History's buccaneers: bad guys or bad rap?
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This, combined with the poor pay, harsh discipline, and poor wages aboard merchant ships, may explain why so many sailors voluntarily joined the pirates when their ships were captured. "Occasionally pirates would force a specialized crewman like a carpenter or a cooper to join them, but a lot of their manpower came from volunteers," notes David Moore of the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, who works with Wilde-Ramsing on the wreck in Beaufort Inlet.Skip to next paragraph
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Pirates could be violent and murderous and at least a few took pleasure in rape, torture, and killing. But in many of the surviving accounts of their victims, pirates like Bellamy and Blackbeard exercised restraint, treating captives civilly and often returning their vessels to them, minus some cargo. "Blackbeard sometimes divvied out inhumane treatment to captives to find out where valuables were, but there's not one document that indicates that he ever killed anybody in any way," Mr. Moore says.
Scholars have also found that a large number of those aboard pirate ships were Africans, including 15 percent of those on the Whydah and as many as 60 percent of those on Blackbeard's last command, the Adventure, when he was killed. Their precise status is still a matter of debate, as documents show that many pirates sold captured slaves or, in the case of Blackbeard, failed to free the human cargo on captured slave ships. But there are also numerous instances of black crew members who shared plunder equally and, in some cases, rose to positions of authority on pirate vessels. "One of the reasons pirates welcomed people of color aboard their ships was because they knew they would be totally committed, because they had nothing to go back to," says Rediker, who adds that pirates remain folk heroes in many former slave societies in the Caribbean.
Other scholars are skeptical that pirates were engaged in a revolt of sorts, or that they were imbued with rough-hewn democratic ideals. "I just don't think these guys were that deep," says Moore, who has been studying Blackbeard for more than 20 years. "There was a bit of getting back at the establishment but, in the end, I think they were just thieves."
British historian David Cordingly warns against romanticizing pirates, who he argues were "tough and ruthless men capable of savage cruelty and murder." He declined to be interviewed for this story, but in his book, "Under the Black Flag: the Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates," he notes that pirate captains were "often vicious and sadistic villains" and that their crews horrified captives with "their foul language, their drunken orgies, and their casual brutality." People "want the world of pirates as it has been portrayed in the adventure stories" and "prefer to forget the barbaric tortures and the hangings."
Wilde-Ramsing, for his part, hopes the North Carolina wreck will provide new clues. The wreck, located in 23 feet of water, has yielded navigation instruments, anchors, tools, and a motley assortment of cannons, but excavation work is less than 2 percent complete. Everything found so far seems to point to it being Queen Anne's Revenge, including period wine bottles, pewterware, and timbers. If true, this wreck would provide a second time capsule of life in the pirate era, joining the half-excavated Whydah.
"Archaeology lets you check the written record," Ramsing says, "which is helpful, because people don't always tell the truth."
The weapons have changed - AK-47s instead of cutlasses - but the aim is the same: loot. Here are some recent trends involving pirates:
• Last year was the most violent in modern pirating, with 30 crew members killed, up from 21 in 2003.
• The number of attacks last year, however, fell by more than a quarter - down to 325.
• The most pirate-infested country was Indonesia, with 93 attacks last year. Nigeria was Africa's most dangerous area, with 39.
Source: Intl. Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau