Hidden Treasure-Historical Truth
By Katherine Bone
“Drink up, me hearties, yo ho!” Pirates were jovial fellows, lusty lovers, men or
women with a penchant for mischief. Whether a privateer commissioned from Britain‟s
Admiralty Court, Corsairs, infamous Barbary Coast pirates hailing from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, or British, French or Dutch Buccaneers who haunted the Caribbean Islands until receiving a commission to escape the hangman‟s noose, pirates were eccentric and
nasty whether friend or foe. Records from 1720 document that between 1800-2400 American and British pirates roamed the seas and nearly 13,000 naval seamen were bound and determined to catch them.
In order to outrun these resolute men, pirates needed vessels with two or three masts, (main mast, mizzen mast and foremast). Wooden crafts commandeered were known to leak, grow weeds in tropical climes and collect marine borers called teredo worms, making more work for the crew. Confiscated ships were outfitted with square-rigged sails, hung from the yardarm with lower mast, top mast, and topgallant mast, or with fore-and-aft sail attached with gaff or stays stretching across the midship line to increase maneuverability. In violent squalls however, square-rigged sail was easily torn and if the sails didn‟t rip in strong winds, the overburdened masts broke in half or worse, capsized the ship. For this reason, square-rigged sail was put away at the onset of bad weather and trysails were put up in their stead. Much smaller than square-rigged sail, trysails were attached to the bottom portion of the mast and secured fore-and-aft which enabled the craft to sail upon heavy seas with less strain.
A vessel was known to be „ship-rigged‟ when square-rigging was carried on all
three masts. Brig- or barque-rigged ships sailed with square-rigging on the fore and mainmast, and fore-and-aft rigging on the mizzenmast. Schooner- or sloop-rigged ships were outfitted fore-and-aft, sometimes with additional top sail carried on the mainmast. Galley-built ships had a level deck with a large cabin under the quarterdeck at the rear with loopholes for small arms. Frigate-built ships had a raised forecastle leaving a well between it and the aftercastle. Fronted with beams and a door, defenders could retreat to the aftercastle, if attacked, and return fire onto the deck through loopholes.
Pirates obtained ships through seize and capture but this method of procuring ships often left them without choice in what particular type of vessel they commandeered.
Sloops were single masted ships rigged fore-and-aft with main sail and a jib. Ancestors of the modern yacht, they were fast, easy to sail when operated by a small crew and a favorite of pirates. Sloops came in all sizes from two-man turtle boats to Royal Navy men-of-war carrying 12 large guns. When outgunned, the sloop‟s agility helped it
avoid broadsides. A pirate‟s advantage… surrender came quickly enough as a sloop with
6 or 7 guns easily out-matched a brigantine with 15-20 guns. Most successful pirate attacks along the Caribbean coast, in the 1700‟s, were made by sloops. Between 35-65
feet long with 6-12 guns on their broad decks, the best sloops were built in Bermuda and Jamaica.
The Crumster looked like a three-masted galleon. It was a prized gem among pirates. Crumsters were also used as war ships to escort larger galleons. While it lacked speed and agility, it made up for it with twice the fire power. The gun deck could carry
between 8-16 guns, usually 4 to 12 pounders, and 4 times the crew, usually numbering more than 60. More importantly, the Crumster could hold more loot.
The Schooner had two masts; fore-and-aft sail and a narrow hull which helped it reach 11 knots in a stiff breeze. Weighing between 90 and 100 tons, it‟s most effective
appeal was that it hid easily in shallow water. The schooner could carry 8 cannon, 4 swivel guns and a crew of 75.
The Brigantine was a two-masted brig. It was a workhorse and combat vessel of choice. Larger than a barq, it was designed to be square-rigged on the foremast with a gaff-rigged sail on the main mast, a square topsail above that and trysails and flying stay-sails between the masts. A versatile ship, it sailed best in quartering winds, while the gaff-rigged fore-and-aft sails helped it effectively sail windward. Usually 8 feet long and displacing 150 tons, it carried a crew of 100. Pirates often converted merchantmen ships
into brigantines by removing the mizzen and moving the mainmast aft so it could be rigged for fore-and-aft sail. They often lopped off the forecastle, pilot‟s cabin, and much
of the quarter deck and railings to lighten the ship for speed. Swivel guns and gun ports were added to give the ship fire power then the figurehead was removed and replaced further disguising the previous make and look of the ship.
Galleys had long rows of oars or sweeps projecting from their sides. Galleys were long square-rigged ships and required 2-3 men to pull each oar. The genius behind this method gave pirates an opportunity to attack from the leeward side or escape easily into the wind. Captain Kidd commissioned the Adventure Galley when he was still
officially a privateer. At 124 feet long, displacing 287 tons with 46 sweeps, the ship was designed for speed. It carried 34 guns and a crew of 70. Under full sail and 3200 yards of canvas, it pulled 14 knots and 3 knots under oar. Though heavy, the ship was built for combat with closely fitted ribs giving it the ability to withstand cannon blast. Still men had to clamor out of the bowsprit to relieved themselves for there were no crew‟s
quarters. Neither was there a galley. Instead there was a shot locker in the hold which carried 6 tons of shot for the Adventure‟s 12 pounders. Huge water casks, weighing a ton
each were carried amidships to help ballast and entailed 40 men to hoist the cargo aboard from a giant capstan. The anchor weighed 3,000 pounds and was raised and lowered by a 6,000 link cable that took an hour or more to operate. “Heave ho, me hearties!”
The Spanish Galleon was The Prize. Used as men-of-war and treasure of merchant ships, it‟s most noticeable feature was that it‟s hull loped inward as it rose,
tapering to a top deck more narrow than the ship‟s beam at the water line. This helped
concentrate the weight for cannon and improved stability. Carrying 74 cannon, 36 on each side and 2 mounted aft with numerous swing guns mounted along the rail which repelled boarders, the crew of 200 and passengers of 40 felt completely safe from attack. The draw back however was that the Galleon pitched and rolled in the sea more easily than other ships. Most were four-masted, sailing at a top speed of only 8 knots thusly pirates often sawed away much of the superstructure when Galleons were captured to increase speed.
Men-of-war were heavily armed ships searching for pirates on the open seas oftentimes floating in the shadow of merchant ships. Most pirates avoided the men-of-thwar, but not Bartholomew Roberts, an 18 century buccaneer. He often took on the
mighty ships especially if he knew they were carrying a coveted prize. In the men-of-war line there were three classes designated by the amount of guns carried on board. The
Corvette, sometimes called a sloop-of-war with 10-20 guns, the Frigate, a smaller version of the ship of the line with 24-40 guns, and the Ship of the Line, a main battle ship and the largest men-of-war carrying between 32-144 guns depending upon the period.
Whether by Sloop, Brigantine, Galley or Galleon, seafarers and land lovers alike rued the day the black flag, the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger, fluttered in the wind from a mainmast on the horizon. The banner was a frightening herald of impending doom and from what history tells us; only the most fortunate escaped the pirate‟s brand.