Story by Lois Carol Wheatley
Swashbuckling made simple
Murder and mayhem are generally frowned upon, but somehow people do love pirates. Maybe it's that cute way they talk or their very distinctive flair for fashion. Johnny Depp can be held personally responsible for the most recent resurgence of interest in hidden treasures, ancient curses and larceny on the high seas, not to mention earrings, tattoos and dreadlocks.
On the North Carolina coast pirates are as much a part of the landscape as eastern-style barbecue. Their names and images are splashed across marinas, gated communities and trailer parks—Blackbeard being the clear favorite, in addition to the more generic Buccaneer, Jolly Roger, Treasure Chest and Pirates Cove monikers—splashed across everything from seafood shacks to storage units.
The names you don't see so much, though they certainly deserve a prominent spot on the convenience store circuit, are Stede Bonnet, Anne Bonny, Edward Low, George Lowther, Calico Jack Rackham, Mary Read, Charles Vane and Richard Worley, all of whom roamed the 300-mile coast of North Carolina in search of a fresh supply of victims.
The so-called golden age of piracy ran from the late 1600s to the early 1700s, but some of the earlier "privateers" are familiar names in history. Sir Walter Raleigh falls into this general category, as do Sir Francis Drake and Christopher Columbus. They were pawns in the struggle for control over the land and waterways of the New World, and if England could thwart Spain's latest enterprise through a modest investment in a ship and a few men, it was certainly considered money well spent.
A reigning monarch sent along a note with a hired thug, called a Letter of Marque, specifically granting authorization to capture and confiscate another nation's merchant ships. This is the thing that set pirates apart from privateers, though the distinction was paper-thin.
One can well imagine a merchant ship owner perusing this letter, handing it back, and declaring everything to be in order. "All right then, it's all yours. Will you be dropping us off at some godforsaken deserted island?" Enterprising pirates commanding a whole fleet of captured ships were very likely to encounter this level of resistance from a single unarmed or lightly armed merchant ship, especially those pirates skilled in the use of cheap theatrics and flimsy scare tactics.
A ship left mostly intact after a skirmish was more valuable than a ship half blown apart by cannon fire, and sailors who managed to remain alive and well through any conflict were trained crew members who could soon enough be converted into pirates—their options being rather limited for the foreseeable future.
Maritime warfare on the high seas was typically waged with the objective of sinking enemy ships at a bit of a distance, but with piracy the eyes were on preserving the prize, and the usual strategy was to pull the merchant ship alongside with grappling hooks, board her and, where further persuasion was absolutely necessary, get into the type of sword play we've come to expect from Captain Hook and Peter Pan.
The first item designed to strike terror into the hearts of man was that small scrap of fabric hoisted to the top of the main mast, and that was the first thing to loom into view in a mariner's telescope, alerting all on board that it was time to run for their lives. This flag was almost never the classic white-on-black skull and crossbones, or Jolly Roger, as sold at roadside souvenir stands.
One theory about the derivation of the term "Jolly Roger" is that it comes from the French, "joli rouge," which loosely translates as "pretty red," a plain scarlet flag that strongly hinted at the possibility of bloodshed. Other speculations involve the notion that "Roger" is a corruption of "rogue" and that "Old Roger" was a popular name applied to the devil.
Each pirate had his own version of symbolism that subtly suggested immediate surrender, usually a black background with common images such as an hourglass—advising that time is short—and variations on the theme of a skeleton ripping a heart out of a sailor's chest. Blackbeard's flag was black with a white skeletal figure sporting devil's horns and pointing a pitchfork at a small cluster of red hearts. Stede Bonnet's flag had a single bone underscoring the skull, with added embellishments. Calico Jack substituted crossed swords for crossbones and Edward Low flew the image of a red skeleton on a black background.
Those who had a note from their motherland sometimes sailed under their country's flag, perhaps with minor modifications.
The pirate's code
In an era slavishly devoted to obedience to the crown, a pirate's ship was an early example of democracy in motion. When someone committed an offense, the entire crew adjudicated the matter. They voted captains out of office—this was called mutiny—and divided their captured loot according to a prescribed formula that took into account the degree of risk any individual crew member might have taken to get it and also made distributions according to rank. The captain might get a share and a half and other ranking officers might get a share plus some smaller fraction.
Health and life insurance were in the benefits package. In your typical ship's articles would be a provision, for example, that anyone losing a finger or toe in battle would be compensated with 400 pieces of eight, and for the loss of an arm or a leg they would receive 800 pieces. If a man was killed outright, underwriters would forward substantial compensation to his family.
Honor among these thieves was in some cases more honorable than among the landlubbers. Pirates generally didn't think much of slavery and were known to set slaves free when they captured a ship. Torturing or murdering hostages was a rare occurrence since there was no percentage whatsoever in those sorts of activities—unless the pirates had reason to believe someone was holding out on them, in which case they would flog a victim with a cat o' nine tails, tie him down and throw bottles at his head, or force him to drink himself to death.
Another tactic known to loosen tongues was to start shooting hostages one at a time while encouraging the others to talk. Walking the plank was probably not terribly common, since it was way easier merely to pitch someone overboard.
It also seems extremely unlikely that pirates would bury a lavish treasure chest in a remote place and then draw up a map pinpointing its location. Pirates had a bit of a tendency to party hearty, to blow huge sums of cash at the next port of call on good liquor and bad women, and to return to the high seas only after their coffers were entirely depleted. The hangman's rope always dangled from the framework of their thinking and the concept of setting a little something aside for retirement was not likely to figure into any long-term financial planning.
Click on the links below for more information on the infamous and lesser-known pirates that plagued and plundered the North Carolina coast.
Terms: North Carolina Pirates, NC Pirates
Information on North Carolina Pirates.