Pirates of the Caribbean by James Smith
Walking the plank, "shiver me timbers" and the crossed bones and skull of the Jolly Roger. The phrases and images they conjure up are known to us all. For some they refer to old movies seen on a Saturday matinee, or stories read late at night under the covers. For a few the name is synonymous with a ride at a famous amusement park. These stories are all based on fact, there really was a time when Pirates roamed the Caribbean.
For over three hundred years the Caribbean was a place of war and strife from the establishment of the first European colonies until the nineteenth century and the establishment of new independent republics. The region was rich in treasure to gain and political alliances and intrigues to exploit if a man was daring enough to do so. It was the time of the Pirates
Pirates were of all nationalities, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. Even heavily armed Dutch trading vessels occasionally found another way in which to make a quick if bloody profit. The majority of the pirates in the region though were English It was this small seafaring nation that would produce most of the ships that ravaged this peaceful sea and most of its most famous or rather infamous captains.
The ships, captains, and original crews would usually have been of the same nationality. It was a dangerous life however and casualties in the crew had to be replaced. Native Indians, escaped slaves, and even captured enemy sailors often joined the crew to replace those lost to battle or disease, sometimes even willingly.
Barbados was one of the first islands colonized by the British in 1625. It soon became a haven for Pirates and Privateers who sailed from here to harass the ancient enemy, Spain. The taverns of Bridgetown were an excellent place to recruit young men seeking adventure and riches. For those who survived and returned, these same taverns were a place to spend those riches and boast of their adventures.
The natural harbors and coves of the Central American coast were another favored base of operation. Their proximity to the Spanish treasure ports of Mexico, Panama, and Cartagena ensured they would be active. From this less than noble begining would develop the colony that would eventually become the present day nation of Belize.
The most infamous English Pirate base though was Port Royal. From this natural harbour on the south coast of Jamaica, ships sailed forth to pillage for over 200 years. Its central location meant all of the Caribbean was within easy reach.
The harbour was guarded by cannon and fortifications, but its main defense against the mainly Spanish retaliation, was the protection offered by the British crown. Puritans in England continually condemned this Caribbean Sodom and Gomorra with its innumerable taverns and houses of ill repute. However as long as the ships here preyed on England’s enemies and shares of captured gold found their way back to England, Port Royal would remain safe.
There were of course other bases and havens for these sea going thieves. Pirate bases existed all over the Caribbean, in small coves and sheltered harbours some hidden and unknown. Others well known and feared, almost as many safe harbors as there were islands in the sea. The numerous inlets and small islands that line the southern coast of Cuba provided a refuge for more than one band.
The small island of Tortuga north of Haiti provided refugee for a group of mainly French Pirates or Buccaneers. When not sailing the high seas in search of plunder they were a most domesticated lot, with their own small homes and gardens and domestic animals. Pirates were not beneath more mundane ways of earning a living including slave trading, when pickings were slim on the open seas.
The most common target was of course ships. Merchant ships loaded with the treasures of the new world, bound for the old. Those carrying jewels and precious metals were of course the most sought after, but often also the most heavily defended. Other cargoes were not immune, lumber, salt and even slaves were fought over and captured. Ships were not the only targets, the ports they sailed from were also attacked by the more daring and powerful of the pirates. Even inland cities were not immune, records show that places such as Camaguey in Cuba 100 miles inland was attacked on more than one instance.
Who were these men who lead the attacks. Many of the names are well known. Sir Harry Morgan, Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard and Captain Kidd are a few of the better known English Pirates. Even Sir Francis Drake the victor over the Spanish Armada started as a Privateer in the Caribbean.
By the eighteenth century the reign of the Pirates and Privateers was coming to an end. The various European powers had again passed edicts outlawing this practice and this time they were intent on seeing them through. As the wars ended so did the need for Privateering. It also ensured that there were now sufficient naval power in the region to guard and patrol the seas.
The greatest Pirates had either died, or if they were lucky retired. Morgan was captured by the British in 1672. Rather then executed he was pardoned for his actions by the English Crown. Instead of the gallows he was rewarded with the position of Governor of Jamaica. One of his first official acts was to outlaw piracy and impose a death penalty on those caught in the act, betraying many of his old ship mates. Drake died even as his ships defeated the Armada and Blackbeard was killed in a battle with the Royal navy in 1718.
Even nature it seemed was intent on banishing the pirates from this sea. On the morning of June 7, 1692 a tremendous undersea earthquake destroyed Port Royal. Within thirty minutes all of its infamous taverns and their patrons were swept away. Many of the ships laying at anchor it the sheltered harbour were also destroyed by a tidal wave, and in an instant joined their crews at the bottom of the sea.
Privateers did make a comeback at the end of the eighteenth century. At the start of the American Revolution, the British quickly issued Letters of Marque to individual ship captains to prey on American commerce on the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean. Most of the ships and crews in this conflict came from the loyal colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.
The new American government not having a large navy of its own, countered this by issuing their own Letters Of Marque. Again during the War of 1812, both sides employed Privateers to supplement their regular navy. In could even be argued that the commerce raiders of The American civil War were a kind of Privateer. Their victims surely may have referred to them as Pirates among other things. This however would be the last gasp of a powerful force that had once terrorized the Caribbean.
It has been some time since the Jolly Roger flew from the mast head of any ship in this region. the pirates are long gone to a watery grave and are remembered only in legend. It is now safe to sail these seas. When you finish your dinner and take your evening stroll along the deck, glance out across the water. Is that a sail on the distance horizon? Is that a black flag flying from the main mast? It’s probably just your overactive imagination. However you might want to double lock your cabin door before turning in. Pleasant dreams