Welcome to the second episode of the 18th Century Podcast. In today’s episode we’ll do a brief overview of The Golden Age Of Piracy in the 18th Century. Topics include, a brief history, Life On A Pirate Ship, And two short stories from Pirates of the time.
Imagine it’s the early 18th Century. You’re on a merchant’s vessel in the Caribbean. Your cargo, rum. The warmth of the sun beats down upon you, the mist from the sea brushes up against your face. Gulls can be heard overhead. Your getting close to port. One of the crew spots a ship coming from behind. You look through your spyglass and you see it. Possibly another merchant ship. They’re flying the right colors. You think there’s nothing to worry about. Then something strange happens, they lower their flag, and a new one appears. A jolly roger. You prepare your ship for battle, though few would actually do so. As your ships turn to meet, you prepare to… Alas, your barrage has failed and your ship is being boarded. You have fallen victim to Piracy.
PART 1: Overview
Welcome to episode 2 of the 18th Century Podcast, if you couldn’t tell by the intro, we’re going over the Golden Age of Piracy. Or at the very least, a brief overview. The golden age has its roots in the 17th Century. So, two episodes in and I’m already cheating. This episode will be a general overview of the era, but certain aspects may become future episodes themselves. Anyways you may be familiar with names such as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, or Anne Bonny. But do you know the conditions which forged these men and women? Let’s get to the root of the cause.
PART 2: History
There are a few periods contained within the golden age. We will begin our dive into the Buccaneering period. The first thing which comes to mind is, what is a Buccaneer? They essentially were privateers, and to put it in plain English, legal pirates. These men would most of the time receive what is called, a letter of marques. A letter of marques is what made a person a privateer, or like I said before, a legal pirate. You may be thinking, “legal pirates? What the heck are you talking about?” You see, during times of war in the Carribean, the English among other countries would issue letters of marque so these privateers could legally rob the opposing side. For example, if the English and the Spanish were at war, the English would issue letters of marques so nonmilitary persons could attack Spanish vessels, effectively disrupting economic trade for the Spanish. Then once the goods were obtained by the privateers, they would give part of it to the English government. One of the most famous buccaneers which we may recognize today would be, Henry Morgan, or you may know him by Capitan Morgan. Though this legal form of piracy lasted for some time, it would become the bedrock for what we know as pirates. Now moving towards the 18th century, we get into the real juicy bits. This next period which we’ll concern ourselves with is called The Post Spanish Succession Period. I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a mouthful. Trust me though, it’s important. This period will give rise to some of the most famous pirates in history, like Blackbeard, or Anne Bonny. Leading up to this was, of course, the War of Spanish Succession, which we may get into at a later date. All you need to know is this, once the war ended there were many, “legal pirates,” and former Navymen who suddenly found themselves unemployed. But at least they had their skills! Which amounted to in simplest terms sailing ships, and combat. I think you know where this is heading. Pirates would plague the Carribean for many years. A system of privateers set up by European Kingdoms was now turning on them. Nassau became a major hub for these pirates. If you don’t know where Nassau is, it’s in the Bahamas. Given the geography of the area, it became one of the favorite spots of the pirates. There was also a little thing which arose called, The Republic of Pirates. Though I’ll get into the Republic at a later date. The governments eventually grew tired of the pirates. Then emerged naturally, the pirate hunters. During the 1720s, the golden age would begin to fade. And the pirates would sink into legend.
