Eighteenth century pirates now seem like colorful, fun-loving blokes, but historically speaking, the facts are much more serious. So I’m posting an article I wrote on the subject. And if you’re interested in my pirate romance, check out Marooned.
No one can dispute the tropical beauty of the Bahama Islands, but the early history of the islands is filled with danger and treachery.
In 1492 the islands were discovered by Christopher Columbus who claimed them for Spain. Later Spaniards enslaved the native Lucayan people and transported them to work the gold and silver mines in Cuba and Hispaniola.
By the time the British arrived in the late 1670’s, the islands were no longer inhabited. A group of colonists settled on the island of Eleuthera, and a few moved on to New Providence, but most of the islands were left unsettled and provided a haven for pirates and privateers. The islands were close to the major trade routes and New Providence Island had a natural harbor that afforded a safe anchorage in which to hide. With its shallow waters and over 700 islands, the Bahamas provided a perfect environment for pirates to maneuver. Many hid their plunder in the islands’ limestone caverns.
Grand Bahama was considered perilous because of the reefs surrounding it. Pirates would chase merchant ships into the shallows where they foundered on the reefs and were easily plundered. In fact, “wrecking” remained a local occupation for some time. The inhabitants placed a lantern to lure ships close to shore so they could scavenge its cargo.
The resort city of Nassau, on New Providence Island, became notorious as a pirate haven. By 1710 the harbor was filled with ships, some of them rotting hulks that were destroyed after being emptied of their cargo. Contemporary accounts describe it as a ramshackle shanty town with no permanent buildings, just a dilapidated fort, a few wood huts, and a disreputable tent city where pirates could gamble away their plunder, get drunk, or get laid.
The islands were home to famous pirates such as Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham, and the infamous female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who were members of his crew.
Blackbeard’s legend lives on as the most ferocious of pirates. A tall man, he had wild eyes, long, matted black hair and a matching beard which he braided. Before battle, he twisted pieces of fuse into his hair and lit them. With his face surrounded by smoke he was a fearsome sight. Teach was chosen as magistrate of what the pirates called their Privateers’ Republic, but in 1718 the British government sent Royal Governor Woodes Rogers, a former privateer, to the islands to end piracy in the Bahamas. Blackbeard was at sea at the time, so he made the Carolinas his main base until his death in November 1718 at the hands of the British navy. The leader of the British expedition, First Lieutenant Robert Maynard, later said that Blackbeard didn’t fall until he’d received at least five gunshots and twenty sword wounds. Blackbeard’s head was severed, though whether it happened during battle or afterward is not clear, and hung from the bowsprit of Maynard’s sloop to prove that the feared pirate was truly dead.
Calico Jack and Anne Bonny met in New Providence where he persuaded her to don men’s clothing and join him on his ship. (Women were banned from most pirate ships, hence the disguise.) Mary Read, who also dressed as a man, was on board, too. The two women became friends and were known to be fierce fighters. When Woodes Rogers’ men attacked Rackham’s ship in 1720, most of the crew were drunk, except for the two women who fought bravely. The entire crew was captured, tried in Jamaica and sentenced to death. Jack was hanged but the two women “pleaded their bellies”. Because of their pregnancies, the women were not sentenced to death. Mary died in jail of fever before giving birth. Anne’s fate is unknown, but there are rumors that she was eventually released and returned to her home in the Carolinas.
Woodes Rogers was successful in his attempt to end piracy in the Bahamas. In fact, immediately upon his arrival, he was met by a large group of pirates eager to swear loyalty to the crown in exchange for a pardon. Rogers eventually pardoned about 600 pirates. The hard cases like Calico Jack and Blackbeard were chased down and brought to justice.
By 1720 the Golden Age of Piracy was coming to an end. But like the beauty of the islands, tales of the daring pirates live on in legend.
© 2005 by Linda McLaughlin
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED