Hugh F. Rankin in 1960
Pirates and piracy on the high seas are almost as old as history itself. This profession, based on the greed of mankind, can be traced back to that era when man first discovered that rafts, and later boats, could be used to transport his worldly possessions. There were always other men who cast covetous eyes upon these goods and desired them for their own. On land these persons were termed robbers; on the sea they were called pirates.
Even the Bible speaks of “Princes of the Sea” who struck terror into the hearts of honest men. The great Roman emperor and conqueror, Julius Caesar, knew from personal experience what it was like to be captured by pirates. Sir Francis Drake, England’s great sea captain, was considered by many to be a pirate. In a like manner, John Paul Jones, our great naval hero during the American Revolution, was accused of piracy by the British. Thomas Jones, the captain of the Mayflower, the ship which brought the Pilgrims to the New World, had earlier been imprisoned on a charge of piracy.
Long before the first permanent English settlement was established at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, piracy was flourishing off the North American coast. After getting the jump on the other nations of Europe in planting colonies in the New World, Spain was fast becoming one of the wealthiest countries in the Old World. Fabulous wealth in gold and silver was taken from the mines of Mexico and Peru. This treasure was, in turn, carried back to fatten the purses of Spain. At this time, England was the mortal enemy of Spain, and every ship taken by pirates weakened the enemy just that much. Therefore, rather than trying to stamp out the practice of piracy, the English encouraged piratical activities — as long as only Spanish ships were attacked.
Great galleons, plowing majestically through the rolling seas, became easy prey for the swift darting ships used by the pirates. That part of the ocean near the Spanish mainland colonies became known as the “Spanish Main,” a favorite hunting ground for pirates. And because England and Spain held little love for each other, the Spanish Main swarmed with English pirates. These renegade Englishmen were not always too careful as to the nationality of the ships they plundered. Sometimes they captured English as well as Spanish ships. Because they were located within easy sailing distance of this favorite hunting ground, the English islands in the West Indies became the favorite hangouts for these free-booters.
The word “Buccaneer,” so often used to describe pirates, had its origin in the West Indies. Originally the name was applied to runaway Frenchmen, often political or religious refugees, or escaped criminals. Somehow they had reached the West Indies, where they lived among the native Carib Indians. A large number gathered on the western part of the island of Hispaniola (present‑day Haiti) which was otherwise thinly settled but well stocked with cattle and pigs. From the natives, they learned a process of curing the meat of these animals without a fire on a wooden frame called a “boucan.” As a result, they gradually became known as buccaneers, a name often applied to all pirates in general.
Men of other nationalities drifted in. A large number wandered from Hispaniola to an uninhabited island called Tortuga, or Tortoise, Island. From this island, they began to go to sea and pillage the merchant vessels plying the nearby sea lane. Before long Tortuga became something of a pirate republic, completely under the control of these sea‑going gangsters. Other pirate strongholds sprang upon in the islands. New Providence (today’s Nassau) in the Bahamas and Port Royal in Jamaica became favorite headquarters for those who sailed under the Jolly Roger (pirate flag). At one time, it was estimated that there were as many as 3,000 pirates operating out of New Providence alone. Because of the large number of lawless men living in Port Royal, that port became known as “the wickedest city in the world.”
By 1700, the British Government felt it necessary to take steps to stamp out this nest of pirates. The buccaneers had become too careless in the selection of their prizes. English ships were being taken as often as those of other nations. Feeling that it would take a pirate to catch a pirate, Captain Woodes Rogers, a famous privateer, was appointed Governor of the Bahama Islands in 1717, with instructions to wipe out the freebooters.
King George I had also re‑issued an old Royal Proclamation which granted a full pardon to all pirates who would come in and take an oath to become law-abiding citizens in the future. Many took advantage of this offer and made an effort to settle down peacefully. Some, after taking the oath and accepting the pardon, discovered that they were unable to stomach the dull life of honest men, and sailed once again under the Black Flag. Quite a few of these were later captured and died dancing at the end of the hangman’s rope. Others, not wishing to make the change, set their sails for the North American mainland. Among them was one Edward Teach, who was to become far better known as Blackbeard.
