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The account of events is easy to find on the Internet: while on her two thousand mile voyage along the Pacific coast of South America in the spring of 1681, the Spanish merchantman–possibly a galleon, but likely only in the sense that any Spanish treasure ship might be known as a galleon–Santa Maria de la Consolación was sighted by one or more pirate ships under the command of the notorious buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp.
The Consolación only barely escaped by slipping into Guayaquil Harbor, but in her haste she wrecked on Isla Santa Clara. The buccaneers came ashore and, furious that the treasure was lost, tortured several of the crew and beheaded two of them.
So notorious were the acts of the buccaneers, or so one version of the story goes, that the island became known as Isla de Muerto.
The story has almost everything Hollywood has led us to expect in a pirate story.
But there’s a problem with this tale, as is there is with much that evokes Hollywood expectations.
Almost none of it is true.
The Buccaneers & the Santa Maria de la Consolación
Yes, there was a shipwreck.
The Santa Maria de la Consolación did run aground and sink.
And yes, the Consolación’s captain, crew, and passengers had been concerned about the pirates in the region, and yes, the pirates were commanded by the famous Bartholomew Sharp, at least most of the time.
But that’s all the truth there is.
Neither Sharp nor any other pirates chased the ship, nor did they come ashore after the wreck, nor did they torture or behead any of the crew or passengers.
In fact, the captain, crew, and passengers of the Consolación never saw any pirates at all, much led fled from any unless you consider the definition to include their haste to complete their voyage in case they might see them.
Bartholomew Sharp and his ship the Trinity were far to windward at the time. Only two or three months later did he and his buccaneers even learn that the Consolación had been at sea, and conditions made it impossible to search for her even though the sea rovers were in the area of Guayaquil.
Time, distance, and other circumstances–Fortune–ensured that the Trinity would never cross paths with the Consolación. Nor would the buccaneers even learn of the shipwreck until long after she had wrecked.
According to buccaneer and author Basil Ringrose (1684):
“August 19 . This day our pilot [captured July 29, 1681 aboard the Spanish ship El Santo Rosario] told us that, since were to windward, a certain ship that was coming from Lima bound for Guayaquil ran ashore on Santa Clara, losing there in money to the value of 100,000 pieces-of-eight; which otherwise, peradventure, we might very fortunately have met with.”
In fact, the buccaneers had no great guns (cannon) aboard their flagship, the Trinity, while the Consolación had more than twenty of brass and iron. Unless the buccaneers could have boarded the treasure ship, the battle might easily gone to the Spanish.
Sharp’s voyage is by far the most well-documented of any buccaneer or pirate voyage in history, with some seven members writing full or partial accounts. Further, Spanish records quite thoroughly corroborate the buccaneer accounts, including dates and locations. There is no possibility of mistake: Sharp and his buccaneers never sighted the Consolación, much less chased her, much less abused her crew. Having written several books on the subject of piracy, including extensive research on the subject of Bartholomew Sharp, I’m in a pretty good position to know.
Of course, there may, however, have been a small number of buccaneers who might have been briefly in the area, but they never saw the Consolación either and in any case were in no shape to have chased or attacked her. They were sneaking their way back to the Isthmus of Darien after having “mutinied” and parted from Bartholomew Sharp, finding his behavior as a commander less than acceptable.
La Isla de Muerto
One of these “mutineers” (they really weren’t mutineers, for buccaneer articles permitted crew members to leave the crew, provided that they paid for their provisions) was William Dampier, soon to become famous for his travels and books. He did write about the wreck when, as a member of a buccaneer crew three years later, they hovered around Guayaquil.
According to Dampier, writing of 28 November 1684 in his A New Voyage Round the World, “It is reported by the Spaniards, that there is a very rich Wreck lies on the North-side of that Island [Santa Clara], not far from it; and that some of the Plate hath been taken up by one who came from Old-Spain, with a Patent from the King to fish in those Seas for Wrecks; but he dying, the Project ceased, and the Wreck still remains as he left it; only the Indians by stealth do sometimes take up some of it; and they might have taken up much more, if it were not the Cat-fish which swarms hereabouts.”
If we look at several of the Basil Ringrose and William Hack (or Hacke) charts of the Bay of Guayaquil, based on a captured Spanish derrotero, we learn that Isla Santa Clara was known as Isla de la Muerto not because there was a massacre there, but because it is shaped like “the corps of a man in a shroud.” Dampier also notes that “it appears like a dead Man stretched out in a Shroud.”
From this would derive not only the island’s nickname, but also the myth. An additional suggestion toward the myth may come from a line in a copy of another of Hack’s South Sea waggoners, shown in the image below. Sharp, however, never actually gave chase as attested by numerous buccaneer accounts and Spanish records.
In other words, the coins aren’t cursed Aztec treasure (wrong region anyway), or cursed by direct association with pirates who tortured the crew, or cursed at all unless you consider the coca chewing slave labor used in extracting the Potosí silver from the mines or in refining it with poisonous quicksilver.
And if there were no massacre, any marketing done to sell coins salvaged from the wreck is misleading. I own a few coins from the wreck and as I recall there were references to the massacre in the associated descriptions and apparently still are. Why does this matter? Because people buying the coins might want to know that, although there is a buccaneer association, it’s not as close as often advertised.
Yet the purported association lures buyers. In fact, some several or more years ago I purchased one of these wreck-salvaged pieces-of-eight from a reportedly reliable coin vendor on ebay as a memento. I’m not a big coin collector, and generally don’t care for salvage coins. Perhaps as few as two or three wrecks whose coins are available on the market have an indirect relationship to actual pirates or sea rovers, and most salvage coins are in poor shape as compared to many “land hoard” coins. I prefer coins that have been handled and used, not those that have lain for centuries at the bottom of the sea soon after being minted. In other words, I prefer coins with a long active history.
