Monday, May 27, 2013

The Littlest Pirate

Being the Story of the Youngest Pirate in the Caribbean

This is the story of the youngest pirate ever historically verified.  It’s not the story of someone born into the pirating business. Grace O’Malley, the Irish pirate queen, gave birth on her own flagship in the middle of a naval battle, but I don’t think that counts. It’s not the tale of a boy who set up a boat and tried to run away from home. It’s the story of a real boy, from a real time, sketched from a bare set of facts set out by trial depositions and archaeological discoveries.

On November 9, 1716, John King, nine years old, and his mother, whose name is not recorded, were passengers on the sloopBonetta, captained by Abijah Savage. The Bonetta was en route to Jamaica when they were attacked by the notorious pirate Black Sam Bellamy. Bellamy and his crew fired a warning shot, persuaded Savage to surrender without a fight, and tied their own sloop, the Mary alongside. They then proceed to plunder the Bonetta for fifteen days.

Exactly what went on during that time, we will never know. Bellamy’s crew did not have a reputation for torture or rape, but Sam himself was politically motivated, and spent some time haranguing the Bonetta’s sailors and captain. Sam’s position was that honest men could not earn an honest wage under the then-current system, and he advised Savage and his crew to become pirates so they could have some money and be free of the class system that viewed them as barely human.

Captain Savage maintained that piracy was against the laws of God and men, and refused to even think of such a thing. But at least one of Bellamy’s speeches was recalled by Savage during a later deposition, one of the few occasions we have a pirate’s own words about his profession.
We don’t know what inspired John King, but at the eleven-day point, he approached Bellamy and asked to join the pirate crew. It should be noted that the King family was solidly upper-class. John had no particular reason to sympathize with the pirates, other than Bellamy’s rhetoric.

None of the pirates took the child seriously, but he did not back down. He wanted to join Bellamy’s crew and become a pirate, and he kept asking. Over the next few days, the pirates began to change their minds.

Mrs. King did not take kindly to this radical idea. First she tried to restrain her son, and then asked Captain Savage to speak to him. John held out. He wanted to be a pirate. When his mother refused to think of such a thing, John threatened to throw himself into the ocean. Then he physically attacked her.

The pirates, possibly amused, possibly emotionally moved by this well-to-do child’s efforts to join them, began to side with the boy. In the passion of a mother-son argument, Mrs. King blurted out, “All right, be a pirate!”

John King signed the ship’s articles and officially joined Bellamy’s crew.

Bellamy sailed away, and the Bonetta continued her trip to Jamaica, where Captain Savage gave a deposition against the pirates. Giving details about John King’s defection, he was quite clear. The child was not forced, not kidnapped. He had wanted to join Bellamy’s crew, and he had.

But why did an upper-class boy want so badly to become a pirate? A few hints linger. When John threatened to throw himself into the sea, he specifically mentioned suicide. His willingness to physically attack his mother also indicates that something was wrong in the King family. Why was Mrs. King traveling alone? Why was she willing, at any point, to hand her child over to pirates? A single line in Savage’s deposition offers one more tantalizing hint. The boy’s father “didn’t like him.”

Why? Had John King been born as a result of some affair of his mother’s? Did John have some mental or learning disability that prevented him from fitting in with his family? Was his father abusive? Such things weren’t written down for 18th century court record. Captain Savage’s point was that John King willingly became a pirate, and was therefore liable for hanging if he was caught, no matter what his age.

The pirates left no written records about their young recruit.

Fate, however, took this young pirate in hand. On April 26th, 1717, Sam Bellamy and his new ship, the Whydah Galley, went down with nearly all hands in an unseasonable storm off the coast of Maine. Only two of the crew survived. John King was lost forever. His life as a pirate had only lasted three months.

Nearly 300 years later a man named Barry Clifford set out to find the Sam Bellamy’s sunken treasure ship. Clifford’s underwater excavations first found the ship’s bell, with the name “Whydah” molded into it – proof that the wreck under examination was in fact the lost pirate ship.

It was here that divers found the last remains of John King – a leg bone from a nine-year-old boy, clad in a silk stocking and wearing an expensive French shoe. John King had been trapped under a cannon when the ship went down. Today, his remains are part of the Whydah Pirate Museum in Provincetown MA.

Monday, May 20, 2013


Pirates and the Economy

The question came up recently of why local communities who have a pirate in their history speak of these pirates so fondly. It’s been rightly pointed out that pirates took things that didn’t belong to them, at the very least. So why all the love?