Piracy had become big business in the American mainland colonies as early as 1689. The period from this date until 1718 has often been referred to as “The Golden Age of Piracy.” Basically, the English Parliament, the prime legislative body of Great Britain, was responsible for the welcome pirates received in the colonies. Unpopular trade laws had been passed which hampered colonial trading activities. So disliked were these laws that smuggling was not considered wrong, and when pirates began to bring in cheaper goods on which no customs duties had to be paid, no questions were asked except the price. So profitable did this illegal trade become that many otherwise respectable citizens became indirectly concerned with piracy.
By the end of the 17th century a regular “Pirate round” was operating out of New England. It usually worked like this: A company of seamen, backed by some of the wealthier merchants, would fit out a ship in one of the New England ports. Although ships were plentiful in New England, this was sometimes the occasion when vessels were specially constructed for use in the practice of piracy. Once outfitted and armed, these crews would set their course for the far East, hunting in the area around the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, Madagascar, or in the vicinity of India. Overpowering and plundering the water-craft of the native traders, the holds of their vessels were soon bulging with gold, silks, ivory, or other exotic products of the mysterious Orient. Then, streaking back to the colonies, they found a ready market for these valuables. Not only were these pirates one of the prime sources of luxury goods which could be purchased cheaply, but they were also such heavy spenders that they always received a warm welcome from the local merchants and tavern keepers. One colonial official complained in 1696, “There is every year one or two vessels fitted to the Red Sea, under the pretense of going to the West India plantations.”
This official was Edmund Randolph, the Surveyor-General of Customs in the American Colonies. He was a most conscientious man, so much so that he waged almost a one‑man campaign to eliminate pirates and smugglers in America. The governors of the individual colonies, who should have aided him most, were reluctant to support his activities. In his report back to England in 1696, addressed to the Council of Trade and Plantations, Randolph charged that “Pyrates” were actually welcomed in all American ports, and he listed those of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Carolina as being the worst offenders.
In all of the colonies, he declared, the governors were well aware of these violations of the law. All the laws passed in England against pirates were useless in the colonies without proper enforcement. Sir William Phips, the late governor of Massachusetts, Randolph claimed, had even gone so far as to invite Pennsylvania pirates to make their headquarters in Boston, promising them they would suffer no harm. Rhode Island, he charged, had become the “Chief Refuge for Pyrates.” Pennsylvania’s Governor William Markham offered to protect pirates in return for a specified fee, and his daughter actually married one of the buccaneers. Markham’s son was denied a seat in the legislature because of his past dealings with the freebooters. Governor Benjamin Fletcher’s dealings with the pirates were so open that his successor urged that he be arrested, returned to England, and tried for piracy himself. And Randolph charged that Governor John Archdale of Carolina “favors illegal trade.”
Long before Archdale’s administration, piracy flourished in Carolina. As early as 1685 it had been suggested that perhaps the governor of Carolina had best not reside in Charleston, “which is so near the sea as to be in danger from a sudden invasion of pirates.” Later, one of the members of Governor James Colleton’s Council was expelled “for holding correspondence with pirates.” During this same period Seth Sothel, one of the proprietors of the colony and governor of the Albemarle section, used accusations of piracy as a means of enforcing his arbitrary will.
At one time, buccaneers freely roamed the streets of Charleston, and if arrested and brought to trial, side-stepped justice by bribing public officials and even the juries. Decent citizens could do little more than raise their voices in angry protest. The growing importance of Charleston called for the appointment of governors who would take a firmer stand against these corsairs. The South Carolina Assembly passed laws curbing the activities of pirates. And for a change, these acts were enforced. The buccaneers began to steer clear of the port and sought greener pastures a little further to the North.
The term “Carolina” in the 17th century applied to the territory of both present‑day North and South Carolina. The area known as “Carolina south and west of Cape Fear,” or modern South Carolina, grew much faster than the area of today’s North Carolina. South Carolina had an excellent port in Charleston which attracted trade and people. North Carolina’s coastline of shallow coastal sounds and inlets offered little opportunity for harbor developments. Yet, as so often happens, one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain. These same shallow waters offered an ideal haven to pirates. By 1700 Edmund Randolph was sending reports to England that North Carolina had achieved a reputation as “a place which receives pirates, runaways and illegal traders.”