However, having written several times of Bartholomew Sharp and his South Sea buccaneers, I thought a coin or two from the wreck of the Santa Maria de la Consolación off Santa Clara Island in the Bay of Guayaquil would be in order, given its association with the South Sea buccaneers. I found a third one reasonably priced, from a reliable coin vendor with high ratings and thousands of transactions. The coin was not expensive, as eight reale pieces-of-eight go, and was priced in the lower end of the range. I did not examine it too closely before buying it, although I ran it past the images of forged pieces-of-eight on the Daniel Sedwick website. But when I received the coin I was perplexed. It appeared genuine, but there was no sea damage at all, nor did the coin match any description of any New World coin.
Eventually I appealed to Mr. Sedwick to evaluate the coin for me. The coin was genuine, as I thought, but was a common piece-of-eight minted in Spain, “Seville” as it was called by the English in America, and not one from the wreck of the Santa Maria. Further, as Mr. Sedwick pointed out to me in an email, upon close examination it was apparent that the certificate of authenticity had been forged. I hesitate to accuse the vendor I purchased it from of this, although as a professional he should have spotted it.
More curious, though, is what the certificate forger, not to mention criminal jackass, whoever he or she was, expected to get away with. Perhaps he or she intended to capitalize on the inexplicable (to me at least) preference for sea salvage coins over land hoard and circulated coins which are typically in much better shape, although not always. Whatever he or she intended, the coin’s pretended shipwreck status did nothing to increase its value. Comparable Spain-minted coins often go for more money than I paid for it. I lost nothing on the transaction except the coin as memento.
Ebay is often criticized for failing to scrutinize its coin vendors enough, and buyers need to be careful when buying from anyone other than a highly reputable dealer who deals regularly in Spanish cobs. Mr. Sedwick’s book, The Practical Book of Cobs has good sections on buying coins and spotting fakes. Although an expensive book, readers should also review Sewall Menzel’s Cobs: Pieces of Eight and Treasure Coins–The Early Spanish American Mints and Their Coinages, 1536-1773. (However, I should note that as of the date of original publication of this post, even Mr. Sedwick’s page associated with this wreck incorrectly states that the pirates tortured some of the survivors &c.)
A bit of advice: don’t simply accept any claims made on the Internet. Double-check them. Start with books on the subject, and especially look for citations. If there are no citations in an Internet article, or even a book, be highly suspicious. For that matter, be a bit suspicious even if there are. Check the citations: you might be surprised to learn how often citations don’t actually support the claim. (This is unfortunately true even in some scholarship more often than it should be.)
In the case of these coins, you’ll find not only that there really aren’t citations given at all to support the claims, but also that the descriptions are all very similar, often identical. In other words, they all have the ultimate incorrect source. And when you go looking for books to support the claim you won’t find any. So why hasn’t the story been changed, even though I’ve challenged it on the Internet for some years now, and in books as well? Even though no scholarly work on Sharp’s voyage mentions it? Even though the written accounts of the buccaneers themselves not only don’t mention it but dispute it?
The purported pirate association makes the coins more likely to sell, or so the thinking goes, and in some cases permits a higher price.
Still, none of the foregoing should devalue the coins as “pirate treasure,” including the fact that the buccaneers never chased the ship. Sharp’s voyage was epic, and these coins are what he was after. The Santa Maria de la Consolación, sailing alone, struggled to make it safely to port, in fear all the while of Sharp’s buccaneers. These coins are the closest pieces-of-eight readily available–and affordable–to what we would describe as “buccaneer treasure.”
Copyright Benerson Little 2019. First published February 13, 2019. Last updated April 5, 2019.
Jack Sparrow, Perhaps? The Origin of an Early “Hollywood” Pirate, Plus the Authentic Image of a Real Buccaneer
The illustration above was created in late 1926 or early 1927, and published in April of the latter year. Among its several pirate clichés (skull and bones on the hat, tattoos, curved dagger, long threatening mustache) is one I had thought was entirely modern: a pirate hair braid with coins attached.
Quite possibly, this coin braid is the artist’s idea of a pirate “love lock.” The love lock was popular among some young English and French gentlemen in the first half of the seventeenth century. Usually worn on the left side, it was typically tied with a ribbon, a “silken twist” as one author called it. Occasionally two were worn, one on each side as in the image below.
This “pirate love lock” is a noteworthy characteristic of the very Hollywood, very fantasy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, and I wonder if this image did not inspire much of his look. Historically-speaking, though, there is no historical basis for it among pirates of the “Golden Age” (circa 1655 to 1725), although it’s possible there may have been a gentleman rover or two who wore one during the first half of the seventeenth century–but not a braid or lock with coins.
Of course, much of The Mentor pirate image above was clearly inspired by famous illustrator and author Howard Pyle, as shown below.
There’s a hint of N. C. Wyeth too, not surprising given that he was a student of Howard Pyle. However, Captain Peter Blood was a gentleman pirate, and the pirate on The Mentor cover is clearly not.
And Wyeth’s Captain Blood cover is clearly influenced by this 1921 cover he painted for Life magazine. In fact, less the goatee, the two buccaneers might be one and the same:
The Pyle influence continued through the twentieth century in film, illustration, and mass market paperbacks about pirates…
The Mentor illustration is also clearly influenced by Douglas Fairbanks’s 1926 film The Black Pirate, which was, according to Fairbanks himself, heavily influenced by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates and to a fair degree by Peter Pan.
