History has been singularly unkind to the buccaneer. History tells us that, today, we have no buccaneers because of radio and steam navies.
But history is written—rarely enacted—by men behind cluttered desks who go home each night to a roast beef dinner and a double-spring mattress.
The historian has forgotten, patting his full stomach, everything except the fact that buccaneers used to scuttle ships and slit throats. The historian fiercely deplores this two-century saga of the sea, branding it with Teach, Morgan and L’Olonnais.
When the historian wants to travel aboard a liner far better appointed than his own home, for all the taste of the sea he gets, he might as well have put up a few nights at a local hotel.
As a matter of sober fact, if the modern steamer were less well appointed and if the crew still ate salt horse and dried peas and drank green-scummed water, we would still have buccaneers, radio and steam notwithstanding.
When we think of those yelling, cutlass-waving, plundering pirates and their black Jolly Roger, we fail to remember the times—those two centuries of imperial extortion, of blind rulers and enslaved people.
Of late, in researching the field, I have thought to myself that the buccaneer is certainly getting a lacing he does not deserve and he cannot rise up from Davy Jones’ locker to answer.
Of course, if the pirates of the Main had ever thought anyone would try to apologize for them, they would have been amazed and even their stout hearts would have contracted with surprise. Because I do not believe it ever occurred to a buccaneer that he was doing anything the later centuries would deplore.
I am sure that if I had followed the sea two centuries ago I would have drifted into freebooting. Not for the romance of it, nor for the wild life, nor even for the fighting. I am one of the radical rabble who likes a little personal freedom, a fairly good meal and who dislikes punishment.
Yes, I would have undoubtedly fallen in with pirates and my heels would have swung, most likely, from some execution dock. Because I am certain that I do not possess the heart which was required of a sailor in those turbulent centuries.
A Brief History
A pirate may have had many reasons for existing, but a buccaneer, judging by contemporary standards, lived an unimpeachable life. You must understand that a pirate is not exactly identical with a buccaneer. In that far-gone day a buccaneer would have clove you asunder had you called him a pirate.
In the seventeenth century there were few pirates and many buccaneers. The buccaneer was akin to a privateer in that he stood up against one single nation—which he eventually drove from the seas. The buccaneer was either English or French and his enemy was Spain.
At that time, Spain had the West Indies by the throat. It had taken the French and English many years to even discover the currents and prevailing winds—and they had learned by hard experience how to build staunch crafts with which to compete with Spain.
Thanks to the much-overrated Columbus, Spain had been first on the ground. Adventurers under the flag of Castile and León had swooped down upon Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba and lesser islands, as well as the South and Central American mainland. The Indians who had lived there originally were eventually wiped out, almost to a man, by harsh oppression.
Spain, using mining methods which killed slaves by the thousands, was gutting the countries of their natural resources—mostly gold. Spain was interested in wealth and wealth alone.
Spain wanted to humor its few noble families and its haughty captains. And Spain succeeded in ruining the West Indies.
Their loot was going home by the shipload. Their commandantes were becoming wealthy beyond an Arabian Nights’ dream. And England and France and Denmark and Holland were the little orphans out in the hurricane, without a smell of gold.
Eventually, the northern countries found the trade routes, managed to build adequate ships, managed to arrive in the Caribbean in some kind of force. Only to find that their lot was to consist of nothing more than a few mouldy bones.
Now if France and England had tried to build up their navies to combat Spain in that region, all might have been different. But the effort was halfhearted and the road was left wide open to the buccaneer.
Englishmen and Frenchmen, having no great support at their back, began to band together for their own protection against the dons. Thanks to a Spanish raid—and I won’t bore you with details—upon the island of St. Kitts, the colonists at that place thought it best to seize and fortify another place against Spanish attack.
Tortuga (Turtle) Island, just north of Santo Domingo, was chosen for this purpose. The Island of Old Providence was also the scene of an English colonization.
But the Spaniards hated the thought of having all these Englishmen scattered about the Caribbean and the dons thereby murdered all the people on Old Providence. Shortly after, the Spanish made a second attack—and really committed suicide by it—upon Tortuga. There, they massacred the colonists.
By that time the English were thoroughly up in arms against Spain. Spain would not leave them alone. Spain had the West Indies all to themselves. Spain was hauling out Peruvian gold and all manner of rich cargoes. Spain was arrogant, unreasonable.
So the English there at Tortuga began recruiting. Men came to them from all over the Old World. Men who were heartily sick of home politics, men-o’-war, merchant captains, and fruitless religious warfare.
And the buccaneers began to become a real menace to Spain.
