pirate myths

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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Pirates in the Art of Howard Pyle

Happy Veteran’s Day to all those men and women who have sacrificed so much so that all of us Americans could enjoy our freedom. Whether you served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, or Coast Guard, our debt to you is profound. We honor and respect you and thank you for the freedoms we enjoy.

MAROONED!!! 8X10

Arrrrgh! Sorry I be’s late with this communicado, but me and me pirate wench have been held incommunicado this past weekend. We were bivouacked at the Waccamaw Artists Guild’s Art in the Park at Chapin Park, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

My wife creates Little Books of Mirth that she absconded from fairies who live in the woods behind our humble abode. She learned that trick from the best of pirates. But she be just as famous for her beautiful shell wreaths made with shells from beaches around the world where many a pirate and mariner have been marooned.

As fer me, me art comprises of photographs I took while pillaging’ and plunderin’ from Cape Cod to the Caribbean. One of me favorites is a diorama I discovered celebrating Homer Pyle’s painting Marooned. It depicts a solitary pirate sitting on an abandoned beach, a bandana wrapped about his head, shoulders slumped, lost in thought, no doubt contemplating the events that led to his situation. No doubt, one of those somber thoughts, is about what is to transpire with no worldly possession in reach other than a swallow of rum and a pistol.

Ye see, mates, pirates were frequently marooned on an inhospitable island with nothing more than a bit of rum and a pistol with one ball to speed his end at his own hand. It was a fate assigned to that pirate who didn’t play well with other pirates.

Howard Pyle is also known for two other easily recognizable paintings of pirates. One is of a blindfolded man, hands tied, ready to walk the plank. In the background, several pirates leer gleefully, exhorting the victim to the edge.

No doubt, Pyle got his ideas of pirates from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Alexander Exquemelin who served as physician among pirates. While Exquemelin’s embellished accounts in The Buccaneers of America are grounded in fact, Stevenson’s poetic license resulted in the creation of several pirate myths that thrive to this day.

The truth is there are only one or two accounts of pirates making their victims walk the plank. Not being well known for their patience, pirates devised a much quicker method of disposing of unwanted mariners. “Run a saber through the bloke and throw the body overboard. Alive or dead. Makes no difference to me,” pretty much captures their attitude.

However, considering that some captains and crews were, indeed, sadistic, it’s not hard to visualize pirates delighting in the torment of a blindfolded victim teetering on a plank extended over the sea.
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Ten More Facts You Never Knew about Pirates

JOLLY ROGER 8X10 FINAL What a day

Last time we visited, ye took a little test to see how much ye really knew about us buccaneers. Did ye know enough to escape the gangplank or was ye swimming with the sharks. Think you’ll survive a second broadside from me cannons? Good luck, mates. Ten right answers and ye merit sailing with Blackbeard himself. Three wrong answers and anyone will know yer a landlubber fer sure and no mariner of the high seas.

  1. Piracy in the Caribbean ended when England ruthlessly hunted down pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. False. On September 05, 1717, the king actually offered a pardon for most pirates if they agreed to stop their nasty ways. Knowing the handwriting was on the wall, 300 pirates In Providence agreed, thus making it easier to hunt down those that remained.
  1. Pirates preferred tall ships with three masts and lots and lots of cannons. False. The overwhelming number of pirate ships weren’t close to the majestic ships portrayed in movies. Many pirates opted for smaller, lighter vessels that could move swiftly when chasing or being chased. Because large ships could not navigate shallow channels needed to dodge and hide, pirates preferred boats with shallow drafts.
  1. Except for a few isolated incidents in history, pirates were not a problem for mariners until the Golden Age of Piracy. False. A century before, Cheng I Sao ruled the South China Seas for years with as many as 300 ships. The Mediterranean Seas were infested with Corsairs for years, attacking ships and villages for booty and slaves. Both St. Patrick and Julius Caesar were kidnapped by pirates. Caesar told his captors he would be back to crucify them. He did just that.
  1. Pirates used the Jolly Roger to create a esprit de corps among themselves. False. Pirates used the Jolly Roger with trickery and intimidation, flying the same flag as a ship they targeted so as not to arouse suspicion. Then when they were on top of their prey, they raised the skull and crossbones, striking terror into the hearts of everyone on board.
  1. The only worthwhile booty for any self respecting pirate was gold or silver. False. While no one ever turned down these treasures, food, water, rum- especially rum, clothing, medicine, and other supplies were all valued.

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Ten Startling Facts about Pirates

So you think you know all about pirates, eh, matey? Was it Jack Sparrow who taught ya a thing or two? Or maybe ye learned it from that scalawag Robert Louis Stevenson. Well, open yer one good eye cause yer about to enter the real world of pyrates. Just answer true or false. Three wrong answers and ye be walkin’ the plank!

  1. Life on board a pirate ship was hard compared to other ships. As false as yer false teeth, mate! Whippings on board a British ship were a lot more common than on a pirate ship. Pirates despised tyrants who handed out harsh whippings for the slightest provocation, and their captains understood that. Furthermore, it was share and share alike among pirates. Even the captain was to take no more than his fair share of grub.
  1. Pirates had one of the first workman’s compensation programs ever. True. When a pirate lost an arm or a leg he was given more share of the booty. The amount was fixed in the pirate’s articles. On some ships, an arm or leg was worth 500 pieces of eight. An eye or a finger was worth 100.
  1. Pirates spent a good deal of time burying treasure. False. These men of the sea spent it as fast as they got it. The expression “to spend money like a drunken sailor” especially applied to pirates. Pirate Thomas Tew did travel with his own treasure chest, but it was meant to hold his valuables while on board ship. This gem is now on display in Pat Croce’s Pirate & Treasure Museum in St. Augustine.
  1. Blackbeard was the most ruthless pirate that ever sailed the seven seas. He might have been close, matey, but there were some who were far worse. Though violent, Blackbeard was more of a tactician using violence to intimidate. French pirate Francois L’Olonnais, on the other hand derived great pleasure from inflicting unspeakable horrors on his victims. One method he was fond of was woolding, a technique of twisting a cord around a person’s head with a board till his eyes popped.
  2. The gangplank was a widely used method of punishment. False. In all the accounts of pirates, it is only referenced once or twice. George Wood at his hanging claimed he and shipmates made several walk the plank, but it might have been a case bravado. The fact is when pirates wanted to get rid of you, they simply threw you overboard, sometimes with your hands and feet tied.

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