You can see depictions of pirate organizations in popular media a fair bit. For example, in many movies, and the Captain Morgan commercials. But I get the impression from my readings that most pirate crews operated independently from each other. Of course there were government-sponsored privateers, but their only connection with each other would be that they were sanctioned by the same country.
So were there ever actual organizations of pirates? If so, what were they?
Arrr, tharr niver has been an orgarrrnization o'pirates in t'traditional sense.
Tharr may well ha' been brief alliarrrnces o' convenyence, for when ye can trust a man no to make ye walk the plank, ye may help each other in gathering in the booty! Also now an' then a Cap'n of dark renown might set up his followers as minor cap'ns in their own right, and so he could head a flotilla o' six or seven ships, all answerin' to hisself. As Oi recall, Cap'n Morgan is said to've led 11 ships, and Blackbeard had several likewise. There were never much formality o'structure and organisation tho', as each Cap'n led by his own charisma an' force o' personality.
We pirates be a free and unruly breed, and don't take kindly to no paperwork. Arrrr!
Its been two years since this question was scribed, and nobody else be bringn' it up, so perhaps now be th' time to be tellin' th' tale o' th' Red Flag Fleet. It be also th' tale o' Cheng I Sao, th' pirate queen o' th' South China Sea.
Cheng originally got into th' business by th' traditional method: being captured by pirates. She hit it off well enough with captain Zheng Yi that they were married in 1801. Over th' next 3 years Zheng created a jolly alliance that eventually became known as th' Red Flag Fleet. When Zheng visited Davey Jones' Locker in 1807, Cheng (after considerable political maneuvering) took over control o' th' fleet.
Under Cheng, th' Red Flag Fleet reportedly grew to 1,800 ships, and around 70,000 lads, wenches and sprogs. They were effectively th' government o' Guangdong province, and controlled th' entire underworld in th' South China Sea, o' course charging merchants for safe passage. They even had their own laws and taxes. At one point th' Chinese organized a large fleet o' their own to destroy th' Red Flag Fleet. Th' main result o' th' ensuing battle was that Cheng's fleet gained 63 new Chinese-built ships.
Cheng retired a very wealthy wench indeed, and visited Davey Jones' Locker in 1844 at th' ripe age o' 69.
The Victual brothers, a fourteenth and fifteenth century group first organised to aid King Albert when he tried to defend against Queen Margaret in a war for the Swedish crown. They can arguably have been said to have started as a band of privateers, but when Albert was forced to make peace and give up his crown, they continued their piracy without any veneer of legitimacy.
They had safe harbours in Rostock, Ribnitz, Wismar and Stralsund, and occupied and plundered around the Baltic sea and as far away as in Frisia. They eventually occupied Gotland, and brought all trade in the Baltic to a halt. Margaret had by that time united Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but sought help from Richard II in England. Eventually, the Teutonic order drove them from Gotland.
The Victual brothers were followed by the Likedeelers, based in Frisia, which plundered around the North sea instead, until about 1440.
"Did different ships bearning the skull and crossbones ever come together under one flag?" I kind of doubt it.
The likely result would have been a mutiny against one or more of the ship captains, who would then have been made to "walk the plank."
A Jolly Roger was kind of a loner. Getting two or more of them together was kind of an oxymoron, unless it was for an orgy.
Pirates in the Atlantic World
With so much valuable cargo crisscrossing the Atlantic, piracy flourished.
Pirates cruised the Caribbean Sea and the North American coast searching for likely targets. At the height of Atlantic world piracy around 1720, some 2,000 pirates were attacking ships and threatening trade. Many of them had deserted their posts aboard naval or merchant ships or had themselves been captured by pirates.
From Capt. Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates . . .(London, 1724)
Courtesy of the Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
Pirate Captain on the African Coast, 1722
Capt. Bartholomew Roberts raises his sword to his two ships after capturing a fleet of eleven English, French, and Portuguese slave ships off the coast of Africa. The ships surrendered without a fight because the commanders and crews had gone ashore to deal with captives and cargoes.
