History's buccaneers: bad guys or bad rap?

Mark Wilde-Ramsing may be ashore in his office, but his thoughts are often on a patch of water that's displayed on his computer screen via a live feed from a tower-mounted zoom camera.

On the surface, the picture is not much to look at: a marker buoy being tossed about by whitecaps on the angry brown waters of North Carolina's Beaufort Inlet. But 30 feet down lie the remains of a 17th-century vessel that experts say once belonged to the notorious pirate Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard.

Since its discovery in 1996, Shipwreck Site 0003BUI has drawn journalists, television crews, and thousands of curious tourists and pirate enthusiasts to this subdued port and resort town on the central Carolina coast. The wreck's location, size, age, and contents seem to match what is known about Queen Anne's Revenge, the 40-gun pirate ship that Blackbeard ran aground here in November 1717.

"I tell you, I just can't believe people's level of interest in pirates," says Mr. Wilde-Ramsing, an underwater archaeologist who is managing the careful excavation of the site for the state of North Carolina. "It's like dinosaurs, Robin Hood, or the Wild West: People really want to know about this stuff."

In recent years, experts have been able to piece together a far clearer picture of Blackbeard, "Black Sam" Bellamy, Bartholomew Roberts, and other participants in the so-called "Golden Age" of piracy in the early 18th century. Driven in part by the discovery of pirate wrecks along the US Atlantic seaboard, historians and archaeologists have combed British archives, colonial legal records, French logbooks, and even the the sea floor itself, searching for clues about these elusive outlaws, who captured the imagination of their contemporaries and never let it go.

Pirates, the new argument goes, got a bad rap in many ways. The popular image of pirates as a gang of sadistic monsters led by a despotic, possibly deranged captain is largely a product of an early 18th-century propaganda campaign against them, says historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh.

"The authorities at the time were not only trying to capture and kill the pirates, they were also trying to delegitimize them in the eyes of common people who didn't necessarily see them as killers," says Mr. Rediker, author of "Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age." The book cites numerous references to the pirates' popularity in the letters of frustrated officials from Jamaica to Boston.

At a time when the British Empire restricted trade in the colonies, pirates were a source of cheap goods and tidy profits for merchants and others who sold them supplies. But pirates were also heroes in the eyes of many sailors, indentured servants, and others who saw them as rebels against tyrannical merchant captains, plantation owners, and government officials. "This particular phase of piracy was more of a maritime revolt than simple crime," notes Kenneth Kinkor, research director of Expedition Whydah, the Provincetown, Mass., group excavating Sam Bellamy's wreck. "There was a level of democracy and tolerance aboard pirate vessels that was very difficult to find anywhere in the Western world at that time."

The early 18th century, Mr. Kinkor notes, was a time of growing centralization of economic and political control, with a rising gap between rich and poor, and when working conditions on sugar plantations, tobacco farms, and merchant and naval ships had become more exploitative than in the past.

Pirates, by contrast, ran their ships democratically, voting their captains in and out of power, making important decisions collectively, providing benefits to injured crew, and sharing food and loot equally. Aboard Bellamy's ship, Whydah, which was wrecked off the coast of Cape Cod in a 1717 storm, Kinkor's colleagues found 100 pieces of African gold jewelry that had been broken up to divide among the crew.

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.

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."

Modern pirates: a deadly menace

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

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