded by Michel Andresson. Drawn by ship’s clerk John Taylor, it was one of many that illustrated his manuscript of his life at Port Royal, Jamaica in 1687. However, although Taylor did sail aboard the HMS Falcon for a few months, he was not present during the attack on Bannister’s ship, described below, in 1686, although he pretends he was; the details were described to him by officers and crew of the HMS Falcon.
If you’ve read Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, you’re familiar with the escape of Peter Blood and the Arabella from Port Royal, Jamaica, a scene Sabatini may have been influenced to write by the escape from Port Royal in early 1685 under the guns of Charles Fort by Captain Joseph Bannister (or Banister), commanding the 30-, 36-, or 40-gun, 400 ton merchantman Golden Fleece. The ship had been trading from London to Port Royal under his command at least as early as 1680, when she sank in nine fathoms while at anchor in the harbor. The Golden Fleece discharged her entire lading but, due to a lack of local goods, had loaded little in its place. The ship was top-heavy and when her crew went to one side to scrape the hull, the Golden Fleece overset, drowning several of her crew. With the help of several divers the ship was refloated and refitted, but at a loss of £1,000 to her owners, one of whom was surely Bannister.
In early May 1684, Bannister, heavily in debt probably due to losses from the 1680 accident, put to sea from Port Royal, claiming to be bound to New England for trade but intending piracy instead. He recruited one hundred men from local sloops and probably the French buccaneer haven at Petit Goave, and petitioned the French for a privateering commission, which was denied, although he apparently received some backing from the famous buccaneer Michel, sieur de Grammont. In July Bannister, his ship, and crew were captured by the English pirate hunting guardships HMS Ruby, HMS Bonetta, and a half-galley while he was catching and salting turtle for provisions in the Cayman Islands. Wisely, the pirates did not put up a fight. Bannister had “115 men on board, most the veriest rogues in these Indies,” according to Sir Thomas Lynch.
Bannister and his crew were held for piracy, having captured a Spanish canoe with two men aboard and kept the men as prisoners. But Bannister was able to communicate with allies in Jamaica, who provided him with money to pay the Spaniards for their canoe and cargo, and even to pay them wages while they had been in his custody. The Spaniards would not testify against Bannister, and so the grand jury, with a vote of nine opposed and four in favor, refused to find a true bill. Bannister, not believed likely to run due to security (a bond) provided by friends, was ordered held for a second attempt at trial for piracy. Meanwhile, he dispatched the Golden Fleece to London and back under another captain, but the voyage failed to bring him any profit. He therefore made his plans and preparations to once more attempt piracy.
As Lieutenant-Governor Hender Molesworth (1638 – 1689) of Jamaica described it, “About ten days since Captain Bannister one dark night sailed in a desperate manner passed the fort. He had, it is said, fifty men ready in the hold with plugs to stop shot-holes. But the sentries being careless, the night dark, and the wind fresh, he was abreast of the fort before Major Beckford, the commander, was warned, and had passed fourteen of the guns. Beckford did all that he could, but could only place three shot in him. He at once sent me word of the occurrence, which was a great surprise to me, for I thought that Bannister’s want of credit would prevent him from ever getting the ship to sea again.” Bannister had slipped his cables; John Taylor claimed he had 160 men aboard.
The sloop HMS Bonetta (or Boneta, 4 guns, 57 tons; Bonito in colonial records), commanded by Edward Stanley, sailed after Bannister and ordered him to return but the renegade declined, giving assurances he had no intention of turning pirate, which he soon did. For the next year Bannister mixed first with French buccaneers then set out on his own, capturing Spanish vessels. A demand by the HMS Ruby that de Grammont, in whose flotilla he consorted for a while, turn him over for sailing under a foreign commission was rebuffed, ostensibly because the French claimed Bannister had no commission from them. The English captain did not insist, given the size and number of the French ships, which included those of de Grammont, Laurens de Graff, and Jan Willems aka Yankey — the three most powerful and famous of the 1680s. Bannister is believed to have remained with the French buccaneers, and was probably with them at the sack of Campeche soon afterward. But if so, it was to little profit.
Meanwhile, in late 1685 two hired sloops manned with English naval seamen searched for two months but failed to find him. In January he was reported at the French buccaneer haven at Petit Goave, and in March Lieutenant-Governor Hender Molesworth ordered the impressment of the Spanish Assiento slave ship Sancta Rosa (see above!) to be used in the search for Bannister, given that the HMS Ruby was undergoing repairs. However, the arrival of two new men-of-war precluded this. In May 1686 Bannister was reported careening at Samana Bay on Hispaniola. Immediately the newly arrived HMS Falcon and HMS Drake were dispatched. The two men-of-war spent nearly all their powder pummeling the Golden Fleece as it lay on its side careened. Bannister’s men had built gun emplacements and returned fire (a detail that would inspire part of the plot of The Black Swan by Sabatini), killing and wounding some of the English naval seamen. The Golden Fleece was damaged so badly that the pirates burned it in the end. Taylor’s drawing, a rather crude one, shows a large ship with raised forecastle and quarterdeck, but no poop deck (or a very short one).
Occasionally a rabid pirate fan (typically on Wikipedia, often the encyclopedia of misinformation) will argue that this cannonading of a careened pirate ship was a pirate victory against the English navy, but it’s hard to claim victory when you lost your forty-gun pirate man-of-war while your enemies are still afloat and need only re-arm, and now you must cruise in a small sloop, and will end up as shortly to be described. For the English men-of-war, the fight was half-victory, half failure but — not defeat. The pirate ship was destroyed but the pirates remained at large.
Nearby, but not attacked, was a small captured urqueta (a flibot or small fluyt) manned by French buccaneers who took the marooned pirates aboard. The English buccaneers soon departed in a small Spanish bark or sloop captured by the French. Bannister, now sailing under a false name, and his men cruised the Mosquito Coast until captured by the HMS Drake after gaining intelligence of him from some of his former crewmen, all of whom had abandoned Bannister and six others, and ran away with the bark, abandoning him among the Mosquito Indians.
Bannister was captured “in disguise a-roasting a plantain, in a pore Indian wigwam.” One of his men fired a musket at the English seamen, for which he was killed in return. The other three of Bannister’s crew were captured as well. The pirate captain and the three of his crew were hanged in January 1687 aboard the pirate hunter as it sailed within view of Port Royal. It was “a spectacle of great satisfaction to all good people and of terror to the favourers of pirates, the manner of his punishment being that which will most discourage others,” according to the Governor of Jamaica. After the Drake anchored with the hanged pirates as an example, the bodies were cut down and tossed into the sea near Gun Key. Two boys who had sailed with him were pardoned and turned loose in Port Royal, but both were hoisted aloft by “their armholes, at the mizonpeek” while the four pirates were hanged. One of the boys, according to Charles Johnson, grew up to be the possibly fictional pirate captain William Lewis.
The French flibustiers at anchor near Bannister careening at Samana Bay were commanded at the time by Michel Andresson, often known as Captain Michel. Another of the famous French buccaneers of the 1680s, he succeeded to command of Laurens de Graff’s Le Tigre in 1682, and in 1683 commanded the company of buccaneers that stormed the southern bastion at Vera Cruz. In 1684 he was with de Graff and others off Cartagena when they were attacked by three Spanish slave ships converted to men-of-war; the buccaneers captured or destroyed the ships sent after them. De Graff took command of the thirty-four gun San Francisco Javier y San Lucas Evangelista and renamed it Le Neptune, and Andresson took command of La Paz (probably a nickname for the San Joseph) and renamed it La Mutine.
In company with Captain Brouage, Andresson captured two Dutch ships trading at Cuba, and carried the plunder to Boston for sale — New England Puritans were well-known for their hypocritical avarice (see link noted above). After some minor unprofitable adventures, most of Andresson’s crew deserted him in 1685 to cross the Isthmus of Darien into the South Sea (see buccaneer-author Raveneau de Lussan for details!). He soon joined an old comrade-in-arms, François LeSage and was given command of his Dutch prize, the Saint-Nicolas, renamed Le Favori, a 100-ton, fourteen-gun flute originally intended to trade illicitly along the Spanish Main. Its crew of flibustiers were described as some of the most seditious and mutinous in the Caribbean.
The small ship, called La Chavale by John Taylor, who would have had it described to him by English naval officers and crew who had destroyed Bannister’s ship, is clearly a small flute, known as an urqueta by the Spanish, a pink by the English, and a flibot by the French, as is described in other sources. If Taylor is correct about the name, it reflects a name-change under Andresson’s command.
After a failed attempt to sail into the South Sea via the Strait of Magellan, Andresson, now separated from Le Sage, headed to the Caribbean to repair, careen, and provision for a second attempt into the South Sea. At Samana he met Joseph Bannister; the English attack had been focused only the English pirate, and the French escaped harm. After the departure of the English pirates whom they rescued, the French sailed to the Guinea Coast, first being nearly destroyed by an English merchantman, the Baudan, where they deposed Andresson and elected their quartermaster, François Rolle, a Dutchman (real name Frantz Rools) as captain. The buccaneers sailed into the South Sea, where they remained until 1693.
The voyage is noteworthy because a complete manuscript written by one of the crew exists, and also because during their attack on Acaponeta, Mexico in 1688, the buccaneers carried a red flag of no quarter — the pavillon sans quartier — with a skull and crossed bones beneath. It is the only known instance of buccaneers flying the skull and bones, although likely it was flown at other times. As for Captain Rolle, he went ashore at Cayenne at the end of his voyage in 1693. He married a Dutchwoman there, purchased a large plantation, and remained there until his death in 1722 at the approximate age of eighty.
The Bannister text above was taken largely from a draft appendix for the forthcoming Annotated Edition of Captain Blood: His Odyssey, ed. Benerson Little. Details on both Bannister and the Andresson/Rolle voyage can be found in the author’s book, The Golden Age of Piracy. The Calendar of State Papers, America and West Indies, 1685 – 1688 has numerous details regarding Bannister (search both Banister and Bannister). For more information on the French buccaneers described above, see the Dictionnaire des Flibustiers des Caraïbes by Jacques Gasser (Les Sables d’Olonne, France: Editions Beaupre, 2017). The original journal of the French voyage can be found digitized in the French National Library, and also in the Bulletin of the Société des Sciences et Arts de Bayonne (Bayonne: Lamaignère, 1894), edited by Edward Ducéré, and in The Last Buccaneers in the South Sea 1686 – 1695, edited by Peter T. Bradley (both with one problematic transcription error — Panama for Samana — although the original manuscript clearly shows the latter).
The Capitana and Almirante of the Armada de Barlovento, 1685: The Santo Cristo de Burgos and the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción
In 1685 Laurens de Graff commanded Le Neptune, as noted previously, now mounted with forty-eight or fifty guns (many were probably swivels) and carrying a crew of three hundred, at the equally brutal sack of Campeche, Mexico. He was one of the few buccaneers, flibustiers, or outright pirates of the age of sail ever to command a great, heavily-armed ship.
After the sack—rape is surely a better word—of Campeche, the raiders scattered at the sight of the Armada de Barlovento, although the pirate hunting armada picked off a few of them. Three days later, off the north Yucatán coast of Mexico, near Alacrán (Scorpion) reef, de Graff’s lookout sighted two ships. The larger was the Nuestra Señora de Jonjón, an urca or frigate of roughly 335 tons and twenty to thirty guns.
The smaller vessel was the eight-gun Jesús, María y José, a patache or small escort ship of unknown rig, formerly known as the Sevillana. Both were part of the pirate hunting Armada de Barlovento. The Jesús, María y José immediately set all sail and a course away from the pirates, desperate to inform the famous, now elderly Admiral Andrés de Ochoa y Zárate that the greatest of pirates was nearby. The Jonhón wisely kept her distance. Soon enough, the captain of the patache informed the admiral of the opportunity to destroy the man who so successfully scourged the Spanish Main.
Within a day the main force of the Armada de Barlovento came in sight of de Graff, and a powerful squadron it was. The Spanish Capitana or flagship was the Dutch-built Santo Cristo de Burgos, of 650 tons and fifty-six guns, her stern with an image of Christ crucified, wearing a skirt that fell to beneath the knees. Aboard her was the Armada’s commander-in-chief, Andrés de Ochoa, ill to the point of physical incapacitation but who would refuse to leave his quarterdeck. The Almirante or vice-admiral was the Dutch-built Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, of fifty-two guns, probably 550 tons, and commanded by Antonio de Astina.
The two great ships were typically Dutch, although both appear, unusually, to have the semi-open stern gallery seen on some Spanish ships at this time. Both of the large pirate hunters were more lightly armed than we might expect—in fact, over-gunning is an historical error often made in novels and films, especially those depicting ships of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Based on the armament of similar ships of the Armada de Barlovento circa 1700, the Burgos was probably armed with twelve pounders on the gundeck, perhaps a few sixteen or eighteen pounders (culverins) as well, with demi-culverins shooting eight pound shot on the deck above, and four pounders on the “castillos,” that is, on the forecastle and quarterdeck, and possibly the poop.
The Concepción was likely armed with twelve pounders, or even ten pounders if twelves were unavailable, on the gundeck, sakers of five or six pound shot on the upper, with smaller guns on the quarterdeck and, possibly, the poop. Accompanying these two great ships was the recently captured pirate ship Reglita, itself originally a Spanish prize, of twenty-two guns, probably of six or four pound shot, commanded by présador or prize-master Pedro de Iriarte.
And it was by these three ships that De Graff found himself trapped to leeward in his Neptune of as many as fifty guns, though we must doubt that these were all great guns, given the tonnage of his ship. His ship probably had ports for no more than thirty-five to forty great guns of probably no more than eight and four pound shot; the rest were almost certainly various swivel cannon. Put plainly, he was heavily out-gunned.
Unable to gain the weather gage so necessary to give him a fighting chance against two large men-of-war—or to escape them—de Graff ordered the Neptune to lie by and prepare for battle. In the language of the day, he had “catch’d a Tartar.” The Armada was not idle either. During the night, the two powerful Spanish men-of-war brought flibustier prisoners aboard to help man the guns against their flibustier brethren—or die.
The battle began early the next morning. De Graff could surely have fought off, perhaps even captured, one of these great men-of-war, but two at once? Still, de Graff knew his business and just how serious the situation was. Before battle began he spoke boldly to his crew, as recounted by buccaneer-surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin:
“You are too experienced to not understand the peril we are running, and too brave to fear it,” he said. “It is necessary here to be cautious of all yet to risk all, to defend and attack at the same time. Valor, deception, fear, and even despair must all be put to use on this occasion; where, if we fall into the hands of our enemies, nothing awaits us but all sorts of infamies, from the most cruel of torments to, finally, the end of life. We must therefore escape their barbarity; and to escape, we must fight.”
The great ships of the Armada sailed bravely down upon the waiting Neptune and her cornered pirate crew. Coming into range, the Burgos fired a warning shot from a bow chaser. The Neptune made no response. Onward sailed the Burgos, the Concepción not far behind. And here the Armada made its first tactical mistake, sailing on each side of the Neptune. In this position, the Spaniards could not fire on the enemy without also firing into each other. Only in Hollywood can two ships sail closely one on each side of another ship and destroy it, as in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. In reality, it could be suicide or nearly so. Of course, Rafael Sabatini, doubtless inspired by Exquemelin’s description of the battle, got the tactic right in Captain Blood, with his hero emulating de Graff by sailing between the Spanish men-of-war Milagrosa and Hidalga.
De Graff shouted orders to fire starboard and larboard. First one side, then the other of the Neptune blazed iron into the pair of pirate hunters. Immediately de Graff topped the broadsides off with an enormous discharge of musketry. Buccaneer surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin claimed that the musketry alone killed or wounded fifty Spaniards, and this might be true: filibusters and buccaneers were known for their ability with their long-barreled muskets. The Burgos, ready to fight, let loose its own powerful broadside in return.
Spanish records, however, give a slightly different account of this first phrase d’armes, perhaps truthfully, perhaps to cover up a grave error. Admiral Andrés de Ochoa y Zárate, the records suggest, believed de Graff would speak to him, surely to discuss terms, and so approached the pirate. After all, de Graff was out-numbered, out-gunned, and out-manned. But when the admiral’s ship came into close range, de Graff let his great guns do the talking.
