Sailing with Charlie: May Skullduggery

Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre
Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre

Pirates, buccaneers, parrots, rum and buried treasure are all part of Caribbean lore and Charlie has been fascinated with it for decades. Today we sail the Caribbean in luxury – generators, watermakers, electric winches, synthetic sails … Traditional pirates of the early 18th century led a tough life but it was one of freedom and adventure – one with wooden ships and iron men, quite opposite to today’s plastic ships and jelly bellies. How did it all start? When the Spaniards, with authority from the Pope, claimed all lands west of 42 degrees west longitude in 1494, two years after Columbus discovered … India??!!!

El Draco, (The Dragon), pirate to the Spanish or Sir Francis Drake, explorer and privateer to the English, became a hero and was knighted by Elizabeth 1st when his ship the Golden Hind landed a shipload of treasure on England’s shores. Drake had pillaged, plundered and burnt many a ‘Spanish’ possession in an attempt at justice (and riches, of course) – after all, the Spaniard’s treasure galleons were filled with gold, silver, emeralds and pearls stolen from the South American natives in exchange for the gift of Catholicism. Drake took exception to this; their decree dictating ownership of the New World and the fact that Drake’s father was a Protestant priest was all the persuasion he needed to exact revenge. Whether he was prince or pirate depended on whose side you were on.

The golden years of piracy came much later and was caused by sailors being released from service at the end of wars. No nice pension in those days, it was fend for yourself, and piracy flourished. Bartholomew Roberts explained it nicely ‘A short life and a merry one.’ It was better than being thrown ashore with your kit bag with no mates and nowhere to go. Besides, no matter the hardships of shipboard life, there was the magic of sea life, rum, whoring in the dens and rum shops like Port Royal in Jamaica or Port of Spain in Trinidad. And when your share of the last booty was spent it was time to hoist the skull and crossbones and back to sea again.  And that’s why folkloric pirates are much loved today. As Jimmy Buffet sang, ‘As the son of a son of a sailor, I went out on the sea for adventure.’

The British Virgin Islands are home to a true event of actual pirate activity. A huge treasure was stolen from a wrecked Spanish galleon off the coast of North Carolina in 1750. It was buried on Norman Island and one treasure chest was found in 1910 in one of the caves. The story is related in Julian Putley’s book, ‘The Virgins’ Treasure Isle.’ Robert Louis Stevenson used many facts from this piracy to create his legendary story and perennial favorite ‘Treasure Island.’ In it Stevenson quotes: 

‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

The island of Dead Chest is just east of Peter Island in the BVI and its profile resembles a coffin, another name for a dead man’s chest. Aaaarh – a pirate’s life for me!

Julian_Putley
Julian Putley is the author of ‘The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI’, ‘Sunfun Calypso’, and ‘Sunfun Gospel’.