The year is 1715. You’ve struggled to find work for two years, ever since the war ended and the navy no longer needed your services. You’re in a port far from home, but can’t get there because you’ve no money and there aren’t enough openings on merchant ships because so many others vie for the few positions that are available. You’re hungry. You’re desperate. What do you do?
- You find another line of work.
- You beg.
- You give up on life.
- You turn to piracy.
Such was a sailor’s plight in the early eighteenth century following the Peace of Utrecht, which ended Queen Anne’s War, also known as the War of the Spanish Succession. When it ended, the British Royal Navy downsized dramatically, which resulted in a glut of unemployed sailors who needed jobs. The war’s end also put a stop to privateering, which meant it was no longer legally permissible to attack enemy ships laden with rich cargoes. Those easy pickings that had put gold in your pocket (or the bank, if you were a savvy saver) were gone, and the only way to get ahead in life was to return to hard work, long hours at sea, away from family and with little prospect of getting ahead.
You’re on the cusp, uncertain whether to choose option d or not.
Then a ship arrives in port with news of a shipwreck. Oh, not just a single vessel, but eleven in all. Nor are they common merchant ships laden with everyday goods. Oh no! This convoy carried the equivalent of 7,000,000 pieces of eight. And it is free for the taking. If you had a ship to sail to the Florida coast. If you are willing to risk your life diving in shark-infested waters. If you don’t mind having to deal with pesky Spaniards seeking to recover their lost treasure or the hundreds of others who also want a share of quick riches.
Thus began what became the greatest upsurge in piracy in history.
The Caribbean and North Atlantic coast became the pirates’ primary hunting grounds, although they also ventured to Africa’s west coast and even the Indian Ocean. For a single decade these men, and some women, plagued the seas, terrorizing innocent people and becoming a blight on commerce. The majority were of English descent, but other ethnicities, including Africans, participated in these hit-and-run assaults. It gave rise to a Pirate Republic, located in the Bahamas. While the majority of these pirates are unknown today, in the intervening three centuries, some have become legendary, and the most famous pirate of all lived during what became known as the “golden age of piracy.” History remembers him as Blackbeard; his given name was Edmund Thache (pronounced Teach).
Golden Age of Piracy
Writers often choose to set their stories during this time period, in part because of the legends and romantic portrayals that first came to light in the waning years of the golden age. Newspapers regularly reported on their activities, captures, trials, and hangings, but they often embellished the accounts and they most certainly portrayed the pirates in the worst light possible. After all, they were tools that the government and society (merchants and ministers especially) could use to change public opinion about these dastardly fellows. Didn’t all citizens object to associating with these criminals? Recent studies in colonial and pirate history show the opposite was true, especially in Britain’s colonies. Oftentimes, citizens trafficked with pirates, either to circumvent tariffs and other trade restrictions or to acquire goods not available through legal channels. (Sometimes, such bartering was necessary just to survive.) Once governments succeeded in swaying popular opinion to their side, the demand to stop piracy grew and by 1730 there were few pirates still preying in western waters.
The adage of “out of sight, out of mind,” however, did not include the public’s interest in piracy. In fact, one of the bestsellers of the 1720s was a book about pirates. The first run of Captain Charles Johnson’s The General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates sold out so quickly that a second printing was published the same year and another the following year. An expanded version was released in 1726. It provided lurid and gruesome details of such pirates as Anne Bonny, Bartholomew Roberts, and so many others. It was released as non-fiction, although there are fictional embellishments woven throughout the individual biographies. This book became a go-to reference for other writers, and is often mentioned as the inspiration for more than one author’s fictional tales. Some of these fictional fellows have become as legendary as their historical counterparts: Peter Blood, Long John Silver, Captain Hook, and Jack Sparrow to name a few.
Living in and writing the world of Piracy
But there’s far more to writing a fictional tale of pirates than just sitting down and creating, especially for authors seeking an air of realism in their portrayals. Nor does an author need to focus just on being a pirate. Pirates didn’t work in a vacuum. They needed ships to ply their trade. They needed friends and allies, as well as enemies and victims. I should know; I’ve been writing about pirates for nearly twenty years and researching them for twice as long. But when I started this endeavor, there was a lot I didn’t know. Only after I set aside my original story idea to work on a second novel, did I truly realize just how much about piracy and ships I had to learn. I definitely did not know enough to craft a believable tale that would transport readers back in time to a world that no longer existed. Which is why my pirate tale is my current work in progress.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about pirates throughout history, and especially during the golden age because it’s one that is popular among historians and lay people throughout the world. A lot of new information has only recently become available. For example, two pirate shipwrecks have been discovered and are being explored – Sam Bellamy’s Whydah and Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge – and Blackbeard’s genealogy and early history has come to light. As I’ve read about pirates, I’ve also written about them. I started with an article on Jean Laffite, the gentleman pirate who plays a role in my novel, back in 2000. Nearly every month since then, I’ve written an article on some aspect of the history of piracy, pirate life, or particular pirates. As editor of Pirates and Privateers, I also read and review many scurvy tales. Aside from our many misconceptions about pirates, authors portray pirates in many different ways. Sometimes the stories are great, but the facts are all wrong.
While writers often do and should emphasize story over history, the more realistically we can portray our characters, the more believable they and our stories will be to readers. My workshop, Bringing Pirates to Life, strives to help writers create characters that fit within historical parameters while still living in a fictional world. If you’ve a pirate story idea simmering on a back burner or just an avid interest in history’s bad boys and girls, I invite you to partake of Bringing Pirates to Life and join me during October when we sail the Caribbean Sea in search of the plunderers of yore.
A retired librarian, Cindy Vallar is a historical novelist and member of the Historical Novel Society. She is also a freelance editor and for seventeen years, she’s penned “The Red Pencil” column for their Historical Novels Review. As the Editor of Pirates and Privateers, she writes monthly articles on the history of maritime piracy. Dark Oak Press recently published her historical fantasy, “Rumble the Dragon,” in its short story anthology, A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder. She invites you to visit her award-winning website, Thistles & Pirates to learn more.
A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder
Banned from his home after answering a wizard’s riddle, Rumble must live in the dangerous world of men. He forms an uneasy alliance with exiled Vikings to retrieve a sacred chalice stolen by their fiendish arch nemesis, Ivan Skullsplitter. “Rumble the Dragon” is one of twenty-four amazing tales of bravado, daring, and dastardly deeds committed by legendary pirates. Travel the High Seas and the far reaches of the galaxy in this collection of tales that explore the past, present, and future of our favorite scallywags. Good luck, and may the wind be in your favor, blowing you toward good pickings and a safe harbor