There are three phases of the buccaneer: from the massacre at Tortuga to the capture of Panama by Henry Morgan; the conquest of the Pacific, ending in 1685; and the decline.
After the buccaneer came the pirate—a lawless wolf of the sea, flying the Jolly Roger, respecting no country.
Henry Morgan and L’Olonnais were probably the greatest buccaneer captains. But they hold that notoriety because of their extreme cruelty and because of a fluke of fate which made Morgan the lieutenant governor of Jamaica and because L’Olonnais once executed ninety seamen because they had been sent out to bring him in to Execution Dock. L’Olonnais also lead an expedition against Venezuela and completely subjugated the Spaniards of three cities there.
Of the other buccaneer captains of this Morgan period we find but little. This is probably because they were a little more gentlemanly, and quite a bit more conservative. Morgan’s excesses removed the buccaneer from the circle of society, and from that period on, the profession slid and slid fast.
In the Pacific the buccaneering reached its height. Captain Cook sailed around the Horn with several hundred men to harass Spanish shipping. Cook died and the command went to the ablest buccaneer on record, Captain Edward Davis, who was seconded by a Captain Swan.
Davis strewed disaster in his wake. He plundered cities regardless of their armaments. He was making war against Spain and Spain alone and God knew Spain had it coming. As a consequence of this continual raiding, Spain’s power began to slip and was almost destroyed by the end of the seventeenth century.
Now we come to the pirates and find that only one man is well known as such—and that because he was the cruelest human being who ever plotted a course. Captain Edward Teach was never a buccaneer. He operated off the southern United States, connived with the governor of South Carolina and generally made himself obnoxious. He was killed two years after he started pirating by Lieutenant Maynard of the Royal Navy in a sharp skirmish.
I list all this to show an incongruity: that over a period of two centuries—1630 –1835—we know of only half a dozen buccaneers and pirates. And even the man who digs hard into the history of those two centuries cannot find more than two dozen men who stood out. And the two dozen were singled out for notoriety because they were bestial and greatly feared.
But what about the rest of these men? When you look over the tremendous lists of shipping taken in by them you begin to understand that there must have been many thousands of pirates. And were all these pirates so thoroughly despicable?
My answer is no. The buccaneer and pirate were products of the day, most of them no harder than the average man of the period. They were driven into piracy by the conditions which surrounded their lives.
What Drove Men to Piracy
To understand just why a pirate became a pirate, one must understand the conditions of the sea at that time. It is impossible to go into the details, but a short sketch is sufficient.
Discipline —that god of so much hell—was enforced in the navies and merchant marines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by several mechanisms, specifically, the cat-o’-nine.
This whip is, in theory, nothing more than nine thongs attached to a short handle. Even in this condition, it is wicked enough. But the military and merchant captains of the time did not think so. They sought to improve upon their discipline by taking copper wire and winding it around the tips of each thong. Then, sometimes, they affixed a lead pellet at the extremity.
For forgetting to salute a midshipman, a sailor might receive fifteen lashes. You and I, in our modern way of living, could not have survived ten.
The British had a custom which deserves mention. If a sailor struck an officer—without regard to provocation—the penalty was “flogging through the fleet.”
The sailor would be taken in a boat from ship to ship and flogged at each gangway. Needless to say, no one ever survived the experience.
Any crime could be punished by flogging, and very few of the commanders actually knew how many lashes a man could stand and still live—lashes given with every ounce of brawny strength behind them—brass-tipped thongs which left the back a raw pulp.
Complained about the food? Sixty lashes. Malingering? A hundred lashes. Failed to report on watch? Seventy lashes. And fifty was fatal, at times.
I do not speak of exceptional cases. This was the condition in every navy of Europe—and not many years ago, it was the condition aboard our own Constitution. Can you visualize her decks redly spattered by the blood of flogged men?
The food was always bad, never plentiful. Men died from scurvy at an appalling rate. And even after the powers that were knew the cause of scurvy — lack of vitamin C—they did nothing about it. Men’s teeth rotted out, they wasted, and were finally—if the captain had time—rolled into canvas with some shot and pitched over the side. Usually they were merely pitched.
Water was always scarce, always putrid. Steam condensers were in the far future. Green scum in the kegs and under the scum a thousand crawling things. And no effort was actively made to find out that iron instead of wood transported water in better condition.
Some years ago I went into the West Indies in a sailing vessel. We had some sixty men aboard a thousand-ton ship and we were terribly crowded and uncomfortable.
But a few centuries ago, a hundred-ton ship carried around a hundred people. No dry place to sleep. Nothing softer than an oak plank. No effort made to supply the men with blankets or clothing to make their lives more endurable.
