Caribbean pirates

Sir Francis Drake: Sailor, Soldier, Strategist

The Golden Hinde from an old drawing. Nothing remains of the ship today except for one or two pieces of furniture.

The Golden Hinde from an old drawing. Nothing remains of the ship today except for one or two pieces of furniture.

A rather strange burial took place at sea over four hundred years ago. On January 29, 1596, A group of English sailors committed the body of Sir Francis Drake to the deep in a remote corner of the world. At his own request, he was buried in the armor he received when knighted by Queen Elizabeth. To this day, archeologists and divers have been unable to locate his remains and his sleep continues undisturbed somewhere off the coast of Portobello, Panama.

Drake is a fascinating figure who has captured the imagination of everyone from paupers to queens. For those who loved him, he possessed no flaws. For the Spanish of his time, he was known as El Dragon, a devil to be captured and beheaded.

Drake first sailed with the Hawkins family, relatives with whom he demonstrated an exceptional ability to fight, navigate, and lead. But one battle in the Caribbean changed John Hawkins’ opinion of his cousin. In the confusion of battle, they got separated, and Drake sailed away. Hawkins later claimed Drake abandoned him out of cowardice. Reports from eyewitnesses and Drake’s own reputation for bravery seem to discount this claim. Nevertheless, Hawkins cherished a particular animosity for Drake the rest of his life.

As a sailor, soldier, and strategist, Drake was unparalleled. Hired to bring back as much gold as possible from the Spanish Main, he adapted fighting and raiding techniques to the situation much like Special Forces teams today.  One of his targets were mule trains loaded with gold and silver headed to Nombre de Dios. The town was buried in a remote jungle far from his plundering ships, but his men adapted to the trek through snake and mosquito infested forests.

Though his initial efforts were unsuccessful, Drake would not be deterred. A chance meeting at sea with French pirate Guillaume le Testu was the stroke of luck he needed. Testu shared with Drake a hatred of Spain and a love for gold. With another raid by Drake farthest from their mind, the Spaniards were unprepared when privateer and pirate struck.

Drake carried off so much gold and silver, his men had to bury part of the booty. This no doubt help to popularize the belief that pirates buried their treasure. Unfortunately, le Testu was captured by the Spanish and beheaded, and the buried treasure reclaimed by the Spanish.   Continue reading →

On Stede Bonnet, Pirate Myths, and Blackbeard’s Foil

Pirates were renowned for their generosity to barkeeps and lonely, defenseless wenches

Pirates were renowned for their generosity to barkeeps and lonely, defenseless wenches

 

It’s been a busy month for pirates… at least those rascally bucaneers who pillaged and plundered the Caribbean three hundred years ago.

Disney was right to name their amusement attraction and film series by the name Pirates of the Caribbean. Both helped capture the essence of what has made pirates attractive over the centuries though some people I talk to are shocked when I point out Jack Sparrow was just a fictional character.

Books and films have propagated some of the common myths we cherish about pirates like burying treasure every chance they got or entertaining themselves endlessly by making their victims walk the plank.

The fact is pirates were too busy donating their money to impoverished innkeepers in exchange for a little rum to find time to bury it. Why they were even known to assist lonely women down on their luck and their backs in return for a couple of life’s simple pleasures. Their generosity left them broke.

As for walking the plank, it’s difficult but not impossible to find references to this diabolic deed. You can read more about it in me upcoming book Uncommon Mariners. Let it suffice to say, once pirates captured a ship, like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, they set straight to work, searching for all that hidden gold.

Disney would have you believe as would Homer Pyle the painter of pirates that those who didn’t cough up their belongings were forced to walk the plank while a crew of gnarly, smelly pirates chortled and snarled “Aarrrgh.” Sometimes spelled aarrrrgh or arrr, the accent being on the last three letters. The truth is, if murderous pirates were sufficiently annoyed with you or their underwear was too tight that day, they simply threw you overboard.

A lot of people including a number of historians over the years put Blackbeard in this category, but that’s only because they came to believe the Hollywood hype and Blackbeard’s own press releases. Of course, Blackbeard didn’t actually issue press releases. He didn’t have to. His physical demeanor gave the aura of being the nastiest, meanest, most ornery, ferocious pirate in the Caribbean. One look at his snarly beard bedecked with burning fuses struck more fear in a shipload of sailors than a hundred press releases.

The reason I’m telling you this is because December the 10 has slipped into oblivion again this year, the date Stede Bonnet, was hanged in Charleston in 1718. Bonnet was a gentleman pirate and one of Blackbeard’s consorts, but It would be stretching the truth to call him his friend.

Bonnet became a pirate for the most unlikely of reasons. He was tired of his wife’s nagging. If you had to pick him out of a lineup of ten pirates, you’d be wrong nine times. He looked more like a Wall Street type than a thick-bearded ruffian ready to cut your heart out.

Still the fact remains he was a pirate. Strangely enough, he had to buy his ship not steal it, and he didn’t even understand how the whole pirate thing worked: First, you pillage, then you plunder, drink some rum, then pay the crew. Pirates called it: “No prey, no pay!”

Stede’s first mistake was paying his crew before they even left port. Actually, his first mistake was becoming a pirate.

After being resoundly beaten in one of his earlier encounters, he limped into the pirate base of Nassau where it was love at first sight. Not what you’re thinking I guarantee you. Blackbeard was on the dock, and when he laid his eyes on Bonnet’s ship, the Revenge, he knew he had to have it.