Seriously, check out Fairbanks’s costume in the film, it’s obviously that of Peter Pan grown up. I have a soft spot for Douglas Fairbanks: my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, described him as a gentleman and a swordsman, and described how Fairbanks invited the Hungarian fencers to his mansion Picfair (named after Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford) after György Jekelfalussy-Piller won the gold saber medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
And here, finally, we have Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in the flesh, braids and such dangling from his hair, again for which there is no historical precedent among Golden Age pirates that we know of. It’s hard to see how Depp’s costume, in particular his hair, might not have been influenced by the illustration at the top of the page. If it weren’t, it’s quite a coincidence.
As noted, it’s entirely possible that the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl costume designers never saw the image at the top of the page. They may have imagined it themselves, or been influenced by something else. A very likely possibility is Donald O’Connor in the 1951 film Double Crossbones, a campy pirate comedy that makes fun of nearly all pirate clichés.
Although this may seem to be little more than coincidence, there are other similarities between the two films, strongly suggesting the writers and costume designers were familiar with it. In particular, O’Connor plays a shy, somewhat bumbling shopkeeper’s apprentice in love with the governor’s beautiful ward, and she with him. Due to difference in social class he’s unwilling to express his love openly until by accident he becomes a pirate. Sound familiar? Even the costumes of the governor’s ward (Lady Sylvia Copeland, played by Helena Carter) are similar (homage-fashion?) to those of Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley. If not the Pirates of the Caribbean costume designer, then perhaps the Double Crossbones costume designer was familiar with the image at the top of the page.
Of course, all this so far is “Hollywood,” for lack of a better term. There are a number of serious groups of reenactors, scholars, and others trying to correct the false historical image, all with varying degrees of accuracy, agreement and disagreement, and success.
Hollywood has yet to get aboard, no matter whether in pirate films and television series, or often any film or television set prior to the nineteenth century for that matter, probably because it’s easier to play to audience expectations (and, unfortunately, much of the audience doesn’t really care), not to mention that there’s a tendency or even a fad among costume designers to do something that “evokes” the image or era rather than depict it accurately, not to mention the time and other expense of researching, designing, and creating costumes from scratch when there are costumes “close enough,” so to speak, already in film wardrobes.
Here’s a hint, Hollywood: you can start by getting rid of the “pirate boots.” They didn’t exist. They’re actually based on riding boots, and a pirate would only be in riding boots if he were on a horse–and horses aren’t often ridden aboard ship. Further, you can get rid of the baldrics in most cases, exceptions being primarily for gentlemen pirates wearing smallswords into the 1680s, no later. (You can have some Spanish pirates with rapiers wear baldrics after this, though.) And for that matter, you can get rid of wide belts and large belt buckles too. But if nothing else, please, please get rid of the boots, which, if I recall correctly, a UK journalist once correctly described as nothing more than fetish-wear.
Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails, a great show with a great cast and crew, but I had nothing to do with the costuming, much of which is considered as near-blasphemy by advocates of historical accuracy in material culture in television and film. That said, the show is a fictional prequel to a work of fiction that variously created or expanded some of our biggest myths about pirates–buried treasure, the black spot, and so on. Looked at this way, if you can accept the story you can probably tolerate the costuming.
I’ve discussed what real pirates and buccaneers looked like several times, not without some occasional minor quibbling by other authorities. The Golden Age of Piracy has some details, as do two or three of my other books, but several of my blog posts also discuss some of the more egregious clichés, with more posts on the subject to come.
At any rate, here’s an image of a real buccaneer, a French flibustier in fact, from the 1680s. It’s an eyewitness image, one of only a handful of authentic eyewitness images of “Golden Age” sea rovers. It and the others prove that an image may evoke swashbuckling pirates while still being entirely accurate.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 23, 2018. Last updated April 4, 2018.
A few quick notes on the use of the word pirate when the term privateer is appropriate.
It’s a minor issue, I know, this particular instance of the practice known today as “click-bait.” The practice has been around a long time, not only in political rhetoric but in marketing as well. But it has grown much worse over the past decade, and, given the state of affairs today in regard to the truth, in which outright lies often pass with too little outcry, and, almost as bad, in which mere unfounded opinion is often given equal time with solid expertise, any egregious usurpation of fact or meaning should be shunned–even in such a trivial-seeming matter of pirate versus privateer.
I am not entirely innocent of the charge myself, but in my defense it’s not been an egregious offense, and one generally committed by my publishers primarily because the word pirate is so marketable, not to mention that publishers invariably retain the right to change or even outright reject the author’s title.
For example, The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques is actually about the tactics of pirates, privateers, and commerce-raiding men-of-war. But pirate is the word used in the subtitle, a decision made by my publisher. Likewise The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main 1674-1688: buccaneers were often pirates, but also often legitimate privateers as well as what might best be termed “quasi-privateers” or “quasi-pirates” operating without a legitimate commission but with a “wink and a nod” from their respective governments. Pirate Hunting: The Fight Against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders From Antiquity to the Present also discusses privateers, commerce raiders, and even early submarines. The Golden Age of Piracy is the most accurate, but, as noted already, even buccaneers were often privateers.
Strictly speaking, piracy is armed robbery on the open seas. In the past, it was armed robbery pretty much anywhere there was ocean or land touching the ocean, at least if the thieves came by sea. Not just a crime, but a hanging crime, in other words.
Privateering, however, derives from private man-of-war, a vessel commissioned by a legitimate state to attack enemy shipping and profit from it. Lawful plundering, in other words, an entirely legal practice. A privateer might be imprisoned by the enemy if captured, but he wouldn’t be tried and hanged for piracy.
I’ve made plain in print many times that there is plenty of overlap among the various sorts of sea rover, that is, among pirates, privateers, and commerce-raiding men-of-war. That said, in most cases during the Golden Age of Piracy (circa 1655 to 1725) and afterward, the overlapping is much less common. In particular, the distinction is readily apparent everywhere except in the case of Caribbean buccaneers during the Golden Age (and strictly speaking, the only period in which true buccaneers existed).
