As I’ve mentioned before, the study of colonial America has changed quite a bit over the years. Historians are looking at the colonies as one part of the Atlantic network of goods and people moving between the Americas, Africa, and Europe. That means I’ll get to lecture about pirates in my colonial America course this fall. In fact, I’d forgotten how deeply piracy is woven into the story of colonial America until I started putting the class together.
The Howard Pyle image at right (from the handy Wikimedia Commons) shows a ritual that was probably rare in actuality, although it’s extremely common in films. Interestingly enough, though, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie references a few authentic places and people. Some of the action takes place in Port Royal, Jamaica, a pirate haven and one of the most important towns in England’s Atlantic empire during the seventeenth century. Notorious for its taverns and brothels, much of Port Royal fell into the sea following a devastating earthquake on June 7, 1692.
One line in the film mentions “the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew.” Sir Henry Morgan was a Welsh privateer who sacked the Spanish settlement at Panama City in 1671. England and Spain weren’t actually at war at the time, but since Morgan convinced the authorities that it was an honest mistake, he came home with a knighthood and a government appointment. Today, of course, he’s the mascot for a brand of rum, a fitting tribute if ever there was one. I suppose “Bartholomew” refers to Bartholomew Roberts, another Welshman whose incredibly successful pirating career ended in combat with the Royal Navy on February 10, 1722.
One of the nifty things about the history of piracy is that their fortunes reflected those of England’s American empire. Although English authorities looked the other way when pirates looted Spanish shipping, the buccaneers became a liability once the crown began to consolidate its control over the Atlantic. Privateering was a means of advancement in Morgan’s day, but by the time Roberts took to the sea, a pirate was more likely to end his career swinging from an English rope than enjoying a comfortable retirement.
If you’re looking for a book on piracy’s golden age, I heartily recommend David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag. It’s brimming with information and extremely hard to put down.