Charles Vane Fires on the Governor
The History and Lives of All the Most Notorious Pyrates / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
In July of 1718, Woodes Rogers, a tough former privateer, was sent by the British government to put an end to the plague of piracy in the Caribbean. Of course, local pirate hothead Charles Vane had to give him a proper welcome, which he did: firing on the governor's ship as it entered Nassau harbor. After stalling for time, later that evening Vane sent a burning fireship after the governor's flagship and fired on him again before making off into the night. Rogers would have the last laugh: Vane was captured within the year and hanged at Port Royal.
5 Ways Pirate Ships Functioned as a True Democracy
Over time, the myth of the pirate has generated the image of a rugged, foul man with an elaborate hat, an eye patch, and a peg leg. The men of the tales are brutal and unforgiving, forcing captives to walk the plank, and mercilessly plundering ships at sea. What’s lost in this picture? That pirates made a significant contribution to the development of American democracy in the late eighteenth century. Pirate organizations predated any modern democratic government, having originated during the Golden Age of Piracy, from the 1650s to the 1730s. As an outgrowth of a diverse society that sought to maximize efficiency, Pirates formed relatively liberal, egalitarian orders based on elected officials and mutual trust.
Sailors often turned to piracy after long, abusive careers as either naval officers or ordinary seamen. In the eighteenth century, sailors were commonly beaten, overworked, and underpaid, and were often starved or diseased. Aboard ships sponsored by merchant companies, there was often a captain in place, hired by the original absentee owner. He was to ensure that the job was completed and was therefore granted absolute power, leading to a sort of dictatorship aboard ships. By centralizing power in the hands of the captain, ship owners could be sure they were minimizing pirate opportunism. Captains with unlimited and unchecked power were granted the right to punish in especially harsh manners, often leading to dissatisfaction and mutiny. One pirate testified, “Our Captain and his Mate used us Barbarously. We poor Men can’t have Justice done us. There is nothing said to our Commanders, let them never so much abuse us, and use us like Dogs.”
This abuse is what lay behind the pirates desire for a different social order. One historian notes that “the determined reorganization of space and privilege aboard the ship was crucial to the remaking of maritime social relations.”
1. The pirates created an order that allowed them to vote for their captains.
The first rule of one particular pirate code reads, “Every man has a vote in affairs of moment,” securing, at the start, a man’s right to participate in the selection of the captain and other officials. With this right in place, each crew elected a captain who was granted total power only during times of distress. The crew, rather than the captain, maintained the authority to determine where a voyage was headed, and whether to attack a particular ship or village.
2. The crew retained the right to depose their leader if they so chose.
The Pirate Council (the term used to referred to the members of the pirate crew) was responsible for removing officers from their positions, and then choosing new candidates to fill those positions. Pirate crews had the option of deposing any captain they deemed to be abusive or of exceptionally poor judgment. As one Dutch governor pointed out, “Every man has as much say as the captain.” A merchant captain, in utter disbelief of the system, testified, “there is so little Government and Subordination among [pirates], that they are, on Occasion, all Captains, all Leaders.”
3. There was a system of checks and balances.
A significant check on the captain’s power was the quartermaster, who served as a sort of prime minister, or chief of staff, to the captain. The quartermaster was also democratically elected, and held a variety of powers. He was the chief executive trusted with the job of distributing loot, and also served as the primary executor of punishment. He was an intermediary between the pirate crew and the captain. One captain explained, “The captain can undertake nothing which the quartermaster does not approve…. he speaks for and looks after the interest of the crew.” The quartermaster can be likened to a judge as well, as he played a vital role in arbitrating disputes among crew members. The establishment of this position reflected a desire to narrow the gap between captain and crew, as well as to check the power of the captain. The Council had the authority to make all decisions that had the greatest effect on the welfare of the ship, including electing officers. The Council served as a legislative body, and also often doubled as a court
4. They had a health care system.
A common aspect of pirate codes was injury compensation. Each pirate code made provisions for certain injuries and their monetary worth. For example, the loss of a right arm was worth six hundred pieces of eight, while a left arm was worth five hundred pieces of eight. The funds for these types of compensations were taken from a common pool of money, which remained as a portion of the booty captured on their expeditions.