In other words, in the majority of cases the distinction between pirate and privateer is obvious. Privateers in no ways considered themselves to be pirates, nor did anyone else except in a figurative sense by some of their their victims. Only if a privateer had overstepped his lawful authority and entered the realm of piracy might he be considered a pirate. Privateers did not claim to be pirates. Rather, they rejected the term outright. You’d get into a fight if you called a privateer a pirate, quite possibly a fatal one in the form of a duel.
So how does the use of the word pirate in the title of my books, and in similar books, differ from books and articles in which pirate is used as a term for privateer? Because my books and others like them are largely about piracy. Were they largely about privateering, the word privateering, not piracy, would appear in the titles.
Pirate and piracy have become romantic words, so it’s easy to see why they’re used whenever possible, however tenuous the connection to the subject. They’re therefore commonly used as umbrella terms for anything resembling plundering at sea, lawful or not. And they’re used in spite of the reality of piracy being anything but romantic to the usually entirely innocent victims: common seamen, coastal inhabitants, free people of color taken and sold as slaves by pirates, not to mention slaves captured by pirates and sold elsewhere, often away from their families.
In fact, it should be privateering and pirate hunting that convey the most romance, with piracy conveying revulsion, as it did in the past.
But it’s the caricature that matters: the word pirate conveys the image that draws the eye, and the description the ear.
Part of the problem with the lure of the word is that piracy has been re-interpreted as a form of rebellion against injustice. Pirates, we are told by too many scholars both amateur and professional, were rebels against empire, against unfair corporate practices, even–falsely–rebels against slavery. They are mostly the “good guys.” We are told that they may even have helped inspire the American Revolution and that they even threatened the existence of the English and other empires. Although there are occasional fragments of related truth in these claims, none of them are profoundly true or even slightly more than less true. They are not even as true as the suggestion that privateers were a form of pirates.
The fact is, we’re attracted to pirates so we sanitize them, we invent reasons, and let others invent reasons, why they weren’t as bad as they were. We make them palatable.
But to reemphasize, pirates were sea criminals, and in no way did their victims view them as heroes. Simply reading through a list of pirate cruelties and other depredations should be enough to correct the false image–but seldom does it. Privateers, although some did break the law at times, were by comparison Boy Scouts.
There are periods in history in which some groups of commissioned privateers behaved piratically: Spanish Caribbean privateers in the Golden Age, French and English buccaneers in the Golden Age, Colombian privateers during the South American wars of revolution (and likewise Spanish men-of-war fighting Colombian privateers), for example. But they are in the minority as compared to the enormous number of commissioned privateers, and when privateers did commit piratical acts, they were considered to be pirates. However, the majority of privateers behaved lawfully or largely lawfully, restricting their attacks to enemy shipping as permitted by law. The majority of privateers should never be referred to as pirates, nor should the term pirate be a catch-all for any sea rover, legitimate or other.
The inspiration for this post–not that it hasn’t always been on my mind in a small, usually resigned, way–was a recent NPR “All Things Considered” segment: How Pirates Of The Caribbean Hijacked America’s Metric System. The segment does note that:
“And you know who was lurking in Caribbean waters in the late 1700s? Pirates. ‘These pirates were British privateers, to be exact,’ says Martin. ‘They were basically water-borne criminals tacitly supported by the British government, and they were tasked with harassing enemy shipping.'”
But the privateers were not tacitly supported by the British government, that is, with implied consent. Rather, they were officially supported, they had explicit consent. They were not pirates, notwithstanding some critics who considered that privateering was in some ways piracy legitimized.
Bad history and click-bait are a common combination these days, although the example above is not by far one of the many egregious examples. Still, it is hard to imagine that the word pirate was used for any reason other than to draw the reader or listener in. Worse, the phrase used in the title is “Pirates of the Caribbean,” conjuring up images of romantic buccaneers, not to mention fantasy pirates like Jack Sparrow.
The correct title of the NPR segment should have been “How Privateers Hijacked America’s Metric System.” But this has much less cachet, and is far less likely to get someone to click on the published article and read it, or tune in later to listen. The title is actually a bit doubly misleading: did the capture of a metric weight really keep the new US from considering the metric system? Or was it, as the segment does note it might have been, just a missed opportunity?
I emailed All Things Considered on this minor matter several days ago. I haven’t heard back, even though I noted my several works on the subject of piracy and privateering. Perhaps the editors found the word click-bait offensive, or the fact that I pointed out that pretty much the same article ran in The Washington Post this past September on Talk Like a Pirate Day.
I’m not singling out NPR, this is just the most recent example I have at hand. I like NPR and have been a listener off and on for decades (mostly depending on how often I’m in my Jeep). But facts are facts, and when they’re imposters it doesn’t matter who the offender is–the offense needs to be pointed out.
The difference might be a non-issue with an educated audience, one that understands the difference between pirate and privateer. But today too many people are getting their education, such as it is, from click-bait articles on social media–articles that are ultimately misleading.
While this may seem to be nothing more than quibbling, it remains vital for the sake of truth to get facts straight. And this includes word definitions because they’re the primary means of conveying factual meaning, aka facts. We’re overwhelmed today not only with obvious liars and subtle liars, but with a large segment of society who excuse loose meaning and interpretation as a means of getting attention. It’s not only ideologues and Mammon’s imps who play fast and loose with the truth anymore, but every know-nothing and know-a-little know-it-all considers his or her wrong-headed opinion to be equal to that of the knowledgeable, facts be damned. And the disease is spreading to mainstream educated society: the Internet is making everyone lazy. How to stop this? By using facts to point out errors, misconceptions, and outright falsehoods.
For the privateer, definitions and facts made all the difference: it’s what kept him from being hanged as a pirate.