Communities loved their pirates because there’s nothing like a local pirate to enrich a community. Fortunes were made by people who dealt with pirates, and everyone on land had a good time doing it.

First, a brief overview of how pirate ships operated. A pirate ship was a stolen vessel – captured in battle or taken in a mutiny, or occasionally snuck out of port in the dead of night. While merchant ships ran with the smallest number of crew possible (the salary of each crew member was an added expense)  pirate ships ran with the largest possible crew (each additional crew member increased the ship’s fighting force.)

Pirates wanted money, but they took anything of value, including the cargos of captured vessels. They especially loved taking manufactured goods coming into the Caribbean from Europe.
Colonies in the Caribbean were not self-sufficient. During the Golden Age of Piracy, the early 1700’s, they consisted mostly of large plantations which produced cash crops such as tobacco, cotton, coffee or sugar for export back to the home country. This produced cash, which was then used to buy European products and food.

The colonies were not yet producing cloth, thread, metal goods, fine leathers, furniture, glassware, china, guns, swords, paper, printed material, cosmetics, wigs, or any of hundreds of things that well-to-do plantation owners wanted to be part of their lives.

They did not even produce much European-style food. Wheat did not grow well in the tropical climate. Cattle and sheep fell prey to tropical diseases.  Tea had to be imported from India.
So the basic economy of the Caribbean was that land was owned by large holders who either bought impressive holdings or received them as gifts from their respective governments. They worked the land with slaves or bound servants (who had no more rights than slaves) because the cash crops were labor-intensive. Sugar cultivation, the greatest wealth of the colonies, involved handling plants whose leaves cut the skin as well as a knife could, and required back-breaking labor under the hot sun to cultivate and harvest the plants, then back-breaking labor to extract the juice, then time in the heat spent boiling the juice down to molasses.

A slave on a sugar plantation was lucky to survive the work for two years. Free people did not cultivate sugar. Nobody did if they could help it.

What we would call “middle class” people were few and far between. Skilled tradesmen were hampered by lack of raw materials, and in competition with slave labor. Small merchants were in competition with large trading houses, such as the infamous East India Company. Trading companies of all kinds existed, and they often “bought monopolies” from their governments, giving them sole rights to transport valuable cargo (sugar, tobacco, slaves) through certain trade routes. If private individuals were caught breaking the monopoly, they could be fined or have their cargoes confiscated.

And into this world came the pirates.

Pirates did not rob slaves or middle class people. There was no profit from it. They robbed the rich because that was where the money was. Pirate ships followed the trade routes and captured the largest, richest ships they could find.

While they wanted money, they took goods as well. And what did they do with them? They sold them, quickly and at a discount.

Pirates might choose to unload cargo in a port where they had family who could cover them with an aura of respectability. They might have knowledge of a particular trader who didn’t mind buying goods with no paperwork involved. More and more, they took their plunder to “free ports,” places where known criminals met with dishonest merchants to trade.

The pirates had no money invested in their cargo, so goods could be bought from them for one quarter their actual value. This provided the merchant with a handsome profit. The merchants, then, also eager turn a quick profit, passed the savings on to their customers.

Suddenly, middle class folks could afford to live like the wealthy. Pirates stole and sold furniture, fine china, silverware, silks and velvets. Regular sale of these plundered goods in a community could raise the standard of living for everyone.

Furthermore, upon getting cash, the pirates spent it.

A hundred pounds sterling in the hands of a plantation owner might inspire him to buy more land from the Crown, or to purchase slaves from Africa, or manufactured goods from Europe. A hundred pounds in a pirate's hands would be immediately dropped into the local economy.
A pirate in town was no more unruly than any other sailor, but he was a lot richer. Pirates bought rum, a local product, spent cash on women, ate in the 18th century’s equivalent of restaurants. They bought fine clothes, watches, and other tokens of respectability.

Moreover, pirates became pirates in order to be happy. “A short life but a merry one” was the pirate motto, and it was easier to be merry if the people around you were having a good time.
There are stories of pirates who bought barrels of rum and set themselves up on street corners, passing out free liquor to everyone in the area. Pirates tipped extravagantly and bought presents for people. If a pirate wanted the company of a well-dressed woman, the easiest thing was to pick out a whore and then buy her some fine clothes. Arrangements like this benefited everyone.