5. Booty was distributed fairly according to skill and duty.
Pirate codes often described methods of payment and distribution of wealth at great length. These rules were necessary to establish a specific economic order and equality, which remained in place even among a band of thieves. Most pirate codes explicitly regulated distribution of plunder. Booty was divided according to skill and duty.The captain and the quartermaster received between one and a half and two shares, and all other positions of name received one and a quarter share each. Regular crew members received one share. This system was radical for its time, having created a payment system that decentralized wealth. It was precisely antithetical to the elaborate pay rank structures common among all other maritime ventures. Pirate historian Marcus Rediker suggests that this might have been “one of the most egalitarian plans for the disposition of resources to be found anywhere in the early eighteenth century.”
Long before the American or French revolutions, pirates were living – more or less –
according to the principles of freedom, liberty, and equality. Pirates, in effect, were pioneers in democracy. They developed a system of checks and balances, created a representative legislative body with certain reserved powers, and provided a common system of healthcare. Perhaps most importantly though, the Pirate Codes were revolutionary in their method of taking power away from any one man, and placing it in the hands of the majority.
Marcus Redkier, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, 2004).
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Redkier, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000)
Peter T. Leeson, The Invisible Hook (Princeton, 2009).
David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates(San Deigo, 1997).
Were There Black Pirates?
Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers , author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof , to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 89: Did black people engage in piracy during the heyday of the practice in the Americas?
While the sports world is waiting for the Washington Redskins to adopt a 21st-century name honoring the great football tradition in our nation’s capital, I’ve been thinking about another team close to where I grew up in eastern West Virginia: the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In the Tri-Towns of the Potomac Valley, on the border between Maryland and West Virginia, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, baseball games floated in through cable TV (we were among the first to have it) from the District, some 115 miles away, and from Pittsburgh, 83 miles away. We oriented towards Pittsburgh, because it was in the National League and the National League had far more black baseball players than the American League at that time. While most of the black people I knew were Dodger fans because of Jackie Robinson, no team was more exciting to watch than the “ Buccos ” because of their starting right-fielder, Roberto Clemente, “The Great One” from Puerto Rico. He was gone too soon but is celebrated still as baseball’s Latin “Jackie Robinson.”
For many of my generation, the Pirates were the dark team, not only because of the black in their uniforms (like the Steel City’s football franchise ) but because of their larger-than-life players, from Clemente to Willie “Pops” Stargell and the “ We are Family ” crew. Pittsburgh, for those who don’t know, also is home to an extraordinarily influential black community, from the Pittsburgh Courier days of the Double V campaign during World War II to the playwright August Wilson and such jazz titans as Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn, Kenny Clark, and Art Blakey.
Curious thing, though, about Pittsburgh, to me, was the Pirates’ team logo . In his various guises over the decades, the Pittsburgh Pirate has always been a white guy. You know, Jolly Roger hat, eye patch, beard, stubble or shaven—your classic swashbuckling buccaneer. Put him together with all the other white pirates that kids like me saw growing up in the culture ( Errol Flynn in Captain Blood Tyrone Power in Black Swan you name it), and it’s easy to see why it was natural for us to wonder: were there black pirates? It wasn’t a question of guts, mind you—what rational person would’ve risked walking a real plank? But I did sometimes wonder whether all of the pirates were white, especially after learning in school that the whaling industry (pdf) was one of the earliest integrated professions, most probably because it was so very dangerous. What I learned in researching this column was that the stakes of actual piracy were a lot higher than getting home runs and Halloween costumes.
The Problems of Analysis
My search began with the question: Were there black buccaneers? The short answer is yes. A significant number of pirates in the heyday of piracy (the 17th and 18th centuries) were of African or mixed-race descent. While the evidence tends to be sparse, we do have eyewitness testimony.
