The Secret History of Pirates in the Caribbean

From buried treasure and voodoo hexes to parrots, peg legs, patches and plank-walking, it’s time to sort the fact from the fiction in your encyclopaedia of pirate knowledge. Take a trip with us back to the turn of the 18th century in defining the true characteristics of Caribbean pirates of yesteryear.

What is the Golden Age of Piracy?

Between 1650 and 1730, if you were trying to run a quiet shipping and trading network between Europe and the Caribbean, you could forget about it.

This was the time when the mythical pirates’ code was laid bare, when names like Calico Jack and Blackbeard shivered more than a few merchantmans’ timbers. At this time, Nassau, Tortuga and Port Royal were hubs of smuggling, rowdy rum-fuelled japes and some major headaches for the colonial powers of the age.

Debunking the myths

Thinking about buried treasure, when was the last time you buried your wages in the back garden? And in fact pirates probably wouldn’t have got their hands on much in the way of gold and jewels as ships transporting that loot to the motherland were heavily armed and under escort. Instead they plucked their prizes from unwary merchants and other unfortunate seafarers.

What they got, they spent on maintaining the ship, paying the crew, and more than a few shoreleave parties, so there wasn’t much left to bury. The idea may have come from the novel Treasure Island, which cooked up many of the elements of pirate lore we think of today. Also, one pirate, William Kidd, was said to have buried his plunder in an effort to evade the attention of the authorities, although the truth has never fully come to light.

Why become a pirate?

The reason for hoisting the black flag was as individual as the man who boarded the boat – or indeed the woman, since many of history’s most famous corsairs were women. For pirates like Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane and the legendary Blackbeard, it was an act of rebellion against a corrupt colonial government.

Some people simply turned to piracy for a sense of adventure, the most famous of whom being Stede Bonnet – a wealthy Englishman with an estate in the Caribbean who ran away from his wife and went to sea for a life of hijinks. This was all well and good until his crew noticed he just wasn’t very good at it.

Other pirates weren’t so lucky as to have a choice. If buccaneers struck an honest ship, they’d find able crewmen to join their cause, and arguing wasn’t always the best course of action. That worked out well for some of them though – Black Bart was pressed into service, yet was so charming that he became a powerful captain in his own right, and fully embraced the pirate’s life.

It's not the size of your ship - it's how you sail it

Movies like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ show pirates sailing in grand galleons that bristle with cannon. While it’s true that Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge was a fine vessel – because it was stolen, of course – pirates more often favoured smaller ships.

Agile smaller craft, classified as brigantines and sloops, had less sails, less guns and less space for crew. However, where they excelled was speed so they could rapidly outpace the range of the other ship’s guns, but send forth a few cannonball volleys of its own. They’d cripple the other vessel as quickly as possible, board it and force its captain and crew to surrender out of sheer fear. They’d then add the ship and the crew they needed to their fleet, with some pirate captains commanding ship fleets of stunning size.

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