PART 3: Life on a Pirate Ship
So after going over a brief history of the pirates, what was it like living aboard a ship? To get in the picture of this, we should first look at a typical pirate. What did they wear? What did they eat? What did they fight with? How were they governed? Starting off with the most simple thing first, their clothes. You could find a pirate wearing a linen shirt, which linen was a common material used in the 18th Century. You could also find him wearing trousers, caps, and waistcoats were common too. Then there was one other thing you would find, earrings. Yes! These manly men of the sea wore earrings, and for a very practical purpose too. You see if they died and had had no money on their person for their own burial, the earrings would be sold to offset the funeral costs. But if the combat didn’t kill you, perhaps the food would. Being the lucky sailor which you are, you’ve found yourself devouring a scrumptious ships biscuit, also known as, hardtack. And if you were really lucky, it would be seasoned with weevils. You might also find yourself having a ration of salted beef. Which sounds good, until you’re carving it into buttons. And of course to wash it all down, your favorite drink, rum… or any other alcohol you could get your hands on. Though rum was more available in the Carribean. The pirates’ diet was actually pretty similar to that of an English Navyman. Now that you’re dressed, and you’ve eaten, it’s time for a little adventure. Later in the day, you’ve found yourself drawn into combat on a merchants ship. Their mast was taken out by your cannons chain shot, which is exactly as it sounds. Two cannonballs which would have been chained together. As you climbed unto the merchant’s ship, you fire your muzzleloader, your blunderbuss. Not having time to reload, you reach for you short curved cutlass. A sword battle erupts on the ship, and soon you find yourselves the victors. You take their cargo, which just so happens to be rum. You leave, thrilled with your success. Then at the end of the day, after you received your share, you might spend the rest of the night drinking, with your friends. But be careful not to violate any of the ship’s code, or there will be consequences. For example, if you abandoned ship during battle, you could face death. Or if you snuck aboard a woman, you might also be killed for doing so. All pirates upon a ship had to agree willing or unwillingly to the ship’s code. Each ship had its own unique code too. So for example, gambling might be allowed on one ship, but not another. And of course, you’ll follow the direction of your ships Capitan. Now getting into the rank structure aboard a pirate ship, the Captain, is probably the most famous position. Captains were elected from among the crew. The person taking up the job was usually highly respected among said crew. Then the next most famous position, the First Mate. The First Mate acted as a second in command, and if for any reason the Captain could not perform his duties, then the First Mate would step up. Though not all ships had First Mates, another position which was more common would have been the Quartermaster. The Quartermaster would be in charge of obtaining supplies for the ship and dish out punishments for the crew. There were a couple of other positions of note such as the cooks, the surgeons, and sailing master. Even with this structure, most of the decisions on the ships were voted on. Yes, it wasn’t the Captain who had the final say all the time, the men would vote on what they think would be best for them to do next. And now that I’ve covered a brief overview of the life upon a pirate ship, I’m going to take a short break and be back in a little bit.
PART 4: Anne Bonny & Blackbeard
Welcome back to the show. The second half of the episode will be of two tales. The first being of Anne Bonny, and the second, Blackbeard. Out of all the pirates we know of, Anne Bonny just might be the most famous female pirate. And during the golden age of piracy, there were few women pirates. Anne was born during the latter half of the 17th century in Ireland. Her father was a lawyer, which one would assume would mean she had a good upbringing. Alas, fate had other ideas. You see Anne was an illegitimate child her father had with a servant. Once word of this got out, his reputation was ruined. He took his daughter and her mother to the new world for a fresh start. Anne’s father would take up the law once more in South Carolina, and he bought a plantation. When Anne was in her teens, she would lose her mother. Once Anne reached the age of sixteen, she would fall in love with a man named James Bonny. James was a pirate. I think it’s obvious to say that her father didn’t approve of her choice in men. Anne and James eloped. Her father, being disappointed