For example, when a white man was captured by the pirate Bartholomew Roberts in Antigua in 1721, he reported a crew of “250 Men and 50 Negroes.” Another sailor later noted the same crew was “manned with about 180 white men and about 48 French Creole Negroes” (both witnesses are quoted in Arne Bialuschewski’s Pirates, Black Sailors and Seafaring Slaves in the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1716-1726, in the Journal of Caribbean History). Still, it’s unclear whether these men of color were crew members or captured slaves, a challenge to any historian sorting fact from legend (especially those hunting for statistics).
Diego el Mulato (Times 3)
In his article “ Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America ,” in the Americas: A Quarterly Review of Inter-American Cultural History, Matthew Restall introduces us to three pirates named Diego “el Mulato,” who targeted 17th-century Spanish colonial officials. The first was Diego “el Mulato” Martín, an ex-slave from Havana active in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1630s. Apparently, Martín was such a capable pirate that the Spanish granted him a royal commission to get him to fight on their side.
The second “el Mulato” was Diego de los Reyes (aka Diego Lucifer). While Restall leaves open the possibility that the first two Diegos were the same person, this Diego concentrated on the Yucatec coast. After he sacked Campeche and Cacalar in 1642, the Spanish crown ordered “every possible remedy to be taken to capture the mulatto pirate.”
The third “el Mulato,” Diego Grillo, was another former Havana slave, but he set up at Tortuga, which, according to our old friend Joel Rogers in Your History, was a hotbed of black piracy. This Diego, too, raided a number of Spanish ships. His story did not end happily. In 1673, according to Restall, Grillo was captured by Spaniards and executed.
Why did they turn to piracy? Restall points to vengeance—Africans reacting to their lives as slaves—as well as the New World influences of the Spanish. One of Diego Lucifer’s captives, Thomas Gage, an English Dominican clergyman, alluded to the same. Kris E. Lane, in Pillaging the Empire : Piracy in the Americas, 1500-1750, quotes Gage as saying, “This mulatto, for some wrongs which had been offered unto him from some commanding Spaniards in Havana, ventured himself desperately in a boat out to sea, where were some Holland ships waiting for a prize. With God’s help getting unto them, he yielded himself to their mercy, which he esteemed far better than that of his own countrymen, promising to serve them faithfully against his own nation, which had most injuriously and wrongfully abused, yea, and whipped him in Havana, as I was afterwards informed.”
There also is evidence that other practical concerns induced these black pirates to act. As Restall explains, rather than wage war against all white colonialists, Diegos Martín and Lucifer aligned themselves with the Dutch, while Grillo joined up with the English and they did not view themselves as liberators of their own people. In Bacalar, for instance, Diego Lucifer kidnapped a mulatto man.
Was Piracy a Viable Path to Freedom for Blacks?
One may wonder whether this was a smart move for free and enslaved blacks, becoming pirates to find freedom. In his book Black Jacks : African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (1997), W. Jeffrey Bolster argues, “Buccaneering tempted black seamen with visions of invincibility, with dreams of easy money and the idleness such freedom promised, and with the promise of a life unfettered by the racial and social ideology central to the plantation system.” Often, they joined with poor white sailors and servants to form their own pirate bands and embraced greater responsibility and authority than they’d known on land as wage laborers or slaves. One of the stories Bolster shares is that of a black man who reportedly served as the notorious Captain William Kidd’s quartermaster, charged with distributing the booty and even boarding captured ships.
It’s important not to assume too much, however. While some slave pirates even had the opportunity to make money, the lion’s (or should I say, the whale’s) share went to their masters. For example, in 18th-century Bermuda, Bialuschewski notes, “it was customary that privateering slaves obtained one third or half of one man’s share, while their masters received the rest.”
The Realities of Pirate Life
There were other limits—and risks, as Bolster makes clear: “Unattached black men operating in the virtually all-male world of the ‘Brotherhood of the Coast’ realized those yearnings [for freedom] to a degree, but also found abuse and exploitation, as well as mortal combat and pursuit.” It also is easy to overstate the camaraderie black pirates felt with their white counterparts, when many slaves who joined pirate ships were put to hard labor, betrayed by their captains back into slavery or returned to the ship whence they came.