Copyright Benerson Little, January, 2018. First posted January 2, 2018.
It’s a simple question: Did pirates have tattoos? And the answer is simple, too–and complex as well.
Evidence for the simple positive answer is easy: buccaneer-surgeon Lionel Wafer, writing probably of the 1680s, noted that “One of my Companions desired me once to get out of his Cheek one of these imprinted Pictures, which was made by the Negroes, his Name was Bullman; which I could not effectually do, after much scarifying and fetching off a great part of Skin.” (Lionel Wafer, in A New Voyage & Description of the Isthmus of America. Oxford: Hackluyt Society, 1934, page 83.)
What Wafer was trying to do was surgically remove a “gunpowder spot,” as tattoos were then known in English. The term came into use via the process: prick holes in the skin and rub finely crushed gunpowder in to make a permanent mark. A simple enough process, not much different than that used by professionals today, and pretty close to those who use a homemade process (not recommended, of course).
So, without further analysis or discussion, we know that at least one late seventeenth century buccaneer was tattooed. What we do not know is whether such gunpowder spots were considered part of sea roving or maritime culture. In other words, did pirates or other seafarers view tattoos as identifying marks of their trade?
We also know that at least some other seamen of the era were well-inked: one “saylor” in 1720 Virginia had “on one hand S. P. in blew Letters and on the other hand blew Spots, and upon one arm our Savior upon the Cross, and on the other Adam and Eve, all Suppos’d to be done in Gun powder.” (The American Mercury, 17 March 1720, no. 13.)
Others are known as well, close enough to our period (circa 1655 to 1725) to be relevant. My thanks to maritime historian David Fictum, preeminent student of English maritime clothing in this period (you can look him up on Facebook), for providing me with these two instances:
From The Virginia Gazette, September 22 – 29, 1738: “RAN away from the Subscriber, in Caroline County on the 27th of August last, a Convict Servant Man, named John Coleman, alias, John Nabb…[he] has these 3 Letters on one of his Hands, I c M, but cannot be certain they stand thus; and has on one of his Arms, the Picture of our Saviour on the Cross…[He] has been a Sailor.”
And from The American Weekly Mercury, June 24 – July 1, 1736: “RAN-away from Patrick Creagh and William Medcalf, of the City of Annapolis in Maryland, on the 17th of May 1736 Three Servant Men, Viz. John Thomas, belonging to the said Creagh. He is a Ship-Carpenter or Caulker by Trade…I think he was mark’d on one of his Arms with some Letters & the resemblance of our Savoir, and on the other with Adam & Eve.”
Buccaneer, naval captain, privateer, world explorer, naturalist, and author William Dampier wrote of European tattooing while describing the manner of tattooing at Meangis, Indonesia during his circumnavigation of the world after a South Sea buccaneering voyage:
“By the Account he [Prince Jeoly] gave me of the manner of doing it, I understood that the Painting was done in the fame manner, as the Jerusalem-Cross is made in Mens Arms, by pricking the Skin, and rubbing in a Pigment. But whereas [gun] Powder is used in making the Jerusalem-Cross, they at Meangis use the Gum of a Tree beaten to Powder…” (William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World, volume 1:514. London: James Knapton, 1699.)
Dampier’s description of the Jerusalem cross alludes to Christian pilgrims whose tattoos often served to ensure Christian burial in foreign lands, as well to create a permanent “souvenir” or proof of pilgrimage. Constantin-François Volney in the late eighteenth century described these pilgrims and their journeys to and from Jerusalem:
“Easter over, each returns to his own country, proud of being able to rival the Mahometan in the title of Pilgrim, nay, many of them, in order to distinguish themselves as such, imprint on their hands, wrists, or arms, figures of the cross, or spear, with the cypher of Jesus and Mary. This painful, and sometimes dangerous, operation is performed with needles, and the perforations filled with gunpowder, or powder of antimony, and is never to be effaced. The Mahometans have the fame practice, which is also to be found among the Indians, and other savages, as it was likewise among several ancient nations with whom it had a connection with religion which it still retains wherever it prevails.” (From Travels through Syria and Egypt, in the years 1783, 1784, and 1785 by Constantin-François Volney. London: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1787, pages 311-312.)
This practice had apparently been around for centuries prior, and was probably picked up in the Middle East. It is quite likely that Christian seamen in the Mediterranean often had religious tattoos, if only to identify themselves as Christian in case of drowning or other death during their travels. More on this in a moment.
Pirates, mariners, and marooners who had lived among Native Americans were sometimes inked, and Native American and African mariners were probably often inked. Those who hailed from certain lands in the Mediterranean or in the East beyond were likewise probably often inked as well.
Lionel Wafer, while recovering among the Darien (Cuna) after burning himself severely when drying gunpowder, noted that “I went naked as the Salvages [sic], and was painted by their Women; but I would not suffer them to prick my Skin, to rub the Paint in, as they use to do, but only to lay it on in little Specks.” He described the process further: “But finer figures, especially by their greatest artists, are imprinted deeper, after this manner. They first with the Brush and Colour make a rough Draught of the Figure they design; then they prick all over with a sharp Thorn till the Blood gushes out; then they rub the place with their Hands, first dipp’d in the Colour they design; and the Picture so made is indelible. But scarce one in forty of them is painted this way.” (Wafer, op cit, pages 22 and 83.)
