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The Golden Age of Piracy:
The Truth Behind Pirate Myths

By Benerson Little



The truth behind the great pirate myths and
legends of the Golden Age (1655-1725).

In print: hardcover & ebook, in stores & online.
Skyhorse Publishing, 2016.

Updates, comments, & errata may be found at the foot of the page.

Published Reviews

“Little (Fortune’s Whelp),a former Navy SEAL, takes the wind out of many a pirate’s sail in this charming examination of the many myths surrounding the seafaring rogues… Little has a deep affection for his subject that occasionally leads him to affectation, but his use of piratical jargon is more charming than jarring; clearly he’s having a good time, and so will readers. Packed with insight and adventure, Little’s book is sure to strike a note with armchair swashbucklers of all ages.”

 Publisher’s Weekly, September 11, 2017

“While a few other volumes discuss pirate myths, The Golden Age of Piracy goes far beyond these. Little sifts through the popular mythology and purposeful ideological speculation to introduce readers to the real pirates without turning a blind eye to their cruelty and crimes. That he does so in language that any reader will understand makes this a valuable resource and worthwhile addition to any pirate aficionado’s or historian’s library.”

—Cindy Vallar, Pirates and Privateers: The History of Maritime Piracy

 

"The Pirate Was a Picturesque Fellow."

Romantic, largely imagined painting of a buccaneer. From Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates.

 

From the Publisher

For thousands of years, pirates have terrorized the ocean voyager and the coastal inhabitant, plundered ship and shore, and wrought havoc on the lives and livelihoods of rich and poor alike.Around these desperate men has grown a body of myths and legends—fascinating tales that today strongly influence our notions of pirates and piracy. Most of these myths derive from the pirates of the “Golden Age,” from roughly 1655 to 1725. This was the age of the Spanish Main, of Henry Morgan and Blackbeard, of Bartholomew Sharp and Bartholomew Roberts.

The history of pirate myth is rich in action, at sea and ashore. However, the truth is far more interesting. In The Golden Age of Piracy, expert pirate historian Benerson Little debunks more than a dozen pirate myths that derive from this era—from the flying of the Jolly Roger to the burying of treasure, from walking the plank to the staging of epic sea battles—and shows that the truth is far more fascinating and disturbing than the romanticized legends.

Among Little’s revelations are that pirates of the Golden Age never made their captives walk the plank and that they, instead, were subject to horrendous torture, such as being burned or hung by their arms. Likewise, epic sea battles involving pirates were fairly rare because most prey surrendered immediately.

The stories are real and are drawn heavily from primary sources. Complementing them are colorful images of flags,ships, and buccaneers based on eyewitness accounts.

 

lolonois

“Francisco Lolonois”–Jean David Nau aka L’Ollonois or L’Ollonais–depicted in the first Spanish edition of Exquemelin work: Piratas de la America, translated by Alonso de Buena-Maison. Cologne: Lorenzo Struickman, 1681.

 

Associated Blog Posts

The Authentic Image of the Real Buccaneers of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini

The Authentic Image of the Boucanier

An Early Skull & Crossbones at Sea

Walking the Plank: An Associated Image

Of Buccaneer Christmas, Dog as Dinner, & Cigar Smoking Women

Keelhauling, in Living Color

Pirates & Earrings

Did Pirates Wear Eye Patches?

Gunpowder Spots: Pirates & “Tattoos”

Of Pirates & Parrots (& Monkeys, Too)

Of Pirates & Wooden Legs

Pirate Books & Patereros: the Pirate’s Version of Fahrenheit 451

Jack Sparrow, Perhaps? The Origin of an Early “Hollywood”Pirate, Plus the Authentic Image of a Real Buccaneer

Pirates & Puritans

The Myth of Sharp’s Buccaneers, the Wreck of the Santa Maria de la Consolación, and Isla de Muerto

Notes, Commentary, & Errata

Chapter 1, an early black flag with skull and bones. Detailed on my An Early Skull & Crossbones at Sea, and More post is an imagined “Jolly Roger,” although it had yet to receive the name, dating to the 1640s.

skull-and-bones-ship-of-the-church-detail

Detail from “Das Schiff der Kirche” by Jacob Gerritsz.

 

Chapter 1, Barbary and Turkish sea roving flags and flags of no quarter: I’ve since publication identified earlier images of these red flags of the Islamic corsairs, one dating to 1711, the others probably 1707 to 1711. Clearly these sea-going flags were around prior to the Anglo-American pirates who used similar flags, as were others I’ve noted in the book itself.

Turkish and Moorish Rovers 1711

Schouw-park aller Scheeps-vlaggen des geheelen Water-Waerelds, 1711. The flag is shown among Barbary and Turkish sea flags. This flag is popularly, and incorrectly, attributed to the pirate Christopher Moody. (Rijksmuseum.)

Turkish or Ottoman Rover circa 1707

Ottoman corsair flag from Nieuwe Tafel van alle de Scheeps Vlaggen des Gehele Water-Waerelds op Nieus Vermeerdert en Verbeeterdt, probably dating 1707 to 1711, possibly slightly later, based on some of the English flags shown.  The Rijksmuseum incorrectly dates it 1650 to 1700.

Algiers Rover

Algiers red banner with death’s head, from Nieuwe Tafel van alle de Scheeps Vlaggen des Gehele Water-Waerelds op Nieus Vermeerdert en Verbeeterdt, dated as immediately above.

