One of the best times in history to be a pirate was just after the English wrested Jamaica from Spanish control in 1655. The Caribbean seas were swarming with European merchant ships plying profitable trade routes to exchange goods and gold for sugar, and as long as pirates seized only Dutch and Spanish vessels, the English authorities were happy to let them prey upon ships from rival countries. This policy decreased competition for the English merchants and flooded Caribbean port cities with cheap stolen merchandise and swaggering pirates flush with cash.
Despite the tacit support of the Royal Navy, pirate ships were often sunk by the cannons of well-armed merchant vessels. By the late 17th century, the Royal Navy was facing diplomatic pressure to disrupt pirating and secure the seas for legitimate trade. They were also beginning to realize that rogue pirates are not easily controlled; particularly bold captains sometimes attacked English vessels.
One such brazen pirate captain was Joseph Bannister, a legendary 17th-century figure who defeated the Royal Navy in sea battle on two separate occasions. His ship, the Golden Fleece, was sunk in 1686 off the coast of the Dominican Republic, known as Hispaniola at the time. In 2008, two American adventurers followed an improbable rumor about where precisely the Golden Fleece had sunk. They were convinced that they could find a pirate ship that vanished more than 300 years ago.
Robert Kurson chronicles the fascinating story of the Golden Fleece and its ultimate rediscovery in his new book, Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship. It’s hard to imagine a more conspicuously romantic topic; Kurson’s story features pirate lore and legend, underwater archaeology, a quixotic quest with innumerable perils and pitfalls, and the eventual discovery of lost treasure. His narration is just as engrossing as the subject.
The heroes of his tale are John Chatterton and John Mattera, men with the improbable occupation of professional pirate hunters. Their research combines new technology – side-scan sonar equipment and magnetometers – with sleuthing through dusty archives for old maps, letters, diaries, and documents that might reveal the location of a wreck. Their goal is to find sunken galleons and pirate ships and salvage whatever coins, weapons, and other artifacts they contain.
The men became interested in Joseph Bannister and the fate of the Golden Fleece in 2006 after they received a tantalizing tip from a fellow treasure hunter. Historical records indicated that the ship sank after a battle with the Royal Navy in approximately 24 feet of water off a stretch of easily defensible coast. Mattera and Chatterton promptly liquidated their life savings and relocated to the Dominican Republic to begin searching for the lost pirate ship.
Exploring sunken shipwrecks is intrinsically dangerous work; both men have had numerous brushes with death over the course of their diving careers. It’s easy to get stuck in the dark and cramped internal passageways of ships and run out of oxygen, and diving below a certain depth dramatically increases the risk of nitrogen poisoning and disorientation.
Work on remote coastlines in the Dominican Republic also poses particular challenges. Throughout the book, the men confront gun-wielding bandits on motorcycles, barracudas, rival pirate hunters, and delicate political situations with local authorities. What motivates them is an irrepressible enthusiasm for the romance of pirates and the tempting possibility of vast riches. A 19th-century shipwreck found near Gibraltar in 2007 contained roughly a half billion dollars of silver coins. While this was an unusually large sum, salvaging caches of gold and silver and selling artifacts to private collectors is often quite lucrative.
Chatterton and Mattera both feel a strong affinity for pirates, and in their willingness to face sundry dangers for the sake of possible riches they do resemble the buccaneers they idolize. Kurson mentions that the Dominican Republic is one of the few countries that still allows private treasure hunters to keep whatever they find in the waters off its coast, but he doesn’t analyze the ethics of private salvage as fully as he might have. While it’s certainly unlikely that governments or university researchers would willingly pursue projects as dangerous and far-fetched as those undertaken by private treasure hunters, the potential loss of historical information from unscientific excavation techniques and the sale of artifacts into private collections is also worth considering.
The Golden Fleece would probably never have been found without the vaguely maniacal obsession of Chatterton and Mattera. Their explorations were both physical and intellectual; they alternate between sweeps across vast stretches of the sea with magnetometers and archival research into the smallest details of pirate history between 1650 and 1720. They learn, among other things, that cannonballs flew at over 700 mph and weighed 6 pounds, that injuries from wooden splinters dislodged by cannonballs caused most casualties on pirate ships, and that every ship kept aboard a surgeon who would saw off wounded limbs and toss them overboard to sharks.
It’s not revealing too much to say that they eventually find their ship. When they begin pulling coral-encrusted gunbarrels, pikes, cutlasses, musket balls, daggers, and jewelry from the sea, the rich haul of treasure feels both deserved and slightly illicit. If they had lived a few hundred years earlier, they might’ve been pirates. Instead, the pair settles for plundering the loot they left behind.