For the next twelve hours de Graff maneuvered his ship defensively such that his enemy could seldom or never bring two broadsides to bear on him at once. Never did de Graff gain the weather gage, yet in spite of this the Armada ships never boarded him. In fact, they feared to do so. De Graff had a large crew that was clearly proving its prowess in open sea battle. If the Spaniards were to board, they first had to outmaneuver him, and both ships must board him, one first, then the other alongside the first. Once one had boarded, the other must cease firing, but the pirate had no such restriction. Perhaps most threatening, they knew too well de Graff’s prowess as a gunner. He might slaughter far too many of their men as they came near to board, for boarders, if there are many of them, must be massed on deck just before they board, and thus are vulnerable.
And de Graff made sure the Armada captains and crews understood how dangerous it would be to try to board. At one point, De Graff ordered his helmsmen to close with the Burgos and his gun crews to aim a broadside at close range at the mainmast. In this age broadsides were not fired as in Hollywood films, all guns firing at once or almost so, with each gun captain simultaneously touching his match to his gun. Rather, these great guns were often fired by a few gunners, gunner’s mates, or officers who went from one gun to the next and then the next, or they were aimed and fired by individually by each gun’s captain, all in order to ensure good aim.
In either case, a real broadside in this era was a ragged slow-motion series of ear-cracking explosions of fire and smoke that ripped from iron into wood and flesh. Buccaneer-surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin claims that de Graff himself aimed the gun that dismasted the Burgos. And it’s likely de Graff did aim several or more of his guns in this broadside, but the mainmast of the Burgos, although damaged, did not fall. Even so, the broadside was so effective that the Spaniards abandoned any thought of boarding the Neptune.
Surely emulating the famous previous fight of de Graff’s Le Tigre against the situado (payroll) ship La Francesa, the larger, less maneuverable Neptune twisted and turned as the fight continued, engaging first one ship, then the other, but taking no unnecessary risks. De Graff wanted to batter his enemies down, one then the other, however long it took. The Concepción, valiantly bearing the brunt of the fight, fired at least sixty full broadsides at the Neptune, and Burgos at least fourteen. The Spanish officers would later claim their powder was bad, and maybe it was. Yet it was powerful enough to kill five Spanish gunners when their great gun exploded.
But de Graff’s powder was not bad, and moreover, his crew knew how to load, aim, and fire accurately. Smoke covered the water between the ships as they blazed away. Men bled and died on each side, including de Graff himself, wounded in the leg. He was carried below and his crew lost heart. But as soon as de Graff heard his guns slacking, he rose, climbed back to his quarterdeck, and, sword in one hand, pistol in the other, and rallied his filibuster crew.
The battle continued until nightfall, when all three ships stood off from each other to tend to their wounded, knot their shattered rigging, repair the leaks in their hulls, and pump the water from their holds. The Neptune was in terrible condition. Although only nine of her crew had been killed and but ten or twelve wounded, the Neptune herself had taken a beating, for the Spanish broadsides had not been ineffective. Her foretopmast was shattered. Far worse, she had been hulled at the waterline by so many round shot that she was listing severely due to the water that continued to flood her hold in spite of the plugs pounded into the hull by his carpenter and mates. Through the night de Graff’s crew worked to lighten Neptune, to right her and prepare her for battle on the morn.
At dawn the next morning the Neptune had finally gained the weather gage—and the Burgos and Concepción were in no mood to engage her again. Their crews were battered and almost beaten, with dozens killed and wounded. They had expended most of their powder and shot, and the upper works of the Burgos were shattered. During the night the elderly admiral had been given his last rites in expectation of his death: he would live but two more days. With a single exception, the Armada officers believed that calling off the fight was the best course. Only Pedro de Iriarte wanted to chase the pirate and renew the fight, more for the sense of honor and reputation than for tactical wisdom. Surely every one of them felt shamed by their failure to capture, at odds of two to one of ships and guns in favor, this notorious pirate who had once been one of them.
This account is an edited, abbreviated version that appears in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. Citations can be found in the endnotes of the book (I’m frankly too lazy to add them here. 🙂 ).
Copyright Benerson Little 2023. First posted 26 January 2023. Last updated 23 February 2023.
Captain Blood, Not Jack Sparrow: The Real Origin of Disney’s Wicked Wench Pirate Ship
It’s an epic image, one that anyone who’s ever cruised through the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at one of the Disney theme parks is familiar with: a pirate ship cannonading — “firing its guns at” or “engaging” in sea parlance — a Spanish fort.
But the image-in-motion long predates the Disney attraction. In fact, as I’ll demonstrate shortly, the entire scene was lifted directly from Rafael Sabatini’s famous novel, Captain Blood: His Odyssey and especially from the 1935 film version starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone. And the Wicked Wench pirate ship of the attraction was more than simply inspired by the Cinco Llagas / Arabella, as the ship in the novel and film was named: it was copied from it!
Originally the attraction depicted buccaneers in the second half of the 17th century attacking and sacking a Spanish town on the Main. “IN THE CROSS FIRE of cannonades between pirate ship and Caribbean port,” begins the caption of the 1968 Disney publicity still of the Wicked Wench shown above. It continues with “this crew of Disneyland adventurers sail through Pirates of the Caribbean as grape shot and cannonballs land around them. The pirate captain on his bridge gives the signal for an eight gun salute. The scene of one of ten action-packed segments in the thoroughly realistic re-creation of buccaneer days.” For now I’ll pass on correcting Disney’s descriptive language, as some readers might misconstrue such revisions as nautical pedantry.
However, in spite of the obvious historical basis for the ride’s inspiration, according to Disney’s modern Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise “canon” the Wicked Wench was instead the ship that would become the Black Pearl commanded by Jack Sparrow et al, more or less, post-buccaneer era. Not a buccaneer ship, in other words, but a later ship turned to pirate ship as would fly the Jolly Roger. This, of course, is nothing more than mere revisionism for the sake of marketing the ride on the coattails of the film series, and any “canon” (as in nearly all franchises) is nothing more than the result of a series of screenwriters trying to write popular scripts, and fans subsequently trying to make rabid sense of their details and many loose ends.
Myself, I much prefer the original orientation of the attraction, liberties taken with real buccaneer history notwithstanding. That said, comic ride though it may be (and one that I thoroughly enjoy), it does get some things right, including torture, pillage, and burning, not to mention the original implication of some scenes now altered from their original. We have, in fact, two versions of piracy in our culture: factual history and popular myth, the latter often overwhelming the former.
And now for the evidence that the Wicked Wench is really the Cinco Llagas / Arabella!
The Scene of Ship Attacking Fort Was Inspired by & Lifted Largely From the 1935 Film
One need only to watch the 1935 Captain Blood to confirm this. The only difference between the two is that the roles are reversed: rather than a Spanish pirate attacking the principal town of an English colony in the late 17th century as in the Rafael Sabatini novel and the film based on it, buccaneers in the attraction attack a Spanish town, as they often successfully did — and far, far more often than Spanish pirates did against English, French, and Dutch colonies.
In fact, in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl there is an homage to the pirate attack in the 1935 film version of Captain Blood: some of the shots of locals running for cover are quite similar to those in Captain Blood.
For more details on the ship-versus-Spanish fort trope, see “The Iconic “Spanish” Fort: Only a Spanish Galleon Says “Pirates” Better!“
The Wicked Wench is Red Like the Cinco Llagas / Arabella of the Novel
According to Rafael Sabatini, who clearly emphasized the sanguinary nature of buccaneering via the hero’s name and other thematic elements, the color of Peter Blood’s pirate ship was red. However, red was not an exceptionally common color of ships at the time. Red paint was typically used for the bulwarks (the inner “walls”), gun carriages, and often some fittings of men-of-war, and some other ships as well, at the time, and the upper works (the upper outside of the hull) and sterns of some ships were occasionally painted red — but never the entire hull. However, the application of pine tar, tallow, and linseed oil could lend a reddish hue to hull planking (particularly to those ships built of various “mahoganies” in the Americas), but this would not cause a ship to be referred to as red. (Far more details on the possible appearance of the Cinco Llagas / Arabella are forthcoming in Treasure Light Press’s annotated Captain Blood.)
And the Wicked Wench? A red ship, of course!
The Profiles of the Wicked Wench and the Cinco Llagas / Arabella are Too Similar to be Coincidental
Indeed! The similarity is obvious when comparing the images below. Even the scrollwork on the stern upper works is almost identical (see the image above and also at the end of this section). Disney did make some alterations to suit the attraction, including reducing the ship from two decks to one, and, of course, making it small enough to fit in the attraction.
And Then There’s the Names of the Ships…
After its capture by a handful of renegade rebels-convict led by Dr. Peter Blood, the Cinco Llagas was renamed the Arabella after the woman Blood loved but thought he could never have. Arabella Bishop, although independent, strong-willed, and anything but swooning (or languishingly voluptuous!), was still a lady in manners and mores, unlikely to (sadly!) run away to sea in men’s clothes with Peter Blood. One can easily see a tongue-in-cheek homage to Arabella and the Arabella in the renaming of the Spanish frigate as the Wicked Wench, and even in the “Woman in Red” in the old Bride Auction scene on the attraction.
Likewise the captain of the Wicked Wench as an inverted homage: no clean-shaven gentleman buccaneer he, unlike Captain Peter Blood, but bearded and beribboned like Blackbeard the Pirate and bellowing in G-rated curses like Robert Newton or Peter Ustinov in their piratical film roles. That is, before Hector Barbossa took his place to align with the film franchise. (N.B. Blackbeard was not a buccaneer but a later black flag pirate, and although most buccaneers appeared to have been clean-shaven, some French boucaniers, and therefore buccaneers, did wear beards.)
For more details on “The Woman in Red,” now “Redd the Pirate,” (and in any case, an anthropomorphism of the ship by both), see “The Women in Red: The Evolution of a Pirate Trope.” For more details on the black flag — the so-called Rackham flag with skull and crossed cutlasses — flown by the Wicked Wench, see “The Fanciful, Mythical “Calico Jack Rackham” Pirate Flag.”
So, Was the Wicked Wench Really the Arabella?
Only Disney knows — and only Disney can answer how the Arabella, sunk among the cays just off Port Royal, Jamaica in 1689 while defending the town from French attack, came to be raised, refitted, and ended up again in buccaneer, then pirate, hands… 🙂
And the Black Pearl?
If you’re looking for the real original inspiration for the Black Pearl, discard any notion of it having been the Wicked Wench — this is probably just “canon after the fact.” Convenient revisionism for the sake of marketing, in other words. Sparrow’s famous ship is more likely inspired ultimately by Tom Leach’s 40-gun Black Swan, from Sabatini’s novel of the same title. Or at the very least it corresponds closely to Sabatini’s description of the ship, including its black hull. Even the un-authorized plastic model of Sparrow’s Black Pearl is sold under the name of the Black Swan. Are there similarities between the Wicked Wench and the Black Pearl? Of course there are. Clearly the set designers took a look at the Wicked Wench, but it is much closer to the Arabella. (By the way, the duel in The Black Swan is described here.)
And for you budding “nautical pedants” out there, here’s the correction to the Disney text quoted above: “this crew of Disneyland adventurers [an acceptable term: French buccaneers aka flibustiers were often referred to as adventurers] sail through Pirates of the Caribbean as grape shot [this form of small shot was in its early development and generally not known by this name at this time] and cannonballs [more correctly, round shot] land [splash] around them. The pirate captain on his bridge [quarterdeck, not bridge] gives the signal for an eight gun salute [a correct humorous euphemism for a broadside]. The scene of one of ten action-packed segments in the thoroughly [and humorously] realistic re-creation of buccaneer days [a statement more correct than it might appear at first]…”
Copyright Benerson Little 2022. First posted June 22, 2022. Last updated August 15, 2022.
The Fanciful, Mythical “Calico Jack Rackham” Pirate Flag
This is not a post I’d ever intended to write, believing–clearly foolishly–that publishing a book on pirate myths would once and for all send the the myth of Rackham’s pretended “skull and crossed swords” flag to perdition where it belongs. Or mostly so. How naive! It’s not just hope that springs eternal–so does myth flying in the face of contrary fact.
Although it’s well-documented that the “Rackham” flag–quite probably the most-depicted pirate flag in film–is a fanciful 20th century invention, Wikipedia via trolls and the ignorant continues to spew nonsense regarding both Rackham and this flag, the latest of which I learned, via a historical forum on Facebook, is that the two crossed swords might represent Anne Bonny & Mary Read. (For the record, all either of them did with a sword–quite possibly a machete, in fact, based on a witness statement–as pirates as far as we know is wave them at frightened merchant seamen who had already surrendered.) I’ll get to the ridiculous notion that the swords represent the women pirates in a moment.
Trying to correct Wikipedia is like playing Whack-a-Mole; it’s never-ending. Wikipedia is a prime resource for the lazy and the gullible, and trolls and others attempting to distort facts are well-aware of this. It’s one of the best places today to replace fact with nonsense, or worse. Don’t get me wrong: there are excellent articles on Wikipedia, including some on pirates and piracy. But to the uninitiated it can be hard to tell the difference between these and those that are little more than nonsense or outright propaganda. And even the best ones are often soon rewritten–and their important facts often disappear with the revision.
A few facts about Rackham & Co. before I describe the 20th century origin of the flag:
There is no record of any pirate flag John “Calico Jack” Rackham ever flew, if he even flew one. The only record of any flag he flew is of a white one, probably as a French flag for deception. This doesn’t mean he never flew a black flag, but if he did we have no idea what it looked like. None of the witnesses at his trial mention a black flag.
Again, as noted above, the black flag attributed to him, with skull (“death’s head”) and crossed cutlasses (or hangers or falchions) is a 20th century invention. More on this in a moment.
Rackham was a smalltime pirate who whose piracies prior to late 1720, if any (although likely; “Charles Johnson” claims he was once Charles Vane’s quartermaster), cannot be corroborated, and he would doubtless be entirely forgotten today were it not for two women who briefly sailed with him, Anne Bonny & Mary Read, and a publisher/editor, apparently Nathaniel Mist, who greatly “sexed up” their petty sea thieving. For most of his time in command, Rackham’s crew numbered only ten, including the two women and himself; he had added nine more drunk volunteers earlier the same day he was captured at sea. His piratical cruise lasted less than two months. It’s entirely likely that even his nickname, “Calico Jack,” is an invention: the moniker does not show up anywhere in the historical record except in Johnson’s book (and he invented many details in his book), unlike, for example, that of Edward Teach/Thache aka Blackbeard, which does show up regularly in the historical record.
At the time Rackham sailed with these women in his crew, he commanded a tiny 12-ton sloop named William he stole at anchor at New Providence (Johnson reimagined it as a swift 40 ton sloop), and was robbing small largely defenseless fishing and trading vessels in the waters off New Providence, Hispaniola, and Jamaica: seven small fishing boats, three merchant trading sloops, one small merchant schooner, and one small canoe. Most if not all of them were local “Mom & Pop” coastal seafarers, in other words. Hardly epic escapades. None of the vessels Rackham captured put up a fight.
Bonny & Read wore women’s clothing aboard, and dressed as men only the very few times they robbed small merchant traders and fishermen. In fact, there is only one confirmed attack in which they dressed as men, although it is probable they also did when capturing other vessels.
There was only one battle in which the two women pirates might actually have fought side by side–the battle in which they and Rackham were captured–and it was over in a moment, literally. There wasn’t much of a fight other than a single “great gun”–apparently in this case a swivel gun, not a carriage-mounted gun–and possibly a pistol fired by the pirates, and neither did any damage. There is no record of any other resistance by the two women pirates or any of the men. The pirates surrendered immediately after Jonathan Barnet’s sloop fired a broadside and volley of small arms. No pirates are recorded as having been wounded or killed in the brief action.
Further, most of what “Charles Johnson” wrote about Bonny & Read cannot be corroborated in spite of extensive research by numerous scholars and other researchers. Although much of what “Johnson” wrote about pirates in general is clearly factual and has been corroborated (pistols hanging from silk slings is an example of what might be invention proved to be a fact by the Whydah wreck, for example), he also embellished–lied–often, almost certainly to improve sales potential. His depiction of Bonny and Read as the only pirates willing to fight while the rest were drunk below deck, and Bonny’s scornful upbraiding of Rackham as having failed to fight like a man, were surely invented or grossly exaggerated by the author.
As for the modern origin of the flag, I’ll quote from the draft manuscript of The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths (I’m too lazy to pull up the published final):
“Many…pirate flags depicted today, such as those purportedly of Stede Bonnet, Calico Jack Rackam, and Blackbeard, are modern inventions without historical basis. The pirate flag we know incorrectly as Calico Jack’s, with crossed cutlasses under a skull, may well have been inspired by the flag used in the 1935 film version of Captain Blood, that of a pair of cutlass-holding arms crossed beneath a skull. And this film flag may have been inspired by the early flag of Bartholomew Roberts, that of a death’s head and an arm holding a cutlass, or by the Dutch red battle ensign with an arm holding a cutlass, or by the seventeenth century flag of Algiers (a notorious have of Barbary corsairs), or even by a Barbary corsair flag of no quarter.