In a separate essay, “ Black People under the Black Flag: Piracy and the Slave Trade on the West Coast of Africa, 1718-1723 ,” Bialuschewski argues that it was “very unlikely that pirates ever freed African slaves and accepted them as equal shareholding members in their ventures.” To many white pirates, slaves were “pawns, workers, objects of lust, or a source of ready cash.”
Thomas J. Wansley
One case stands out above all the rest, and Joel A. Rogers spotted it a century away. Thanks to trial records and scholarship, we now have a fairly complete record of the exploits of a man named Thomas Wansley, who, though hardly typical, was a free African-American man arrested and convicted of piracy and murder. (A report of his trial [pdf] is available through the Library of Congress.)
“A New Orleans Negro,” Rogers writes in Your History, Wansley “was one of the most ferocious and daring pirates of the 19th century. Together with his white partner, Gibbs, he robbed many ships, one of them with $54,000 cash and a cargo several times richer. Both also captured beautiful women and took them to their rendezvous, an islet, off the Cuban coast, defended with cannons, after killing the men, the plainer women and the children on the ships. Wansley was finally captured and brought to trial in New York City, where he and Gibbs were hanged in 1831.”
Rogers, as we shall see, considerably overstates Wansley’s history as a pirate. In fact, Wansley was involved in only one robbery, and it was aboard the ship on which he was already working. That said, while Wansley’s true story may not be quite as incredible as Rogers would have us believe, it still has its fair share of excitement and intrigue.
In his book Dead Men Tell No Tales : The Lives and Legends of the Pirate Charles Gibbs (2007), historian Joseph Gibbs describes how Wansley and a white pirate named Charles Gibbs (his real name was James Jeffers) ended up on the gallows. Wansley was born in Delaware to a white mother and black father on Dec. 8, 1807. In 1828, he took his first ship job, a two-year stint aboard the USS Delaware.
In 1830 Wansley, by then in New Orleans, joined the ship the Vineyard as a steward and deckhand under Captain William Thornber and first mate William Roberts. From what we know, Wansley was the first person to sign on as a crewman on the Vineyard. While loading its cargo, he learned it was carrying some 50,000 Mexican silver dollars. It was a bounty too great to resist, and Wansley began conspiring with other men on board to kill Thornber and Roberts and seize the Vineyard’s treasure and escape aboard a 12- to 15-foot boat that was carried on the ship’s deck. His chief co-conspirator was Jeffers. Three additional white men joined their plot—Henry Atwell (or Atwood), Aaron Church and Robert Dawes—while two others—John Brownrigg and James Talbot—were apparently left unawares.
On Wednesday, Nov. 24, 1830, the would-be pirates put their plan into action when the Vineyard sailed through stormy conditions off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. “I looked, feeling some curiosity to see how a man looked when he was being killed,” Dawes said of watching Wansley creep up behind Captain Thornber with a heavy pump lever, according to Joseph Gibbs. Then, according to the trial report (pdf), Dawes saw Wansley “str[ike] the Captain … on the back of the neck” so that he “moved forward and fell, crying oh! murder [sic].” From what Dawes remembered, Wansley hit the Captain again, leading Dawes to believe the man “was dead” before being tossed “overboard.”
Atwell, Church and Jeffers took care of first mate William Roberts with a club, and when he attempted to flee, Jeffers grabbed him so one of the men could strike him with the pump lever Wansley had used to kill Captain Thornber. Because Roberts put up a better fight, the men heaved him overboard alive, creating a picture in Dawes’ mind at trial of Roberts “sw[imming] after the ship as long as he could, shouting as loud as he was able.”