The Spanish colonies had even greater reasons to support pirates. Spain had few plantations, since their inland territories allowed them to mine gold, silver and precious gems, all with slave labor. The overseers of these operations became enormously wealthy, but little of this wealth found its way into the hands of  free colonists. But if a tavern owner or fisherman passed information to pirates regarding the Spanish treasure fleets – their numbers, protective forces, or dates of sail – they could count on a rich reward.

In circumstances like these, loyalty went to the pirates quickly and easily.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Five Greatest Fictional Pirates

Pirates get a lot of attention, but most of us are more familiar with fictional pirates than real ones. And why not? Fictional pirates enjoy great lines, wonderful wardrobes, and ships with catchy names, and never have to deal with bilgewater, scurvy or rats in the hold. Let’s look at some of the most famous.

5. One-Eyed Willy 

Ship: The Inferno, venue: 1985 movie The Goonies. Willie was a generation’s earliest introduction to pirates, and what an introduction it was: secret treasure, a mysterious map, and traps only the kids can solve, all in the name of saving the family home and sticking it to the rich guys.

One-eyed Willie didn’t bury his treasure, he walled himself up with it.

Willie’s the story of how pirates become part of local legend. Both coasts of America and the whole of the Caribbean are filled with stories of local pirates, their adventures and hints of their buried treasure. Captain Kidd’s fortune has yet to be found along the Carolina coast, but a real map led to the 26 million dollars that went down with Sam Bellamy’s ship. And as long as there are legends of ill-gotten gains, kids (and adults) will go out in hope finding a little for themselves.

4. The Dread Pirate Roberts

Ship: The Revenge, venue: The Princess Bride movie (and the book).

The Princess Bride is one of the best movies ever made (not like I have an opinion or anything) and part of its appeal is the mysterious Dread Pirate Roberts. Roberts dresses all in black, wears a mask to conceal his identity, and is legendary for allowing no survivors on the ships he captures. As the movie progresses, we learn that the name “Dread Pirate Roberts” is a franchise, with one man after the other taking the title as the previous holder retires with his plunder.

TDPR is one of the most famous pirates ever, but we don’t get to see him doing much pirating. His appeal lies in his fearsome reputation, his fantastic sword fighting skills, and his classic costume. And true love. Never forget that.

There is no record of an actual pirate handing down his name to a successor, but there are plenty of real pirates who tried to assume an alias, with the plan to go back to using their own names upon retirement. There are also pirates who flirted with the idea of leaving no survivors, but none ever committed to such a plan. Ultimately being a pirate is about having a good time, and killing unarmed captives just didn’t appeal to that many people.

3. Captain James Hook 

Ship: The Jolly Roger, venue: Peter Pan, the play, several other movies, and a ton of Disney merchandise.

Captain Hook is one of the most famous pirates ever, and the very model of a pirate captain in action. Hook lives elegantly on his magnificent ship, dining in his well-appointed cabin, enjoying the services of a personal servant (Smee), smoking two cigars at a time and playing the harpsichord. Despite his sometimes effeminate manners, Hook is a tough guy, bellowing orders in a frightening voice and shooting any member of his crew who shows signs of rebelling against his iron will.

In fact, Hook is probably the origin of the myth of the pirate captain as an all-powerful dictator. In fact, pirate captains were elected by their crews, and could be deposed just as easily. It would be hard to find a crew loyal to a man who shot subordinates with so little reason.

Hook’s greatest resemblance to real pirates lies in his costume (yes, a lot of pirates dressed like that, with the huge wig, lace shirt and fancy coat) and his desire to be considered a gentleman. Retiring to a life of wealth and respect was the goal of many a pirate, and pirate crews from the captain to the lowest powder-monkey plundered ships of fine clothing, gold watches, wigs, silk stockings and gold shoe buckles in an effort to  appear to be members of the aristocracy.

2. Long John Silver 

Ship: Flint’s ship the Walrus and later the Hispaniola, venue: Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, and the approximately eighty movies made from it. Also a string of seafood restaurants.

Long John Silver is the most historically accurate pirate ever to walk out of the pages of fiction. In the novel, we first see Silver as the one-legged owner of a seaside eating house, the Spyglass. Pirates, unlike the Royal Navy, paid a disability benefit to crewmembers who lost limbs in battle, so the vision of Silver as a business owner is in keeping with actual pirate practices.

His longing to return to a life of crime is also typical of real pirates. Several prominent pirates accepted a “King’s Pardon” or established themselves as rich men under onshore aliases, but almost all of these returned to piracy when they became bored.

