Pirates of the Atlantic

Piracy is equal parts economics and adventure. Author Carson Hudson describes the lust for treasure.

Learn more: Blackbeard the Pirate


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter, filling in this week for Lloyd Dobyns. My guest today is author and historian Carson Hudson. Carson, thanks for being here with us again.

Last time we talked to you, you were talking about witchcraft, and you're with us today to talk about piracy -- all the best topics. So, tell us a little bit, just to start with, about piracy on the east coast in the colonies in the 18th century. What were we seeing?

Carson Hudson: Well, Harmony, the piracy that was taking place in America in the late 17th century and the early 18th century, which was called the "Golden Age of Piracy," affected the British colonies on the east coast of America inasmuch as pirates were coming from the West Indies, from Jamaica, they were coming northward and there were great pickings to be had. There was, as was said by one of the royal governors, "A plague of pirates" on the coast of America in the period.

Harmony: Why was this called the "Golden Age of Piracy?"

Carson: I think we call it the "Golden Age of Piracy" because in the years between 1680 and about 1730, we have this plague of pirates, as I've just said, that are what we remember in our collective consciousness. You know, this is the age where you have the Johnny Depp type pirate, the buccaneer-type guy.

Harmony: What made our region so ripe for plunder?

Carson: Well, we had some rich colonies here -- Virginia in particular with the slave trade and with the tobacco trade. That was big money for pirates. We have this image of pirates having chests of silver and gold, but the truth of it is, that the average pirate -- including people such as Blackbeard -- they were not really robbing large Spanish galleons filled with gold. They were robbing merchant ships and small cargo ships, bumboats or canoes that were doing the trade in the Chesapeake Bay. They were picking up things like rice, indigo, slaves, and tobacco. That was their treasure.

Harmony: So the establishment of the colonies also established a trade route. Did that economic development create a sort of boom for pirates, that now there was going to be this path that shipping vessels were taking, this trade route to carry goods to the Americas?

Carson: There were definite trade routes, to be sure. You had the triangle trade, which deals in rum and slaves and sugar and all of this. But what's happening, to be quite honest with you, is that it's economically based inasmuch as you've got a lot of sailors who can't find work. Going to the mid 17th century and going through, as I say, the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, England and France and Spain are engaged in several wars.

When they have a war in Europe, you have a war down in the Caribbean where all of these colonies of these major powers exist. When a war is over, and you've got all these seamen in the greatest navies that don't have any work any longer, and they need something to do.

Blackbeard, for example, we know that he becomes very active right after Queen Anne's War, right after it ends in 1715. That's corresponding, again, with the Golden Age of Piracy. These guys are looking at it as a business, and it's a very lucrative business, because a man who is an honest seaman can spend his life working for a tyrannical captain, have bad food, have long voyages, and he can literally go on a voyage and come back and owe the ship owner money, because they are deducted from their pay for various things like clothing and food while they're working.

So you could literally be in debt to your ship owner when you got back if you worked as an honest seaman. As a pirate though, you received an equal share, they had a code of piracy which treated everyone equally. You could make more money as a pirate in a six-month voyage off the coast of America than you could make in three lifetimes as an honest seaman.

Harmony: Tell me more about that code of piracy.

Carson: Well, the pirates had a code, the brotherhood of piracy, the "Gentlemen of the Sea," they called themselves, where, for example, women were not allowed on the ship while they were at sea. They were not supposed to be drinking at sea, although we know that they did.

The pirate captain was chosen by his crew, and everyone received an equal share. If you were wounded, you got kind of an early medical plan that you got an extra share type thing. It was actually pretty fair compared to what the honest seamen had.

Harmony: So piracy is a very democratic trade.

Carson: It was a democracy of pirates, yes. But you've got to look at the other aspect of it, is that the pirates that were plying their trade were not nice people. They were the dregs of society who really had no reservation at all on killing anyone who got in their way.

Again, we've got this modern romantic notion that pirates are cute, like Captain Hook and again, the Pirates of the Caribbean. But 200 years ago, in the 18th century, the people of America looked upon pirates in the same way that we would look at terrorists today.

Harmony: Why are pirates such a large part of the American imagination?

Carson: I think again it goes back to the romance. TV and movies have a lot to do with it, and also romantic novels and children's books. The flamboyant lifestyle, the colorful clothing that they would wear, the scary-looking pirate flags with the skulls and crossbones. Again, it appeals to us as a carefree way of life. Casting aside, or putting aside in the back of our mind the realities of what they went through and what they actually did.