In the aftermath, Wansley mopped up the blood while the other men, in true pirate fashion, started drinking. As for the booty, all seven men on board—Brownrigg and Talbot included—divided the money the following day. The crew then sailed north until they reached Long Island, where, boarding two smaller boats, they set the Vineyard on fire. One of the smaller boats, weighed down by silver, disappeared, presumably drowning the men on board, while the surviving boat carried Wansley, Gibbs, Jeffers and Brownrigg. Catching on, they started dumping money from the boat until, as Brownrigg recalled, they reached shore with only “four or five thousand dollars,” writes Joseph Gibbs.
They landed near Pelican Beach on Barren Island in Jamaica Bay, New York (today off the coast of mainland Brooklyn), and stayed the night with a man named Johnson, near whose home they buried the remaining treasure. In such stories, there’s almost always a catch, and Wansley’s pirates tripped on theirs when Brownrigg apparently confessed to Johnson. The police apprehended the white pirates, but Wansley took off into the woods. He was caught soon, wearing a money belt that contained 259 Mexican dollars.
When the men appeared at court, Dawes and Brownrigg formed a united front, testifying that they had had nothing to do with the crime. Brownrigg was let go, while the prosecutor used the 18-year-old Dawes against Wansley and Jeffers at trial (Gibbs). Wansley did not testify on his own behalf, and it took the jury only 20 minutes to find him guilty.
Yet, before he was sentenced, Wansley tried to make a case for racial discrimination. In his words, according to Joseph Gibbs: “I have often understood that there is a great deal of difference in respect of color, and I have seen it in this court. Dawes and Brownrigg were as guilty as I am, and these witnesses have tried to fasten upon me greater guilt than is just for their life has been given to them. You have taken the blacks from their own country, to bring them here to treat them ill—I have seen this.” Whatever Wansley had seen, the judge didn’t buy it.
At that point, Wansley confessed to the murder. We’ll never know. As Gibbs’ book title makes clear, dead men tell no tales. Wansley and Jeffers (the jury took 90 minutes in his case) were hanged together on April 22, 1831, before a crowd of thousands at Ellis Island, New York.
Black Caesar (Times 2)
If this isn’t enough proof for you, there also are the rumored exploits of the black pirate for whom Caesar’s Creek and Caesar’s Rock are named near Key Largo in Biscayne Bay, Florida. According to legend, Kevin M. McCarthy writes in African American Sites in Florida, “Black Caesar” was an African chief, known for his size and strength, who was captured by slave traders. When their ship sank near Florida, Caesar and a white comrade managed to escape, becoming pirates. Present-day Caesar’s Creek and Caesar’s Rock were hiding places for Black Caesar and his men. He became a pirate of such renown, McCarthy writes, that he went on to join the crew of the famous Edward “Blackbeard” Teach. In 1718 Black Caesar was captured—as a pirate, not a slave—by British naval forces near Cape Hatteras and executed in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Like any riveting adventure story, Black Caesar’s has a sequel. In the 1820s, another black pirate calling himself Black Caesar allegedly terrorized the Florida coast, Kevin McCarthy writes in Twenty Florida Pirates . While this Black Caesar’s fate remains unclear, one possibility is that he was burned to death by the widow of one of his victims. It is important to note that no substantial evidence has been presented to prove any of this, yet the existence of Caesar’s Creek and Caesar’s Rock in Florida do demonstrate the power of the black-pirate myth. But it took Hollywood a long time to catch on.
In our more liberated, creatively expressive America, a broad spectrum of children now lay claim to the pirate costume (apparently, President Barack Obama was ahead of the curve on this one ). And in the mega-hit 2003 film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the ship’s crew included two men of color: Bo’sun, played by African American actor Isaac C. Singleton Jr., and Koehler, played by the black English actor Treva Etienne.
That is the mythic world of piracy, irresistibly fun and romantic. There is also the violent, tragic, often terrifying side of high-stakes piracy in modern times. Take, for example, Paul Greengrass’s 2013 film, Captain Phillips, an edge-of-your-seat thriller based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) and the crew of the U.S.-flagged cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama, in their ordeal against four Somali pirates off the east coast of Africa in April 2009. There’s a titanic difference between it and the world of Pirates of the Caribbean that demystifies plunder and points to the fact that, in recent years, Somali pirates seemed to be more visible than ever. While piracy has declined over the past three years (who can ever forget President Obama, the former pirate trick-or-treater, giving the order for snipers to take out Captain Phillips’ captors?), it remains of interest to those shaping popular culture.
