Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Piracy on the Open Seas (origin Jolly Roger)

It was called the Golden Age of Piracy and had colorful characters such as Captain Kidd, Calico Jack, Blackbeard and Black Bart. These pirates roamed the open seas causing fear and creating havoc from 1698 to 1718. Just the sight of their flag, the Jolly Roger, could bring about the surrender of a much larger ship. Often, a captain would rather lose his ship and merchandise than the lives of his men.

A common tactic for a pirate captain would be to sail without displaying a flag of any kind. Then, once they were close enough for battle, the pirates would hoist their flag to intimidate the merchant vessel’s captain into submission. Over years, the color and design of the flag changed. Originally, the flag was red in color with no emblem; the color indicated the pirates would take no quarter. Later, a black flag replaced the red, and sometime later still, an individual sewed the emblem of a grinning skull complete with crossbones (sometimes cutlasses) on the black flag. Perhaps the flag became known as the Jolly Roger because a pirate’s nickname for the devil was “Old Roger” but the exact origins are unknown.

Acts of piracy were not exclusive to men; there were at least two women pirates. Mary Read and Anne Bonny masqueraded as men and by all accounts were able to manage the work and keep their identity hidden. These women played a small part in the history of piracy, but men such as Blackbeard, alias Edward Teach and Black Bart, alias Bartholomew Roberts are the subjects of legends.

Black Beard stood approximately 6’4” had long black hair and a black beard. He was known to matt his black beard into long tendrils and, to further intimidate his opponents, he would push hemp cords under the brim of his hat and then light the bottom so the cords appeared like a mane. These slow burning fuses around Blackbeard’s head gave him an even more menacing appearance. Blackbeard’s pirate flag had a distinct design. His flag displayed a full skeletal figure holding an hourglass in one hand and a weapon pointing towards a bleeding heart in the other.

Blackbeard favored the seas around South Carolina and was anchored at Ocracoke Island in his sloop, the Adventure, when his career ended. It was here that he died after a battle with Lieutenant Robert Maynard, Captain of the HMS Pearl. It is believed that Blackbeard had been drinking heavily and this may have helped in his demise. Later, on examination of his body, it was determined that his death resulted from 5 gunshot and at least 20 stab wounds. Legend has it that Blackbeard’s crew fulfilled their captain’s request should he die in battle. Those instructions were to remove his head and throw his body overboard. It is said Blackbeard’s headless body swam around the ship several times before it sank to its watery grave.

Bartholomew Roberts, alias Black Bart, was a completely different character to Blackbeard. Black Bart dressed immaculately, supposedly drank only tea (although this cannot be substantiated) and rarely used profanity. He ruled his crew with fierce determination and had them adhere to a code of conduct that included a disability clause stating that any crewman losing a limb or becoming unable to work due injury in battle would receive a portion of the bounty commensurate with the injuries received.

Roberts’ career in piracy lasted only four short years but he was extremely successful seizing over 400 ships. At one time, he had over 500 men manning four ships. Black Bart lost is life in battle after being hit in the throat by cannon fire. His crew weighted his body and threw it overboard in accordance with his previously stated wishes.
Black Bart’s motto: A merry life and a short one.