A navyman or merchantman rarely received any benefit of his pay. It was taken away by all manner of petty accounts and by money lenders ashore—who were approached in the first place because a sailor could obtain not a penny in advance of his discharge.
No shore leave in either navy or merchant ship because the crew might walk off wholesale.
What about those colorful, romantic seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? How about the gallant boys who gave their all for king and country? Did they get compensation for wounds? No. Did they receive pensions? No. And did they get blown up often? I’ll say they did.
Because the navies of that day were too cheap to buy lint, surgeons (ex-barbers) used sponges from man to man, a dozen men to the sponge, and a wound meant either a lost limb or lost life, heavy infection at best.
Those doctors used white-hot branding irons to cauterize wounds. They chopped off arms instead of setting a broken bone. And if the iron shot and chain shot and pikes didn’t get the sailor’s life, then the surgeon did.
Ah, yes, how about that romance?
The sailors did little joining in those days. They were gathered by press gangs which forced them, drugged them, slugged them, carried them off to a life of hell for country and king and the merchant marine. They couldn’t even tell their families they were going. And even if they were making their twenty dollars a month on a merchantman, they were liable to be seized and thrown into the navy.
In other words, they had no choice in the matter. They were impressed against their will. They were treated like cattle and they died like ants under a heel. They were flogged if they didn’t work and fight and thereby died. And if they worked and fought they died anyway.
But through all this bitterness there is still something about the sea. Something which steam has lost to us. Something about sail and a clean keel and far countries which men could not resist.
There was the lure of the tropics and salt spray and empire to be won. But these were not for the common sailor. The officers, yes. But an officer was usually of noble family and a sailor couldn’t help it if he happened to be born on a hearth instead of a four-poster. And history tells us truthfully that the most forceful men are those who have dragged themselves up through the ranks.
But to drive it home. How would you like to walk down to the corner drugstore for the air or maybe a pack of cigarettes and suddenly find yourself confronted by a band of armed men who scooped you up bodily and bore you to the harbor where you would be thrown into a stinking, vermin-ridden hold with other wretches impressed like yourself? How would you like to be gone for years, beaten down as a slave, to return twisted of mind and broken of body to find everything you had known swept away by inevitable progress?
That’s what the man of the past had to face.
Then let’s look at the brighter side of this picture. A sailor in the navy or merchant fleet didn’t have a chance. Wasn’t it natural that he would desert at his first opportunity? He’d brave the sharks in a foreign harbor at night to swim away from his floating hell.
He’d gladly ship with the first better ship which came along. He’d do anything to escape this living death.
And so, pirates were born.
It was a simple thing, this becoming a pirate. One day at dawn, your officers sighted a ship. Soon the vessel overtook yours and a short fight ensued. And then, when you were standing there, staring at these bearded hellions who had boarded you, you heard one of them say that any who wanted to be a pirate, step out.
You’d look at their splendid bodies, at the free and haughty way they held their heads. And you’d step out. Oh, yes, you would, outlaws or no.
Or maybe your vessel was sunk on a reef and you had no place to go but another ship like her. And then one night, you walk into a tavern and see some loud-voiced bullies swilling their brandy. They look at you, testing your height and the strength of your arm, and then they ask you to join them.
Law? You’re not thinking about law, you’re thinking about a full stomach and a taste of sea life as it ought to be lived. You’re thinking that here you’d get shore leave and here you’d be able to get good clothes, and here you’d be able to hold your own against despotic officers.
Sure, you’d join.
A sea rover had it easy. He was overmanned and the work was proportioned well. He removed the captain when the captain became too rough. He put ashore whenever he needed water and to the devil with any set schedule or course. He ate well because he had the pick from the larders of the great cabins he captured. He could trade with the natives on any island at any time for fresh meat and fresh vegetables.
He didn’t spend all his days at sea. He found a haven in St. Thomas or Culebra or—most any place which was warm and sheltered would do, and the West Indies are plentifully supplied with coves for small ships.
He went to sea when he felt the need of exercise and plunder and stores. He sailed as you and I would sail if we had a fine yacht and plenty of time.
He was a demon in attack for two reasons. In the first place, a few cruel captains had given the pirate and buccaneer a name for bestiality. In the second place, if caught, the pirate would be swung up at some Execution Dock and left there to dry for months, even years.
That fact alone is a key to the times. Would you like to see a dried corpse swinging at the corner of 42nd and Broadway? No, of course not. But our ancestors must have liked it.
