The “Golden Age” of Pirates
Reports of Piracy are recorded back as far as the early days of ancient Egypt, and continue to this very day. According to Terrance Zepke, author of Pirates of the Carolinas, even last year, 355 pirate attacks were reported from various oceans and seas around the world. Nevertheless, many historians agree that the Golden Age of Pirates was compressed into the forty-year period extending from 1690 to 1730, with a peak between 1713 and 1720. Furthermore, most acts of piracy during this era occurred in the Bahamas and along the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Terrance Zepke hypothesizes that the primary cause for the rapid growth of Piracy during the peak of the Golden Age was the end of Queen Anne’s War (between Great Britain, Holland and France) in 1713. The cessation of hostilities led to the unemployment of 35,000 sailors as well as thousands of privateers (serving under governmental contracts) and captured slaves. Many of these former warriors sought to earn their living in a field for which their martial training and experiences made them particularly well qualified Piracy. Furthermore, the expanding trade between the Americas, Europe and the Bahamas offered an especially fertile field in which to pursue their new profession.
That so many ex-sailors and privateers should elect to earn their livelihoods as pirates rather than, say, merchant seamen is not so surprising when one considers the conditions under which they lived at that time in history. Everyday life at sea was generally deplorable filthy, cramped living quarters, barely edible food, bad water, backbreaking work, long hours and heavy-handed discipline. Pirates, however, lived under a much more democratic regime than did their counterparts onboard merchant ships. They had an equal vote in all decisions made about their ship’s mission. (They could even remove their captain by majority vote if they were unhappy with his/her leadership.) Furthermore, they all shared in their ships ill-gotten gains, usually based on a share system. Finally, when sufficient “booty” had been acquired or supplies exhausted, they could dock in some safe harbor or port, eat and drink their fill and enjoy the company of local women for several days, weeks or even months. Throw in the added element of adventure and the possibility of large rewards, and it is easy to see why so many decided on the life of a pirate.
Pirate flags are grouped under the general heading of “Jolly Roger”, a name many feel was derived from the French term “jolie rouge” meaning pretty red. It stems from the use of red flags in both army and naval battles to signify that no quarter would be given unless the other combatant agreed to unconditional surrender. Later Pirates seemed to prefer black flags (a color traditionally associated with death) featuring a human skull or a skull and crossed bones. Several of the better known pirates personalized this design, so that their intended victim would be aware of exactly whom they faced. Presumably, this intended victim might be so terrified that he would surrender without a shot being fired. (For example, see the picture of the notorious Blackbeard’s own Jolly Roger.)
Sandra MacLean Clumies and Bruce Roberts (authors of Pirates of the Southern Coast) suggest that the term may instead “…be derived from ‘Old Roger,’ a nickname for the devil.”
Every schoolboy is familiar with the common weapons employed by pirates such as the blunderbuss, cutlass, dagger, boarding hook and belaying pin. However, were you aware that pirates often soaped or greased the deck of their ship in order to make it slippery and help repel potential boarders…or that they often spread large tacks all over the deck to disable these same
In addition, the frequent portrait of a fierce pirate with a bandolier containing 4-6 pistols stretched across his chest doesn’t seem so exaggerated when one remembers that the pistols of that era fired only a single shot!
According to MacLean Clumies and Roberts, …most pirate crews of the early 18th century elected their own captains, divided up their booty in equal shares, provided for ‘workmen’s compensation’, offered onboard equality to black slaves, and voted on major decisions.” Moreover, no women were allowed on board, and the penalty for attempting to smuggle one onto a pirate ship was death. Similarly, no personal quarrels could be settled aboard ship (e.g., by a duel). Resolution had to wait until the offended parties could go ashore.
During this blink-of-an-eye in time, a number of names emerged that will live forever in our history, literature and movies. In upcoming issues we will briefly review the stories of a number of the better known Pirates of the Carolinas, beginning with perhaps the most infamous pirate of them all Blackbeard. ..............end