Because the colony showed so little promise as a potential trade center, the English authorities neglected to emphasize or particularly encourage its development. The thinly-scattered population was ideal for pirates. There were those among the more unscrupulous elements of the population of North Carolina who welcomed the pirates as an additional source of revenue. Yet there were many North Carolinians who wished to rid the colony of this menace. It was not to be an easy task.
When people think of pirates, most often Captain Kidd comes to mind. However, there is much doubt today that William Kidd was ever a pirate. Measured by his deeds, or misdeeds, on the high seas, certainly he would not rank with the top 100 pirates in history. Yet more words have been printed about this much-maligned man than any other captain in the trade.
In reality, it would appear that Kidd was a privateer rather than a pirate. At the age of 50, he was a successful, respected sea captain, living with his family in a fine brick house in New York. The prosperous owner of several merchant ships, he entertained no ambitions toward the life of a buccaneer. England was suffering from pirate raids on English merchant vessels in the Red Sea. The nation was also engaged in a war with France, and could not spare the ships to suppress this threat to her prosperity. A number of prominent Englishmen provided the financial backing for an expedition to crush the Red Sea pirates, expecting to make a nice profit from the sale of goods taken from the renegades.
One of the chief promoters of this expedition was Lord Bellomont, soon to be governor of New York. The list of those who invested money included the names of the Lord High Chancellor of England, the First Lord of the Admiralty, two of the King’s Secretaries of State, and a number of less important dignitaries. Even the King, William III, was to receive 10% of any proceeds from the voyage. Captain Kidd was selected to command and received a commission as a privateer.
In 1696 Kidd set sail in the 34-gun Adventure Galley. Two vessels were captured which were sailing under French passes, or permits. These were considered legal prizes of war, because of the war between France and England. When Kidd returned, it was not to share in any profit but to discover that he had been charged with piracy. Taken back to England in chains, his case became a political football. Certain elements were attempting to turn a number of his financial backers out of public office, and Kidd’s trial provided a method by which they could be discredited. Even then, he was not convicted of piracy, but for killing a mutinous seaman by striking him on the head with a water bucket. As captain of the ship, Kidd had every right to discipline a member of the crew, but this was not considered in the verdict. After he was hanged on May 23, 1701, his body was hung up in chains as a grisly warning to other erring mariners. Although Captain Kidd does not fall within any list of Carolina pirates, it has seemed appropriate to clear up the many misconceptions so long associated with his career. As he stated at his trial, Kidd was “the innocentest of them all. . . .” Yet few of the Carolina pirates, who were much more active in the bloody business, ever achieved his fame.
There were, however, many famous pirates who terrorized the shipping off the coast of Carolina. This was especially true after some of them fled the West Indies in 1717. Not only were the isolated shallow sounds an attraction, but rumors of a friendly governor led many of the buccaneers to look with favor upon the colony. It has been estimated that there were at least 2,000 pirates operating off the North American coast at this time. Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia sent a plaintive plea for aid back to England for, as he said, “Our coast is now infected with pirates.”
Not all of them were bearded swashbuckling males. One of the more famous pirates was a woman who, according to the scanty records, grew up in “Carolina.” Her name was Anne Bonny (sometimes spelled Bonney). She was born in Ireland, the daughter of an Irish lawyer whose name is not known. Her father emigrated to Carolina, where he prospered as the owner of a plantation. After the death of her mother, the young girl kept house for her father. Even then, or so the story goes, she had a “fierce and courageous” temper, and in one of her uncontrollable rages killed one of the house servants.
Anne met a handsome but penniless young sailor by the name of James Bonny. She fell in love. This so enraged her father that he turned her out of the house. She wandered with her husband to the West Indies. He seems to have been a pirate, for after his arrival there he surrendered and took the oath from Woodes Rogers. Anne could not take the rather dull life of a housewife ashore. A short time later she joined the pirate crew of Captain John Rackham, more commonly known as “Calico Jack,” because of the striped breeches which he always wore.