Harmony: You touched on Blackbeard, now there was a figure. He put a great deal of effort into creating a persona and a fantastical appearance. Tell me about what Blackbeard did to allow his reputation to precede him.

Carson: Blackbeard had great PR. Blackbeard, he was a large man, the accounts say he was over six feet tall. He let his hair hang loose around his head. He had a long, black beard that hung around his chest that they said grew up to his eyebrows. He would braid the beard like a wig, with red ribbons. He would wear three brace of pistols -- six pistols -- on bandoliers across his chest.

He would take lit cords, called matches -- they would use the lit cord to fire a cannon in the 18th century -- he'd take these lit cords which would smolder and he would place them under his hat so that when he came on board, he's got this ring of smoke around his face, and he's carrying a cutlass and a boarding axe and these pistols. If he appears before me, I know that I would run away with out a fight.

It's great PR, because stories spread about this fearsome pirate Blackbeard. At one time he commanded a fleet of four ships and over 400 sailors, and he actually held Charleston South Carolina for ransom. He also raided ships up and down the coast. The truth of the matter though, when we start to look at it, he was a very fearsome man. All accounts of anyone who talked to him talked about how he was like the devil, or like Satan. They mention that quite a bit, the devil and Satan, and he had come from hell. The truth of the matter is, if you look at the actual records, we can only find one recorded instance of him actually hurting anyone himself.

Harmony: What is that recorded instance?

Carson: That recorded instance is that he was drunk one night in his cabin and he shot his own first mate in the knee, his first mate was named Israel Hands. That's the only actual period account that we have of him hurting a single person. The rest of it is just, he's coming aboard your ship and he's waving his sword and saying, "If you don't do what I say, I will cut you into 1,000 pieces and throw you to the fishes." And you do it.

Then you go into port and you tell everybody, "Oh, Blackbeard, he had a sword up against my throat and he was going to cut me into 1,000 pieces, but I gave him what he wanted and he let me go." So that's encouraging to the next person to give him what he wants.

Harmony: That all sounds like big adventure on the open seas, but it sounds like it's a real problem for the colonies. What are the colonies doing to dissuade or combat piracy, pirate attacks? What are the punishments?

Carson: Well, pirates were tried, were handled and tried differently from regular felons or criminals. If you were robbing on land, you were tried by a general court of the colony, especially here in Virginia, which was the high criminal court. If you were found guilty, you were hanged for your crime. But they had some special punishments for pirates. They would, after they had hanged them, they wanted to warn other pirates, for example, to do this. So they would hang the bodies in chains until they rotted at seaports.

Harmony: What about among themselves, on ship?

Carson: As far as discipline? Again, they had this code that there wasn't supposed to be any fighting and that sort of thing. You were supposed to get along. But we know human nature, and we know the nature of the pirates -- that there were these things happening. Blackbeard himself, even though he had this evil reputation and it was PR, he was a very wicked man. He was not nice to his crew, and his crew were not nice to their victims.

Harmony: What do you know about his history that tells you that he's a wicked man and a not nice man?

Carson: Well, Blackbeard, we have several things that come down to us. Unfortunately, many of the things that come down to us over the years are legend. But we do have several period sources, and one in particular talks about how, one example is that Blackbeard was at sea one day, and he was bored. He tells his crew that he's going to create a hell of his own.

He takes several of his crew down into the hold of the ship, and they light pots of brimstone and sulfur, which are creating these horrible fumes. The sailors below the decks are choking to death, begging to be let go, when Blackbeard says, "Oh, we can stand this a bit longer." Finally they kick the hatch open and they get out.

Blackbeard rises out of the hatch with the sulfur fumes around him. He says that he's mightily pleased that he's lasted longer than anyone else, and the next time that we're going to play games like this, let's hang ourselves from the yardarms and see who can struggle the longest. So, he's not all there.

Harmony: Thinking about the economic reasons for piracy in the 18th century, and knowing that right now, we're seeing a resurgence of piracy in our own culture, what kind of parallels do you see between then and now?

Carson: The pirates of today are like the pirates of the 17th and 18th century inasmuch as they are cutthroat pirates. They're very violent. They will kill and maim and hold for ransom people without any thought of anything except for profit. However, today they're looking for different types of treasure. They're not looking for chests of gold aboard ships. They're not using pirate swords and old-fashioned black powder cannons and pistols, they're using modern assault rifles -- AK-47s. And they're using cell phones to communicate and high-speed boats and all of this. So it's the same, but it's been modernized.

Harmony: All right Carson, thank you for being with us today.

Carson: Thank you.

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