The For Fact’s Sake columns are – according to Google and the Duck ’n Fiddle’s Explanation of Everything – based in fact. However, some names and places have been changed to protect innocent people involved.
Highway robbery on the high seas
The concept of stealing other people’s possessions goes way back to the Flintstones. If you had something desirable in your cave like a bearskin rug, a Tretchikoff original or a yummy wife, some scoundrel would connive to relieve you of at least a couple, if not all three, either by stealth or force.
Throughout history, thieves have somehow been glorified as villainous heroes, often creating a global cult-following. Robin Hood, Black Beard and The Highwayman spring to mind, as do Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone or Billy the Kid. They have inspired films, books, songs, comic-strips and whimsical poems – many of which seem to condone their blatant skulduggery as perfectly acceptable, if not admirable.
Now, as far as flags go, the Jolly Roger is perhaps the most recognised worldwide. The name though, is somewhat misleading, and has nothing to do with being merry or playing hip-hockey with your partner.
No. On the contrary, the white skull and crossbones were a warning to lock up your daughters and hide the family jewels. This was the era of the eye-patched, peg-legged, swash-buckling Pirate, when blatant robbery on the high seas reached boiling point.
Now, although piracy had been festering since the mid-1600s, a few decades either side of 1700 was the Golden Age of the Buccaneer. With the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, thousands of sailors from various European countries – fighting either for or against Succession – were no longer needed, and put out to pasture.
But these blokes were salty sea dogs. That’s all they knew, so they had to turn to piracy to survive. Fortunately for them, lucrative trade routes had started opening up again, which meant ‘many a vessel of valuable bounty’ was fair game, and the game was brutally dirty.
With looting and pillaging on these routes spinning out of control, Britain, among others, created The Privateer. These guys were like the Ocean Police. They were meant to rob the pirates, commandeer their ships, and schlep the bounty back to the Crown’s coffers – for a fair slice of the pizza of course.
Well, it didn’t take long before some privateer captains realised they could easily eat the whole pizza and bugger the Crown. Crew members were also delighted to get a larger wedge, and so a fresh swathe of ex-privateers turned swash-buckling pirates took to the ocean waves with unbridled enthusiasm.
One rather unusual pirate was the wife of Calico Jack, another infamous pillager. Meet Anne Bonny, who together with her piracy partner, Mary Read, was as ruthless and successful as her male counterparts. Captured in 1720 and sentenced to hang, she dodged the noose by having a bun in the oven. Then she, the bun and the oven, simply disappeared, and her whereabouts and demise remain hazy.
Captain Henry Morgan was another rogue with such influence in the Caribbean that they still make a rum to honour his villainous exploits. Stinking rich, he evaded capture and died peacefully in Jamaica in 1688.
No such luck for Captain Kidd. Caught and hanged, his rotting body was left dangling beside the River Thames as a warning to others. But Bartholomew Roberts – Black Bart – having ‘taken over’ 450 ships, was probably the most famous of them all, although nobody named a tipple after him. He too suffered a gruesome death when grapeshot shredded his throat during a skirmish. Serves him right.
The was eventually snuffed out around the mid- 1720s, and world leaders began revising their international ethics, morals and codes of conduct. Plunder and pillage segued from cutlass and gunpowder into more sophisticated methods of blatant theft, like fraud, tax evasion and ante-nuptial contracts orchestrated by creative accountants and shrewd lawyers – proving once again that the pen is mightier than the sword.