 

Chapter 1, the only real pirate flag of the early 18th centuryof which we have any detailed information on what one might actually have looked like:

The only real “Golden Age” pirate flag we have an image of (there are no existing examples of real pirate flags from this era), just barely makes it into the era, as at 1729 it’s late for the period generally is regarded to end at 1725 or 1728. It’s also not the flag of an Anglo-American pirate, but a French one, from France and returning to France. The pirate in question is Jean-Thomas Dulaien, whom I’ve discussed along with his flag in the The Golden Age of Piracy. The first image below was reportedly created from the original flag, which was reportedly destroyed by order of Louis XIV; the second is of a woodblock or woodblock print made from the image.

Dulaien Original

The purported Dulaien original, copied from the actual flag. Clearly, if the image is accurate (there’s no reason to believe it is not), the skull, bones, and man with cutlass and hourglass was painted on. The original flag was, according to reports at the time, destroyed.

 

Dulaien Wood Block

The purported woodcut image made from the original illustration. Clearly it is only a representation of the original image, and not an entirely accurate reflection.

 

Chapter 1, Blackbeard’s purported but mythical flag origin: Historian Ed Fox has pointed out that, according to The Mariner’s Mirror (1912, vol. 2, no. 3) the horned Blackbeard flag first appears in The Book of Buried Treasure by R. D. Paine (Ralph Delahaye)1911. The book was reprinted in 1981 by Arno Press. The drawing is fanciful but is based on a legitimate period description of a pirate flag. A later artist or publisher ascribed it, with minor modification emphasizing devil horns, to Blackbeard.

Jolly Roger

 

Chapter 6, de Graff’s fight against the Francesa:  research subsequent to publication indicates the armament, route, and some of the actual action. El Santissimo Sacramento (the Blessed Sacrament), known by her crew as La Francesa because she was captured from the French and taken into Spanish service, is of is 240 tons burthen and she mounts twenty-four small guns, probably of six and four or three pound shot, and ten patereros or swivel guns. She is manned with 64 infantes (infantry), 24 artilleros (gunners), and 36 marineros (seamen): a total of 124 fighting men. She is transporting the situado because she was left behind by the treasure fleet. Neither Havana nor San Juan had ships of force to carry the large payroll, but the Francesa was by luck in place to take on the task.

The frigate departed Havana on July 8, 1682, taking the long northern route along the Florida coast, then into the Atlantic at 38 degrees north latitude, then south to Puerto Rico. It is a slow but safe route: it avoids both constant beating to windward and, importantly, pirates. But de Graff has excellent intelligence, probably via  “la aguada de Sancta Lucia” on the Cuban coast where he would put in for supplies and information from a man named Montiel. Knowing how slowly the frigate will make its way to Puerto Rico, beats to windward along the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola and lies in wait in the Mona Passage. On August 6 the situado ship, roughly twelve leagues from Aguada de Puerto Rico, sights a sail in pursuit.

When he sights the ship in pursuit, Manuel Delgado follows his standing orders: he runs. At any and all cost is he to deliver the situado safe and sound. The chase lasts as many as sixty or more miles, from off the coast of Aguada de Puerto Rico to the eastern end of Hispaniola. As de Graff’s Tigre comes within range, Delgado opens fire with his stern chasers, to little avail.

Unfortunately, perhaps in part due to overheating, as one witness suggested, one of the stern chasers explodes, damaging the frigate’s stern and doubtless causing injuries. Seeing that a fight is inevitable, some of Delgado’s officers urge him to turn and fight, but he replies that he has orders not to do so. His duty is to protect the treasure at all costs—to run if he can. And so he does, as long as he can, hoping to make it to Santo Domingo before de Graff comes up with him.

According to the Spanish account, de Graff eventually comes alongside, and with a combination of broadside, small arms, and grenades, grapples the Spaniard and boards. Forty-seven of Delgado’s men are killed and more than forty are wounded.

Most of these details are taken from the excellent books, El Corso en Cuba Siglo XVII by César García del Pino (2001) and La Defensa de La Isla de Cuba en La Segunda Mitad del Siglo XVII by Francisco Castillo Melendez (1986).

 

Chapter 6, tonnage of de Graff’s Neptune in the fight against the Armada de Barlovento: at 273 tons, translated to toneladas para de guerra from toneladas para de merchantes (with which the ship, having been a slaver, was measured in Spanish records) the Neptune would be roughly equivalent to roughly 320 tons English burthen, still only slightly more than half the size of its two adversaries. A ship of this size might carry no more than 36 great guns (she was mounted with 34 when captured). The rest, probably no more than a dozen, and certainly no more than a score, would be swivels in various forms.

 

Chapter 10, Spanish laws on how to deal with capture pirates: in the text in reference to the black buccaneer named Diego (1686), I note that Spanish laws at the time provided for death sentences for pirate leaders only. The law dates to a February 21, 1685 Royal cedula, which stated that the pirate leader is to be shot or hanged, after determination of guilt, where captured. The remaining pirates are to be sent to Spain. Notwithstanding, it appears in most cases that captured pirates were not sent to Spain. Royal cedulas of December 31, 1672 and September 27, 1673 required that captured pirates not be sent to Spain.

 

Chapter 12, the flibustier attack on de Mergar’s treasure salvors: The flibustiers were commanded by Pierre Bréha, the diminutive of his real surname Bart, and who is sometimes referred to as Abraham. He sailed a very small frigate named the Saint-François armed with 2 guns and manned with 70 rovers. Some accounts report that Bréha was accompanied by the French flibustier Jean Blot who commanded a small frigate with 2 guns and 44 men. However, given the Spanish accounts, it’s likely that only one of the flibustier vessels was present during the action. Both were together in the aftermath. Note: some authorities have confused Michel Andresson aka Michiel Andrieszoon, with Pierre Bréha.)

Copyright Benerson Little, 2016, 2018. Last updated 12 December 2018.

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