Hidden Treasure-Historical Truth
A Pirate‟s Life for Me
By Katherine Bone
th “Yo ho! Yo ho! A Pirate‟s life for me.” Piracy dates back to the 7 century B.C.
Attacks at that time were limited to the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas where kings like Assyrian King Sennacherib tried to stop pirates from terrorizing the Straits of Hormuz. thIn the 4 century A.D., Alexander the Great led an unsuccessful campaign against pirates in the Mediterranean. Women and girls were captured and traded for ransom by Greek rdcorsairs in the 3 century B.C. In 67 B.C., the Roman General Pompey led a mighty fleet stto force pirates out of the Mediterranean and during the 1 century A.D., Emperor Trajan thtried to do the same. In the 8 century, Vikings brought piracy to Europe. Their
descendants, the Normans, conquered Britain paving the way for Eustace the Black Monk to terrorize the English Channel until his beheading in 1217. th During the 15 century, piracy found a golden age when the Americas were
discovered and Spain returned with Galleons weighted down with gold. Among pirates, freebooters, stemming from the Dutch vrijbuiter (vrij, “free”, buiter, “booty”), men like
Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake were enticed to privateer for the Crown, an act which gave them special permission to raid Spanish Galleons. This was legally done providing Hawkins and Drake, and other known Captains, could produce an official license signed and sealed by the Crown. Failure to produce this sealed letter resulted in death as in the case of William Kidd who was tried for piracy in 1701. Kidd claimed his crew had mutinied and vehemently protested his innocence, claiming he had a privateering license to prove it. When the letter was never produced, Captain Kidd was forced to „dance the hempen jig‟.
„Dead men tell no tales‟, unless their bodies are left to rot hanging in chains,
sending a macabre warning to all pirates to „belay‟ their „addled‟ ways. Alas, in Captain
Kidd‟s case, the irony is profound. Recent evidence proves the Captain‟s privateering
license was legitimate. A London Public Record‟s Office amazingly found Captain
William Kidd‟s official letter in the early 1900‟s, 200 years after his hasty execution.
Piracy in the Caribbean, whether legal or not, enticed seamen out of their droll existence. A pirate‟s life was riddled with danger and most did not live past 28 years old. However, those statistics did not stop men from seeking to escape nagging wives or the law. Most pirated willingly, thirsting for adventure and freedom. And there were instances aplenty where men were waylaid or consigned to a pirate‟s crew when drunk,
after battle, or during surrender of a captured ship. Being pressed into service and swearing allegiance to a Captain‟s flag often proved more entertaining than death, but
depending upon the Captain, being part of the crew could also be a living hell.
A life at sea was mixed with scurvy, disease, and deprivation which killed more men than a broadside or the hangman‟s noose. On the sea, stores of beef, pork, butter,
and oatmeal were often depleted or spoiled. Men were subjected to eating rats or „hard-
tack‟, biscuits oftentimes riddled with weevils, in order to stay alive. Beer was the preferred drink and most ships carried 10,500 gallons of it to pacify the crew. Having 3,500 gallons of rum on board did much to allay mutiny. Traditionally, rum was watered down and flavored with sugar and lemon into something called „grog‟. Be it, beer, rum
or grog, anything was better than the alternative… drinking slimy, foul water.
Captains varied from ship to ship. Some had severe rules and breaking them brought about inventive modes of punishment. Aboard ship there was to be no women, stealing, secrets, violence, dirty weapons or danger. Historically, rare few walked the plank. But the fact remains, no matter the punishment, the results were horrendous.
* By Moses Law, a man could not survive more than 40 lashes so men were usually given 39 instead. Yet stories prevail of men receiving 100 and living to tell the tale.
* The Cat-o‟-Nine-Tails was a whip with 9 knotted thongs interlaced with sharp objects and made of cow or horse‟s hide, which filleted the skin off men‟s backs.
* Marooning was especially harsh. Men were stranded on an island without food or water, their only saving grace, a pistol with one shot to end their lengthy suffering.
* Sweating involved forcing men to run by cutlass point around the main mast until they collapsed in exhaustion often bloodied from continuous poking. If still alive, victims were placed in a barrel filled with bugs who then feasted upon exposed flesh.
* Keelhauling was doubly feared. Stripped naked, men were tied to ropes, thrown overboard and pulled under the ship, down, around and up, until their bodies were bloodied by razor-sharp barnacles or eaten by sharks.
* Men were tossed into Davy Jone‟s Locker, shot at, oftentimes dragged behind
the ship at the end of a rope until overtaken by hypothermia or until they drowned.
To achieve success on the high seas, Captains needed a firm backbone, steady hands, strict rules, and a worthy crew. Each member was expected to pull his own weight, to do what he was told, or to suffer the consequences. Mutiny, windless sail, and a fleet of pursuing vessels were a Captain‟s worst nightmare. Whether dictator or a
democratic leader, an elected or selected Captain maintained order at all times.
* Aiding the Captain on his voyage was the First Mate/Quartermaster, who was the Captain‟s right-hand man, a man who handled rations and meted out punishment.
* The Boatswain or Bosun was a Junior Officer in charge of rigging, sails, and keeping the ship‟s decks clean.
* The Carpenter replaced damaged wood, plugged holes, and often times performed surgery on the injured when a surgeon wasn‟t present.
* The Gunner had to be an accurate marksman with years of experience. But ideally, the entire crew knew everything about the guns and how to operate them.
* A Surgeon was, at times, hard to find. He performed amputations, repaired other injuries and treated disease.
* Powder Monkeys were young boys responsible for loading and cleaning the guns.
* Finally, the Cabin Boy was the youngest crew member who assisted the cook and cleaned the Captain‟s cabin.
In whatever ship commandeered, Galleon, Sloop, Schooner or Frigate, pirate Captain‟s flew special flags commonly referred to as the Jolly Roger. Many believe the term comes from the French joli rouge, pretty red, which developed into Jolly Roger
because some pirates flew red flags. It has also been suggested that Jolly Roger stems from the English word „roger‟ for vagabond, and „Old Roger‟ a common reference for the
devil. Recently, a connection has been made to the Knights Templar who flew a red flag with crossed bones when they disbanded in 1312 and began to rove the seas.
Ideally, pirate Captains designed their own flag to employ a personal brand. Whether red or black, skull and crossbones, skull and cutlass, devil, skeleton, or arm wielding cutlass, the anticipated reaction of the Jolly Roger was realized time and again amid the haunting strains of “Yo ho! Yo ho! A pirate‟s life for me.”