The real pirates of the Caribbean

Avast ye special effects! Without them, the Robin Hoods of the sea charmed the masses of olde.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

I don't know about you, but I came away from seeing "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" feeling that Disney and director Gore Verbinski had squandered an opportunity.

The strength of the series' first film – apart from Johnny Depp's enjoyably cracked performance as Capt. Jack Sparrow – was that it was about early 18th century pirates, as intriguing an inspiration as a fantasy-monger could ask for. It was a classic swashbuckler's tale, spiced up with just enough supernatural hocus-pocus to make it refreshing, and give the special effects guys something to do.

My gripe with the movies that followed, particularly the latest, was that they largely dispensed with the pirates and their real-world nemeses in favor of computer-generated underworlds, villains, and goddesses. I say, let well enough alone: What better material to draw inspiration from than the real pirates of the Caribbean?

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Of course, I'm biased, having just published a book detailing the exploits of the latter, "The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down." Two years poring through microfilm and faded parchment on both sides of the Atlantic revealed a story I find every bit as compelling as any pirate fiction – Mr. Verbinski's included.

Virtually all of our pirate imagery comes from a single circle of pirates who knew one another, shared a common base in the Bahamas, and operated for a very brief period: 1715 to 1725. This gang – including Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy of Whydah fame, the female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny, and the gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet – provided the inspiration for the great pirates of fiction, from Long John Silver and Captain Hook to Captain Blood and Jack Sparrow.

Pirates have been around since ancient times, and remain today, attacking container ships off Indonesia and cruise liners off East Africa. But the Bahamian pirate gang was different from the rest in motivation and degree of success.

At their zenith, Blackbeard and his colleagues had not only disrupted the commerce of three empires, they'd graduated to terrorizing warships and the colonies themselves. Britain's Royal Navy went from not being able to catch the pirates (who initially favored swift, agile sloops) to being afraid to encounter them at all (after they captured large, heavily armed vessels capable of overpowering any frigate stationed in the Americas at the time). In May 1717, the captain of the 22-gun HMS Seaford reported having abandoned a patrol of the British Leeward Islands because he was "in danger of being overpowered by the pirates."

By then, even the harbors were unsafe. While the Seaford cowered in Antigua, Sam Bellamy's men occupied Virgin Gorda, seat of the deputy governor of the Leeward Islands, where they caroused, repaired their vessels, and kept the authorities in a state of fear. Later that year, Blackbeard burned Guadeloupe's main settlement to the ground and destroyed much of the shipping at St. Kitts even in range of the guns of the king's fort. The pirates repeatedly blockaded Charleston, S.C. and the approaches to Philadelphia and the Chesapeake Bay.

They were motivated by more than simple banditry. Indeed, many were former sailors who saw themselves in a social revolt against shipowners and captains who'd made their lives miserable. Bellamy's crew referred to themselves as Robin Hood's men. "They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference: They plunder the poor under the cover of law ... and we plunder the rich under the cover of our own courage," Bellamy told a captive.

On seizing a vessel, they turned its government upside down. Instead of using whips and other violence to enforce a rigid, top-down hierarchy, the pirates elected and deposed their captains by popular vote. They shared their treasure almost equally, at a time when captains aboard privateers (private, legally sanctioned warships) typically got 14 times more than a crewman, according to surviving ship contracts. Many pirate crews didn't allow the captain his own cabin – he had to share it with the crew.

"This is a time when the distribution of income, land, and power is becoming increasingly concentrated, yet the pirates organized themselves very democratically," notes Ken Kinkor of the Expedition Whydah Museum in Provincetown, Mass.

Most surprising: Popular opinion was on the pirates' side. Authorities regularly complained to their superiors in London that many of their subjects regarded the pirates as heroes. Virginia Gov. Alexander Spotswood fumed that his citizens had "an unaccountable inclination to favor pirates," while his counterpart in South Carolina weathered a pro-pirate riot in which Charleston narrowly avoided being burned to the ground.

"They were figures of popular folklore while they were still alive," says Marcus Rediker a University of Pittsburgh maritime historian. "They were breaking the law, and yet they were not seen as criminals by a majority of the population."

Their allies sometimes included the authorities themselves. In 1718, Blackbeard came ashore here in Bath, North Carolina's sleepy village capital at the time. In an effort to suppress piracy, King George I had offered a pardon for pirates who turned themselves in. Blackbeard – a former British privateer also known as Edward Thatch or Teach – took the pardon from Gov. Charles Eden and then appears to have set himself up as a sort-of Tony Soprano figure, directing an underground piracy operation under the governor's protection.

When Royal Navy officers eventually came to apprehend the arch-pirate, they reported that Governor Eden's administration was distinctly uncooperative. The reason became clear when, during a search of the Collector of Customs' barn, a large parcel of pirated goods was discovered under a pile of hay.

Not all pirates were impoverished sailors. Indeed, some were quite respectable, including Paulsgrave Williams, son of Rhode Island's attorney general, and Stede Bonnet, scion of an influential Barbados family. There's considerable evidence that these pirates had a secret motivation of their own: to depose George I and restore the House of Stuart to the British throne. Some pirates from the Bahamas even sent a letter to the court of the would-be Stuart King in exile in France offering their services.

A remarkable number of pirates were of African or native American origin, according to accounts of captives and pirates brought to trial. The pirate vessels were among the few places in European America where they could be free. There were more than 30 Africans in Bellamy's crew, and as many as 60 in Blackbeard's, which would have made them the majority. These crewmen – all probably born in the Americas – appear to have been treated as equals. (Not so those Africans found in the holds of inbound slave vessels, who the pirates appear to have generally regarded as cargo, rather than potential recruits.)

The Disney series draws on these influences, from their inclusion of Africans in the pirate's crew to the cross-dressing antics of Elizabeth Swann.

If a fourth movie is made, perhaps its writers will dig deeper and find they won't need quite so much of the supernatural to carry the plot along.

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