- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Pirates of the Caribbean’s” Jack Sparrow was here. Well, not literally, but Jack Sparrow-type characters were not just part of the Caribbean landscape. They frequented — and in many cases terrorized — the Chesapeake and its environs, too.

“This was the frontier. In many ways, it was perfect for pirates. Lots of trade and not much in the way of defenses,” says Donald Shomette, author of “Pirates of the Chesapeake: Being a True History of Pirates, Picaroons, and Raiders on the Chesapeake Bay, 1610-1907.”

One of the most famous pirates was Blackbeard (who also went by Capt. Edward Teach). His appearance alone was fearsome: He wore his black beard to his waist, festooned with ribbons at the ends; his black eyebrows were bushy; and to increase the intimidation factor even more, he wore slowly burning hemp-cord matches from the brim of his hat that made it appear as if he were on fire, Mr. Shomette writes.

“He was intimidating. At 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, he was much taller than the average man, who was around 5-foot-2,” Mr. Shomette says. “Some in his crew thought he was the devil himself.”

For those who want to see a piece of Blackbeard history, the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beauford has a collection of items that belonged to one of his ships, Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was sunk off the North Carolina coast in the 18th century. Parts of it have been recovered.

Artifacts include a bronze bell and cannon balls, says Richard Lawrence, a state underwater archaeologist who is leading the recovery efforts.

“There are a lot of misconceptions out there about pirates. … Maybe the shipwreck can help bring us the real story,” says Mr. Lawrence, who hopes to continue the recovery efforts of the 90-foot-long, slave-ship-turned-pirate-ship this fall.

Blackbeard, who is said to have married at least 14 times, was killed by Colonial forces in 1718. He died after 25 cut wounds and five pistol shots. His severed head was hung from the bowsprit of the victor’s Colonial ship and later transferred to a pole at the mouth of the Hampton River.

“That’s actually one of the few things that Hollywood has gotten right,” says Marcus Rediker, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. “They did display dead bodies of pirates in ports — including the Chesapeake, New York, Charleston [S.C.] — as a form of deterrence,” says Mr. Rediker, who has studied and written about pirates for 30 years.

Yes, the life of a pirate was brutal, but so was the life of any common sailor, Mr. Rediker says, which helps explain why pirates had a relatively easy time recruiting among sailors on merchant and other ships.

“The accident rate among common sailors was high, the food was of poor quality, the discipline harsh,” Mr. Rediker says. “It’s the key to understanding why people became pirates.”

Very few people became pirates through mutiny — just about 10 to 15 percent. The rest were common sailors who chose to become pirates when their own ship was overtaken by pirates, Mr. Rediker says.

The pirate captain, someone like Blackbeard, would attack and board a ship and ask the common sailors whether their captain treated them fairly or poorly. If the answer was “poorly,” the pirates would flog the captain.

“They called it ‘distribution of justice,’” Mr. Rediker says and adds that pirates identified with the common sailor because they once had been in the same shoes.

If the merchant-ship captain treated his crew well, on the other hand, the pirates might just let him go, says Mr. Rediker, who adds that pirates fought only when necessary; they would rather capture ships and treasure through intimidation.

“This is one of the reasons pirate ships were always overmanned,” Mr. Rediker says. “They wanted to intimidate.”

Many of the common sailors chose to join the pirates. The thought was, if life is short and harsh anyway, why not add freedom and fun to the mix? Mr. Rediker says.

“Their favorite saying was, ‘A merry life and a short one,’” he says, adding that the life expectancy among common sailors was thirtysomething.

“They joked about their own mortality. They laughed in the face of rich people; they laughed in the face of death,” Mr. Rediker says. “They were rebels.”

Most pirates were from the lower classes, but there were some wealthy types, too. Take Stede Bonnet, once a gentleman of good reputation from Barbados.

“He was attracted to the life of piracy by a shrewish wife,” Mr. Shomette says. Bonnet did quite well, capturing and plundering ships along the Virginia Cape until he bumped into Blackbeard, who simply overtook his operation.

In the early 1700s, during the golden age of piracy, there were about 4,000 to 5,000 pirates. Favorite hangouts were the Carolina coast, West Africa and the West Caribbean, Mr. Rediker says. The Chesapeake was a gem in terms of goods and trade, but it had too many well-connected people to make it a No. 1 destination. Pirates still came to the mid-Atlantic, though.

“They would spend the summers here,” Mr. Shomette says, “and then go south during the winter when it got too cold here. Piracy was seasonal.”

Contrary to what we might think, having pirates around wasn’t all bad. It meant getting access to cheaper goods.

“If the pirates had captured a ship with Spanish wine, for example, they would sell it to the locals for much less than the English merchants would,” Mr. Shomette says.

Life aboard a pirate ship — wherever it might be in the world — was harsh but much less hierarchical than that on a royal navy ship or a merchant marine vessel, Mr. Rediker says.

“It was shockingly egalitarian,” he says. “The captain had limited powers, and the pirates could call a council meeting and get rid of him at any time.”

The pirates also had laws among themselves, called “articles of agreement.” These articles helped govern how plunder should be divided and the fate of wounded pirates. The articles, for example, said a wounded pirate would get a greater share of the plunder because his ability to acquire future earnings might be affected by his injuries.

“It was a form of insurance,” Mr. Rediker says.

So, while not exactly noble, pirates seem to have had a virtue or two — but enough for Hollywood to portray them as heroes and enough for many of us to be eternally fascinated? (By the way, Mr. Rediker calls the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies entertaining, but “totally innocent of historical fact.”)

“Look at our fascination with ‘The Sopranos,’” Mr. Shomette says. “They’re the vilest of the vile. … But there’s something about evil that’s more attractive, more exciting than good.”

Mr. Rediker offers a different take.

“I’ve been studying pirates for 30 years. I would call it a popular compulsion,” he says. “We’re fascinated by the extreme quality of their freedom. … Nobody told them what to do.”



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