in his daughter, he kicked her out of his home. Anne and James made their way down to the Carribean. James had a difficult time supporting his young wife on a pirates salary. So he did the next logical thing and became an informant on pirates to the English Government. Anne had become accustomed to the pirate life and had made many friends in the trade. She ended up leaving her husband for Captain Jack Rackam. Though they didn’t have an open relationship, the crew knew what was happening. One night when most of the crew was drunk, they were attacked by a British Navyman, Captain Barnet, who was an ex-pirate himself. Anne’s pirating days had come to an end that October night in 1720. Anne was captured and brought to Port Royal for her trial. She was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Yet Anne found a loophole which saved her life for the time being. She informed the court she was pregnant. They decided to move her date of execution until after she gave birth. However, we’re not sure what happened afterward. Anne was an interesting figure and there’s much speculation around her fate. I find her to be an interesting figure in history. There’s a chance I might go over her story more in-depth in a later episode. But I also stated I’d go over another tale, one of Blackbeard. As you may already know, Blackbeard is one of the most famous pirates to have ever existed. The things he did are almost as famous as his downfall. November 22nd, 1718 would be his last day. But some context first. British Naval Lieutenant Robert Maynard was tasked with taking him down by the then Governor of Virginia. To face off against one of the most fearsome pirates, he took two sloops. Blackbeard and his men were off the coast of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. His ship was marooned by low tide. The morning of the 22nd Maynard approached seeking combat. During the time, Blackbeard was on a sloop himself and the night previously, he drank with his crew. When Maynard began his attack, the pirates didn’t know he was there, but when they spotted them, Blackbeard and his men began to approach and they fired their weapons. There was a brief exchange between Blackbeard and Maynard. Though after their little chat, Blackbeard fired a broadside. After the bombardment, Blackbeard ordered a boarding of the English ship. Combat erupted aboard the ship. Swords clashed. Men died. And when the smoke cleared, Blackbeard laid dead. The entire confrontation on the ship lasted less than ten minutes. After Maynard’s victory, he cut Blackbeard’s head off. The head was mounted on the ship’s bowsprit. The most famous pirate in history had been vanquished.
Alright, this brings us to the end of our second episode. In future episodes, I’ll go over something brought up more in-depth which were contained in this episode, such as Anne Bonny or Blackbeard, or the Pirate Republic. Next episode, however, I’ll be stepping away from pirates and more towards more traditional 18th Century material. If you’d like to support the show so I can keep making more episodes, please share it. I have been your host Cj, and thank you as we continue our journey through the 18th Century.
Humanity, History of. “Buccaneering Era.” Golden Age of Piracy | Buccaneering Era, http://www.goldenageofpiracy.org/history/buccaneering-era.php.
Humanity, History of. “Letter of Marque.” Golden Age of Piracy | Letter of Marque, http://www.goldenageofpiracy.org/history/letter-of-marque.php.
Humanity, History of. “Post Spanish Succession Period.” Golden Age of Piracy | Post Spanish Succession Period, http://www.goldenageofpiracy.org/history/post-spanish-succession-period.php.
“What Did Pirates Wear?” Reference, IAC Publishing, http://www.reference.com/history/did-pirates-wear-ee70f4bc24aef0d4.
Grundhauser, Eric. “Why Do Pirates Wear Earrings?” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 1 June 2016, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-do-pirates-wear-earrings.
Roux, George, et al. “Eat Like a Pirate.” National Geographic, 23 Jan. 2018, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2014/08/19/eat-like-a-pirate/.
“Weaponry.” A Pirate’s Glossary of Terms, http://www.pirateglossary.com/weaponry.
“Pirate Code of Conduct and Pirate Rules.” Pirate Code – Rules and Code of Conduct for Pirates, http://www.thewayofthepirates.com/pirate-life/pirate-code/.
“Who Is Who – Pirate Ranks on Ship.” Pirate Ranks and Roles on Ship – The Way of the Pirates, http://www.thewayofthepirates.com/pirate-life/who-is-who/.
“Famous Pirate: Anne Bonny.” Anne Bonny – Famous Pirate – The Way of the Pirates, http://www.thewayofthepirates.com/famous-pirates/anne-bonny/.
Dolin, Eric Jay. “Here’s How Blackbeard the Pirate Really Died 300 Years Ago.” Time, Time, 21 Nov. 2018, time.com/5457008/blackbeard-death/.