“We simply do not know what the pirate flags of these three pirate captains really looked like…except that Blackbeard’s was a black flag with a “death’s head,” and not the commonly attributed black flag with horned skeleton [apparently a very early 20th century invention]. Similarly, the purported pirate flags of Christopher Moody and John Quelch are misattributions: Moody’s is actually the Barbary corsair flag of no quarter described later in this chapter, and Quelch never flew a pirate flag…
“The origin of our modern popular but fanciful renditions is a series of several books whose illustrations were passed from one to the next, with few or any changes. The earliest publication of this series discovered to date—and probably the origin [except for the fanciful Blackbeard horned devil flag which was published previously in The Mariner’s Mirror]—is Basil Lubbock’s The Blackwall Frigates, published in 1922. The book includes a plate of eight pirate flags (even though the Blackwall frigates only came into being a century after the Golden Age of Piracy expired, but pirate flags sell books), three of which are misattributions, although otherwise mostly accurate, and one is a fanciful flag taken from an illustration in Charles Johnson’s pirate chronicle. [Rackham’s purported flag is not among them.]
“Most of these flags, with names now added, were reproduced in Charles Grey’s Pirates of the Eastern Seas. Patrick Pringle’s Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy, published two decades later, includes nine pirate flags, all reproduced exactly from Grey’s book. In 1959, Hans Leip’s Bordbuch des Satans (Log of the Satans) includes some very similar flags clearly inspired by Lubbock, Grey, and Pringle, although two have been miscaptioned. Leip also adds three new flags, all imaginary: those of Calico Jack Rackam, Stede Bonnet, and Henry Every [“Long Ben”]. [Every’s flag includes a skull with a bandana and earring, a clear giveaway that it’s an invention.]
“Most of Leip’s pirate flags were reproduced exactly in 1961 in Pirates of the Spanish Main, part of the American Heritage Junior Library, with credit to Leip’s book. Pirates of the Spanish Main became a classic source of historical pirate lore—and mythical pirate flags—to literally thousands of young readers who imagined themselves pirates, not to mention to publishers of subsequent books on piracy. Similarly identified flags, some accurate, some, like those in the other books, not, were published in 1978 in Pirates, a title in the popular Time-Life “The Seafarers” series [including the “Calico Jack” flag with crossed swords]. It is no surprise that inaccurate images of pirate flags would appear in pirate books: for many publishers, the main purpose of images in a book is to get readers to buy it. The image of the “Jolly Roger,” whether accurate or not, is the perfect lure.”
The two most similar written descriptions of historical black pirate flags circa 1715 to 1730 to Rackam’s purported flag are “this flag was a black cloth in the middle of which was depicted a cadaver [skeleton] and scattered bones and crossed sabers” (I’ve translated this from French), and “The Ship hoisted a Black Flagg at the Main-Top-Mast-Head, with Deaths Head and a Cutlass in it…” Neither were hoisted by Rackham. The former is the only reference I’ve found to crossed swords among the many eyewitness descriptions of pirate flags.
If there were an early 18th century origin to the Rackham flag, we can blame Daniel Defoe’s Captain Singleton, a pirate novel published in 1720: Captain Bob [Singleton] flew “a black flag, with two cross daggers in it.” We cannot be certain this is the ultimate origin, for the idea of crossed swords is quite common throughout history.
Soon after I posted this blog, my friend Antón Viejo Alonso mentioned to me that conquistador, traitor, sociopath, and murderer Lope de Aguirre is said to have had three identical flags made in 1561, each with a black field with red crossed swords, the colors representing the blood he shed and the “lamentations and mourning” he caused. Whether this may have influenced Leip’s illustrator is unknown. Many flag designs appear to be parallel developments independent of previous or current similar flags, and not descendant, although clearly many also fall into the latter category. Black flags, and mortuary symbols on flags, have been around since antiquity, and have been used on land as well as sea. Aguirre’s flags were described by Friar Pedro Simón (1574 – circa 1628). The English translation of his work is entitled The Expedition of Pedro de Ursúa & Lope de Aguirre in Search of El Dorado and Omagua in 1560-1 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1861). A modern reprint is also available.
The modern “Calico Jack” flag of skull and crossed swords is a popular one in pirate films and among pirate fans. I myself own versions in both black and red, but I don’t represent them to be authentic. It’s an easy flag to imagine, substituting crossbones for crossed swords. I can even imagine myself creating it today or three centuries ago, or even today, given my interest in piracy and swordplay.
The “Calico Jack” flag has been used in several films, and a possible, even likely inspiration for its use in pirate movies, including the Disney franchise, is the flag flown aboard the pirate ship Wicked Wench in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at the Disneyland theme park. In fact, the design is also used early on in the ride in the form of a talking skull, with crossed cutlasses beneath it, providing safety and other information to visitors.
Very likely, the ride’s designers selected the design from the book The Pirates of the Spanish Main (1961) discussed above, although it is possible the Captain Blood film flag was also part of the inspiration. In fact, the entire ship-attacking-fort scene in the attraction was copied from the similar scene in the film. Notably, the attacking Spanish ship in the novel the film was based upon is described as red-sided, just as is the Wicked Wench in the attraction. (Carrying the hypothesis further, is the name Wicked Wench a bit of a joke on the Arabella–the name of Captain Blood’s ship–and the very proper English lady whose name it was? This would be in keeping with the piratical sense of humor of the attraction’s designers.)
All of this suggests that the Wicked Wench was the first fictional, and for that matter, non-fictional as well, ship to fly the “Calico Jack” Jolly Roger–although arguably the Arabella of the film Captain Blood did so in its original form. It’s entirely possible therefore that all subsequent film pirate ships flying the flag may have been inspired in part by the flag flown by the Wicked Wench, which was in turn inspired by the book The Pirates of the Spanish Main, and ultimately by the film.
(Historical note: buccaneer ships, one of which the Wicked Wench was originally depicted as, rather than as the pirate ship which would become the Black Pearl, did not fly black flags with skull and bones–only those of later pirates did.)
In Swashbuckler (1976), a version of the flag with ensanguined cutlasses is shown flying at the masthead of the Blarney Cock in the film, and flying in a odd arrangement at its stern in the movie poster and other marketing materials. The film stars Robert Shaw, Genevieve Bujold, James Earl Jones, Peter Boyle, Beau Bridges, Geoffrey Holder, Avery Schreiber, and, in an early role, Angelica Huston:
Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red (Walter Matthau) flew a version in Pirates! (1986) aboard the captured Spanish galleon Neptune:
Morgan Adams flew it aboard the Morning Star in Cutthroat Island (1995); “Hoist the colors!” she orders at the beginning of the battle with Dog Brown’s Reaper. The flag flown from the Morning Star was slightly modified from the original 20th century illustration, although the popular “original” was used on posters and other promotional materials. The film, although it bombed at the box office (odd that a blockbuster is a film that makes lots of money, yet a blockbuster is also a very large bomb…), has a great soundtrack, plenty of comic book pirate action, and Geena Davis did a better job portraying a pirate captain than many men have in films.
It was flown aboard the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) at the beginning of the film when Elizabeth Swann imagines she sees the ship in the distance as she holds up a cursed Aztec coin, probably because this was the flag originally flown aboard the Wicked Wench, which was via a certain revisionism converted from a buccaneer ship to the former name of the Black Pearl.
It was flown again aboard the Black Pearl it in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) during the “Hoist the colors!” scene–again, a badass female pirate gives the order–and in the engagement following:
The “Calico Jack” skull and crossed swords also appears in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) on the main-topsail of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, now commanded by Capt. Barbossa. The sails are of wine red or burgundy velvet with yellow-gold tassels, probably an homage to or inspired by the reputed sails of some the wealthiest Cilician pirates in antiquity. Some even captured Julius Caesar, who, after ransoming himself, had the pirates captured and put to death.
That said, author George MacDonald Fraser in his comic novel The Pyrates (1984 US edition) described the sails of the Grenouille Frénétique (the Frantic Frog), commanded by Happy Dan Pew, as having “velvet sails…fringed with silk tassels in frightful taste…” In fact, Barbossa’s “bon vivant and gourmet” image in Dead Men Tell No Tales might well have been inspired by Fraser’s description of Happy Dan Pew.
The iconic flag was also used in Peter Pan (2003) as both a traditional Jolly Roger and as a sail decoration, notwithstanding that sail decoration, with the exception of an occasional Spanish fishing vessel and similar, had for more than half a century been abandoned by the late 17th and early 18th centuries which provided the piratical source material for Mr. Barrie and Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy if you prefer).
The “Calico Jack” flag is depicted also in the Starz Black Sails series at the very end of the final season. I was the historical consultant for all four seasons, and for reasons of both history and legal liability I traced the origin of the purported Calico Jack flag for the producers. The writers wanted to use the flag because it was already popularly attributed to Rackham, the set designers wanted something that looked authentic, and the lawyers wanted to be sure there was no copyright or trademark infringement.
A version was used in Lego Scooby-Doo! Blowout Beach Bash (Warner Bros., 2017). Scooby-Doo has always been fond of pirates, or at least ghost pirates and fake pirates…
Such an icon is the flag that it shows up in modified but immediately recognizable form, here in the BBC’s Doctor Who episode, “Legend of the Sea Devils” (2022):
Navy SEALs sometimes wear a “Calico Jack” flag patch on their field uniforms. Often the flag’s skull has an eye patch, a variant based most probably on choice of vendor. If my memory is correct–for the record, I’m a former Navy SEAL–its use began in the very late 80s when “real world” VBSS operations (board and search operations) were put to use. I might be mistaken, however. Pirate flag patches weren’t yet a fad in the Teams I served in (ST-3, SDVT-1) in the 80s. Certainly the “Calico Jack” patch remains in use today by Navy SEALs. Luminox, maker of a watch used by Navy SEALs, even has, or had, a special limited edition (375 watches only, I think) Navy SEAL watch with a Rackam skull and crossed swords on its face, although notably not the most common design of the flag, at least on one version. (See below, I couldn’t get captions to work on the tiled images.) Other military special operations units have been spotted wearing the flag patch, or one similar, too.
[Self-Promotion Alert!] The “Calico Jack” flag is also on the cover of The Golden Age of Piracy. Again for the record, the publisher chose the cover. I had no real input, although I’ve no problem with it. It certainly stands out and gets attention, and that’s what dust jackets are supposed to do. It slipped my mind when I first drafted this blog post that the Polish edition also uses the “Calico Jack” flag. (Sorry, Maciej Studencki, for missing this the first time around!)
If you’re looking for more details on pirate flags–accurate details, that is–you can read the book above or Ed Fox’s Jolly Rogers, the True History of Pirate Flags (author given as E. T. Fox). Or better yet, both. 🙂
If you’re looking to fly the flag, try eBay, lots of vendors carry it. It’s also available in red, and in design variations as well. There’s also a “weathered” version in red, but I’ve only seen it available so far at one ebay vendor and a few non-eBay vendors. Plus there are patches, stickers, T-shirts, rings, cufflinks, and more. If you want to fly the flag regularly, plan to pay a little more for sturdier nylon and construction; in particular, look for fabric that’s fade-resistant (all flags fade eventually). If you want to make your own authentically, you’ll need wool bunting or, in a pinch, silk.
When buying, remember, black means “good quarter if you surrender now,” which in practice means “surrender now and we might not murder, torture, or abuse you much,” and red means “no quarter, we’re going to kill you all.” Perhaps the best description of the meaning of the red flag of no quarter comes not from my books, or any other book on piracy, but from Les Aventures de Tintin: Le Secret de la Licorne (Casterman, 1946; reprints in many languages; in English, The Secret of the Unicorn). Enjoy! Don’t read French? “Tonnerre de tonnerre de Brest!” It’s never too late to start learning another language! Or, buy the English version. It’s a fun read, and there’s a sequel too.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021-2022. First posted June 18, 2021. Last updated February 5, 2023.
With the floor beneath the tree still looking like the decks of the Arabella just before she sank in her final swashbuckling action, here are a few lines in sweet memory of past Christmas mornings and in happy anticipation of future ones, at least for anyone who has ever pretended to be the pirates of fiction and film–or who inspires such fantasy in their children:
“Bars of gold and pieces of eight,
Spanish galleons of goodly freight;
Buried treasure to seek and gain:
Lads [and Lasses]! what ho, for the Spanish Main!”
–A. E. Bosner, The Buccaneers: A Tale of the Spanish Main
Swordplay Aloft: A Fictional But Entirely Enjoyable Pirate Trope
Cutthroat Island finale, Morgan Adams (Geena Davis, right) versus Dawg Brown (Frank Langella). Carolco, 1995.
In advance of my forthcoming series on “The Duel on the Beach,” a fun look at the Hollywood trope of swordplay in the rigging.
We can probably blame Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for the trope’s ultimate inspiration. In the novel [Spoiler Alert!], Jim Hawkins climbs aloft aboard the schooner Hispaniola to escape the murderous pirate Israel Hands, ultimately burning the salty thug’s brains with a brace of pistols. Why the hungover, perhaps even still-besotted, sea-thief didn’t simply use a musket to murder the lad is unknown. Perhaps he was too fogged by rum to think of it, or he didn’t have a musket at hand, or knew he wouldn’t be able to hit the bold lad. More likely, it’s simply a much better scene to have a murderous pirate armed with a knife slowly climb aloft while his victim waits at the extreme point of retreat.
“One Step More, Mr. Hands” by N. C. Wyeth for the 1911 Charles Scribner’s Sons edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Doubtless inspired by Treasure Island, Charles Boardman Hawes includes a scene of fighting aloft in his Newberry award-winnning novel, The Dark Frigate.
But the primary origin of the trope, whether for Mr. Stevenson or Hollywood in general, is almost certainly the simple fact that the masts and rigging are too enticing not be used: a vast network or “jungle gym” overhead with boundless possibilities. It’s simply impossible to ignore the setting towering aloft above a vessel’s decks. It’s a nautical gymnasium begging to be used! And so it often has.
Before going further, we should quickly examine what sailors did, and still do, aloft. They set, take in, and furl sail. They hoist spars and masts aloft, and strike the same as necessary. They stand lookout. They man the tops in battle, enabling armed seamen to fire on the enemy below. They make repairs. They skylark.
Although fighting aloft was routine–men firing from above at men below–there’s no evidence of anything other than with firearms, grenades, and sometimes swivel guns occasionally fired at the enemy also aloft. No swordplay on yards, in other words. Note that in the painting below, no one aloft is wielding a sword, nor are there lines rigged from which to slide down or swing across (another popular but false Hollywood pirate trope).
Actual fighting aloft would look something like this:
The painting just above, although it has many accurate details (including the grappling hook hanging by chain from the yardarm (although it should have two lines attached), appears to be rather romanticized, with seamen sliding down a forestay, another with his cutlass between his teeth, details lacking in the previous two images.
But when it comes to film, The Black Pirate (Vitagraph, 1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks set the standard for action aloft–but not for swordplay aloft, of which it alas had none. The film included circus-like aerial stunts and a famous scene in which Fairbanks slips a sword or dagger into a sail and slides down its face, cutting the canvas as he does. The stunt was repeated in Against All Flags (Universal-International, 1952), The Goonies (Warner Bros., 1985), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Disney, 2006), although in the the last film it appears heavily CGI’d.
In Captain Blood (Warner Bros., 1935) starring Errol Flynn, the action aloft is more mundane, although it does include some brief swordplay, and includes a lesser trope: pirates sliding down on ropes during boarding actions, swinging from ship to ship, and occasionally from yard to yard, none of which actually occurred to ship to ship combat. Still, it’s fun.
In Against All Flags (Universal International, 1952) Errol Flynn as Brian Hawke climbs aloft via the lubber’s hole (for shame!) to cut down the main-yard. He’s lucky the pirates were lazy, otherwise the yard would’ve been slung with chain in time of battle and his rapier of little use in cutting through. When he sees pirates coming at him from aloft and alow, rather than fight them he escapes instead, using Douglas Fairbanks’s famous technique. The film was remade, almost scene for scene, as The King’s Pirate (Universal, 1967), but an acrobatic escape was substituted for the sword-in-sail trick. Against All Flags was one of Flynn’s last films, certainly one of his last good ones (arguably a tie among these last films with Crossed Swords, The Master of Ballantrae, and a more serious film, The Warriors). Against All Flags also starred Maureen O’Hara in her last swashbuckler. She’s as dashing as Flynn in the film, and as good if not better with a sword.
