Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Dropping Out of Piracy

This post is inspired by a question asked at one of my events. A gentleman wanted to know if there were any pirate stories with a happy ending for the pirates. At the time I answered him with the stories of Jennings and Hornigold, two captains who hated each other. Both took the pardon offered by the King. Jennings then took his ill-gotten gains, bought into society, purchased a plantation, and lived out his life in comfort.

Hornigold was not quite so fortunate. He had lived a more classically “piratical” life, and had little money when he was pardoned. Consequently, he went back to work as a ship’s captain and, interestingly enough, pirate hunter, and died in a storm some 18 months later.

So what happened to the pirates?

Moralists wanted us to believe that most, if not all, pirates died at the end of a rope. The “short drop with a sharp stop” that was the hangman’s noose may have ended a certain number of piratical careers, but not every pirate died at ropes’ end.

Of the nine pirates in Sam Bellamy’s fleet who survived the wreck of the Whydah and her (little) sister ship the Mary Anne, two were acquitted. Bellamy has conscripted them, and so they were determined to not be pirates of their own free will. Six were hanged. One, John Julian, a Mosquito Indian, was sold into slavery.

And these were the guys who got caught. Roughly 146 died in the wreck. Was is better, or different at all, to die in a storm as a pirate? My guess is, no. Pirates and honest sailors both died in storms at sea, so in that way, a pirate’s life was no different than any sailor’s. Except that it contained more rum and friendly women.

Some pirates simply disappeared. One of the most notorious of these was Anne Bonny, close *ahem* friend of Calico Jack Rackham. Anne was pregnant when she was arrested, and so was held in custody. When the child was born, she was supposed to be hanged. But we have no records of either of these events happening. Anne, the most notorious woman in the Western Hemisphere, simply vanished. Theories range from breakouts, to bribery to an unheeded, anonymous death. We’ll never know for sure.

But other pirates – the sort of rank-and-file deck hands and topmast jacks – often drifted in and out of the life.

Pirates were known to free slaves, and many a pirate crew was swollen with these recruits. Africans sometimes fell into slavery as prisoners of war, and they made a terrifying addition to the attack force of a pirate fleet.

But few of these men were skilled sailors, and at least some of them probably found their way out of piracy and into the colonies of escaped slaves called Maroons that dotted the Caribbean. These people would have lived out their lives as farmers, hunters and scouts, and left behind descendants who still live in the Caribbean today.

But if a man went ashore with his share of pirate plunder, and was a little better than his friends at budgeting his cash, he might have a problem. Waking up after a six-week drunk, he might find out that the pirate ship had sailed off without him! Pirate crews usually partied until the money ran out (it usually took a couple of months.) Then, penniless, they went back to sea to raise more funds.

But if one or two pirates made the money last a little longer, they might be without a pirate ship to join. Some men moved between crews this way, but if no pirate ship was available, the hung-over pirate might be in need of an honest job to provide food and shelter. So he would sign on to a merchant vessel, and be a regular sailor once again.

Did he become a pirate again? Some probably did, and some probably did not. Either way, these men of little reputation did not leave behind much to tell folks 300 years later what happened to them. These are the men who lived to tell pirate stories to “Captain Johnson” as he gathered material for his book, The Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyates.

Finally, one of the smallest percentages, are the guys who took the money and ran. A pirate could make as much a two-year’s salary in as little as six weeks, without even doing anything so noteworthy that people in our age would find out about it. They made the most of their anonymity, and went home with a truck full of treasure.

A sailor returning home with a chest of gold.
In the lower right corner is his mother-in-law, so impressed that she likes him now!

 A small group, it is sure. This kind of planning and financial restraint is completely contrary to human nature. And yet, people do manage it.

I like to imagine this fellow coming home, with enough gold to buy a small business, or a herd of sheep, or some other investment that would make his life easier, and enrich the lives of his wife and children. Or perhaps he suddenly had enough cash to pay a debt, or to marry the girl of his dreams. But whatever else he bought with him, he had stories of his life as a pirate.

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