Today there are men who follow the sea because that is all they know. They understand the sea and they like it. They are restless unless they are afloat. Certainly the same is true of those adventurous times. Then how was a man to enjoy going to sea unless he was either a pirate or an admiral? And there were not many admirals.
The pirate company was not necessarily made up of cutthroats. You can see for yourself that they must have been very average sailors and their own laws show us that they had a taste for order and peace among themselves.
In fact, one pirate captain (one of the notorious ones who is known through his cruelty) named Kennedy was despised by his men because in his youth Kennedy had been a pickpocket and was later a housebreaker. He ruled only because he was faster with a cutlass and pistol than any of his crew.
The Laws of a Pirate
Their laws, regarded in the light that all pirates were fiends, are amusing.
I. Each pirate to have a voice in the affairs of the moment.
II. Every man to be called fairly by name and list in the doling out of prize shares. Every man allowed a suit of clothes from the prize. Marooning was the penalty for holding out so much as a dollar from the general fund.
III. No person to game at cards or dice for money.
IV. Lights to be put out at eight o’clock at night.
V. Pirates to keep their cutlass, piece and pistols clean and fit for service.
VI. No women to be allowed among them. And if any were captured, any man approaching her was to be executed.
VII. To desert ship in battle was punished by death.
VIII. No quarreling of any kind aboard ship. Differences to be settled on the beach, properly supervised by quartermaster or captain. If combatants miss with pistols, they are to take cutlasses. Winner is the one who draws first blood.
IX. If any man shall lose a limb or become crippled, he shall be compensated to the extent of eight hundred dollars out of the public stocks. Lesser injuries in proportion.
That certainly looks like a knavish crowd, utterly without heart. It is easy to see the wherefore of these articles. They are contradicting everything which went on board men-o’-war and merchantmen. Even the sixth article was not the case in the regular services, as a quick glance at history will show. There are some very hideous instances regarding the conduct of navies and merchant marines with regard to article six.
The men banded together to free themselves from the real rogues of the time: the imperialists to whom human suffering was nothing and less.
With respect to the terrible reputations enjoyed by the buccaneers and pirates, outside of a few isolated instances—each accurately and laboriously recorded to prove their bestiality—I think there is one sidelight which has never cropped up.
When a merchantman saw the Black Flag burst from a truck, he usually struck his own colors without asking any questions. We know that from the pirate’s own records. And yet the merchantmen were amply armed and manned for battle.
Upon boarding the captive ship, the pirates would take all the gold and silver, what provisions they needed, what powder they wanted, and those trinkets which appealed to them. Once in a while, if they needed it, they would take the ship, but not often.
Upon returning whatever they thought returnable to the master of the captive, they let him go free.
Sometimes, of course, there were bloody orgies associated with such captures. But usually there was ample reason for it. Maybe the ship was from St. Kitts, and the governor of St. Kitts had just strung up a dozen pirates at the Dock. Or perhaps the conduct of the captive had been treacherous. Or perhaps pirates had suffered from the master at some past battle.
The pirates knew they lived within a step of death and they were therefore prodigal with their funds. Why save it for someone else to spend? They at least were able to buy a good time, and as peaceful sailormen (dying from scurvy, gunshot or gangrene) they would not even have had the price.
It is significant that we find few mentions of flogging among the pirates. With other customs then in vogue, they threw the cat-o’-nine into the sea. Let them slay each other in duels ashore, let them die from gunshot, let them hang, but God spare them the lingering torture of the lash.
The only way you could escape the cat-o’-nine (if you followed the sea) was to turn pirate.
As for surgery, the pirates had their own doctors. They had learned much from the Indians—and much from experience. They knew that rum cured almost anything—and it did. They did not drink rum, they drank brandy, Stevenson to the contrary. Rum was issued by the British and French to their sailors. Did a pirate have to follow so unintelligent a practice? No! It was bad enough that the navies did it. Rum and the tropics never mixed but the British went right on serving up the ration.
No, rum was only for a poor sailor. A pirate found that it cured infection. He didn’t reason that it was germs and that the killing power was the alcohol. He therefore saved himself many limbs which a service surgeon would have sawed off (using one swig of issue rum for antiseptic).
No, I do not believe in the historian’s pirate. I believe that the ferocity was a name born of the cowardice of merchantmen who did not have the heart to stand up against the attack and who therefore invented the stories to cleanse their own honor.
I believe the pirate had a reason for existence. I know that if I were sent back into those centuries I would have followed the more comfortable profession. I know the Caribbean to be soft and glamorous and kind, and if I had had to turn pirate to enjoy it, I would have run a Skull and Bones up the truck.
And to hell with the navy!