Two French seamen, one from Brittany, the other from La Rochelle, who had been members of the sieur de La Salle’s failed Texas colony, survived by living among a Native American tribe. In 1687 both men had “[T]heir Faces and Bodies with Figures wrought on them, like the rest [of the people they were living with].” In the same year a Spanish boy from Mexico, who had escaped on the Gulf Coast with other Spanish prisoners captured by buccaneers at Apalache, Florida, survived likewise by living with a Native American tribe. The boy, when found by Spanish Capitáns de Mar y Guerra Don Martín de Rivas and Don Pedro de Yriarte who were looking for La Salle’s colony, had tattoos like those of the people among whom he was living. (See Henri Joutel, The Last Voyage Perform’d by La Salle. London: A. Bell et al, 1714, page 173. And Enríquez Barroto, “The Enríquez Barroto Diary,” in Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 1987, page 180 &c.)
The evidence of Bullman above and other records as well indicate that at least some Africans were also tattooed, although most historians studying the subject note that scarification and similar processes were more common among Africans than tattooing. There were sea rovers of African origin in the Caribbean.
There is a general consensus among some researchers that the tattoo has long been a part of maritime culture, while others are hesitant to make this argument. Certainly it was a distinct part of maritime culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and is today as well, although possibly to a somewhat lesser extent. In 1900, US Navy surgeon A. Farenholt discussed the number and variety of tattoos of seamen aboard the USS Independence, and made some observations on tattooing in the navy in general. He estimated that roughly sixty percent of enlisted sailors had tattoos, with roughly one quarter of seamen in their first enlistment having them, and roughly half in their second enlistment having them. He noted that the forearm was the most popular location for tattooing among the Independence sailors, and the penis the least, with only seven instances of the latter. For readers who thought that penis tattooing was a modern curiosity, please be advised that there is not much that is really new. (See A. Farenhold, “Tattooing in the Navy, as Shown by the Records of the U.S.S. Independence.” United States Medical Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 1 (January 1900): 37–39.)
N.B. David Fictum, noted above, recommends Ira Dye, “The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 133, no. 4 (1989), as an excellent source that helps put tattooing and seafarers in context.
In my most recent book, The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths, I wrote the following, based on current general understanding, at least among a number of authorities published in English: “But the tattoo as a definite part of maritime culture probably did not exist until seamen began visiting Polynesia in the late eighteenth century.”
However, the images by Louis Ducros at the top of the page and just below clearly belie this. It may be that in the English navy and merchant marine, and in the American as well, tattoos did not become popular, in particular as an identifying mark or rite of passage, until after voyages to Polynesia became more regular (and from here we have the word “tattoo”), but clearly this was not the case among seamen of other nationalities, at least of those from Taranto. And this may not have been the case among English and American seafarers either. Further, it is entirely possible, even probable, that the degree tattooing was purely cultural–and culture changes over time. For example a Ducros watercolor of several Maltese seamen shows no tattoos on their arms, although it’s possible he simply chose not to depict them.
In the image at the top of the page we see the tattooed arm of an Italian seaman from Taranto in 1778. Tattoos belonging to other seamen are also shown, and also immediately above, with some dating to the 1760s, clearly before the British voyages to Polynesia. As one might expect, the tattoos are a variety, with Roman Catholic religious imagery quite prevalent. There is also a small vessel, possibly a tartana or “tarteen” under oars, a couple of suns, a possible set of arms, a chain around the wrist, and a Jerusalem cross.
Adding to the difficulty in answering the question of tattoos among seafarers of the period is the fact that people other than seafarers had “gunpowder spots” in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, ranging from the lubberly working class to upper class ladies–yes, ladies–and gentlemen.
Among working class examples, David Willson, a deserter from the British army in 1715, was described as having his initials “D. W.” in gunpowder on his right hand. We don’t whether he came by his gunpowder spot while serving in the army, or prior to service, or afterward. (London Gazette, 10 September to 17 September 1715, no. 5363.)
Among “ladies and gentlemen,” Thomas Otway’s Beau in act 4 of The Soldiers Fortune (1681) catalogs the “Age, Shape, Proportion, colour of Hair and Eyes, degrees of Complexion, Gun-powder Spots and Moles” of the “choicest Beauties about Town.”
Aphra Behn, famous poet, playwright, and novelist, writes of “a Blew spot made in a Ladys neck, by Gunpowder…” The poem was published in Lycidus or the Lover in Fashion (London: Joseph Knight, Saunders Francis, 1688), and was attributed to “a Person of Quality.”
I note as an aside that one scholar has asserted that “gunpowder spots,” including the one described by Aphra Behn, were associated with seventeenth century English gun culture. I think this is a rather misplaced notion, except in that the origin of tattooing with gunpowder may have derived from the knowledge that un-burned corns of powder will occasionally embed themselves violently in the skin, leaving a permanent mark. (One pirate re-enactor, who has since passed away, I met on the set of True Caribbean Pirates had a tattooed palm–small blue-black dots everywhere–resulting from the premature ignition of a gun cartridge during loading.)
The other remote connection to gun culture is common poetic allusion or comparison–an obvious poetic convenience, in other words. The ultimate origin of “gunpowder spots” is not firearms, but body marking: gunpowder simply worked well to make a permanent stain and was readily available. Beauty marks on men and women of the era did not imply an association with firearms, and to argue this is to stretch beyond the facts, not at all uncommon today in both common popular discourse and academia. Even Aphra Behn in her poem acknowledges that the tattoo really has nothing to do with firearms except as a convenient poetic comparison:
Powder, which first was for destruction meant,
Was here converted into ornament;
But yet retains its wonted nature still,
And from your neck, as from a Port do’s kill.