The Crimson Pirate (Warner Bros., 1952) showcased Burt Lancaster’s acrobatic skills aloft, but lacked swordplay:
Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) had plenty of action aloft, including an homage to Treasure Island:
But the real action was between Pan and Hook on the main-topsail yard:
And also in Return to Neverland (Disney, 2002):
The action is included on the Disney theme park attraction:
And even in the Disney theme parks Fantasmic! show:
The trope also made it into a series of Dominica Peter Pan postage stamps in 1980, shown below as a Disney pin:
Peter Pan (2003) even included a brief homage to the slide down a sail by cutting it. Here, Hook uses his hook to do the deed. Nearly all of the swordplay aloft was literally in the air, given that Hook was permitted to fly in this version, at least in the finale.
Disney added the same classic pirate trope to its 2023 live action version of Peter and Wendy. A cool move, but unnecessary, as above, given that Peter can fly — unless he’s briefly lost his ability to do so.
But it was Cutthroat Island (Carolco, 1995) that did it’s best to include a sword fight in earnest on a yard aloft. The film was a box office bomb. Even so, Geena Davis did a creditable job, and the soundtrack is excellent.
Not to be beat, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End included swordplay between Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow on a yard aloft during a storm while dueling ships were whipped around at the edge of a giant maelstrom:
The Adventures of Tintin (Columbia Pictures et al, 2011) featured animated if improbable-but-exciting swordplay aloft:
Swordplay, or at least swords, aloft has continued in recent pirate films. Below is Son Ye-jin as Captain Yeo-wol in The Pirates (Harimao Pictures, 2014), engaging in aerial swashbuckling.
The trope made its way even into the recent Thugs of Hindostan (Latina Pictures, et al, 2018), a pirate-ish, Bollywood, stick-it-to-the-English Indian film:
Action aloft also made its way onto television in the form of the final episode in season four of Black Sails, in a scene in which I as historical consultant had some input.
But the trope has found its way into more than just film. A significant but largely unstudied contribution to pirate culture is that of various collector’s cards: tobacco, bubble gun, and arcade. Typically inspired by popular illustration, film, and general cliché, the cards often include images of swordplay and other fighting aloft, invariably via contrived circumstances often involving pirates or merchant seamen attempting to escape aloft. In the 1930s card just below, failed mutineer-pirates retreat aloft to little avail.
Below, in a 1930s Holloway Pirate Treasure trading card, merchant seamen flee aloft to make their last stand, again to no avail.
Below, a Swedish/French bubble gum card dating to the 1930s. This time it’s not a merchant seaman retreating aloft, but a duel over the plunder on a night “full of stars, the air calm, the sea tranquil.” One of the pirates, Mulrooney, has hidden a brace of pistols in the rigging. He drops his cutlass and climbs aloft, followed by his armed adversary Hawkins. Mulrooney, in most dishonorable fashion–even for a pirate–arms himself with his hidden pistols and shoots Hawkins dead.
Comic books are another significant source of modern pirate culture, and like the cards above they typically reinforce existing tropes. Here the sword fight is on the bowsprit, one man armed with an anachronistic rapier (unless he’s an Iberian or perhaps an Italian under Spanish rule) with quillons in the wrong place, the other armed with an anachronistic “soup ladle” cutlass.
And it’s even made it to a book cover!
And even onto a 1000 piece puzzle!
But just how easy would it be to fence aloft on spars? It wouldn’t be. By way of experiment I’ve attempted footwork on a balance beam, much as in the photograph below but with much less danger. At first it’s not easy to maintain balance and any “fencing” done is best done by way of slow choreographed movements. Put simply, I fell often, more even than the time more than forty years ago a friend and I fenced with sabers at midnight in New Orleans under live oaks on a carpet of acorns (it was a mast year). Still, after a bit of practice one can move conditionally well on a flat beam–but still not sufficiently to prevent a likely fall. A rounded spar would be much more difficult to fence upon.
Aerial fencing, usually on rooftops or on beams or scaffolding attached to them, and usually as stunts or photo opportunities, is not uncommon:
Any real fencing on a beam or spar would obviously quickly result in a fall. Many years ago I saw a fencing high wire act performed at the Ringling Bros & Barnum &Bailey Circus: it was composed of simple, if impressive, choreographed movements, as expected.
In similar fashion, the modern aerial troupe Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean performs a tightrope fencing act on tour, including this past summer at the Miami Seaquarium:
But could swordplay aloft have happened in reality? Even rarely? The answer is akin to that of the myth of buried pirate treasure. Did pirates bury treasure? No, although it’s possible to find a rare instance of a couple of shipwrecked pirates burying their plundered shares to keep other pirates from stealing it. Further, it’s possible to imagine a rare similar but more significant exception, for example the shipwreck of pursued pirates who bury their plunder to prevent a pirate hunting landing party from finding it. But there’s no evidence anything like this ever happened. Similarly, there’s no evidence of swordplay aloft among pirates or anyone else at sea, as thrilling and pregnant with possibility the prospect is. Even so, it’s possible to imagine a rather contrived, but still possible, circumstance. Hollywood does it all the time.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2019-2022. Last updated April 12, 2023.
Pirates & Puritans
In recognition of the Thanksgiving Holiday, a few words from fictional and factual accounts about Puritans and their rather unsurprising early support of pirates and most especially–most because, in other words–their plunder.
I’m well aware, as are most readers, that Thanksgiving’s origin lies with Pilgrims and Native Americans, and the Pilgrims were not Puritans, at least not as we generally think of them. Historians tell us the Pilgrims were Brownist Puritans, a separate sect. Even so, there’s a strong association with Puritans and the holiday, correct or not, doubtless due to the dominance of the “purifying” faith soon after in seventeenth century New England (i.e. purifying the Church of England of so-called Catholic practices). And some historians do date our modern Thanksgiving to a Puritan celebration of Thanksgiving in 1631. I’ll leave the hair-splitting to the specialists in this area.
Fiction offers surprisingly few accounts good of Puritans and pirates, at least relative to other peoples and places, and pirates. Of those that exist, the most famous is surely the brief but fact-based description in Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter :
“Not to speak of the clergyman’s health, so inadequate to sustain the hardships of a forest life, his native gifts, his culture, and his entire development, would secure him a home only in the midst of civilization and refinement; the higher the state, the more delicately adapted to it the man. In furtherance of this choice, it so happened that a ship lay in the harbor; one of those questionable cruisers, frequent at that day, which, without being absolutely outlaws of the deep, yet roamed over its surface with a remarkable irresponsibility of character. This vessel had recently arrived from the Spanish Main, and, within three days’ time, would sail for Bristol. Hester Prynne—whose vocation, as a self-enlisted Sister of Charity, had brought her acquainted with the captain and crew—could take upon herself to secure the passage of two individuals and a child, with all the secrecy which circumstances rendered more than desirable…
“The picture of human life in the market-place, though its general tint was the sad gray, brown, or black of the English emigrants, was yet enlivened by some diversity of hue. A party of Indians—in their savage finery of curiously embroidered deer-skin robes, wampum-belts, red and yellow ochre, and feathers, and armed with the bow and arrow and stone-headed spear—stood apart, with countenances of inflexible gravity, beyond what even the Puritan aspect could attain. Nor, wild as were these painted barbarians, were they the wildest feature of the scene. This distinction could more justly be claimed by some mariners,—a part of the crew of the vessel from the Spanish Main,—who had come ashore to see the humors of Election Day. They were rough-looking desperadoes, with sun-blackened faces, and an immensity of beard; their wide, short trousers were confined about the waist by belts, often clasped with a rough plate of gold, and sustaining always a long knife, and, in some instances, a sword. From beneath their broad-brimmed hats of palm-leaf gleamed eyes which, even in good-nature and merriment, had a kind of animal ferocity. They transgressed, without fear or scruple, the rules of behavior that were binding on all others; smoking tobacco under the beadle’s very nose, although each whiff would have cost a townsman a shilling; and quaffing, at their pleasure, draughts of wine or aqua-vitæ from pocket-flasks, which they freely tendered to the gaping crowd around them. It remarkably characterized the incomplete morality of the age, rigid as we call it, that a license was allowed the seafaring class, not merely for their freaks on shore, but for far more desperate deeds on their proper element. The sailor of that day would go near to be arraigned as a pirate in our own. There could be little doubt, for instance, that this very ship’s crew, though no unfavorable specimens of the nautical brotherhood, had been guilty, as we should phrase it, of depredations on the Spanish commerce, such as would have perilled all their necks in a modern court of justice.
“But the sea, in those old times, heaved, swelled, and foamed, very much at its own will, or subject only to the tempestuous wind, with hardly any attempts at regulation by human law. The buccaneer on the wave might relinquish his calling, and become at once, if he chose, a man of probity and piety on land; nor, even in the full career of his reckless life, was he regarded as a personage with whom it was disreputable to traffic, or casually associate. Thus, the Puritan elders, in their black cloaks, starched bands, and steeple-crowned hats, smiled not unbenignantly at the clamor and rude deportment of these jolly seafaring men; and it excited neither surprise nor animadversion, when so reputable a citizen as old Roger Chillingworth, the physician, was seen to enter the market-place, in close and familiar talk with the commander of the questionable vessel.
“The latter was by far the most showy and gallant figure, so far as apparel went, anywhere to be seen among the multitude. He wore a profusion of ribbons on his garment, and gold-lace on his hat, which was also encircled by a gold chain, and surmounted with a feather. There was a sword at his side, and a sword-cut on his forehead, which, by the arrangement of his hair, he seemed anxious rather to display than hide. A landsman could hardly have worn this garb and shown this face, and worn and shown them both with such a galliard air, without undergoing stern question before a magistrate, and probably incurring fine or imprisonment, or perhaps an exhibition in the stocks. As regarded the shipmaster, however, all was looked upon as pertaining to the character, as to a fish his glistening scales.”
Hawthorne’s description is quite factual. Owing to the need to write this piece as efficiently as possible (I’m either busy or lazy, or both), I’ll quote here, and later several times, from The Buccaneer’s Realm (Potomac Books, 2007), or at least from the draft, this being easier than consulting the print version for which I have no digital copy, the book being edited on paper–old school, that is.
“Sailors [in New England] are almost certainly exempt anyway from much of this [religious] authority of the petty sort, or at least visiting pirates and privateers are, provided they keep to the “ordinaries and publique houses enterteinment” [James Duncan Phillips, Salem in the Seventeenth Century, 1933] on the waterfront where they commonly spend large sums drinking. There probably never has been, nor is there likely to ever be, a busy seapor t that lacks the taverns and women that [historically male] sailors seek when ashore, no matter the local moral culture. Mariners are tolerated in such places because they are a necessity–even tavern keepers may be precluded from arresting sailors for non-payment of their drinking debts, in order that ships can sail with their full crews. Nor can a sailor’s maritime character be much altered anyway, at sea or ashore. New England, after all, is not only a Puritan culture but a quintessentially maritime one, with a history of privateering, a major shipbuilding industry, seven hundred thirty or more vessels ranging from six to two hundred fifty tons in 1676, and a great trade to the English colonies,Europe, and even Guinea, Madagascar, and “Scanderoon” (İskenderun, also called Alexandretta). It is impossible to imagine a Puritan selectman attempting to enforce a law against kissing in public, for example, against a filibuster or buccaneer whose hands are figuratively speaking still red with blood and whose plunder is aiding in the financial salvation of the colony.
Buccaneers & Puritans
Again, an excerpt from The Buccaneers Realm:
In August 1678, privateer Bernard Lemoyne, fitted out in France, armed with a commission from Governor Pouançay at Saint Domingue, commanding the Toison d’Or (Golden Fleece) and in consort with Captain Pérou and perhaps others as well, cruises the south Cuban coast. In Matanzas Bay these privateers capture three Dutch trading ships ranging from twenty-four to twenty-six guns, and a Spaniard of twenty guns. Sailing to Martinique, the seat of French government in the Caribbean, to have the prizes condemned, Lemoyne faces a strident objection from the majority of his crew. Being English(although recruited at Petit Goave), they prefer to carry the prizes into an English port. However, by sailing with the French they have obviously refused Governor Vaughan’s offer of amnesty at Jamaica, as well as violated the law against serving under a foreign commission, and so these English must carry their prizes elsewhere, and so they do, to Boston, where they and their French captain are received with open arms. The reception is not surprising: the total value of the prizes, including one lost on the coast but whose cargo of any significant value is saved, is estimated at three hundred thousand pieces-of-eight.
That various sea rovers find their way to New England should come as no surprise: the New World is full of them. That some Puritan merchants support piracy should come as no surprise, either: Puritans have been involved in piracy and privateering since the 1630s when they briefly colonized Providence (Santa Catalina) and Henrietta (San Andrés) in the Caribbean as bases from which to raid England’s great hated rival, Catholic Spain.[ii]Further, New England has just endured King Philip’s War, a bloody conflict that has left the economy in shambles and the Faithful wondering what this manner of“God’s Providence” portends. The sudden influx of goods and silver is needed and surely welcomed, and any rationale is better than none. After all, the prizes were seized under a French commission and condemned in Martinique. Bostonians are merely providing a reasonable market.
New Englanders will continue such support throughout the period, with even less scruple, permitting the “refitting at the dock at Boston” in 1684 of the Spanish prize La Paz (Peace), renamed la Mutine and commanded by Captain Michel (Andrieszoon). She was captured near Cartagena by a French squadron commanded by Laurens, and whoseother captains included Michel, Yanky (Willems), Le Sage, Bréha (Bart), Blot, Grogniet,and an unidentified Englishman. With her is the Françoise, originally captured by the Spanish from the French and called by her captors the Francesa, then re-captured by Laurens at the same time as La Paz, and which has now passed to Yanky’s command. The Spanish ship is rich with goods: “The Bostoners no sooner heard of her [the Paz] off the coast than they despatched a messenger and pilot to convoy her into port in defiance of the King’s proclamation.” The filibusters purchase much of the “choice goods” in Boston,and thus “are likely to leave the greatest part of their plate behind them.” (CSPC 1681-1685, nos. 1845, 1851.)
In 1683 Captain Henley fits out a ship in Boston and sails for the Red Sea, seeking the Mogul’s rich ships. Associated with him are the pirate captains Thomas Woolery and Christopher Goff, and in 1685 both Henley and Goff are proclaimed pirates. The pirates Graham and Veale briefly visit in1685, but are recognized as pirates who have attacked an English vessel. In the same year the pirate Jean Hamlin returns to the sea in a ship named after his first and notorious vessel: “The new Trompeuse was fitted and protected by the godly New England independents.” Woolery returns to Boston in 1687 from “the South Sea,” after burning his ship at New Providence. New England is confirmed as a pirate “retreat.” (CSPC 1681-1685, nos. 2042, 1563; CSP 1685-1688,nos. 207, 210, 1405, 1449, 1449i, 1555.)
Puritans have a distinct reputation in both religion and trade, perhaps best described by the caustic Ned Ward: “The Inhabitants seem very Religious, showing many outward and visible Signs of an inward and Spiritual Grace: But tho’ they wear in their Faces the Innocence of Doves,you will find them in their Dealings, as Subtile as Serpents. Interest is their Faith, Money their God, and Large Possessions the only Heaven they covet…And it is a Proverb with those that know them, Whosover believes a New-England Saint, shall be sure to be cheated: And he that knows how to deal with their Traders, may Deal with the Devil and fear no Craft.” (Edward Ward, A Trip to New England, 1699.) Scholar Philip Ainsworth Means writes that for the Puritans, money was “to be worked for enthusiastically, all to the Glory of God,” and that, indeed, Puritans are “the establishers of [the United States’] present attitude toward business affairs,” although certainly the Dutch of New York influence it as well. (Means, The Spanish Main, 1935.)
However, New England is neither a single colony nor completely homogeneous. Rhode Island has a similar reputation as Massachusetts,at least in regard to support of pirates, or privateers of dubious commission,based some say on Rhode Island’s permissive coastline. Here John Coxon threatens to bring his cargo of indigo stolen in 1679 at the Bay of Honduras,if he is not permitted to unlade the cargo at Jamaica, paying duties on it, of course–the pirates would be “well entertained” at Rhode Island. In 1683 two pirate vessels, one of them commanded by Thomas Paine, are also well-received at Rhode Island. Governor Cranfield of New Hampshire asks Rhode Island authorities to arrest them, but is rebuffed. New Hampshire and Connecticut are said to be clones of Massachusetts in government and religion, and which way the original Puritan colony goes, so they go, although the governors of New Hampshire do attempt to reign in the Assembly, a creature of the Puritan congregational ministers. The colony also gives aid and protection to Spanish prisoners who escape from a French pirate in Boston, for example, and Governor Cranfield informs the English government of Massachusetts’s pandering to pirates.
