Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

A Gross of Pirates by Terry Breverton

From Alfhild the Shield Maiden to Afweyne the Big Mouth

Admiral Sir Henry Morgan. (A Gross of Pirates, Amberley Publishing)

Why write twelve books about pirates and privateers? It simply stems from writing about famous Welshmen. I knew about the privateer Admiral Sir Henry Morgan, but by chance discovered Black Bart Roberts, hardly known in Britain, but by far the most successful ‘pirate of the Caribbean’, taking more than 400 ships, and known across the Americas. From the career of the teetotal Roberts, who dressed from head to foot in scarlet (the origin of le joli rouge, the Jolly Roger), I learned of the greatest pirate trial of all time…

Men flocked to join him from surrendered ships – I did not know that forcible impressment and cruelty was endemic upon merchant ships as well as the Royal Navy – to escape their miserable lives. The average lifespan of a sailor in the slave trade was 18 months. Life as a pirate, in an elected democracy with agreed rules aboard ship, better food and freedom, was far more attractive. In Black Bart’s words, ‘a short life and a merry one shall be my motto.’ Pringle calls Roberts ‘possibly the most daring pirate who ever lived’, and upon the death of ‘the Black Pyrate’, there was the greatest pirate trial of all time, with 273 men captured, including 72 black pirates who had the same conditions, share of booty and freedom as their white counterparts.

Bart’s is a magnificent story, well documented like those of Morgan, who successfully led six expeditions against ‘impregnable’ targets belonging to Spain and altered the course of the history of North America. Every maritime country has its story of privateers like Morgan, who were, of course, pirates to England’s major enemy.

Blackbeard. (Courtesy of Library of Congress, A Gross of Pirates, Amberley Publishing)

A review of the book reads: ‘It's no use pretending that these criminals do not evoke admiration - even envy. Part of the appeal is the democratic nature of their activities, characterised as far back as the fourteenth century by Klaus Stortebeker thieving in the Baltic - his crew were called the “Likedeelers”, the equal sharers. Author Terry Breverton has brought together the extraordinary stories of 144 pirates throughout history. They include Norman privateers, Barbary Corsairs, Elizabethan adventurers, Chinese pirates, “'the Brethren of the coast” - and of course the pirates of the Caribbean.’

It was enjoyable writing the book, to research other pirates over the centuries. Some were brave gentlemen who led by example, like Henry Morgan; others experienced sailors who were voted into office like Roberts; some too kindly for their crews, like Edward England; and many simply unhinged and cruel, like l’Ollonais and Montbars the Destroyer. One of the early pirates, Eustace the Monk, may have been the model for Robin Hood, and the privateer Didrik Pining may have been the first to discover America. Some were female, such as Alfhild, ‘the bloody Lioness’ Jeanne de Clisson, Sayyida and Madame Ching. The latter, incidentally, had her pirate husband murdered and married his lover, their adopted bisexual son.

Some readers may know that the character and tale of the renegade Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now was inspired by the film Aguire – Wrath of God. Both stories were inspired by Lope de Aguirre (8 November 1510 – 27 October 1561), also known as the ‘Limping Conquistador’, ‘Keeper of the Dead’, ‘El Loco’ (The Madman), who styled himself ‘Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, Prince of Peru, and King of Tierra Firme’. And of course, he’s in the book!

Terry Breverton's new book A Gross of Pirates is available for purchase now.