Pirates are associated with the pleasures of the tropics – sunshine, palm trees, ocean breezes and rum. With their distinctive clothing and their isolation in the Caribbean, it’s hard to place them in history. The average reader, after all, doesn’t have a firm idea of when Queen Ann’s War (The War of Spanish Succession) took place. And who cares, right? The Golden Age of Piracy is just kind of hanging out there, history-wise.
What could be relevant about the history AROUND pirates, anyway?
You might be surprised. Let’s start with Witches. The Golden Age of Piracy is generally considered to have started in 1690. And guess what happened from 1692-1693? The Salem Witch Trails.
Salem is only 25 miles from Boston Massachusetts, a major trading port for pirates. For those who aren’t up on the details of the Witch Trials, they are the last major witch hysteria i Western civilization.
The drama of the Trials unfolded when, in a region battered by war and threatened by Native uprisings, a group of schoolgirls claimed to be possessed by evil spirits. The girls accused first their family’s Caribbean slave, and then various unpopular members of their community, of witchcraft.
By the time the hysteria had died down, 57 people had been arrested for witchcraft, 3 people had been executed, one man died by torture, and several others died in jail. In all, over 200 people were accused of witchcraft.
Cotton Mather, the fire-and-brimstone minister, was the man who persuaded the Salem court to accept “special evidence”… That is to say, the claims of the schoolgirls that they were being attacked by invisible demons and ghosts while on the witness stand. Mather went on to write books defending the use of Special Evidence in the trials and describing the Invisible Forces of wickedness that beset Christians.
Mather made good money off his writing and in later years harbored the notion of writing another tell-all book, this time about pirates.
After the hurricane that sunk the flagship of pirate prince Black Sam Bellamy in 1717, the survivors were jailed in Boston. Cotton Mather fancied writing a best-seller about pirates. He visited the remainder of Bellamy’s crew in prison, wrote down their stories, and attempted to create his own “happy ending” by persuading the pirates to confess.
He didn’t get his confession. But he did leave a set of notes that led modern day historians to the wreck of Bellamy’s ship, the only certified pirate ship ever discovered and excavated.
The Golden Age of Piracy also took place only 25 years after the last serious outbreak of the Black Death. The Great Plague of London killed roughly 100,000 people, a quarter of the population of London, in 18 months. It strained the infrastructure of the city alomost to the breaking point, and left a lasting scar on the psyche of the British.
Plague had changed the psyche of Europe. All in all, from 1350 to 1665, the Black Death wiped out half of the world’s population. The massive number of deaths created the image of the Grim Reaper and planted thoughts of death firmly in the mind of the population.
It was the Black Plague that gave Death a personification. Usually a skeleton or skeletal figure, Death carried a scythe to reap the lives of the living. Or a bow-and-arrow to strike from a distance. Death might also bear a shovel, the better to bury his victims.
But these images of the Grim Reaper did not usually show a clean skeleton. Bodies don’t simply dissolved into skeletons. Instead, depictions of death show bodies with strips of skin still attached. Skin broke open first over the joints, the eyes sank and the structure of the face fell in. Images show the dead with internal organs falling from burst abdomens, with hair still attached to naked skulls.
Plague struck at random, killing young and old rich and poor alike. It had broken society completely down. During the worst of the plague years, in the 1300’s, bands of criminals wandered the stricken countryside, taking what they wanted, in much the same way that pirates would later wander the seas.
Immediately after the worst of the plague the world was beset by its first ever labor shortage. Serfs discovered that their skills at growing food and raising livestock were suddenly in demand. They bartered the demand for their skills into improved working conditions and status. Years later, when the population again grew, the memory that peasants could bargain with lords and come out ahead.
This notion lived in in pirates.
What also live on was the understanding that life could be short and it was wise to make the most of it. “A short life and a merry one!” was the motto of the pirates. And it was a wise one in the time. And it’s a wise idea now. Life is not sure, so eat, drink and be merry! (And be kind to your fellow travelers, please.)