Up with the Rogers! A Brief History of British Pirates

As Black Sails comes to an end, I have decided to write something on pirates to deal with the emotional rollercoaster but thoroughly enjoyable five series which have created in many ways the best filmed interpretation of pirates in filmography. Not only because the show is incredibly clever in blending in literary narrative (let’s remember this is all a pretense for Treasure Island) and history, but because it is generally crafted with greatness in terms of scenery, characterisation and dialogue. As you all know, representation and perception in cultural studies is my thing, and I could go on a massive rant about audience and cultural citizenship…Perhaps another time. Today I am just going to talk about some of the most famous British pirates. Why them? Well, I find them to be peculiar characters, some of which are represented in the show, but mostly because of the stereotype of pirate accent. Most of us will think of pirates and immediately have that distinctive sound form in our ears. Well, the reason why this may have become a favoured characteristic pirate depiction is because many pirates, privateers and buccaneers actually came from the UK; particularly places with a long maritime tradition such as the West Country (Cornwall, Devon, etc.). As you may know if you are a Brit, those are areas with pretty stong, recognisable accents – and that is what now has created your “aarrrgghhhh, matey” sound. But if you do not believe, well, check these guys out. *Disclaimer: I am not going to talk about Edward Teach, aka “Black Beard” because he is a better known and remembered figure*.

Henry Every – aka “The Arch Pirate”

He was born in Plymouth in 1659. Considered by many perhaps the most successful pirate of all – and perhaps the inspiration for Treasure Island itself – Every started his career at sea as a sailor and slave trader. A man of opportunity, he mutinied whilst on board of the Charles II in 1694. As a consequence he found himself elected captain of this renown ship. Unlike our pirates from Black Sails, he made most of his infamous career at the Indian ocean, which eventually lead him to his most incredible enterprise: the seizing of the Ganj-i-Sawai. This was a type of trading ship known as a Ghanjah dhow, and belonged to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Every not only managed to seize the treasure ship, but also its escort ship, the Fateh Muhammed. The feat is, nonetheless, impressive. The ship Every commanded, The Fancy, counted with 46 guns, which against the 62 in the Ganj-i-Sawai ought to have perished. However, luck wa son their side, as it seems at least one (if not more) canons of the treasure ship exploded during their fight against the pirate giving them a considerable advantage due to the structural damage and chaos on board. Historian Jan Rogozinski has estimated that the amount Every gained from this attack is somewhere between $200-400 million, making him the richest pirate in history. And just as Every comes and succeeds in 1695, he suddenly disappears, ship and treasure included, in 1699. Where to and how is something that scholars are still trying to find a plausible answer for.

Bartholomew Roberts, aka “Black Bart”

A Welshman born in 1682 in Casnewydd Back, he became a pirate when he was captured along with the rest fo the crew he was part of by Captain Howell Davis (yet another Welsh pirate). Eventually he came to lead his own crew on board of his own vessel, the Royal Fortune. Roberts’ area of influence spread from Nova Scotia to Brazil. His success, unlike Every’s, is remarkable due to the number of ships capture rather than treasure accumulate. Forbes have estimates that Black Bart would have accumulated some $32 million. However, he has been attributed the top amount of 470 ships captured. Roberts did also build a reputation for “dressing to the nines before combat” according to Pat Kinsella. Nevertheless Black Bart will meet his fate for all the crimes committed in his pursue of piracy, at the hands of a top man of the Royal Navy: Captain Chaloner Ogle. February 1722, Battle of Cape Lopez, the British man-of-war The Swallow overpowers the Royal Fortune off the coast of Gabon. The battle was not all that deadly, but Bart gets caught in the range of cannon fire from the British very early in the battle, meeting his very own pirate death at sea.

John Rackham, aka “Calico Jack”

This is one for the Black Sails fans, for Jack was actually a real pirate. He was born in England around 1682, and is best known for three things. The first one which will always go down in pirate history (real or popular) is his design of the Jolly Rogers. The second one will be something else the tv viewers will be aware of: the two feisty ladies that were at the core of his crew. Mary Read and Anne Boney – we have talked about this previously so I will not go into details, but check this out https://nuhistory.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/the-bulldagger-of-the-harlem-rennaissance-the-gay-emperor-the-bisexual-pirate-and-the-blonde-bombshell/

The other thing for what Jack is famous is what gives him his nickname “calico”. This would have been for one (or probably both) of these reasons: the fact that he had a taste for flashy and colourful garments, or his previous background as a textile smuggler. Interestingly, the series touches upon both of this facts: Jack often appears wearing interesting clothes in comparison to the likes of Flint and Vane, and he does tell the audience of his origins back in England where his father used to be a tailor and how he got tangled up with the wrong people for pursuing seemingly illegal deals. Money wise, Rackham is pretty down the ladder. Forbes estimated an amount of $1.6 million in accumulated wealth. However, you may be pleased to know that the series has treated Jack with a fair amount of accuracy and respected. His ship was indeed the Revenge, and he used to be Charles Vane quartermaster, whom he actually deposed after retreating from a French man-of-war whilst raiding the coast of Jamaica. Like many other pirates, Rackham met his end with a nose around his neck charged of piracy, treason and other crimes against the crown. He was hanged in Port Royal with several members of his crew on the 18th of November 1720.

Samuel Bellamy, aka “Black Sam”someone else noticed the several black-something pirates in history?

Born in 1689 in Devon – (I wonder what is it with Devon and interesting Bellamy’s…Muse anyone?), Black Sam was best known for his fighting style that involved stashing his sash with 4 loaded duel pistols; just in case. As a good Devonshire man, Bellamy was a former sailor for the Royal Navy, who joined the crew lead by the renown Benjamin Hornihold. In a similar way to Rackham, Sam raises to power following Hornigold’s refusal to attack English ships, therefore leading the aspiring pirate to take control over the Marianne. He only kept his title of captain for a year, but in this time he managed to capture 5 ships, and was acclaimed by his followers for his generosity when splitting the loot. Total earnings? Just the modest amount of around $120 million. Nevertheless, Black Sam met a pretty nasty, although common death for people of his trade: he drowned at sea during a storm in 1717.

I hope what you get out of this is that, there were many pirates beyond Black Beard. And that these men were clearly not just savages, but sharp people capable of great feats. Whether you agree with their cause or not. I hope that as series like Black Sails become popular, a genuine interest for the subject grows to demystify them and bring those personal stories of freedom, success and well, sometimes infamy, to the forefront without disdain from our peers.

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