Puritan influence extends to some degree both to the Caribbean and to English buccaneers as well. Many of the early buccaneers are English soldiers recruited under Cromwell’s “Western Design” with its failed Cromwell attempt against the Spanish at Hispaniola,followed by the conquest of Jamaica, and certainly some of them are either Puritans,or were, or have absorbed the Puritan ethos prevalent in Cromwell’s army. The courageous and famous Captain Richard Sawkins, a “generous man” who throws dice overboard in anger when he finds buccaneers using them on a Sunday, is almost certainly an heir to some degree of this Puritan tradition. Robert Clarke, “Governor and Captain General of the Bahamas,” independent preacher, and granter of piratical commissions “to make war on the Spaniards of Cuba, St. Augustine, and others,” is one of Oliver Cromwell’s former officers, and likewise heir to the Lord Protector’s Puritan and military traditions, as are many in the Caribbean.[
New England not only receives various pirates and “privateers,” but even has those who settle here. One of them, Samuel Moseley of Dorchester, Massachusetts, commands the Salisbury ketch, a coast guard with crew of forty-seven, along the New England coastlinefrom 1673 to 1674 in order to defend against Dutch incursions. Moseley is admirably suited to the job, for he reputedly has been a buccaneer or“privateer” at Jamaica. In 1675 he is commissioned to seek Dutch “pirates” who have been attacking English traders along the coast of Acadia. Sailing in consort with a French vessel, he soon discovers the trio of Peter Roderigo commanding the Edward and Thomas, Cornelius Andreson commanding the hired boat Penobscot Shallop, and George Manning, an Englishman captured by the Dutch and who has taken up their cause, commanding the Phillip Shallop. However, the issue is not as simple as it seems.
Roderigo and Andreson are actually legitimate privateers. Roderigo, a “Flanderkin,” Andreson, a Dutchman, and JohnRhoades, an Englishman serving as pilot, were recently officers under HurriaenAernouts of the Dutch Flying Post-Horse privateer, attacking and driving off the Frenchalong the Acadian coast. Aernouts lawfully claimed Acadia for Holland, and before he departed for the Caribbean commissioned Roderigo, Andreson, and Rhoades to manage the trade along this territory of “New Holland.” Aernouts subsequently sails with Reyning in an attack on Granada, but both are captured by the French. Unfortunately for the officers he leaves behind, English traders interlope on the Dutch-claimed territory. The officers steal sheep from ashore,and order traders at sea to strike “A Mayne for the Prince of orainge,” then rob them of “Beaver and Moose” pelts and skins. (To “strike amain” is to lower topsails, or mainsails if topsails are not set, to indicate submission or surrender.[iii]At one point, Roderigo beats Edward Youring, one of his English crewmen who objects to the theft of English goods. He is left ashore for a day “to be starved with could [cold].”
In response, the English accuse them of piracy, and it is in this pretended capacity that Captain Moseley engages them. The battle is over quickly. The Dutch vessels are tiny, and Manning suddenly changes sidesand engages his Dutch consorts. Mosely bids the Dutch “A Mayne for the King of England,” and Youring lowers Roderigo’s mainsail three or four feet to indicate surrender, in spite of orders to the contrary. Now attacked three to two, and by vessels flying English, French, and Dutch colors, Aernouts’s officers strike for true. Roderigo is convicted of piracy, but pardoned. Andreson is found guilty after the judges direct the verdict, having been first acquitted. The eight remaining are soon tried. Three, including Rhoades, are to be banished.The five others are condemned, including John Williams who had once served under Captain Morris, the famous buccaneer who killed the famous pirate Manoel Pardal Rivera, a Portuguese in the service of Spain. In 1682 Williams will again be in trouble for piracy, this time in Hartford, Connecticut.[iv]
The story does not end here. King Philip’s War breaks out, and Captain Moseley soon leads a company of volunteers, old soldiers, prisoners, and others against the Wampanoag leader [in this early example of unjust war against Native Americans]. The privateer earns a reputation for both courage and cruelty; his hatred of all Native Americans, friend or foe, is implacable. He is a butcher of men. In this company sometimes called “Moseley’s Privateers” are several condemned men condemned for piracy. Among these is Captain Andreson, who is soon commended for his bravery in the field in both Moseley’s and Wheeler’s companies, and pardoned. Captain Roderigo serves in Captain Scottow’s company, and similarly distinguishes himself and is likewise pardoned. King Philip’s War has everyone’s attention–none of the condemned are ever put to death.[
Pirates & Puritans
Moving into the early eighteenth century, a period of fascination for many–the time of Blackbeard, Roberts, and their ilk–, I won’t add much on them for now. Their Puritan and Massachusetts contacts were largely associated with piracies in local waters, and, quite deservedly, hangings for such crimes. I’m much less interested in these pirates, considering them little more than thugs with armed ships. Largely composed of privateers angry at losing their traditional trade in a depressed economy when peace arrived, they made no significant attacks by land, ran from most fights with naval vessels and others armed against them, lost nearly all fights with the English navy, and succeeded largely because there wasn’t an adequate local naval presence.
Their entire reputation in the Anglo-American community is based largely on the fact that they had great early publicity (Charles Johnson) which Hollywood adopted and expanded; talked bigger and badder than they really were; captured a large number of vessels (but mostly by frightening poor merchant crews into submission); and, frankly, because their make-up was largely Anglo-American (none of those French or other foreigners to share the credit with). As for their purported colorblindness toward people of darker skins: it didn’t really exist. They were inveterate slavers, just like honest seamen were. For reasons of cognitive dissonance I think (we like pirates but need to rationalize much of their behavior so we don’t feel bad about liking them), these pirates have been variously turned into social and political rebels, “knights of the sea,” and persecuted “good guys.” In fact, although there is always some small kernel of truth to all of these imaginings, it is not enough to change the simple fact that these men were armed thieves at sea, willing to use violence against innocent seamen and passengers.
I’ve dealt thoroughly with these issues in The Golden Age of Piracy.
For those interested, I highly recommend George Francis Dow and John Henry Edmonds, The Pirates of the New England Coast 1630-1730, 1923. It’s a fun read with plenty of excerpts from original accounts.
If I do have an interest in early eighteenth century piracy and Puritans, it’s with that grand old hypocrite and religious extremist, the Reverend Cotton Mather. An interesting and often despicable man, he celebrated the infamous witch trials, wrote an excellent but unpublished book on medical practice (including advice on getting fresh air and exercise, and not smoking), supported inoculation against smallpox in spite of strong opposition, and wrote and published books and pamphlets on a variety of subjects ranging from theology to history.
He also preached and published against pirates sentenced to hang in the early eighteenth century.
And hang them the devout New Englanders did.
Regarding citations, I have only used them in the case of quotations. Additional citations may be found in The Buccaneer’s Realm.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2007, 2018.
Evoking Swashbuckling Romance: Hollywood Pirate Ships & Shores in Miniature, & More
A brief place-holder blog post (and at the bottom a not quite shameless plug for Blood & Plunder by Firelock Games) while I finish several more challenging posts in the queue.
Before the advent of CGI, many swashbuckler films used models of ship and shore, along with full-size ships built on sound stages, to both recreate environments no longer available and also to save money. To some degree the early miniatures may seem quaint today, as compared to CGI, although in my opinion bad CGI is worse–more jarring to the eye–by far than an obvious model.
These old sets and scenes evoke nostalgia for the entire spectacle of old Hollywood swashbucklers: the cinemas with their great screens and clicking film projectors, the lasting impressions left by thundering broadsides and clashing swords, and above all the image of pirate ships in tropical waters.
For fun, here are a few.
Above, the Albatross, commanded by Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) arrives in a secluded cove on the Isthmus of Panama in order to raid the silver trains. The film scenes set in the Old World are in black and white, while those in the Americas are in sepia.
Only the film title is actually based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, which tells the story of an English gentleman who turns Barbary corsair in an act of revenge. The 1940 film is a not even thinly-veiled wartime propaganda piece, albeit an enjoyable one. English sea dogs are renamed in the scrip as patriotic sea hawks suppressed by treasonous machinations until the doughty hero (Errol Flynn) reveals the treachery and England arms the sea hawks against
Nazi Germany Imperial Spain. For more information try The Sea Hawk, edited by Rudy Behlmer. It’s a fun read for anyone interested in the script and the film’s history.
Next, we have the models of Port Royal and the French flagship used in the finale. This image is not of an actual scene from the 1935 Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone, but of the set prior to shooting.
Of course, the real Port Royal looked nothing like this. It was actually crammed with English-style brick buildings of two and even three floors, unlike this Southern California Spanish colonial revival-influenced town. But it’s sets like these in Hollywood swashbucklers that have influenced our notions of what the seventeenth century Caribbean looked like. In fact, the region at the time had a wide variety or environments and architectures.
Above we have the battle in Port Royal harbor during the finale of Captain Blood: the Arabella on the left versus the French flagship on the right. N. B. Royal sails (the smallest on the ship on the right, the fourth sail from the bottom) were not used in this era. Their use here is an anachronism. In fact, only exceedingly rarely was the topgallant sail (the third sail from the bottom, used on “tall ships” on the fore and main masts) seen on the mizzenmast or sprit-mast on the bowsprit. I know of only two seventeenth century instances, each noted as being highly unusual. One was Kidd’s Adventure Galley in the very late seventeenth century, the other was a Spanish ship in 1673.
A pirate ship under full sail in action against ships at anchor and shore targets during the finale of The Black Swan starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara. The film is based on the somewhat similar novel by Rafael Sabatini.
A pirate ship sailing into Cartagena de Indias under the guns of a castle in The Spanish Main starring Maureen O’Hara and Paul Henreid.
Over-large pirate ship and treasure ship of the “Great Mogul” in Against All Flags. The ships are engaged under full sail, a practice generally not seen in reality except in the case of a running fight, but quite common in Hollywood because it looks good. Here, both ships would have stripped to “fighting sail” for a variety of reasons, including simplified ship-handling in action. The film stars Errol Flynn, as Brian Hawke, in one of his last swashbucklers (followed finally by The Master of Ballantrae in 1953 and Crossed Swords in 1954). It also stars Maureen O’Hara wielding a sword as Prudence ‘Spitfire’ Stevens, something I always enjoy.
And now, a not quite shameless plug for Firelock Games’s Blood & Plunder tabletop war game of piracy and much, much more–one need not take the side of pirates to play. A full spectrum of peoples and forces are available.
Full disclosure: I’m the game’s historical consultant, and I thought it would be fun to compare the Blood & Plunder models to the film models above.
So, above and coming soon: a small Spanish galleon. Historically accurate, the model also evokes the best of old Hollywood swashbucklers.
A small Spanish frigate engaged with a French brigantine.
Spanish and French brigantines engaged near shore. Which is the pirate? (Answer: either could be!)
A small fluyt (in English a pink, in French a flibot, in Spanish an urqueta, on the left; a galleon at center; a brigantine on the right.
Close up action!
Brigantine crewed by, I believe, French flibustiers.
Information about the game is available on Facebook and the company’s website.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First posted April 16, 2018.
Pirate Versus Privateer
A few quick notes on the use of the word pirate when the term privateer is appropriate.
It’s a minor issue, I know, this particular instance of the practice known today as “click-bait.” The practice has been around a long time, not only in political rhetoric but in marketing as well. But it has grown much worse over the past decade, and, given the state of affairs today in regard to the truth, in which outright lies often pass with too little outcry, and, almost as bad, in which mere unfounded opinion is often given equal time with solid expertise, any egregious usurpation of fact or meaning should be shunned–even in such a trivial-seeming matter of pirate versus privateer.
I am not entirely innocent of the charge myself, but in my defense it’s not been an egregious offense, and one generally committed by my publishers primarily because the word pirate is so marketable, not to mention that publishers invariably retain the right to change or even outright reject the author’s title.
For example, The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques is actually about the tactics of pirates, privateers, and commerce-raiding men-of-war. But pirate is the word used in the subtitle, a decision made by my publisher. Likewise The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main 1674-1688: buccaneers were often pirates, but also often legitimate privateers as well as what might best be termed “quasi-privateers” or “quasi-pirates” operating without a legitimate commission but with a “wink and a nod” from their respective governments. Pirate Hunting: The Fight Against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders From Antiquity to the Present also discusses privateers, commerce raiders, and even early submarines. The Golden Age of Piracy is the most accurate, but, as noted already, even buccaneers were often privateers.
Strictly speaking, piracy is armed robbery on the open seas. In the past, it was armed robbery pretty much anywhere there was ocean or land touching the ocean, at least if the thieves came by sea. Not just a crime, but a hanging crime, in other words.
Privateering, however, derives from private man-of-war, a vessel commissioned by a legitimate state to attack enemy shipping and profit from it. Lawful plundering, in other words, an entirely legal practice. A privateer might be imprisoned by the enemy if captured, but he wouldn’t be tried and hanged for piracy.
I’ve made plain in print many times that there is plenty of overlap among the various sorts of sea rover, that is, among pirates, privateers, and commerce-raiding men-of-war. That said, in most cases during the Golden Age of Piracy (circa 1655 to 1725) and afterward, the overlapping is much less common. In particular, the distinction is readily apparent everywhere except in the case of Caribbean buccaneers during the Golden Age (and strictly speaking, the only period in which true buccaneers existed).
In other words, in the majority of cases the distinction between pirate and privateer is obvious. Privateers in no ways considered themselves to be pirates, nor did anyone else except in a figurative sense by some of their their victims. Only if a privateer had overstepped his lawful authority and entered the realm of piracy might he be considered a pirate. Privateers did not claim to be pirates. Rather, they rejected the term outright. You’d get into a fight if you called a privateer a pirate, quite possibly a fatal one in the form of a duel.
So how does the use of the word pirate in the title of my books, and in similar books, differ from books and articles in which pirate is used as a term for privateer? Because my books and others like them are largely about piracy. Were they largely about privateering, the word privateering, not piracy, would appear in the titles.
Pirate and piracy have become romantic words, so it’s easy to see why they’re used whenever possible, however tenuous the connection to the subject. They’re therefore commonly used as umbrella terms for anything resembling plundering at sea, lawful or not. And they’re used in spite of the reality of piracy being anything but romantic to the usually entirely innocent victims: common seamen, coastal inhabitants, free people of color taken and sold as slaves by pirates, not to mention slaves captured by pirates and sold elsewhere, often away from their families.
In fact, it should be privateering and pirate hunting that convey the most romance, with piracy conveying revulsion, as it did in the past.
But it’s the caricature that matters: the word pirate conveys the image that draws the eye, and the description the ear.
Part of the problem with the lure of the word is that piracy has been re-interpreted as a form of rebellion against injustice. Pirates, we are told by too many scholars both amateur and professional, were rebels against empire, against unfair corporate practices, even–falsely–rebels against slavery. They are mostly the “good guys.” We are told that they may even have helped inspire the American Revolution and that they even threatened the existence of the English and other empires. Although there are occasional fragments of related truth in these claims, none of them are profoundly true or even slightly more than less true. They are not even as true as the suggestion that privateers were a form of pirates.
The fact is, we’re attracted to pirates so we sanitize them, we invent reasons, and let others invent reasons, why they weren’t as bad as they were. We make them palatable.
But to reemphasize, pirates were sea criminals, and in no way did their victims view them as heroes. Simply reading through a list of pirate cruelties and other depredations should be enough to correct the false image–but seldom does it. Privateers, although some did break the law at times, were by comparison Boy Scouts.
There are periods in history in which some groups of commissioned privateers behaved piratically: Spanish Caribbean privateers in the Golden Age, French and English buccaneers in the Golden Age, Colombian privateers during the South American wars of revolution (and likewise Spanish men-of-war fighting Colombian privateers), for example. But they are in the minority as compared to the enormous number of commissioned privateers, and when privateers did commit piratical acts, they were considered to be pirates. However, the majority of privateers behaved lawfully or largely lawfully, restricting their attacks to enemy shipping as permitted by law. The majority of privateers should never be referred to as pirates, nor should the term pirate be a catch-all for any sea rover, legitimate or other.