For many of us, there lies a confusing gap. In all those romantic stories of the distant past, black pirates are as rare as dry land, yet in brutal portrayals of present-day piracy in both Hollywood and news reports, they are the chasing, climbing, grasping “other,” villains as dark as they are ruthless. While we are left to sort out the difference, at least now we know that no one race has ever had an exclusive hold on the pirate’s life.
We should expect to see the same principle reflected in our favorite sports teams’ logos. As with pirates, history shows far more diversity among real-life cowboys, warriors, rangers, islanders, Texans, Yankees, mariners—you name it—than the images we see on athletes’ uniforms. As I hope this column has made clear, never underestimate the power of symbols on a young child’s mind.
As always, you can find more “ Amazing Facts About the Negro ” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook .
Black Caesar: African Chief Turned Raider
Black Caesar and his friend, the sailor, turn to a life of piracy. ( Noah Scalin / CC BY-SA 2.0)
While black pirates were not unusual, many of their names have been lost to history. One remembered to this day is Black Caesar (West African, . – 1718 AD), a legendary 18th-century AD African pirate . Originally from West Africa, Black Caesar was captured and sold into slavery. It is thought he may have been a chief. He is said to have been tall, strong, and intelligent. The ship he was imprisoned in sank off the coast of Florida, but he survived and began his career in piracy. He and his crew would pose as shipwrecked sailors and hail passing vessels for help. Once they were on board a ship, they would drop their disguise, rob the ship, and take the loot back to their hideout. In a disagreement about a woman, his partner and he had a duel, which Black Caesar won, killing his friend. Most sources claim that Black Caesar eventually joined the crew of another infamous pirate, Blackbeard. Eventually, Black Caesar’s reign of terror came to an end in 1718 AD, when he was convicted for piracy and hanged.
4 All Pirate Ships Had Skull Flags
The classic Jolly Roger is so representative of pirates that we shouldn't even have to type the word "pirates" by now a little symbol of a skull and some crossbones should suffice (we're lobbying hard to get that added to every keyboard). The flag has been used in virtually every movie where pirates appear, ever, from the really old ones with Errol Flynn .
Or Disney's Peter Pan. Sometimes the skull is replaced with two cutlasses, like in Barbossa's flag in Pirates of the Caribbean, but other than that and how expertly or crappily it is drawn, it's always pretty much the same thing.
But this makes sense, right? The purpose of the flag was to intimidate sailors and steal their loot while they were too busy shitting their pants, so it makes sense that they should all choose something ominous like a skull on a black background.
Actually, if there was a pirate ship approaching and you saw a black flag waving, you were in luck: It meant the pirates were willing to give quarter. The real "Oh shit we're completely fucked" flag sported a decidedly more minimalistic "completely red" design -- in fact, historians believe that the term Jolly Roger comes from "jolie rouge," which is French for "pretty red," which in turn sounds like the name of a romantic comedy starring Emma Stone.
Also, the design of the black flag varied a lot from ship to ship: Only a few pirate captains used the skull and crossbones design, like Edward England and Christopher Condent. On the other hand, a pirate that you may have actually heard of, Blackbeard, used a bizarre flag with a skeleton holding an hourglass and stabbing a bleeding heart:
The hourglass was actually a common element in many pirate flags, since it symbolized the inevitability of death (more so than a freaking skull, apparently). Captains Walter Kennedy and Jean Dulaien also incorporated the hourglass, except in their case it was being held by a naked guy swinging a sword at a perplexed floating face:
And some of them didn't give a shit, like Thomas Tew and his magnificently lazy flag of an arm holding a cutlass:
There are a lot of designs to make fun of and not enough time, sadly, but we should also mention that most pirates stuck to all red or all black flags. Also, all these designs are only recreations of the real thing based on descriptions like this one, so there's a huge chance that they all looked completely different in reality. For example, a museum in Florida has one of the only two authentic Jolly Rogers that remain, and it looks pretty far from the detailed skull drawing that we're used to. It's almost like it was shoddily put together by some sort of uncultured . oh wait.
Related: The 7 Most Terrifying Pirates from History
Pirates: A Reality Check - 9 Pirate Myths Examined
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It's all Robert Louis Stevenson's fault. Treasure Island's popularity spawned a genre of pirate novels, and those novels were made into pirates movies, which gave rise to comic books and Halloween costumes. Then Disney went and adapted one of their amusement park rides into a movie, and the result was actually good. So call it the fault of Robert Louis Stevenson and Johnny Depp.
When I say "it," I mean the romanticizing of pirates. Hollywood and pirate novels would have you believe that pirates were swashbucklers living a life of pleasure on the seas, fighting only when they had to. They make it easy to see past the fact that they were stealing gold and other valuables by making the people they were stealing it from seem worse than them. Well, I enjoy Talk Like a Pirate Day as much as most other geeks, but I think it's important to add a dose of reality. So I'm here to dispel some of the more popular myths about pirates, and to confirm a few as well.
__1. Pirates only fought as hard as they had to. __Sure, they preferred to take their prizes without a fight, but when they fought, they were ruthless—the better pirates were, anyway. Jack Sparrow could never have become a captain of a real pirate ship heɽ've been killed by his crewmates for a coward.
2. Pirates buried their treasure so nobody else could find it. This probably happened occasionally, but was the exception, not the rule. Pirates didn't expect to live very long, considering the business they were in, so planning for the future wasn't high on their list of concerns. Since pleasure right now was their only real desire, theyɽ take any treasure they got to a pirate-friendly port and spend it all on liquor and women as quickly as ever they could. Besides, what crew would stand for their captain burying the treasure theyɽ won together?
3. Pirates made their victims walk the plank. There's no evidence this was done much, if at all. Pirates' preferred means of punishment was keel-hauling, which meant tying their victims to a rope and dragging them under the ship. Considering that ships' hulls tended to accumulate debris from the water, this tended to result either in wounds (if the victim was dragged quickly) or drowning (if slowly). Either way, considerably worse than walking the plank, Iɽ say.
4. Pirates obeyed a code of honor. There were codes among the crew on most ships, mostly to keep order. The codes determined how to divvy up the loot, how bad behavior was to be punished, and such. But pirates were about as likely to care about their prisoners invoking any sort of code as you would be if an ant you were about to step on were to do so. There's a story of a pirate (WARNING: not for the faint of stomach), trying to find a village's gold, cutting out one prisoner's heart to feed to another. And Blackbeard is known to have cut off women's fingers to obtain their diamond rings. In general, the more ruthless a pirate was, the higher regard other pirates had for him.
5. The most famous pirates were the best ones. The reason you've heard of most well-known pirates is because they were captured and either killed immediately (as with Blackbeard, for example), or brought to trial, where their exploits were written down. It's reasonable to assume that a pirate who managed to avoid capture entirely was better than one who couldn't, don't you think?
3. Bartholomew Roberts (Welsh, 1682 - 1722)
Welsh pirate, Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts was probably last great pirate captain of Golden Age of Pirates but also the most successful one. This cold-blooded pirate was best known for plundering more than 400 ships which is absolute record amongst pirates.
Captain Roberts burned or sold most of these vessels and only exceptions were superior ships such as two warships, both named "Royal Fortune" with 26 and 52 cannons and Royal Africa Company's prize ship, the "Onslow". He died in legendary battle against British Government's Captain Challoner Ogle.
Facts about Fictional and Real Pirates
thewayofthepirates.com is a place where you can find everything you want to know about famous pirates and piracy! This site offers a basic introduction to the world of pirates, and lots of accurate information about pirate history and legends, as well as reviews of pirate books, movies, and other fiction.