Similarly, William Wycherley in his poem “Upon the Gun-powder Spot on a Lady’s Hand” published in 1704:
Thy Gun-Powder, on thy Hand, shot
Me dead, half-dead with Love before;
Kill’d me, both on, and by the Spot,
Thy cruel White Hand on it wore:
Seventeenth-century surgeon Richard Wiseman had experience with gunpowder spots of two sorts: “Only if they be burnt with Gun-powder or any other way, their Cure is much alike, they onely differing secundam magis and minus. Onely if they be burnt with Gun-powder, they must pick out the Powder first; else they will carry the same blew Mark, if it be in their Faces, which some people use to do in their Hands and Arms, which I have often been imployed to take out, when done wantonly in their Youth; but could never remove them otherwise then by taking off the Skin.” (Richard Wiseman in Several Chirurgicall Treatises. London: E. Flesher and J. Macock, for R. Royston, 1676, page 440.)
Clearly not everyone, ranging from a buccaneer to others, wanted to keep their tattoos forever.
We come again, and importantly, to playwright and poet William Wycherley who wrote The Plain-Dealer (for what it’s worth, my favorite play), first performed in 1674:
“[O]r was it the Gunpowder spot on his hand, or the Jewel in his ear, that purchas’d your heart?” sneers the manly Captain Manley (act. 2, sc. 1) to his former inamorata in regard to an obnoxious fop (they’re all obnoxious, aren’t they?) seeking her hand. At first glance it seems that Manley might be sarcastically referring to the lack of a gunpowder spot on the fop’s hand, and therefore that such spots were indicative of the seaman and therefore of the adventurer. Captain Manley, after all, was a fighting seaman. (Regarding the “Jewel in his ear” see Pirates & Earrings.)
John Dickson Carr, novelist and historian, would seem to have agreed with my initial assessment of the gun-powder spot on the hand being a sign of the seaman: he writes in his novel Devil in Velvet, “as much the mark of the seaman as the gunpowder spot on his hand…,” almost certainly inspired by Wycherley in The Plain-Dealer. The depth of Carr’s non-fiction research ability is attested to by his nonfiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. However, we were both assuredly in error: Professor Ted Cotton, retired Professor Emeritus of English Literature from Loyola University in New Orleans, not to mention old friend and fellow swordsman, in conversation with me some years ago suggested the lines refer merely to the earring and gunpowder spot as being fashions of idle foppish gentlemen. Add to this the evidence of ladies and gentlemen with gunpowder spots, and it is certain to me now that the lines in The Plain-Dealer refer to a gentleman, not a seaman.
Of course, none of this goes to prove or disprove whether late seventeenth to early eighteenth century seamen associated with the Golden Age of Piracy–English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Africans, Native Americans, various mixed races of various nationalities, and in smaller numbers Portuguese, Corsicans, Levanters, Italians, Danes, Germans, various other Europeans, even a few Asians–specifically associated tattoos with their maritime culture, much less did pirates and other sea rovers, a subset of the former, do so.
It remains possible that some Western European mariners, including sea rovers, considered “gunpowder spots” as part of their tradition, but there is no conclusive evidence for this for the period in question. Certainly it is true today: for example, Navy seamen and tall ship sailors often get tattoos and consider this to be traditional, even as do members of some other groups, military and non-military, as do some “downright individuals.” Permanent body decorating has been around for a very long time among the majority of cultures past and present.
So, best guess for the Golden Age of Piracy? Although some sea rovers of the era had tattoos, tattooing–and it would not be known by this name for roughly another century–was not yet a practice of group identity among them or of other mariners broadly associated with this era. Of course, I could be wrong: we need more evidence than what we have so far. But the evidence of Dampier, Wafer, and Wycherley strongly suggests that tattoos or gunpowder spots were not yet a distinct part of Western European maritime culture, except possibly among some of the regional maritime sub-cultures.
And before anyone asks or suggests this: no, I don’t think it likely that early eighteenth century pirates had skull and bones tattoos!
Post Script: This blog post is dedicated to my younger daughter, Bree, a tall ship sailor in her spare time and who will soon have a tattoo…
Copyright Benerson Little 2017-2018. Last updated January 28, 2018.
So, “Did pirates wear eye patches?”
The short answer: Only if they had lost eyes to disease or injury, and this was no more prevalent among pirates than among fighting seamen and soldiers. In other words, the eye patch is in no way a sign or symbol of the pirate per se, nor even of the seaman in general.
Still, the question is a good one, if only to give us a reason to dig into related history.
The Mythbusters television show and other speculators have recently added to the myth by working backward from the proposition, that is, “If pirates wore eye patches, why would they have worn them?” rather than looking first at primary sources to see if there is any evidence that pirates wore them at all. There isn’t, other than as noted below.
The associated suggestions that pirates may have worn eye patches to improve night vision or daylight lookout observations or to enable them to fight below decks isn’t supported by any primary source material. In fact, the loss of sight in an eye, even by wearing an eye patch, causes significant loss in both depth perception and visual breadth, making movement aboard a vessel, aloft especially, very dangerous. It would also make visual observation by a lookout much more difficult.
As for fighting below decks, pirates didn’t really do much of it: it was much easier to flush crew below decks by tossing grenades and firepots into breaches chopped into decks and bulkheads with boarding axes. In other words, the mere idea that eye patches might have been used to aid in fighting below decks shows a clear lack of understanding of the subject.
In other words: There is no historical evidence at all for any of these purported reasons why a pirate might have worn eye patches! Mythbusters and other popular “documentaries” are entertainment, not serious history. This includes “The History Channel,” now known I think as History.com: it’s “docu-tainment,” not real history.
Again, if a pirate wore an eye patch it was because he had lost an eye or was disfigured in his eye, and for no other reason!
The origin of the modern myth that pirates wore eye patches is largely literary. However, its roots lay deep in reality, both in the fact that eyes were often lost to disease and battle trauma, and that a one-eyed person often looks fearsome or sinister. The latter sense goes back millennia, and probably farther. Homer’s Cyclops, Polyphemus, is an early instance.