The inspiration for this post–not that it hasn’t always been on my mind in a small, usually resigned, way–was a recent NPR “All Things Considered” segment: How Pirates Of The Caribbean Hijacked America’s Metric System. The segment does note that:
“And you know who was lurking in Caribbean waters in the late 1700s? Pirates. ‘These pirates were British privateers, to be exact,’ says Martin. ‘They were basically water-borne criminals tacitly supported by the British government, and they were tasked with harassing enemy shipping.'”
But the privateers were not tacitly supported by the British government, that is, with implied consent. Rather, they were officially supported, they had explicit consent. They were not pirates, notwithstanding some critics who considered that privateering was in some ways piracy legitimized.
Bad history and click-bait are a common combination these days, although the example above is not by far one of the many egregious examples. Still, it is hard to imagine that the word pirate was used for any reason other than to draw the reader or listener in. Worse, the phrase used in the title is “Pirates of the Caribbean,” conjuring up images of romantic buccaneers, not to mention fantasy pirates like Jack Sparrow.
The correct title of the NPR segment should have been “How Privateers Hijacked America’s Metric System.” But this has much less cachet, and is far less likely to get someone to click on the published article and read it, or tune in later to listen. The title is actually a bit doubly misleading: did the capture of a metric weight really keep the new US from considering the metric system? Or was it, as the segment does note it might have been, just a missed opportunity?
I emailed All Things Considered on this minor matter several days ago. I haven’t heard back, even though I noted my several works on the subject of piracy and privateering. Perhaps the editors found the word click-bait offensive, or the fact that I pointed out that pretty much the same article ran in The Washington Post this past September on Talk Like a Pirate Day.
I’m not singling out NPR, this is just the most recent example I have at hand. I like NPR and have been a listener off and on for decades (mostly depending on how often I’m in my Jeep). But facts are facts, and when they’re imposters it doesn’t matter who the offender is–the offense needs to be pointed out.
The difference might be a non-issue with an educated audience, one that understands the difference between pirate and privateer. But today too many people are getting their education, such as it is, from click-bait articles on social media–articles that are ultimately misleading.
While this may seem to be nothing more than quibbling, it remains vital for the sake of truth to get facts straight. And this includes word definitions because they’re the primary means of conveying factual meaning, aka facts. We’re overwhelmed today not only with obvious liars and subtle liars, but with a large segment of society who excuse loose meaning and interpretation as a means of getting attention. It’s not only ideologues and Mammon’s imps who play fast and loose with the truth anymore, but every know-nothing and know-a-little know-it-all considers his or her wrong-headed opinion to be equal to that of the knowledgeable, facts be damned. And the disease is spreading to mainstream educated society: the Internet is making everyone lazy. How to stop this? By using facts to point out errors, misconceptions, and outright falsehoods.
For the privateer, definitions and facts made all the difference: it’s what kept him from being hanged as a pirate.
Copyright Benerson Little, January, 2018. First posted January 2, 2018.
Novels with Swordplay: Some Suggestions
For your perusal, a list of a handful of swashbuckling historical novels–pirates, musketeers, various spadassins and bretteurs–with engaging swordplay, even if not always entirely accurate in its depiction. If you’re reading any of my blog posts, chances are you have friends who might enjoy reading some of these books, thus my suggestion as Christmas, Hanukkah, or other gifts this holiday season.
Three caveats are in order: all of the following are favorites of mine, all are set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and all are not “all” in the sense that the list, even narrowed strictly to my favorites, is quite incomplete. Without doubt I’ll add to it every holiday season. And maybe one day a list of swashbuckling films, another of table and board games, maybe even of video games too…
Upon reflection, perhaps a fourth caveat is in order as well: simply enjoy the stories and their swordplay for what they are. Don’t be too critical, especially of the latter. Except for the case of the reader who is an experienced fencer with a strong understanding of period fencing terms and technique (far more rare than you might think), complex historical fencing scenes cannot be written simply and just as simply understood. Nor can technique and actions in general be explained sufficiently for the neophyte to understand, at least not if the writer wishes to keep the action flowing. The writer must strike a middle ground, one that won’t lose the tempo and thus the reader. This is not so easily done.
It’s possible the Moby Dick technique would work–explain and teach prior to the event–but it’s just as likely that many readers would shun this, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, Moby Dick is by far my favorite novel and I consider it the greatest ever written. It is not, however, a book for readers who cannot step momentarily away from the narrative. As I’ve discovered after the publication of two of my books in which narrative history is interspersed with analysis and explanation, there are quite a few such readers, some of whom become plaintively irate and simultaneously–and often amusingly–confessional of more than a degree of ignorance when the narrative is interrupted for any reason. To sample this sort of reader’s mindset, just read a few of the negative reviews of Moby Dick on Amazon–not those by obvious trolls but those by apparently sincere reviewers. Put plainly, using Moby Dick as a template for swordplay scenes would probably be distracting in most swashbuckling novels.
In regard to acquiring any of these enjoyable titles, note that some are out of print except perhaps as overly-priced modern print-on-demand editions. Even for those still in print, I highly recommend purchasing earlier copies from used or antiquarian dealers–there are plenty of highly affordable copies, just look around for them. Abebooks is a great place to start, but only if you have no local independent used or antiquarian bookstores available to try first. And these days, alas, there might not be any…
Why an older edition? Because the scent of an old book helps set the period atmosphere. Add a comfortable chair, a sword or two on the wall, a fireplace in a reading room or a fire pit on the beach nearby, and, if you’re of age to drink, perhaps some rum, Madeira, or sherry-sack on a side table, and you’re ready to go. Or Scotch, especially a peaty single malt distilled near the seaside, it will evoke the atmosphere of Sir Walter Scot’s The Pirate. Scotch always works.
So just sit back and let the writer carry you along. Don’t forget to imagine the ring of steel on steel and the sharp smell of ozone after an exceptionally sharp beat or parry. And if you really enjoy scenes with swordplay, there’s no reason you can’t further your education by taking up fencing, whatever your age or physical ability. If you’d rather begin first by reading about swordplay, you can start here with Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen. And if you’re interested in how swashbuckling novels come to be–romance, swordplay, and all–read Ruth Heredia’s outstanding two volume Romantic Prince, details below.
Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Better known by its short title, Captain Blood, I list this first even though there’s really no significant description of swordplay, not even during the duel that is one of the best parts, of many, in the 1935 film version starring Errol Flynn. You must imagine the sword combat, yet in no way does it detract from this great swashbuckling romance that has inspired readers and writers worldwide, not to mention two major film versions (1924 and 1935). It is truly a modern classic. If you really want to judge the quality of the prose, read a few passages out loud: they’re wonderfully lyrical and evocative.
Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini
If it’s a description of swordplay in a tale of Captain Blood, you’ll have to settle for the “Love Story of Jeremy Pitt” in Captain Blood Returns, also known in UK editions as the Chronicles of Captain Blood. Great Captain Blood fare, follow up it with The Fortunes of Captain Blood.
The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini
One of the greatest of swashbucklers whose plot leads, line after line, to a dueling climax. The 1942 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, doesn’t do the book justice, not to mention takes great liberties with both plot and character.
Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini
An embittered former Cromwellian officer reassessing his life during the early days of the Restoration–and proper use of the unarmed hand in a sword fight too!
Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini
A novel evoking many of the elements of my Hungarian fencing masters’ own history: spies, duels, intrigue, war, revolution, narrow escapes, and above all, courage. Plus Venice!
“With delicate precision he calculated the moment at which to turn and face them. He chose to do it standing on the lowest step of the bridge, a position which would give him a slight command of them when they charged. As he spun round, he drew his sword with one hand whilst with the other he swept the cloak from his shoulders. He knew exactly what he was going to do. They should find that a gentleman who had been through all the hazards that had lain for him between Quiberon and Savenay did not fall an easy prey to a couple of bully swordsmen…”
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Add a sword and you have Scaramouche.
To my mind, a tie with The Black Swan in regard to a novel built around swordplay, and far superior in its scope. Easily has the best–most evocative, that is–description of a fencing salle, hands down.
To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston
Listed here primarily as representative of the genre at the time (the late nineteenth century) and because it influenced Rafael Sabatini, the novel has most of the classic clichés of the genre, including the duel for command of a pirate ship, something that never actually happened. A gentleman swordsman, pirates, Native Americans, a damsel incognita in distress… The duel takes place, as best as I can tell, on Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia.
Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer by Jeffery Farnol
The prequel to the following two novels, you may either love or hate the style in which it’s and the rest are written, the dialogue in particular. Even if you don’t much care for the style–I don’t much–the series are worth reading anyway for the adventure and swordplay, often including sword-armed women in disguise. Farnol will never come close to replacing Sabatini to me, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying Farnol’s swashbucklers. And at least Farnol’s dialogue doesn’t sound like, to paraphrase a friend of mine, suburbanites chatting inanely at a PTA meeting–a problem with much dialogue in modern historical fiction and television drama.
As for swordplay, Farnol often takes the evocative approach, providing broad strokes to give a sense of the action without providing detail which might confuse non-fencers:
“Once more the swords rang together and, joined thus, whirled in flashing arcs, parted to clash in slithering flurry, their flickering points darting, now in the high line, now in the low, until Adam’s blade seemed to waver from this line, flashing wide, but in that same instant he stepped nimbly aside, and as Sir Benjamin passed in the expected lunge Adam smote him lightly across broad back with the flat of his blade.”
Non-fencing authors take note of the critical vocabulary for swordplay scenes: rang, flashing, slithering, flickering, darting, flashing…
Black Bartlemy’s Treasure by Jeffery Farnol
Great swashbuckling fare, the first part of a two novel series.
Martin Conisby’s Vengeance by Jeffery Farnol
This quote alone sells this sequel to Black Bartlemy’s Treasure: “So-ho, fool!” cried she, brandishing her weapon. “You have a sword, I mind—go fetch it and I will teach ye punto riverso, the stoccato, the imbrocato, and let you some o’ your sluggish, English blood. Go fetch the sword, I bid ye.”
The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser
Enjoyable parody of swashbuckling pirate novels and films, much influenced by the works of Rafael Sabatini and Jeffery Farnol. Fraser, an author himself of wonderful swashbuckling adventure, was a great fan of Sabatini.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Requires no description. The swordplay, like that in The Pirates above, is affectionate parody, and much more detailed than in the film.
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Excellent if mostly, if not entirely, historically inaccurate tale of Rob Roy MacGregor told through the eyes of a visiting Englishman. It has a couple of excellent descriptions of swordplay, ranging from a duel with smallswords to action with Highland broadswords.
Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu by Paul Féval père
I’m going to pass on Alexandre Dumas for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ll eventually devote an entire blog to him. If, however, you feel he should be represented here, The Three Musketeers series is where to begin, but you must read the entire series of novels. Be aware that many such series are actually abridged. For a slightly different Dumas take on the swashbuckler, try Georges (an exception to the seventeenth and eighteenth century rule, an almost autobiographical novel in its focus on race and prejudice) or The Women’s War (or The War of Women, in French La Guerre des Femmes). Both are favorites of mine.
Instead, I’ll suggest a great swashbuckler by one of Dumas’ contemporaries. Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu is a true roman de cape et d’épée (swashbuckling novel) of revenge from the which the line, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” (“If you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!”), has passed into French proverb. The novel has been made into film at least nine times, plus into a couple of television versions as well as several stage versions. Unfortunately, I’m aware of only one English translation, and it is excessively–an understatement–abridged. Alexandre Dumas, Paul Féval, Rafael Sabatini are the trinity who truly established the swashbuckler as a significant literary genre.
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Not a novel, but mandatory reading nonetheless, with one of the two greatest stage duels ever written, the other being that in Hamlet. Wonderful drama, philosophy in action, and sword adventure, including a duel fought to impromptu verse. Like Captain Blood, it is one of the truly inspirational swashbucklers. To be read at least every few years, and seen on stage whenever available. There are several excellent film versions as well.
The Years Between &c by Paul Féval fils & “M. Lassez”
Two series of novels of the imagined adventures of the d’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas and the Cyrano of Edmond Rostand, filling the twenty years between The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After in the first, and immediately following Twenty Years After in the second. The books are filled with the expected enjoyable affrays and other adventures of the genre, including the usual improbable circumstances and coincidences. The first series consists of The Mysterious Cavalier, Martyr to the Queen, The Secret of the Bastille, and The Heir of Buckingham, published in English in four volumes. The second includes State Secret, The Escape of the Man in the Iron Mask, and The Wedding of Cyrano, published in English in two volumes as Comrades at Arms and Salute to Cyrano.
The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr
Fully enjoyable read about a modern history professor who travels to the seventeenth century via a bargain with the devil. The professor discovers that his modern swordplay is superior to that of the seventeenth century–a wonderful idea for a novel but otherwise flawed in reality. At best, if the professor were a “modern” epee fencer, there might be parity. But who cares? After all, who can travel back in time anyway except in the imagination? If you’re a fencer well-versed in historical fencing versus modern (again, not as many as you might think, including some who believe they are), suspend your disbelief. And if you’re not, just enjoy the novel for what it is.
Most Secret by John Dickson Carr
Pure genre by the famous mystery writer, this time entirely set in the seventeenth century. Cavaliers, spies, and a damsel in distress!
The Alatriste Novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Leaping forward almost two hundred years, the Alatriste novels are a highly recommended recent series by one of Spain’s great novelists, although some critics note that the books are a bit dark. I’d call them realistic. Unfortunately, the latest of the series, El Puente de los Asesinos (The Bridge of the Assassins or The Assassin’s Bridge) has not been translated into English and doesn’t appear likely to be anytime soon, if at all, an apparent casualty of insufficient sales of the previous volumes and a reflection upon the state of the genre at the moment. That the genre should not have a larger readership given the times we live in is curious, but perhaps the audience awaits a few real-life swashbuckling heroes to reappear first. I have read The Assassin’s Bridge, but in French, and enjoyed it. My Spanish is simply not up to the task. The first six volumes are available in English translation. I also suggest The Fencing Master (El Maestro de Escrima) by the same author.
Romantic Prince by Ruth Heredia
For readers seeking to understand how written romances come to be, you can do no better than to read Ruth Heredia’s two Romantic Prince volumes: Seeking Sabatini and Reading Sabatini. The first is a biography of Rafael Sabatini, the second a guide to reading his many works, including some discussion of swordplay. Ruth Heredia is the preeminent expert on all things Rafael Sabatini. Long an officer and significant contributor to the Rafael Sabatini Society, she is a gifted writer in her right, and, in my own experience, an eloquent voice for sanity, empathy, and justice in a mad world. Originally published in now hard-to-find soft cover, her two volumes are now available in revised editions for free for personal use by requesting them from the author. You can find details at attica-ruth.
Fortune’s Whelp by Benerson Little
Last, a blatant effort at self-promotion, although I honestly did enjoy writing the swordplay scenes (not to mention working them out sword-in-hand), and I do enjoy re-reading the associated passages, or at least as much as I’m able to enjoy my own writing (the urge to revise and improve, even after publication, is quite distracting). A sequel, Fortune’s Favorite, is forthcoming, and at least another after it. Then, if all goes well, a series of prequels.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First published December 14, 2017. Last updated April 14, 2020.
Of Pirates & Wooden Legs
“[B]y which Means we were in hopes to have out-sailed the Privateers, but one them still came up with us; which we were preparing to engage, when the Seamen came to me in a Body, and told me they would not fight, by Reason they said they did not understand there was any Provision made for them, in case they were wounded; that if they lost a Leg or an Arm, they must be Beggars all their Life after.”
So wrote Capt. Nathaniel Uring, commanding the “Packet-Boat” Prince George (a swift frigate used for mail, passengers, and light cargo), of his crew’s response when called upon to prepare to defend against two French privateers near Scilly in December 1707. Without disability compensation, the great danger of losing a limb in battle was not worth the risk to them, even though while in the Caribbean they had fought against a single, smaller privateer at long range. From A History of the Voyages and Travels of Capt. Nathaniel Uring, 2nd ed. (London: John Clarke, 1727).
So associated with sea battles were timber legs, that even song lyrics mentioned them:
Now, Boys, who wins a Golden Chain?
Ne’er fear a Wooden Leg.
