An area for Pirate reenactors and enthusiasts. Pirate reenacting is one of the fastest-growing impressions there is right now, probably owing to a policy of inclusion and of welcoming newcomers.
The word Pirate brings to mind buried treasure, walking the plank, parrots, cutlasses, black eye patches, wooden legs, pieces of eight, and jolly Roger flags. How close are these images, though, to the real world of pirates? Who were these men and how did they live their lives?
Piracy is as old as the history of sailing itself. Some of the earliest pirates were the Phoenicians who plied the Mediterranean from about 2000 B.C.. While the Phoenicians conducted much legitimate trade, they also didn't flinch from attacking other merchant ships or even coastal towns.
The Golden Age of Piracy
The pirates we are most familiar with, though, are those from a time that might be called The Golden Age of Piracy. This period started soon after the discovery of the New World and continued for about 250 years.
In 1494 the Pope divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. Predictably this did not sit well with the other European nations. They wanted a part of the gold the Spanish were stealing from the Aztecs of South America and conflict was inevitable.
The part of the New World coast from South America through the Caribbean to Northern Florida was known as "The Spanish Main" (right). It was from ports along these coasts that Spanish galleons, large treasure ships, sailed for Europe. The European powers began attacking these ships and taking the gold for themselves.
Outfitting ships was expensive and one way to raise a fleet at little cost was to issue "letters of marque" that entitled the owner of a private ship to outfit it for war and use it to attack enemy ships. In return for official permission the ship's owner split any booty captured with the royal treasury. Men who engaged in this activity were referred to as "privateers."
Privateers were in effect legal pirates. Or at least legal to those governments with which they shared the loot. Sir Francis Drake, who started his career in 1570, was a hated pirate to Spain, but a hero in England where Queen Elizabeth addressed him as "my dear pirate." His popularity with the crown was assured after one expedition where he captured for treasury 300,000 pounds of booty, keeping another 10,000 for himself. Drake not only raided ships, but attacked Spanish towns and mule trains carrying gold. So favored was Drake by the Queen that she presented him with a special sword to use upon her enemies.
There was a danger in using privateers, though. Often these independent captains were tempted to attack ships of countries besides those their nation was at war against. Also in times of peace it left thousands of men jobless who had been trained to attack ships and seize goods. The temptation to turn pirate during these times was immense and many men did so.
The buccaneers often used small boats called pinnaces for their attacks. Using these they could sneak up on unsuspecting merchant ships and get control of the ship even before the crew knew they were under attack. When they used larger ships the pirates often favored smaller, single-masted sloops that could operate in shallow water. This allowed the ships to be easily hidden in small hidden bays and inlets. The English buccaneers liked attacking with the dozen or so cannon on deck, while French pirates preferred hand-to-hand combat with small arms and knives.
A Different Life
While some pirates were excessively cruel outlaws, many were just plain sailors who could not find an honest living. The life of a sailor in those times was hard. The power of the captain of a merchant ship or a military vessel was nearly absolute. Crewmen could be whipped by a cruel captain for the least offense.
In contrast many pirate ships were run democratically. Before a voyage the crew held a council that included all the members. As a group they decided where to sail, who should be captain, and how any booty should be divided up. The captain usually got a double share and crew members with special skills, such as a doctor or carpenter got one and one half. The council also drew up a list of rules that all the crew agreed to obey.
About the author
Sterling registered at reenactor.Net, THE Online, Worldwide Home of Living History on July 15, 2007, 12:10:46 AM and has posted 90 posts in the boards since then. Last visit was March 13, 2011, 01:28:38 AM.