Silver operates under pirate law, holding his position as leader of the mutineers by popular vote, supplemented by guile, cunning and manipulation.  He does not have strict control of the crew, who see themselves as free agents, and frequently lose focus when distracted by rum. Silver needs to keep up appearances to remain leader, and must hide his growing, fatherly affection for Jim Hawkins in order to keep his position.

I’ve always believed that the secret to Treasure Island’s popularity has a lot to do with the fact that Silver gets away at the end. We still dream that he might show up on OUR doorsteps one day, with another treasure map and a mouthful of promises he’s probably not going to keep.

1. Captain Jack Sparrow

Ship: The Black Pearl, venue: Four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, a string of kid’s novels, a load of Disney merchandise, and approximately 20,000 posts on

Captain Jack Sparrow, and the big budget movies he stars in, were the point of entry for millions of pirate fans. Jack’s got a certain feel of authenticity, even when we know he’s not real. He’s dishonest and proud of it, clever rather than violent, often in desperate straits, and deliciously dirty. It was the worn clothes and the dirt that drew me in first. Jack looked like he lived 300 years ago and worked for a living.

The extras of the first DVD disc describe the first moment when Johnny Depp went off-script to reveal Jack’s character. In the original fight with Will Turner, Jack was supposed to draw his pistol, tell Will, “This shot is not for you,” cock the pistol and point it. Depp chose to draw, cock the gun, point it at Will, pause for a moment and then deliver the line. It gave Jack a level of menace that made him believable. Jack Sparrow will kill you, even if you’re a good guy, because saving his own hide comes first.

Obviously the Aztec curses, zombie pirates, mermaids, enchanted sea goddesses and trips off the edge of the map are in no way realistic. But they reflect the way sailors of 300 years ago viewed their world. No one knew what caused weather, sickness, or a run of bad luck. Old time sailors were no fools, but they followed superstitions and gave credit to wild stories because they had no better way to control events around them.
Jack Sparrow’s life looks a lot like a real pirate’s in a lot of ways. Real pirates drank heavily, and sometimes made poor decisions because of it. They wore the same clothes every day, and rarely bathed.  They lived by luck and reputation as much as by violence.

Johnny Depp famously said that pirates were the rock stars of their day, and he got it right. Even as pirates were derided as minions of the devil, breaking the laws of God and Man, their stories were devoured by contemporaries eager to learn about the cutthorats’ latest exploits. From The General History of the Pyrates (1724), to Treasure Island  (1883), to Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), we have been fascinated by their adventures, their deeds of daring, and their lives of freedom. 

And now about my own pirate adventures.

This blog was inspired by research for my serialized novels, The Pirate Empire by TS Rhodes. The first two volumes, Scarlet Sails and Gentlemen and Fortune, are now available on Kindle, with the next volume, Bloody Sea, due on June 1st of 2013. If you enjoy this blog, I hope you will choose to purchase the books, and perhaps even to review them on Amazon.

Scarlet Sails

The year is 1717, and pirate Captain Scarlet MacGrath wants nothing more than a decent meal, a glass of rum and  a good man waiting for her in the next port, but life rarely works out that neatly.
When the rum runs out, Scarlet sets sail for the mainland to look up an old friend. But friends turn into enemies pretty quick in this part of the world, and before long Scarlet, her crew, and the good ship Donnybrook  are caught between the lawless Donnelly boys and the bloody-handed Red Ned Doyle himself. Can Scarlet use her Irish charms to free herself and her crew, or will it be cutlass and cannon?

Gentlemen and Fortune 

The stormy seas of the Caribbean are home to rogues and gentlemen, Navy captains and pirate ships like Scarlet's own  Donnybrook.  Join Scarlet and her crew of outlaws, misfits, and runaway slaves as they carry out missions of diplomacy, mercy and aggression.
The pirates are gathering strength, but they're still hunted by Navy  frigates, and soon it's Scarlet's turn to dance with death in the form of Navy Captain Robert Davenport. Scarlet's used to sailing close to the wind, but can she sail away from the HMS Nightingale and the long arm of English law?

Bloody Sea

First it’s an uneasy alliance with the Donnelly brothers in a clash against bloodthirsty natives, then a seaborne attack goes awry, leaving the Donnybrook and her captain crippled. With their very survival on the line, Scarlet and her crew must find greater courage than ever before.  Join Scarlet MacGrath in her most desperate moments, marshalling muskets, cannon and magic against forces bent on her destruction as she and her crew sail The Bloody Sea. Available on Kindle June 1.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Pirate's Life

How did pirates spend their time?