–Anon., “The Sea-Fight, A Song,” 17th century
And indeed, between round shot, large splinters (size-wise, think various lengths of 2x4s, see damage images below), and small shot, it was not uncommon for more than one crewman to lose a leg, arm, or digits after a protracted combat, either immediately due to bone and tissue damage, or later due to gangrene:
“When [wee] came to see what damage [wee] had sustained found our Cheife Mate, Mr Smith, wounded in the legg, close by the knee, with a splinter or piece of chaine, which cannot well be told, our Barber had two of his fingers shott off as was spunging one of our gunns, the Gunner’s boy had his legg shott off in the waste[,] John Amos, Quartermaster, had his leg shott off at the helme[,] the Boatswaine’s boy (a lad of 13 years old) was shott in the thigh, which went through and splintered his bone, the Armorer Jos Osbourne in the round house wounded by a splinter just in the temple[,] the Captain’s boy on the Quarter Deck a small shott raised his scull through his cap and was the first person wounded and att the first onsett. Wm Reynold’s boy had the brim of his hatt 1/2 shott off and his forefinger splintered very sorely. John Blake turner, the flesh of his legg and calfe a great part shott away.” From the letter by eyewitnesses Solomon Lloyd and William Reynolds to Sir John Gayer describing the battle between the ship Dorrill and the pirate ship Mocha in 1697.
The most famous English surgeon of the 17th century, Richard Wiseman, wrote in his famous text on surgery that “In our Sea-fights oftentimes a Buttock, the Brawn of the Thigh, the Calf of the Leg, are torn off by Chain-shot and Splinters.”
Worse, some surgeons were too quick to amputate. Again, Richard Wiseman: “Amongst the Cruisers in private Fregats from Dunkerk, it was complained, that their Chirurgeons were too active in amputating those fractured Members [arms and legs]. As in truth there are such silly Brothers, who will brag of the many they have dismembered, and think that way to lie themselves into credit. But they that truly understand Amputation and their Trade, well know how villanous a thing it is to glory in such a work.”
Much of the origin of the idea that wooden legs were common among pirates may be due to buccaneer articles of the second half of the seventeenth century:
“Lastly, they stipulate in writing what recompense or reward each one ought to have that is either wounded or maimed or maimed in his body, suffering the loss of any limb, by that voyage. thus they order for the loss of a right arm 600 pieces-of-eight, or 6 slaves; for the loss of a left arm 500 pieces-of-eight, or 5 slaves; for the right leg 500 pieces-of-eight, or 5 slaves; for the left leg 400 pieces-of-eight, or 4 slaves; for an eye 100 pieces-of-eight, or one slave; for a finger of hand the same reward as for the eye.” (Alexandre Exquemelin [John Esquemeling], The Buccaneers of America. London: Crooke, 1684.)
A copy of flibustier articles dating to 1688–“Copie de la charte-partie faite entre M. Charpin, commandant la Sainte-Rose“–includes the following article: “Item. Tout homme estropié au service du bâtiment aura 600 pièces de 8 ou 6 nègres a choix s’il s’en prend.” The injured, whether he lost an arm or leg, had the choice of six hundred pieces-of-eight or six slaves.
Similarly, writing of the year 1694, Caribbean chronicler Father Jean-Baptiste Labat noted that among French flibustiers, “Ceux qui sont estropiez du’un bras ou d’une jambe emporteé, ou rendu inútiles, ont six cens écus pour chaque membre…” That is, six hundred pieces-of-eight for the physical loss of an arm or leg, or of the use of it. The original buccaneer and flibustier articles were still in use even though true English buccaneering had disappeared and French buccaneering–la flibuste–would not last much longer. (Jean-Baptiste Labat, Voyage aux Isles, 1722, vol. 1:22.)
It is important to point out that buccaneers were not the originators of this compensation. It was often part of merchant seamen agreements, and usual among navies as well. For example, in 1685 in the English navy, the “Chatham Chest” for pensioners would pay an annual stipend of 6 pounds, 13 shillings, and 4 pence for the loss of an arm or leg, and twice that for the loss of two legs. For the loss of two arms, 15 pounds per annum, for the loss of the use of an arm (but not the loss of the arm itself), 5 pounds, and for the loss of an eye, four pounds. (From A Descriptive Catalogue of the Naval Manuscripts in the Pepysian Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, vol. 1.)
But back to pirates! William Dampier, during his voyage with buccaneers across the Pacific from the Spanish Main under Captain Swan, mentions buccaneer William Williams “that had a wooden Leg.” Charles Johnson (a pseudonym), famous chronicler of pirates in the early eighteenth century, describes one of the pirates of Captain Edward England: “a Fellow with a terrible pair of Whiskers, and a wooden Leg, being stuck round with Pistols, like the Man in the Almanack with Darts, comes swearing and vapouring upon the Quarter-Deck, and asks, in a damning Manner, which was Captain Mackra…” From A General History of the Pyrates (London: T. Warner, 1724).
So here are at least two “Golden Age” pirates with a wooden leg. Doubtless there were at least a few common seamen and mates, perhaps some of them pirates as well, who remained at sea in spite of disability. Naturally, such service was easier for officers, the most famous one being Cornelis Corneliszoon Jol, aka “Pie de Palo.” A privateer captain, later admiral, in the service of the Dutch West India Company in the first half of the seventeenth century, one of his subordinate captains was the famous Diego the Mulatto. Another famous wooden-legged admiral was Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta who successfully defended Cartagena de Indias from English attack in 1741. Early in his sea-going career he lost an eye, a leg, and the use of an arm from wounds received in battle.
The reality, though, is that the loss of a leg ended the career of most common seamen, including sea rovers. In most cases a common seaman who had lost a lower limb or was otherwise lamed could no longer climb aloft, and if he could it was only with great difficulty. A seaman needed to be able to move quickly on deck and aloft aboard a platform that was constantly pitching, sending, rolling, and yawing. Boarding actions would be precluded, as would a number of other combat actions, although certainly there were some that a wooden leg would not entirely restrict.
The naval, or more generally, maritime profession most suited to disabled seaman was doubtless the ship’s cook, and there are a number of period illustrations showing sea cooks with one legs, although “greasy” is probably the most commonly applied adjective.
However, the most famous of these one-legged sea cooks never existed. Created by Robert Louis Stevenson for Treasure Island, Long John Silver, also known as Barbecue, epitomizes the modern idea of the iconic one-legged–but not wooden-legged–pirate, although he was probably inspired by Captain England’s wooden-legged pirate crewman described above. In fact, Stevenson’s original title was “The Sea Cook”–a subtly accurate title but one entirely lacking in romance and adventure.
Early in the book Billy Bones, the old rum-soaked pirate inspired, according to Stevenson himself, by the old buccaneer in “Tales from a Traveller” by Washington Irving, asks Jim Hawkins to keep his “weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg.”
Stevenson imagines accurately how he might move about at sea. “Aboard ship he carried his crutch by a lanyard round his neck, to have both hands as free as possible. It was something to see him wedge the foot of the crutch against a bulkhead, and propped against it, yielding to every movement of the ship, get on with his cooking like someone safe ashore. Still more strange was it to see him in the heaviest of weather cross the deck. He had a line or two rigged up to help him across the widest spaces—Long John’s earrings, they were called; and he would hand himself from one place to another, now using the crutch, now trailing it alongside by the lanyard, as quickly as another man could walk. Yet some of the men who had sailed with him before expressed their pity to see him so reduced.”
But Long John Silver is not the only iconic fictional seafarer. There’s an unfortunate natural inclination to believe that anything maritime must therefore be pirate, and worse, must be predominately pirate. Ahab’s “wooden” leg–actually whale bone–at least subconsciously reinforces the notion that pirates often had wooden legs. Ahab, of course, was the ship’s captain, and therefore special arrangements could be made for his disability, unlike in the case of common seamen.
And what did prosthetics and crutches look like in this era? The following images show the variety, based on the extent of permanent injury. The fact that the majority of wooden legs in period images begin just below the knee is due to surgical practice at the time. As “Serjeant-Chirurgeon” Richard Wiseman explains it in Several Chirurgicall Treatises (London: E. Flesher and J. Macock, 1676):
[Speaking of bullet wounds here], “If the Ancle be thus maimed, you shall then cut off the Leg within three or four Fingers Breadth under the Knee, in regard so long a Stump would be troublesome. But if the Leg be shattered off by the Calf, do not put your Patient to the Pain of new Amputation, for the shortening it a Hand’s Breadth, or a little more. Save what you can of a fluttered Hand. And if the Toes, with Part of the Foot, were shot off, cut off the lacerated Parts smooth, but with Care to save as much of the Foot, with the Heel, as you can; it being much better than a Wooden Leg. But if the Arm or Leg be not so shattered, tho’ the Wound be large on one side, and hang gaping down with great Fracture of Bones, yet be not discouraged, the Largeness of the Wound will make for your better pulling out those extraneous Bodies, Shivers, Splinters, Rags, or ought else, and for the easier Discharge of Matter. Dress it as a Wound by a Splinter.”
Similarly, Dr. Benjamin Bell in A System of Surgery, 5th ed., vol. 4 (Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1791), writes that “In amputating the thigh we observed, that as much of the limb should be saved as can be done with propriety; for the longer the stump the more utility is derived from it: But in the amputation of the leg, it has hitherto been almost a general rule to take it off a little below the knee, even where the disease for . which it is advised is seated on or near the ancle, and where accordingly the operation might be performed much lower. The reason given for this is, that a few inches of the leg being saved, answers as a sufficient rest to the body in walking when the limb is inserted into the box of a wooden leg; and when much more of it is left, that it proves troublesome both in walking and fitting, without being attended with any particular advantage.”
However, times were changing and with them surgical and prosthetic practice. Bell goes on to note that, “Were we to conclude, that the common practice of bending the joint of the knee and resting upon the anterior part of the leg was necessary, this method of operating a little below the knee would be admitted as the best: But as we have now had many instances of patients walking equally well with machines so contrived as to admit of the use of the knee-joint; as these machines, by resembling the human leg, are much more pleasing to the eye than the wooden ones in common use; and as the operation may be done with much more ease and safety to the patient a little above the ancle, I am of opinion that it should always be advised to be done here whenever it is practicable, instead of the ordinary place a little below the knee.”
Below are a few images of what leg prostheses looked like in the era. Not that many of the men in these images are depicted as beggars, for, as Capt. Uring’s men noted, without some sort of pension they would likely become so if they lost a limb.
I’ll close with a few images of Hollywood wooden-leg or one-leg pirates, thanks (Thanks, Antón!) to a suggestion by Antón Viejo.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017-2019. Created 4 December 2017. Last updated January 25, 2023.
Gunpowder Spots: Pirates & “Tattoos”
It’s a simple question: Did pirates have tattoos? And the answer is simple, too–and complex as well.
Evidence for the simple positive answer is easy: buccaneer-surgeon Lionel Wafer, writing probably of the 1680s, noted that “One of my Companions desired me once to get out of his Cheek one of these imprinted Pictures, which was made by the Negroes, his Name was Bullman; which I could not effectually do, after much scarifying and fetching off a great part of Skin.” (Lionel Wafer, in A New Voyage & Description of the Isthmus of America. Oxford: Hackluyt Society, 1934, page 83.)
What Wafer was trying to do was surgically remove a “gunpowder spot,” as tattoos were then known in English. The term came into use via the process: prick holes in the skin and rub finely crushed gunpowder in to make a permanent mark. A simple enough process, not much different than that used by professionals today, and pretty close to those who use a homemade process (not recommended, of course).
So, without further analysis or discussion, we know that at least one late seventeenth century buccaneer was tattooed. What we do not know is whether such gunpowder spots were considered part of sea roving or maritime culture. In other words, did pirates or other seafarers view tattoos as identifying marks of their trade?
We also know that at least some other seamen of the era were well-inked: one “saylor” in 1720 Virginia had “on one hand S. P. in blew Letters and on the other hand blew Spots, and upon one arm our Savior upon the Cross, and on the other Adam and Eve, all Suppos’d to be done in Gun powder.” (The American Mercury, 17 March 1720, no. 13.)
Others are known as well, close enough to our period (circa 1655 to 1725) to be relevant. My thanks to maritime historian David Fictum, preeminent student of English maritime clothing in this period (you can look him up on Facebook), for providing me with these two instances:
From The Virginia Gazette, September 22 – 29, 1738: “RAN away from the Subscriber, in Caroline County on the 27th of August last, a Convict Servant Man, named John Coleman, alias, John Nabb…[he] has these 3 Letters on one of his Hands, I c M, but cannot be certain they stand thus; and has on one of his Arms, the Picture of our Saviour on the Cross…[He] has been a Sailor.”
And from The American Weekly Mercury, June 24 – July 1, 1736: “RAN-away from Patrick Creagh and William Medcalf, of the City of Annapolis in Maryland, on the 17th of May 1736 Three Servant Men, Viz. John Thomas, belonging to the said Creagh. He is a Ship-Carpenter or Caulker by Trade…I think he was mark’d on one of his Arms with some Letters & the resemblance of our Savoir, and on the other with Adam & Eve.”
Buccaneer, naval captain, privateer, world explorer, naturalist, and author William Dampier wrote of European tattooing while describing the manner of tattooing at Meangis, Indonesia during his circumnavigation of the world after a South Sea buccaneering voyage:
“By the Account he [Prince Jeoly] gave me of the manner of doing it, I understood that the Painting was done in the fame manner, as the Jerusalem-Cross is made in Mens Arms, by pricking the Skin, and rubbing in a Pigment. But whereas [gun] Powder is used in making the Jerusalem-Cross, they at Meangis use the Gum of a Tree beaten to Powder…” (William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World, volume 1:514. London: James Knapton, 1699.)
Dampier’s description of the Jerusalem cross alludes to Christian pilgrims whose tattoos often served to ensure Christian burial in foreign lands, as well to create a permanent “souvenir” or proof of pilgrimage. Constantin-François Volney in the late eighteenth century described these pilgrims and their journeys to and from Jerusalem:
“Easter over, each returns to his own country, proud of being able to rival the Mahometan in the title of Pilgrim, nay, many of them, in order to distinguish themselves as such, imprint on their hands, wrists, or arms, figures of the cross, or spear, with the cypher of Jesus and Mary. This painful, and sometimes dangerous, operation is performed with needles, and the perforations filled with gunpowder, or powder of antimony, and is never to be effaced. The Mahometans have the fame practice, which is also to be found among the Indians, and other savages, as it was likewise among several ancient nations with whom it had a connection with religion which it still retains wherever it prevails.” (From Travels through Syria and Egypt, in the years 1783, 1784, and 1785 by Constantin-François Volney. London: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1787, pages 311-312.)
This practice had apparently been around for centuries prior, and was probably picked up in the Middle East. It is quite likely that Christian seamen in the Mediterranean often had religious tattoos, if only to identify themselves as Christian in case of drowning or other death during their travels. More on this in a moment.
Pirates, mariners, and marooners who had lived among Native Americans were sometimes inked, and Native American and African mariners were probably often inked. Those who hailed from certain lands in the Mediterranean or in the East beyond were likewise probably often inked as well.
Lionel Wafer, while recovering among the Darien (Cuna) after burning himself severely when drying gunpowder, noted that “I went naked as the Salvages [sic], and was painted by their Women; but I would not suffer them to prick my Skin, to rub the Paint in, as they use to do, but only to lay it on in little Specks.” He described the process further: “But finer figures, especially by their greatest artists, are imprinted deeper, after this manner. They first with the Brush and Colour make a rough Draught of the Figure they design; then they prick all over with a sharp Thorn till the Blood gushes out; then they rub the place with their Hands, first dipp’d in the Colour they design; and the Picture so made is indelible. But scarce one in forty of them is painted this way.” (Wafer, op cit, pages 22 and 83.)
Two French seamen, one from Brittany, the other from La Rochelle, who had been members of the sieur de La Salle’s failed Texas colony, survived by living among a Native American tribe. In 1687 both men had “[T]heir Faces and Bodies with Figures wrought on them, like the rest [of the people they were living with].” In the same year a Spanish boy from Mexico, who had escaped on the Gulf Coast with other Spanish prisoners captured by buccaneers at Apalache, Florida, survived likewise by living with a Native American tribe. The boy, when found by Spanish Capitáns de Mar y Guerra Don Martín de Rivas and Don Pedro de Yriarte who were looking for La Salle’s colony, had tattoos like those of the people among whom he was living. (See Henri Joutel, The Last Voyage Perform’d by La Salle. London: A. Bell et al, 1714, page 173. And Enríquez Barroto, “The Enríquez Barroto Diary,” in Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 1987, page 180 &c.)
The evidence of Bullman above and other records as well indicate that at least some Africans were also tattooed, although most historians studying the subject note that scarification and similar processes were more common among Africans than tattooing. There were sea rovers of African origin in the Caribbean.
