Caribbean Pirates and Tall Tales

The plot thickens just enough to make listening to pirate tales an enjoyable way to spend a lazy afternoon

Caribbean Pirates fascinate me – Blackbeard and Long John Silver, and how about Bartholomew Roberts?

Roberts, a very religious man, would ban his crew from gambling; yet was known for his cruelty to prisoners. Wearing fine clothes while in battle, he captured some 400 ships between 1719 and 1722.

The “Golden Age of Piracy” began alongside colonialism. Located thousands of miles from Europe, the Caribbean became a perfect target for pirates. Monarchs sent “Letters of Marque” allowing private ships (privateers) to “attack” ships from other nations; hence, Sir Francis Drake – a legal pirate who gave what he seized to Queen Elizabeth I. Drake not only raided ships but also attacked Spanish towns and mule trains carrying gold. Knighted as “My Dear Pirate” by the Virgin Queen, she chose him to be the 2nd captain to lead a sailing expedition around the world – only after Magellan.

Women pirates also fascinate me; Mary Read is just such a lass.

Raised in London as a boy, for the money she could acquire on the streets, Mary was a born adventurer. Attempting a man’s life in the navy, her ship was attacked by pirate Calico Jack Rackham, whose lover was pirate Anne Bonny. It seems that Anne took a liking to Mary but, upon discovering her true gender, was delighted to have another woman aboard and the two became fast friends.

On board, Mary fell in love with a newly captured sailor.

The tale goes that the young sailor had an argument with one of the older more rakish pirates. A duel was set for the following day. The crew knew that the young sailor didn’t have a chance against the old salt. Mary, who had lost one love before going to sea and did not want to lose another, began quarreling with the pirate who was set to duel with her lover. Thinking she would have more of a chance than her young sailor, she demanded the quarrel be settled immediately. The Quartermaster rowed the two ashore, where neither had luck with pistols and moved quickly to cutlasses. The duel stretched on until, by some stroke of luck, the older pirate stumbled after giving a thrust with his cutlass that missed. Taking advantage of his distraction, Mary ripped open her shirt, astonishing every one around her, especially the foe she was dueling. She then leapt forward swinging her cutlass – her opponent died slowly.

Pirates in the Caribbean were the first to fly red flags advertising their profession.

There were many different pirate flags, the most popular being the Jolly Roger or skull and crossbones. It was Blackbeard who added the hourglass to show that time was running out and death was approaching. But it was Gustav Wilmerding, the BVI’s most famous pirate who set up a retirement home for pirates on Little Thatch in the BVI. Oddly enough, very few lived to be over 40!

Pirate flag of Jack Rackham
Pirate flag of Jack Rackham

One of the more interesting theories about pirates concerns their association with the Knights Templar.

Survivors of the Templar massacres sailed on 18 Templar ships from France to Scotland in October on Friday 13th in 1307, to the safety of King Robert de Bruce, who had been excommunicated by the Pope. The ships, as well as the Templars, were never found. In the Masonic lodges that followed there is an allusion in the initiation rite of the Master Mason. “This initiation will make you brother to pirates and corsairs.” Is this a recollection of the vanished Templar ships that (we may speculate) turned to piracy to avenge themselves on the Catholic Church and European monarchies who tortured their brothers? The connection becomes more plausible if we remember that one of the symbols associated with the Master Mason’s degree is the skull and crossbones on a black background — the Jolly Roger familiar to every schoolchild.

The plot thickens just enough to make listening to pirate tales an enjoyable way to spend a lazy October afternoon.

Bartholomew’s Articles

  1. No women allowed on board.
  2. Any man caught stealing shall be marooned.
  3. All pistols and cutlasses will be kept clean.
  4. All important decisions to be put to a vote.
  5. All crews’ quarrels will be settled on shore.
  6. Injuries to be compensated. Any man who loses a limb in battle shall receive extra booty.
  7. The Captain and Quartermaster to receive two shares of the booty; the Master Gunner, and Boatswain, one and a half shares; other officers one and a quarter shares; all others, one shares each.
  8. Any man who deserts ship in battle shall be put to death