Peg Legs and Plunder: The Real Pirates of the Caribbean
By Les Stephens
Pirates of the Caribbean, which first opened in March 1967, was the last attraction that Walt Disney supervised before his death three months earlier. When planning attractions for his park, Walt often drew on the stories that he read and loved as a kid, including works by Mark Twain and the Brothers Grimm. The swashbuckling pirates, shipwrecks, and fantastic treasure from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) served as inspiration for Pirates of the Caribbean. When you first take your seat on the flat-bottomed boat, you float through a Louisiana bayou, complete with fireflies and banjo music. But suddenly, a voice tells you to beware, for you are entering pirate country. After a wild drop and some splashing water, you have entered the world of ships, cannons, skeletons, and treasure. Have you ever wondered what life was like for the real pirates of the Caribbean?
Historians have found the first evidence of piracy in the 1500s. Pirates emerged during this period as a result of Spanish colonialism. After Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, the colonization of Peru by Francisco Pizarro, and the discovery of fabulous silver mines in Potosí, Bolivia, great ships regularly transported treasure back to Spain. This wealth made Spain the richest nation in Europe and a global superpower. Spain's European rivals quickly joined the search for precious metals but could never match the Spanish acquisitions. Unwilling to let their competitor achieve dominance without a fight, England and France began to raid Spanish ships and forts. Privateers like Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan received commissions to take Spanish treasure, which they agreed to split with the crown. Privateers owned their vessels and acted independently. Since they got permission from the king, their actions were technically legal.
Not everyone wanted to wait for a crown commission or to share the booty with their king, though. Raiders who acted on their own without connection to any government were considered “pirates.” They attacked whomever and wherever they pleased, although they frequently went after the wealth inside of Spanish ships, forts, and cities. Townspeople and colonial officials frequently tortured, imprisoned, or hanged the pirates they caught. Fortune hunters, misfits, escaped indentured servants, and escaped slaves often turned to piracy to make a living. In fact, the word “buccaneers” comes to us from runaway slaves in the West Indies. In order to survive, escaped slaves frequently captured cattle, cut the meat into thin strips, and cooked the beef over an open fire on wooden frames called boucan. They soon became known as boucaniers, or buccaneers (translated in English as barbequers).
Pirates first appeared in the Caribbean Sea in the early 1500s in small numbers. By the mid-1600s, the number of pirates increased to an estimated 2,400. Historians consider the period between 1660 and 1730 to be the “Golden Age of Piracy.” Pirates whose names you might recognize, like Bluebeard, Henry Morgan, and Black Bart Roberts, flew the black flag of piracy and pillaged the coasts and ships in the Caribbean during this period.
According to legend, Black Bart once said that a pirate’s life was short and glorious. He had a point. Sailors who worked on royal ships often endured bad food, long hours, hard work, low pay, and frequent corporal punishment. A pirate’s life, on the other hand, offered adventure, freedom, and a chance for riches. Pirates also practiced an early form of democracy. The entire crew could vote to decide when and where to attack and who would lead the expedition. Pirates also divided plunder equally. Each crewman received an equal share, with extra shares allotted to the captain and surgeon.
While the rewards for a life as a pirate could be great, these adventures also came at a price. After one famous raid, the crewmen of Henry Morgan's ship got $12,500 in today’s currency, or a sum more than three times the annual income for an average craftsman in England at that time. Pirates had a love of fancy clothes. They would plunder clothing chests on their raids and proudly wear their finery when they returned to port. A few pirates made their fortunes and retired as respectable citizens, but for most people, the riches were easy come, easy go. Pirates often squandered their fortunes on rum and the pleasurable company of women in the notorious seaports of Jamaica, Barbados, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. As you might imagine, piracy was a dangerous business. Popular images of pirates with a pegged leg, a hook for a hand, or an eye patch are based in reality. Cannon shells took of legs and arms. A cutlass blow could sever a hand or pierce an eye. Ouch!
Wars between the European powers in the seventeenth century took the focus away from the colonies and allowed pirates to operate with little resistance. By the end of the 1600s, however, Europe returned to a period of relative calm, and attention shifted to the New World. Pirates now represented a threat to the lawful exchange of commerce. England, France, and Spain cooperated in efforts to reduce piracy. As the greatest naval power of the age, England took a prominent role in punishing pirates. In the early eighteenth century, English authorities established Vice Admiralty courts in the colonies, which meant that pirates could be tried and punished in the New World instead of needing to be transported to England to face justice there. England captured and hung as many as 600 pirates between 1716 and 1720. Many others were captured and imprisoned. This mounting pressure from authorities took its toll, and the number of piracy incidents fell sharply.
Piracy survived until the nineteenth century. Jean Lafitte, a pirate in Louisiana, famously assisted Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. In fact, Lafitte’s Landing, the dock where you board your flat-bottomed boat, is named after him, but piracy never occurred at the rate that it did in the preceding centuries. The swashbuckling, free-wheeling rambunctious Golden Age of Piracy passed into popular culture. You can still visit it, though, every time you go to Disneyland. Yo-ho, me hearties!
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Alan Taylor, American Colonies (2001)
Stephan Talty, Empire of Blue Water (2007)