There is a general consensus among some researchers that the tattoo has long been a part of maritime culture, while others are hesitant to make this argument. Certainly it was a distinct part of maritime culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and is today as well, although possibly to a somewhat lesser extent. In 1900, US Navy surgeon A. Farenholt discussed the number and variety of tattoos of seamen aboard the USS Independence, and made some observations on tattooing in the navy in general. He estimated that roughly sixty percent of enlisted sailors had tattoos, with roughly one quarter of seamen in their first enlistment having them, and roughly half in their second enlistment having them. He noted that the forearm was the most popular location for tattooing among the Independence sailors, and the penis the least, with only seven instances of the latter. For readers who thought that penis tattooing was a modern curiosity, please be advised that there is not much that is really new. (See A. Farenhold, “Tattooing in the Navy, as Shown by the Records of the U.S.S. Independence.” United States Medical Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 1 (January 1900): 37–39.)
N.B. David Fictum, noted above, recommends Ira Dye, “The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 133, no. 4 (1989), as an excellent source that helps put tattooing and seafarers in context.
In my most recent book, The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, I wrote the following, based on current general understanding, at least among a number of authorities published in English: “But the tattoo as a definite part of maritime culture probably did not exist until seamen began visiting Polynesia in the late eighteenth century.”
However, the images by Louis Ducros at the top of the page and just below clearly belie this. It may be that in the English navy and merchant marine, and in the American as well, tattoos did not become popular, in particular as an identifying mark or rite of passage, until after voyages to Polynesia became more regular (and from here we have the word “tattoo”), but clearly this was not the case among seamen of other nationalities, at least of those from Taranto. And this may not have been the case among English and American seafarers either. Further, it is entirely possible, even probable, that the degree tattooing was purely cultural–and culture changes over time. For example a Ducros watercolor of several Maltese seamen shows no tattoos on their arms, although it’s possible he simply chose not to depict them.
In the image at the top of the page we see the tattooed arm of an Italian seaman from Taranto in 1778. Tattoos belonging to other seamen are also shown, and also immediately above, with some dating to the 1760s, clearly before the British voyages to Polynesia. As one might expect, the tattoos are a variety, with Roman Catholic religious imagery quite prevalent. There is also a small vessel, possibly a tartana or “tarteen” under oars, a couple of suns, a possible set of arms, a chain around the wrist, and a Jerusalem cross.
Adding to the difficulty in answering the question of tattoos among seafarers of the period is the fact that people other than seafarers had “gunpowder spots” in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, ranging from the lubberly working class to upper class ladies–yes, ladies–and gentlemen.
Among working class examples, David Willson, a deserter from the British army in 1715, was described as having his initials “D. W.” in gunpowder on his right hand. We don’t whether he came by his gunpowder spot while serving in the army, or prior to service, or afterward. (London Gazette, 10 September to 17 September 1715, no. 5363.)
Among “ladies and gentlemen,” Thomas Otway’s Beau in act 4 of The Soldiers Fortune (1681) catalogs the “Age, Shape, Proportion, colour of Hair and Eyes, degrees of Complexion, Gun-powder Spots and Moles” of the “choicest Beauties about Town.”
Aphra Behn, famous poet, playwright, and novelist, writes of “a Blew spot made in a Ladys neck, by Gunpowder…” The poem was published in Lycidus or the Lover in Fashion (London: Joseph Knight, Saunders Francis, 1688), and was attributed to “a Person of Quality.”
I note as an aside that one scholar has asserted that “gunpowder spots,” including the one described by Aphra Behn, were associated with seventeenth century English gun culture. I think this is a rather misplaced notion, except in that the origin of tattooing with gunpowder may have derived from the knowledge that un-burned corns of powder will occasionally embed themselves violently in the skin, leaving a permanent mark. (One pirate re-enactor, who has since passed away, I met on the set of True Caribbean Pirates had a tattooed palm–small blue-black dots everywhere–resulting from the premature ignition of a gun cartridge during loading.)
The other remote connection to gun culture is common poetic allusion or comparison–an obvious poetic convenience, in other words. The ultimate origin of “gunpowder spots” is not firearms, but body marking: gunpowder simply worked well to make a permanent stain and was readily available. Beauty marks on men and women of the era did not imply an association with firearms, and to argue this is to stretch beyond the facts, not at all uncommon today in both common popular discourse and academia. Even Aphra Behn in her poem acknowledges that the tattoo really has nothing to do with firearms except as a convenient poetic comparison:
Powder, which first was for destruction meant,
Was here converted into ornament;
But yet retains its wonted nature still,
And from your neck, as from a Port do’s kill.
Similarly, William Wycherley in his poem “Upon the Gun-powder Spot on a Lady’s Hand” published in 1704:
Thy Gun-Powder, on thy Hand, shot
Me dead, half-dead with Love before;
Kill’d me, both on, and by the Spot,
Thy cruel White Hand on it wore:
Seventeenth-century surgeon Richard Wiseman had experience with gunpowder spots of two sorts: “Only if they be burnt with Gun-powder or any other way, their Cure is much alike, they onely differing secundam magis and minus. Onely if they be burnt with Gun-powder, they must pick out the Powder first; else they will carry the same blew Mark, if it be in their Faces, which some people use to do in their Hands and Arms, which I have often been imployed to take out, when done wantonly in their Youth; but could never remove them otherwise then by taking off the Skin.” (Richard Wiseman in Several Chirurgicall Treatises. London: E. Flesher and J. Macock, for R. Royston, 1676, page 440.)
Clearly not everyone, ranging from a buccaneer to others, wanted to keep their tattoos forever.
We come again, and importantly, to playwright and poet William Wycherley who wrote The Plain-Dealer (for what it’s worth, my favorite play), first performed in 1674:
“[O]r was it the Gunpowder spot on his hand, or the Jewel in his ear, that purchas’d your heart?” sneers the manly Captain Manley (act. 2, sc. 1) to his former inamorata in regard to an obnoxious fop (they’re all obnoxious, aren’t they?) seeking her hand. At first glance it seems that Manley might be sarcastically referring to the lack of a gunpowder spot on the fop’s hand, and therefore that such spots were indicative of the seaman and therefore of the adventurer. Captain Manley, after all, was a fighting seaman. (Regarding the “Jewel in his ear” see Pirates & Earrings.)
John Dickson Carr, novelist and historian, would seem to have agreed with my initial assessment of the gun-powder spot on the hand being a sign of the seaman: he writes in his novel Devil in Velvet, “as much the mark of the seaman as the gunpowder spot on his hand…,” almost certainly inspired by Wycherley in The Plain-Dealer. The depth of Carr’s non-fiction research ability is attested to by his nonfiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. However, we were both assuredly in error: Professor Ted Cotton, retired Professor Emeritus of English Literature from Loyola University in New Orleans, not to mention old friend and fellow swordsman, in conversation with me some years ago suggested the lines refer merely to the earring and gunpowder spot as being fashions of idle foppish gentlemen. Add to this the evidence of ladies and gentlemen with gunpowder spots, and it is certain to me now that the lines in The Plain-Dealer refer to a gentleman, not a seaman.
Of course, none of this goes to prove or disprove whether late seventeenth to early eighteenth century seamen associated with the Golden Age of Piracy–English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Africans, Native Americans, various mixed races of various nationalities, and in smaller numbers Portuguese, Corsicans, Levanters, Italians, Danes, Germans, various other Europeans, even a few Asians–specifically associated tattoos with their maritime culture, much less did pirates and other sea rovers, a subset of the former, do so.
It remains possible that some Western European mariners, including sea rovers, considered “gunpowder spots” as part of their tradition, but there is no conclusive evidence for this for the period in question. Certainly it is true today: for example, Navy seamen and tall ship sailors often get tattoos and consider this to be traditional, even as do members of some other groups, military and non-military, as do some “downright individuals.” Permanent body decorating has been around for a very long time among the majority of cultures past and present.
So, best guess for the Golden Age of Piracy? Although some sea rovers of the era had tattoos, tattooing–and it would not be known by this name for roughly another century–was not yet a practice of group identity among them or of other mariners broadly associated with this era. Of course, I could be wrong: we need more evidence than what we have so far. But the evidence of Dampier, Wafer, and Wycherley strongly suggests that tattoos or gunpowder spots were not yet a distinct part of Western European maritime culture, except possibly among some of the regional maritime sub-cultures.
And before anyone asks or suggests this: no, I don’t think it likely that early eighteenth century pirates had skull and bones tattoos!
Post Script: This blog post is dedicated to my younger daughter, Bree, a tall ship sailor in her spare time and who will soon have a tattoo…
Copyright Benerson Little 2017-2018. Last updated January 28, 2018.
Did Pirates Wear Eye Patches?
So, “Did pirates wear eye patches?”
The short answer: Only if they had lost eyes to disease or injury, and this was no more prevalent among pirates than among fighting seamen and soldiers. In other words, the eye patch is in no way a sign or symbol of the pirate per se, nor even of the seaman in general.
Still, the question is a good one, if only to give us a reason to dig into related history.
The Mythbusters television show and other speculators have recently added to the myth by working backward from the proposition, that is, “If pirates wore eye patches, why would they have worn them?” rather than looking first at primary sources to see if there is any evidence that pirates wore them at all. There isn’t, other than as noted below.
The associated suggestions that pirates may have worn eye patches to improve night vision or daylight lookout observations or to enable them to fight below decks isn’t supported by any primary source material. In fact, the loss of sight in an eye, even by wearing an eye patch, causes significant loss in both depth perception and visual breadth, making movement aboard a vessel, aloft especially, very dangerous. It would also make visual observation by a lookout much more difficult.
As for fighting below decks, pirates and other seamen didn’t really do much of it: it was much easier to flush crew below decks by tossing grenades and firepots into breaches chopped into decks and bulkheads with boarding axes. In other words, the mere idea that eye patches might have been used to aid in fighting below decks shows a clear lack of understanding of the subject.
In other words: There is no historical evidence at all for any of these purported reasons why a pirate might have worn eye patches! Mythbusters and other popular “documentaries” are entertainment, not serious history. This includes “The History Channel,” now known I think as History.com: it’s “docu-tainment,” not real history. Trust me on this: if you’re being interviewed as an expert for a TV “documentary” and produce too many facts against the episode’s premise, the producers won’t put you on screen!
Again, let me emphasize: if a pirate wore an eye patch it was because he had lost an eye or was disfigured in his eye, and for no other reason!
The origin of the modern myth that pirates wore eye patches is largely literary. However, its roots lay deep in reality, both in the fact that eyes were often lost to disease and battle trauma, and that a one-eyed person often looks fearsome or sinister. The latter sense goes back millennia, and probably farther. Homer’s Cyclops, Polyphemus, is an early instance.
Some versions of Bernal Diaz’s The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico describe the fierce old musketeer Heredia, sent to frighten Native Americans, as a one-eyed, one-legged (or game-legged) soldier. The same work describes how Cortez’s enemy, Narvaez, lost an eye in battle.
Among seafaring journals and other records of the Golden Age of Piracy, there is only occasional mention of one-eyed seamen, usually in lists of those wounded in battle. Exquemelin’s various editions of The Buccaneers of America famously list compensation for the wounded, including the loss of an eye, and it is here that the primary source of the myth of pirates and eye patches is probably to be found, in combination with other works such as Bernal Diaz’s. The loss of an eye in battle was fairly common, in fact: seafarer Edward Coxere describes the use of oakum and tallow to stuff an eye socket in order to heal the wound, for example. Notably, none of the several eyewitness images of buccaneers or flibustiers from the 1680s show any with any of the usual Hollywood characteristics: wooden legs, eye patches, parrots, hooks, &c. This is to be expected. The large number of images of seamen, usually naval, with eye patches dates to a century later.
As a friend, “Tweeds Blues,” pointed out recently, it seemingly would not be surprising to find a fair number of one-eyed naval, privateer, and pirate seamen, given the damage done by splinters in action. Here I feel the need to point out yet again that Mythbusters is entertainment: one episode even suggested that splinters didn’t cause much damage in a naval action. In fact they did: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts of the damage done, not to mention at least one accurate test that proves the horrible extent of damage splinters can do. The Mythbusters test parameters were simply incorrect, not to mention that overwhelming historical evidence was largely ignored, as were previous–and more accurate, historically correct–tests. The images above show splinters resulting from round shot striking a correctly-built hull section. The test was conducted by the Maritime Museum in Erie, Pennsylvania, home of the Flagship Niagara.
Of course, the most famous example of a naval mariner with an eye patch is that of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, who lost the sight in one eye during the capture of Calvi on Corsica in 1793–except that did not actually wear an eye patch. This has not stopped the popular assumption that he did from becoming prevalent, and, although out of our period, this has still influenced the idea of the one-eyed mariner, and therefore one-eyed pirate. Admiral Nelson also lost an arm.
The fact is, patches were commonly used to cover any facial disfigurement. In the seventeenth century diarist and navy secretary Samuel Pepys wore a black patch, or possibly a large beauty patch, to cover a large cold sore. Similarly, King William III advised a soldier to remove the black patch covering the scar on his face because “It’s more honourable in a Soldier to wear a Scar than a Patch.” (For the latter reference, see Coke in the sources listed below.)
By the late eighteenth century the image of the eye-patched, peg-legged seaman was iconic, probably the result of the increased number of British naval actions brought on by the American Revolution and, especially, the Napoleonic Wars. Notably, in reality most such disabled seamen were pensioned from service, as shown above. These satirical images are probably the material origin of the popular identification of the naval seaman, and therefore the pirate, with eye patches.
Even with its legitimate historical roots in fact, this pirate myth, like many, didn’t come fully into being until the mid-nineteenth century, a hundred or more years after the Golden Age of Piracy. Sir Walter Scott in The Fortunes of Nigel describes “The noble Captain Colepepper, or Peppercull, for he was known by both these names, and some others besides, had a martial and a swashing exterior, which, on the present occasion, was rendered yet more peculiar, by a patch covering his left eye and a part of the cheek. The sleeves of his thickset velvet jerkin were polished and shone with grease, — his buff gloves had huge tops, which reached almost to the elbow; his sword-belt of the same materials extended its breadth from his haunchbone to his small ribs, and supported on the one side his large black-hilted back-sword, on the other a dagger of like proportions.” Here is the epitome of the swashbuckler, easily translated to the pirate.
Not long after, Charles Dickens described a pirate with “the one eye and the patch across the nose” and soon afterward similarly did many writers of popular fiction. However, many of our principle originators or propagators of pirate myths—Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, N. C. Wyeth, for example—do not appear to have bothered with this myth, although Barrie’s Captain Hook probably did encourage other images of pirates missing a vital part such as a limb or eye, and Howard Pyle in The Ruby of Kishmoor equips a pirate, one of the four in the short tale, with an eye patch.
In 1926 Douglas Fairbanks propagated nineteenth century pirate myths, as well as a few he helped create, across the world with his film The Black Pirate. In it he established the modern pirate swashbuckler stereotype, based much on Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, Peter Pan, and probably Captain Blood (one of whose characters, by the way, was one-eyed, although he lost the eye at Sedgemoor, not at sea). Around the same time, we begin to see pirate book cover art and other illustrations showing pirates with eye patches. But it would take later films, such as The Black Swan and The Crimson Pirate to make the eye patch an obvious, routine part of the stereotypical pirate costume.
Roger Coke. A Detection of the Court and State of England. 4th ed. London: J. Brotherton and W. Meadows, 1719. Vol. 2:472.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España. Reprint, Madrid: Don Benito Cano, 1795. See vol. 1:213.
Edward Coxere. Adventures by Sea of Edward Coxere. Edited by E. H. W. Meyerstein. London: Oxford University, 1946.
Charles Dickens. “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners.” 1857. Reprinted in Charles Dickens’s Stories from the Christmas Numbers. New York: MacMillan, 1896. Page 144.
Alexandre Exquemelin [John Esquemeling]. The Buccaneers of America. London: Crooke, 1684. Reprint, New York: Dorset Press, 1987. Page 60.
Benerson Little. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016. Prologue.
——. “El Mito Pirata” in Desperta Ferro 17 (August 2015), 52-55.
Heidi Mitchell. “Does Reading in Dim Light Hurt Your Eyes?” Wall Street Journal online, April 8, 2013, http://www.wsj.com.
Mythbusters, Episode 71.
Samuel Pepys. Diary. September 26, 1664.
Walter Scott. The Fortunes of Nigel. Boston: Samuel H. Parker, 1822. Page 255.
The Telegraph. “Nelson didn’t wear eye-patch, says historian.” January 19, 2005.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2017. Last updated February 2, 2023.