This is a question that I get asked from time to time. When I first encountered it, I was brought up short. After all, on the surface, the whole pirate concept seems bizarre. Strange men, yelling “Arr!” dressed like someone out of a cartoon or a fantasy movie, sail up to a ship, steal gold, and then… Well, what do they do? Leave no survivors, like the Dread Pirate Roberts? Descend into the maw of the Kraken like Johnny Depp? Get eaten by a crocodile? How could these people possibly be real?
Some of these oddities are due to the fact that the Golden Age or Piracy was 300 years ago, and a lot of things have changed since then. Others are caused by the inventions of film makers, writers and actors. But facts have always been the driving force behind our interest in pirates. Facts really are stranger, and stronger, than fiction.
The original source for pirate lore was A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. This book, published in 1724, gave us our most enduring images of what pirates were. But it left many questions unanswered.
We don’t even know who wrote it. The name that appears on the cover, Captain Charles Johnson, is generally considered a pseudonym. For years the work was attributed to Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, but more recent scholarship suggests a sailor and author named Nathaniel Mist. Mist may have used the title “Captain” with the name Charles Johnson, to poke fun at a play by another Charles Johnson. The Successful Pirate, which had achieved fame some years earlier, tells the story of Henry Avery, and the General History, a much more accurate work, begins with a biography of the same man.
Whatever his real identity, the author had at his disposal a research technique that is more straightforward than those used today. He wrote during the Golden Age of Piracy. To do research, he simply hung out in seaside taverns, listening to stories told by former pirates or their associates. This had the advantage of getting information right from the “horse’s mouth” as it were. But it relied on human memory of events that may have taken place decades before, and was also constrained by the fact that men who are telling stories in exchange for free drinks may start making things up when their memories run dry.
While the biographies of Blackbeard, Jack Rackham and Charles Vane may have been mostly true, other pirates mentioned in the General History seem to have been entirely fictional.
For many years, though, the General History was taken at face value. It was read by the likes of J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan and Captain Hook, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who gave us Treasure Island. As each story added to the myths, our images of pirates became more colorful and less rooted in fact.
The next infusion of truth into the pirate legend came in the later 1800’s through the efforts of the Brandywine School, an illustration school and artist’s colony founded by the noted artist Howard Pyle. Academic art of the time stressed meticulous research to bring to life classical images. The Brandywine artists illustrated adventure books, and they brought the concept of research to subjects such a pirates. In their stirring illustrations, the clothes, the ships, even the gold coins have been checked for authenticity.
The artists’ thrilling images, even more interesting than the purely imaginary works before them, inspired the imaginations of generations of children. Interest in pirates didn't go away, and over time, technology slowly began to give us chances to learn about pirates from original sources. Historians grew more interested in revealing facts (a recent development) instead of merely telling compelling stories. Carbon dating could prove the age of artifacts. Scuba gear made it possible to swim through the sunken ruins of Port Royal.
Thousands of pieces of paper, stored in government buildings for centuries, have been brought to light. Pirates had robbed people, and when a robbery took pace 300 years ago, the victims did much the same thing they do today. They went to the authorities and filled out a report. The reports were still there, giving eyewitness details of who the pirates had been, what they wore, how they spoke, what their ships looked like.
In 1984, a man named Barry Clifford, looking for details of a local pirate legend, uncovered the find of the century. He had wanted to discover if there was any truth to a story about a pirate who was returning to Cape Cod to marry a girl named Maria when his ship went down off the coast in a freak hurricane. Legends told of ghosts and witches, but Clifford wanted facts.
What he discovered was amazing. The wreck was real. Six pirates had lived to make it to shore. They were arrested immediately, but waited weeks for trail. While they sat in prison, the local minister, Cotton Mather, had interviewed them and written down details of their stories. Suddenly life on a pirate ship came alive. Barry had details of nationalities, ages, and past life experiences of the pirates.
A little digging in public records revealed something else. The authorities of 1717 had preserved a map showing the exact location where the pirate ship had gone down, almost 300 years before. Efforts had been made to scavenge the ship for its treasure, but in that time 20 feet of seawater proved an insurmountable obstacle. In 1998 it didn’t have to be. Barry Clifford found the wreck of a pirate ship, using a map he’d found in the public library.
The wreck of the Whydah.