Pirates: Truth and Tale by Helen Hollick
Pirates. The word conjures a promise of exciting adventure, Caribbean islands, hot sun, blue sea, the Jolly Roger flag, a parrot or two, chests of treasure and a chap with a wooden leg, a patch over one eye and a gold hoop in his ear. Go on, admit it, you were tempted to utter a resounding ‘Arrr!’ weren’t you?
The truth is, the pirates of the Golden Age, the early 1700s, were very far from our romantic Hollywood image. The truth of piracy is very far from the fictional tales.
When Amberley approached me to write a book about pirates I was initially inclined to say no. There are dozens of books and internet blogs about pirates. What could I write that was different? Then I had an idea. I could look at pirates from the factual and the fictional side. I knew many facts because I write my own fictional series about a pirate, written for adults with a lot of swashbuckling adventure and a touch of fantasy (think Pirates of the Caribbean, Hornblower, Sharpe, James Bond and Indiana Jones all rolled into one). Would it be fun to explore these two different angles, using known characters such as Blackbeard, Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny alongside Errol Flynn, Jack Sparrow and Captain Hook, as well as my own creation of Captain Jesamiah Acorne?
As a writer, once the idea had been conceived I just had to follow it through. The result is Pirates: Truth and Tales.
Pirates were sea-based robbers, terrorists of the seas. Unkempt, untrustworthy rogues, with most of them ending up on the gallows. Most were originally sailors, either merchant seamen or Royal Navy. Some became pirates because other pirates attacked their ships and forced their victims to join them – especially those with a skill such as carpentry, navigation or best of all, medical knowledge. A surgeon was an enormous prize. Others turned to piracy out of desperation to survive, a wish to get rich quick, or because of plain boredom. One pirate, however, bought a ship, gathered a crew and went off ‘On the Account’ for no other reason than to escape his nagging wife. His name was Stede Bonnet, and he ended up dancing the hempen jig on the gallows. Divorce would have been easier.
The word pirate comes from the Greek verb, peiran, which means to attack. In Ancient Greek culture pirates were looked upon as heroes, on a par with warriors. By Roman times they were less tolerated, and come the 15-1600s were either encouraged or loathed depending which country you were from and which war was being fought at the time.
Privateering was nothing more than legal piracy, but government and monarch sponsored. It all started with Sir Francis Drake and the war between England and Spain. There was nothing wrong, so thought Elizabeth I, with plundering Spanish ships. By the mid-to-late 1600s doing so was actively encouraged because Spain was still the enemy and Spanish galleons were carrying vast amounts of treasure from the Americas back home to Cádiz. That is, if they were not intercepted by the likes of Captain Henry Morgan (he of the rum-brand fame). But when a treaty of peace was signed, vessels were left to rot while sailors kicked their heels in various ports with nothing to do except drink and find ‘entertainment’ with the ladies.
And then a Spanish treasure fleet was destroyed by a hurricane. At least eleven ships went down just off the coast of Florida, hundreds of men were drowned and the Spanish had a mad scramble to salvage what they could. As did dozens of others who realised there were easy pickings to be found in the shallows. The 1700s equivalent of a lottery win.
The Caribbean trade routes were just starting to flourish. Tobacco, sugar cane and its by-product of rum had to be shipped from the American colonies to England. With little to no defence the ships were easy prey. By 1717 the rich merchants back in England were beginning to feel the pinch, and piracy had to be stopped. The law cracked down, all pirates were to be hanged if caught, and Woodes Rogers, a noted privateer in his own right was sent to be Governor of the Bahamas, based in the pirate haven of Nassau. Using his wits he offered a King’s Amnesty, which most pirates took, and adhered to. Those who did not, Charles Vane, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Jack Rackham, Edward Low and a few other notables, thumbed their noses and returned to the sea. By 1720 they, and most of the well-known ones, were dead.
The movies, TV shows, fiction, all depict pirates as heroes, charmers with a touch of redeemable rogue about them. Handsome eye-candy usually with an eye to a wench with a well-endowed chest rather than to a chest of gold. Remember Pugwash, the bumbling cartoon character of children’s TV? What of Hook in Peter Pan, a pirate indeed, but a gentleman character who went to Eton and spoke of ‘good form’. Then there’s Jack Sparrow – oh we all fell for Johnny Depp’s inspired character didn’t we? Although only the first movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl was good; two, three and four in the series were not. I await to make an opinion on the fifth, due out this summer 2017.
The adventurous tales of derring-do far outweigh the truth. Frenchman’s Creek, Treasure Island, my own Sea Witch Voyages are popular entertainment reading. The romantic idyll of life at sea, a cool breeze blowing in the rigging, the crack of sails, the gurgle of the sea rushing past the hull – the occasional firing of a couple of cannons or making some innocent walk the plank all adds to the adventure. Would we be so keen, though, with the reality of weevil-ridden rancid food, scummy green drinking water, no medicines or medical supplies, no sanitation, no clean clothes – no clean bodies, and the daily threat of the noose to end it all?
No thanks, I’ll stick with my Jesamiah Acorne and that Sparrer’ feller if you don’t mind! (for more information check out my author community page for my social media links.)
Helen Hollick's new book Pirates: Truth and Tale is available for purchase now.