The amusing thing is Blackbeard through wit and coercion had Stede Bonnet join his fleet with the gentleman pirate pretty much a hostage on his own ship. “You read yer books in yer fancy library,” he no doubt told Stede, “and I’ll find ye a fine sailing captain to manage the dirty work. Arrrrgh!” I’m not sure Bonnet was ever aware Blackbeard had relieved him of his ship.

A lot of adventures passed under the ship’s keel before Blackbeard and Bonnet parted ways, but you can be sure it wasn’t over until the master of intimidation said it was over.

Bonnet didn’t last long after that. The luckless pirate was caught by mistake off North Carolina when pirate hunters were searching for someone else. He was brought to Charleston, South Carolina where more than a few common folk threatened to riot when he and his men were scheduled to be hanged.

Many of these locals were ex pirates from Nassau and smugglers who made more money than an inside trader on Wall Street. But the thriving days of piracy in the Caribbean were on the wane, and Stede Bonnet’s days were numbered.

Stede Bonnet may not have cut the colorful swath in history Blackbeard did, but you deserve to know that despite the myths, he was Blackbeard’s peer and should be respected for that.

As for this well-educated man with a refined background turning to a life of crime, I have to ask you. What would it take for you to live your pirate dreams?

See you out there on the high seas of life. Arrrgh!

                                           Bill Hegerich

                                          The Uncommon Mariner

 

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It’s Christmas even in the Caribbean

xmas jolly roger resize

Ever wonder if pirates in the Caribbean bothered to take time out from their busy schedule of pillaging, plundering, and wenching to celebrate Christmas?

It was no doubt the perfect time for pirates to return to the Caribbean after a year of plundering from Charleston to Boston. Once cold weather set in, it was the custom of some to head for warmer waters.

Blackbeard is a good example. Except it seems he made two fatal mistakes. One, he partied it up in North Carolina in November instead of heading to the warm waters of the Caribbean where Reggae bands, fancy rum drinks, and hot wenches waited. His second mistake was that he aggravated the living hell out of Governor Spotswood of Virginia so much so that the governor sent Captain Maynard in search of him and put an end to his fiendish ways.

Maynard didn’t have to look too far. Maynard met up with Blackbeard just before Thanksgiving in Oracoke, North Carolina. After a delicate game of cat and mouse, the curtain descended on Blackbeard with a dramatic flourish. Had he sought out a warmer clime, Blackbeard might have lived to see Christmas and another New Year.

One of the benefits of taking a few days to celebrate Christmas was the opportunity to clean your ship. We’re not talking about the excellent job housekeepers at resorts from South Carolina’s Grand Strand to Key West perform. Wooden ships are infamous for being on the menu of the toredo worm. A family of these hungry creatures can turn the hull of any wooden ship into Swiss cheese, rye bread and pastrami not needed.

The only way to combat them is to take the ship out of the water and scrape the barnacles and worms down to the hull. The process is called careening. Considering their size and bulk, putting ships in dry dock wasn’t an option, but the endless array of sandy beaches and shallow water bays in the Caribbean made that unnecessary.

Careening involved leaning the ship on its side, doing the necessary scraping, then leaning it on its other side and repeating the process. And all this while hoping the rum didn’t kick in too much with your crew and that pirate hunters would not discover you.

I admit it may sound like more work than fun, but how much fun is it for Santa to work his buns off making toys, doing recon work spying on boys and girls- and that’s not to mention the naughty  wenches he’s got to keep an eye on. Well, okay, that part might bring a smile to his face, but how much fun is it to ride all over the world in one night, and then for a reward be stuck in your long johns the rest of the winter?

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A Pirate’s Four Keys to Success

 

Caribbean pirates used the Jolly Roger to intimidate their prey. Modern pirates often use grenade launchers and high tech weapons instead.

Caribbean pirates used the Jolly Roger to intimidate their prey. Modern pirates often use grenade launchers and high tech weapons instead.

The success of pirates today hinges very much on four basic elements, much like their Caribbean brothers three hundred years ago. Without these components, modern pirates would be more of a nuisance than a threat.

   …..First, pirates depend heavily on a hideout. This could be a port or country where either no one cares about their presence or is unable to do much about it. Strongholds of the Caribbean pirates were scattered throughout the islands: Port Royal, Tortuga, and Nassau. Far from Spain and England, these pirates wreaked havoc at will then returned to their refuge.

Until recently, Somalian pirates had been quite successful. With no country in close proximity to their home base, they merely had to blatantly sail home with their booty. Times have changed for Somalian pirates; like England and France years ago, the countries affected have brought pressure upon them and the attacks have dropped dramatically; but the price is vigilance.

…..Second, pirates thrive on a hot bed of commercial shipping. You can’t be a bank robber if you aren’t near banks. You can’t be a sailor if you aren’t willing to go to where there’s water. Caribbean pirates thrived on the Spanish Main and any other shipping lane offering the promise of wealth. Ships passing through the islands became easy prey for treasure, ships, human cargo, and other booty.

Modern pirates in the Indian Ocean, off the West Coast of Africa, Southeast Asia, and Malaysia all have their own targets. Some are even brazen enough to attack ships anchored in port. Oil and other precious cargo have become the new booty.

…..Third, pirates take every advantage of the hit and run. It wasn’t baseball players, but pirates who perfected this technique 300 years ago. With craft smaller and faster than their prey, their strength lay in surprise and speed. We often think those pirates loved massive ships loaded with cannons, but the truth is many pirates preferred small craft that were unobtrusive and fast. Take the prey by surprise, get in, get out, disappear. Today’s pirates with their modern boats and sophisticated technology have reinvented this technique.

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