On an “average” pirate ship, during the Golden Age of Piracy, how did the pirates spend their time? What did they do all day?

First, setting the stage, a typical pirate ship was a wooden vessel, less than 100 feet long, and no more than 25 feet wide at its widest point. It had no more than three decks, a weather deck (the top deck, open to the weather) a crew deck (next one down) and a cargo deck or orlop deck below the waterline. Some ships had a raised platform on the rear quarter of the weather deck called the quarter deck, with the ship’s wheel located on it.

The captain’s cabin was a large partitioned room, either on the crew deck level, or under the quarterdeck and opening onto the weather deck. Officers sometimes had smaller cabins with bunks, also partitioned off from the crew deck. Common sailors had hammocks on the crew deck. Personal space was at a minimum.
Non-pirate crews were constantly busy caring for the ship and adjusting the sails for maximum speed. Navy ships kept strict discipline, and merchant ships were constantly trying to get from one port to another in the least possible time. Pirates had none of these goals.

Pirates on the move needed to work the sails, but pirates often didn’t move. A popular technique was to lie in wait along a shipping route, waiting for merchant ships to come into range. The only work that needed doing was to keep a lookout and be ready to sail. What went on in the meantime?

Many people don’t realize that pirates kept musicians on board. Usually a fiddler, these men provided music on demand. And in the days before TV, people were much less self-conscious about singing or dancing in public. Even though no women were allowed on the ship, dancing was common. Sailors had their own dances, and their own songs. Pirates, being sailors, knew these and enjoyed them.

In addition to musical entertainment, pirates had the option of drinking heavily. Liquor was a part of maritime life; even the Royal Navy issued a daily ration of it. But all recorded pirate rules state clearly that all officers and crew on a pirate ship had full use of all liquor, with no restrictions. When bored, pirates drank. And if the liquor ran out, a special effort would be made to find a ship carrying rum and rob it.

Pipe smoking was also popular at the time, and since Caribbean pirates often looted ships carrying full loads of tobacco, they had ample opportunity to indulge in this vice as well. A slow-burning fuse was often kept handy on the weather deck for use in lighting pipes.

But pipe-smoking was limited by regulations. Smoking was not allowed below decks, because of the danger of fire, and anyone caught with a pipe anywhere near the powder room was liable to be whipped.
Pirates, unlike Navy personnel, owned their own weapons, and pirate rules required them to keep their swords and firearms ready for battle at all times. Because of this, it is easy to imagine groups sitting around on deck, cleaning an oiling guns and sharpening swords. There were probably impromptu marksmanship contests as well, and it’s not hard to imagine fencing lessons
For some real excitement, the pirates could always indulge in gunnery practice. A barrel or other target would be floated out on the water and the cannon crews would take turns trying to sink it. With the primitive equipment of the time, aiming a cannon was more of an art than a science, so practice was vital. But the competition between gun crews was exciting, the explosions were loud, and the danger was minimal.

On less exciting days, they might use extra sails to make a sunshade and sit outside mending their clothes. Literate members of the crew might teach illiterate members to read, and those who could navigate might pass on their skills. In addition, there were always chores to keep the ship operable. Sails needed to be mended, and ropes needed to be preserved with tar. Every ship needed a carpenter, and that meant woodworking to keep the decks level and the hull sound.

On a regular basis, every three months or so, the entire ship needed to be dragged out on a secluded beach so the barnacles and sea growth could be scraped off the bottom. This was a dangerous business. Ships not hiding from the authorities did this in port, so if a pirate hunter happened by, it was obvious that the beached ship was up to something illegal. The pirates could not put off careening – keeping a clean hull was important to keep a fast ship. The pirates got this work done fast and got back out to sea.

The famous pirate Bartholomew Roberts had an interesting rule: lights out at eight o’clock pm.  The rule further specified that this didn’t mean everyone had to be in bed. Those who wanted to sit up drinking simply had to do it up on the open deck.

 And sitting out on the deck, under a sky full of stars, they must have told stories. Stories of the pirates of old, Avery and Morgen and Drake, stories of sea monsters, and the edge of the world, and the strange places that they had seen.

And I’m sure the topic came around, and around and around to the money, the wonderful sums of money that they did have, or they would have and all the things they would buy, grand houses and servants, fine clothes, expensive horses and the best food and liquor. And somewhere the stories still linger, out over the water, the pirate hopes and the pirate dreams, out under the tropical stars.