Some versions of Bernal Diaz’s The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico describe the fierce old musketeer Heredia, sent to frighten Native Americans, as a one-eyed, one-legged (or game-legged) soldier. The same work describes how Cortez’s enemy, Narvaez, lost an eye in battle.
Among seafaring journals and other records of the Golden Age of Piracy, there is only occasional mention of one-eyed seamen, usually in lists of those wounded in battle. Exquemelin’s various editions of The Buccaneers of America famously list compensation for the wounded, including the loss of an eye, and it is here that the primary source of the myth of pirates and eye patches is probably to be found, in combination with other works such as Bernal Diaz’s. The loss of an eye in battle was fairly common, in fact: seafarer Edward Coxere describes the use of oakum and tallow to stuff an eye socket in order to heal the wound, for example. Notably, none of the several eyewitness images of buccaneers or flibustiers from the 1680s show any with any of the usual Hollywood characteristics: wooden legs, eye patches, parrots, hooks, &c. This is to be expected. The large number of images of seamen, usually naval, with eye patches dates to a century later.
As a friend, “Tweeds Blues,” pointed out recently, it seemingly would not be surprising to find a fair number of one-eyed naval, privateer, and pirate seamen, given the damage done by splinters in action. Here I feel the need to point out yet again that Mythbusters is entertainment: an episode even suggested that splinters didn’t cause much damage in a naval action. In fact they did: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts of the damage done, not to mention at least one accurate test that proves the horrible extent of damage splinters can do. The Mythbusters test parameters were simply incorrect, not to mention that overwhelming historical evidence was largely ignored. The images above show splinters resulting from round shot striking a correctly-built hull section. The test was conducted by the Maritime Museum in Erie, Pennsylvania, home of the Flagship Niagara.
Of course, the most famous example of a naval mariner with an eye patch is that of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, who lost the sight in one eye during the capture of Calvi on Corsica in 1793–except that did not actually wear an eye patch. This has not stopped the popular assumption that he did from becoming prevalent, and, although out of our period, this has still influenced the idea of the one-eyed mariner, and therefore one-eyed pirate.
The fact is, patches were commonly used to cover any facial disfigurement. In the seventeenth century diarist and navy secretary Samuel Pepys wore a black patch, or possibly a large beauty patch, to cover a large cold sore. Similarly, King William III advised a soldier to remove the black patch covering the scar on his face because “It’s more honourable in a Soldier to wear a Scar than a Patch.” (For the latter reference, see Coke in the sources listed below.)
By the late eighteenth century the image of the eye-patched, peg-legged seaman was iconic, probably the result of the increased number of British naval actions brought on by the American Revolution and, especially, the Napoleonic Wars. Notably, in reality most such disabled seamen were pensioned from service, as shown above. These satirical images are probably the material origin of the popular identification of the naval seaman, and therefore the pirate, with eye patches.
Even with its legitimate historical roots in fact, this pirate myth, like many, didn’t come fully into being until the mid-nineteenth century, a hundred or more years after the Golden Age of Piracy. Sir Walter Scott in The Fortunes of Nigel describes “The noble Captain Colepepper, or Peppercull, for he was known by both these names, and some others besides, had a martial and a swashing exterior, which, on the present occasion, was rendered yet more peculiar, by a patch covering his left eye and a part of the cheek. The sleeves of his thickset velvet jerkin were polished and shone with grease, — his buff gloves had huge tops, which reached almost to the elbow; his sword-belt of the same materials extended its breadth from his haunchbone to his small ribs, and supported on the one side his large black-hilted back-sword, on the other a dagger of like proportions.” Here is the epitome of the swashbuckler, easily translated to the pirate.
Not long after, Charles Dickens described a pirate with “the one eye and the patch across the nose” and soon afterward similarly did many writers of popular fiction. However, many of our principle originators or propagators of pirate myths—Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, for example—do not appear to have bothered with this myth, although Barrie’s Captain Hook probably did encourage other images of pirates missing a vital part such as a limb or eye.
In 1926 Douglas Fairbanks propagated nineteenth century pirate myths, as well as a few he helped create, across the world with his film The Black Pirate. In it he established the modern pirate swashbuckler stereotype, based much on Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, Peter Pan, and probably Captain Blood (one of whose characters, by the way, was one-eyed, although he lost the eye at Sedgemoor, not at sea). Around the same time, we begin to see pirate book cover art and other illustrations showing pirates with eye patches. But it would take later films, such as The Black Swan and The Crimson Pirate to make the eye patch an obvious, routine part of the stereotypical pirate costume.
Roger Coke. A Detection of the Court and State of England. 4th ed. London: J. Brotherton and W. Meadows, 1719. Vol. 2:472.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España. Reprint, Madrid: Don Benito Cano, 1795. See vol. 1:213.
Edward Coxere. Adventures by Sea of Edward Coxere. Edited by E. H. W. Meyerstein. London: Oxford University, 1946.
Charles Dickens. “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners.” 1857. Reprinted in Charles Dickens’s Stories from the Christmas Numbers. New York: MacMillan, 1896. Page 144.
Alexandre Exquemelin [John Esquemeling]. The Buccaneers of America. London: Crooke, 1684. Reprint, New York: Dorset Press, 1987. Page 60.
Benerson Little. The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016. Prologue.
——. “El Mito Pirata” in Desperta Ferro 17 (August 2015), 52-55.
Heidi Mitchell. “Does Reading in Dim Light Hurt Your Eyes?” Wall Street Journal online, April 8, 2013, http://www.wsj.com.
Mythbusters, Episode 71.
Samuel Pepys. Diary. September 26, 1664.
Walter Scott. The Fortunes of Nigel. Boston: Samuel H. Parker, 1822. Page 255.
The Telegraph. “Nelson didn’t wear eye-patch, says historian.” January 19, 2005.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2017. Last updated October 15, 2018.