Monday, December 30, 2013

Real Pirate History in Assassin's Creed 4

Few of the people who play Assassin’s Creed 4- Black Flag realize that this game is based on a book, and fewer still know that it is based on a non-fiction book. Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates tells the story of how a group of pirates came close to starting a new nation in the Bahamas in 1713. The story begins with Benjamin Hornigold, who figures prominently in the game.

Hornigold began his career as a privateer, a licensed outsource of England’s Royal Navy, during the War of Spanish Succession. During the war he had served aboard ships loyal to England, robbing Spanish ships and (legally) keeping most of the plunder.

But when the war ended, times grew hard for English sailors. Thousands of sailors lost their jobs, and because of the huge numbers of unemployed, wages plummeted. In addition, the Spanish continued to capture English ships and jail their crews. Life for sailors during peace became more difficult and dangerous than it had been during war.

Ben Hornigold, like others before him, took up pirating to make ends meet. Along with a young man named Edward Teach, he acquired a pair of sailing canoes in Jamaica and headed to New Providence port in the Bahamas.

Here he found an outpost of English power that had been long abandoned. Sacked four times during the war, the buildings had been burned, the fort’s cannons destroyed, and the population reduced to less than thirty families, most of whom were hiding in the woods.

Hornigold set up camp, and for the next six months, he and his friends robbed ships coming through the Straits of Florida. They were successful enough that they soon needed to send a man north to set up trading contracts and fence the stolen goods.

Soon ship owners were lending vessels to Hornigold’s cause and apprenticing younger relatives to him. Hornigold seemed to have a knack for teaching. More important, he paid beck his investors. The loan of a small sloop paid the owner back enough cash to buy four similar boats, and enabled Hornigold to capture a sloop of his own.

Over the next several months, Hornigold traded up, avoided the authorities, and established himself as a professional pirate and the most powerful man in New Providence. Then, in 1715, a hurricane sank the Spanish Treasure Fleet.

The Spanish ships went down off the coast of Florida, and within weeks fortune seekers were coming from all over the world to loot the wrecks.  Another pirate, Henry Jennings, organized an armed force to fight the Spanish military over the gold that was washing ashore daily. Hornigold took the opportunity to capture his largest vessel yet, a sloop-of-war large enough to hold 200 pirates. He quickly renamed it the Benjamin, after himself.

As rogues, adventurers and unemployed sailors streamed into the Bahamas, Hornigold organized them into an informal club called The Flying Gang, with himself as leader. These pirates strutted through the streets, drinking, whoring, and defying the last remnants of legal authority (a "troublesome old fart” in Hornigold’s own words.)  Hornigold also re-armed the fort, using cannons stolen on the high seas. He found manpower for his efforts by appealing to the pirates’ sense of self-preservation, and buying beer for any man who helped drag the cannons up the hill.

In the spring, the pirates were back at sea. Jennings and Hornigold had clashed in port, and they would soon clash again. Unbeknownst to each other, they separately attacked each of a pair of French merchant ships. Jennings, stymied by uncooperative winds, accepted the help of a young man named Sam Bellamy, who used his canoes to haul Jennings’ larger ships into fighting positions.

But when the merchant ship was captured, Bellamy used his canoes to make off with most of the treasure. Perhaps he didn’t like the fact that Jennings tortured his captives. Perhaps Bellamy and Jennings just didn’t get along. However it happened, once Bellamy was away from Jennings, he ran into Hornigold, and a friendship was formed.

Hornigold was not a man who enjoyed torture. Instead, he fancied such pranks as capturing and English ship – and then taking no plunder except the hats of every man aboard. He laughingly explained to the startled captain that he and his men had been so drunk the night before that they had thrown their own hats into the sea. He and his crew took replacements from their captives, and then let the vessel go free.

Hornigold did not like robbing English ships. He still considered himself a loyal subject to the English crown. This sometimes put him in conflict with his growing fleet of pirate ships.

For Hornigold was a pirate commodore. When Bellamy joined him, he was put in charge of a captured sloop. Then they were joined by Olivier La Buse (the Buzzard) a French pirate, who was not at all happy with Commodore Hornigold’s refusal to attack English vessels. Nevertheless, the group stayed together for some time. As they captured more and more vessels, the flotilla grew.

Eventually the Bellamy and La Buse went their own ways. But their firepower was replaced when Edward Teach took over a war ship owned by would-be pirate Stede Bonnet. While Bonnet hid in the captain’s cabin, reading books and being seasick, Teach, now calling himself Blackbeard, captained the ship, still following in Hornigold’s wake.

The pirate commodore lost some of his power to ship rot. The Benjamin, his flagship, was suffering badly from the tropical climate. Loath to let the ship go without realizing a profit, Hornigold sold her. He may have been surprised at how much his influence suffered when his powerful ship retired from pirating. Men like Teach, Bellamy and Jennings were acquiring larger and more powerful ships, and the New Providence pirates had little regard for history – even their own.

The Bahamas was still the center of pirate culture, and as the pirates grew more powerful and numerous, they destabilized the entire Caribbean economy. Merchants were increasingly unwilling to haul cargo. Insurance companies were being hit with excessive claims. Slaves and bond-servants, who were welcomed to freedom in the Pirate Republic, began to stage rebellions. Merchant sailors, learning of the profits enjoyed by pirates, staged work stoppages to gain higher pay and better living conditions.

For years, the Spanish, French and English governments had tried to control pirates by force. In 1717, the English government came up with a radical idea. Instead of killing the pirates, they would pardon them. Any man renouncing piracy would be given a free pardon for all his crimes. As long as he promised to pirate no more.

News of the pardon came to New Providence in 1718, in the form of a new Governor, Woods Rogers. By this time the entrance to the port was clogged with abandoned and half sunken ships. Rogers bribed a pirate to navigate his ship into the harbor. He arrived with pardons in hand.

The pirates quickly fell into two camps. Some longed to return to the comforts of lawful society. Others, angry at the world, still wanted to defy authority.

A pirate named Charles Vane championed continued rebellion. Hornigold suggested taken the pardon, reminding his comrades that they could always go back to their old ways. Vane, as it happened, was a known sadist, and a bit of a coward. Hornigold, his history as a pirate leader now recalled, won the debate. Though piracy in the Caribbean was not over, the days when pirates claimed their own nation and challenged the world’s kingdoms were on the decline.

What happened to Hornigold? For a short time he lived off his acquired plunder, but like most pirates, he was no accountant. In need of work, he hired on as a pirate-hunter, and spend over a year chasing his former comrades. When war broke out again with Spain, he fought on the side of England. He was captured by the Spanish in 1719, and never heard from again.

Hornigold’s career was not as flashy or colorful as men like Blackbeard, and since he treated his captives politely, he was not a good example of the evils of piracy. He has long been resigned to the sidelights of history. But in the latest game, Assassin’s Creed, he is revived in as mentor and leader. I think he’d be pleased by this.  

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