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The real pirates of the Caribbean

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

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 2007

Bath, N.C.

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.

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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?

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.