Monday, September 30, 2013

Black Sam Bellamy and the Wreck of the Whydah

Barry Clifford was off the coast of Cape Cod, looking for pirate treasure with a map he had found in the public library. An underwater archaeologist, Clifford was perusing his lifelong fascination with a local legend. “Black Sam” Bellamy, so it was said, had fallen in love with a local girl, and gone to sea to seek the fortune necessary to marry her. He had turned to piracy, and had come back a rich man, only to be wrecked in a freak storm. All the loot had gone down with him.

Barry’s team had been returning to the site for years, and had recovered coins, dinner wear, and other small items, but no proof that this was a pirate ship, let alone the one pirate ship they sought. Finally, in July of 1998, at the end of a long day of diving, a final artifact was dragged to the surface. It proved to be a huge, brass, ship’s bell. And cast into the very fabric of the bell was the ship’s name.
Whydah 1716
Barry had found his proof. He was on the site of Bellamy’s fabled ship. The Whydah was the first verified pirate ship ever recovered from the bottom of the sea.

But how did it get there?

Monday, September 23, 2013

How do We Know Pirates Were Real?

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.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The First True Pirate Hero

On April Fools Day, 1696, a mysterious ship sailed into the port of New Providence in the Bahamas. It’s sides were pierced with gun ports, it’s sails tattered, it’s hull low in the water from a heavy cargo.  The sailors of this ship were strangely dressed, their weather-beaten bodies covered with silks from China, satins from Arabia, and spangled cotton gauze from India. Their captain went ashore to meet with the island’s lawful governor, Nicholas Trott.

The captain introduced himself and proposed a bargain. He said that his ship, the Fancy had been trading illegally off the coast of Africa, and the crew now wanted to come ashore, sell their cargo and take some much needed leave. To gain the governor’s good will, they were willing to offer him a gift - £850 (three times Trott’s annual salary) and the Fancy herself, once the cargo had been sold.

Though Trott would later testify in court that he had no proof the newcomers were pirates, he was not a fool. The choice before him was clear – uphold English law, as his job required, or take the money. He did not hesitate. Captain “Bridgeman” and his crew were welcomed warmly, and given permission to go wherever they pleased.

Even Trott did not know he faced the most wanted man in the world. “Bridgeman” was, in fact, Henry Avery, and the Fancy had been pirating off the coast of Madagascar for nearly five years.

Henry Avery is a legend. His name appears on every list of famous pirates, and his story has been told everywhere from the pubs of 17th century Jamaica to the science-fiction world of Doctor Who. Some say that Avery began the Golden Age of Piracy single-handedly.

And Henry Avery was a real man.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Worst Pirate I’ve Ever Heard of…

Stede Bonnet, born about 1688, was a moderately wealthy landowner, a member of the aristocracy of Barbados. His family had owned land and slaves on the island for over ninety years. His 400 acres of farmland, 94 slaves, liberal education and service in the island’s militia all spoke of a successful life and his marriage to the daughter of another prominent landowner was further icing on the cake.

And then he lost his mind.

Bonnet had endured some tragedy. He was orphaned at the age of six, but had responsible guardians who cared for him and nurtured his estate until he came of age. And after his marriage, his first child, Allamby Bonnet, died in infancy. Neither of these events was uncommon for the time, but the death of his child seems to have thrown him into a depression. The birth of three healthy children did not console him. 

Friends said that he “Had a disorder of the mind,” and that it was caused by “some unhappiness in the married state.” I personally wonder if this means he was gay and in the closet. Since homosexual activity was both illegal and punishable by death at the time, he would have had strong incentive to hide any wayward sexual urges. 

Or it could simply be that he didn’t like his wife.

At any rate, Bonnet came up with a daring plan. Though he knew nothing about ships, navigation, or naval warfare, he decided to run away and become a pirate.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Spanish Treasure

Christopher Columbus discovered the New World for Spain in 1492, and Spain immediately set out to profit from the discovery. Just 14 years after Columbus’ initial contact, 45 ships sailed to the Caribbean. By 1550, the lands colonized by Spain were over ten times the size of Spain itself.

How Spain managed to dominate the region with so few soldiers and such an enormous supply-line is still under debate. A relative handful of Spanish Conquistadores captured most of the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America, defeating the Aztec and Incan empires and establishing themselves at the top of an existing hierarchy of native communities.

Many of the expeditions were funded and led by Spanish nobles. Essentially, they got licenses from the Spanish Crown to establish colonies, went in with soldiers, horses, war dogs and guns, and carved out their own small empires. The goal behind all this was money. Hernando Cortez, whose military abilities made him Governor of Mexico, was the richest man in Spain by 1547.

The Spanish took all the existing gold artifacts from their empire, and set natives and slaves mining for more. Modern production of gold is measured in troy ounces. Spanish exports in the 1500’s and 1600’s were measured in tons.