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  • Writer's pictureWreckwatch Ed

Pirates: Lovable Rogues or Enemies of Mankind?

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Sean Kingsley, Editor-in-Chief, Wreckwatch Magazine

"they liv’d most dissolute and wicked Lives, stealing away, and ravishing the Wives and Daughters of the Natives, living by this Means, in a State of continual War.”

Madagascar; or, Robert Drury’s Journal,

during Fifteen Years’ Captivity on that Island (London, 1729)


Lock up your sons and daughters. Prime the gun fuses. Stash your booty. The Pirates Are Coming.

The winter issue of Wreckwatch magazine (out on 20 December) explores the golden age of piracy, those few decades between 1690 and 1730 when no man, woman or parrot was safe on the high seas. These were the days of Pirates of the Caribbean and Black Sails, of one-legged assassins making fortunes raiding and walking the plank. Or were they?

Behind the Hollywood pizazz, marine archaeologists, historians, explorers and mudlarks have been beavering away, peeling back layers of hidden truth to work out what really happened. And pretty much everything we think we know doesn’t stack up. What we imagine to be piracy is a Disneyesque fantasy first fed to the Western world by one Captain Charles Johnson, who in 1724 wrote the first pirate history. A General History of the Pyrates was a blockbuster. Everyone from gap-toothed hags by tavern doors to dandies lounging in salons lapped it up and bought into the pirate myth hook, line and sinker.

Only not even Captain Johnston was real. The smart money says Pyrates was penned by that shady monster wig-wearing wise guy Daniel Defoe, who wore more hats than the king’s milliner. And forget about the Caribbean. Sure, New Providence Island in Nassau in the Bahamas and Port Royal in Jamaica were edgy pirate hang-outs to share ships’ spoils and then lose it all on booze and babes, but raiding and trading in the Caribbean was small beer.

The big bucks sailed between Surat in India and the Red Sea on floating treasure chests taking pilgrims to Mecca and back. These Mughal wooden walls were stuffed with jewels and cash to buy souvenirs and Arabian trade goods in the Red Sea ports of Mocha and Jeddah. The most ambitious pirates cottoned on to the wealth of India, which by 1700 was the largest economy in the world. Here the (dis)Honourable East India Company was stationed. For all the big hitters in your childhood books – William Kidd, Henry Avery, Thomas Tew, William Condon, Nathaniel North and Sam Burgess – it was the Pirate’s Round in the Red Sea or bust. If you struck a Mughal trader, you were set for life. Just cash in your chips, launder your silver and gems and fade into a life of gentlemanly leisure – every pirate’s dream.

The real pirate capital was a few ports dotted around the eastern shores of Madagascar, a paradise island perfectly set between the Cape of Good Hope and the Red Sea danger zone. It was Madagascar that became famous as Libertalia, an experimental pirate democracy where outcasts and misfits of all nationalities found a secret hideaway that didn’t judge. The wealthiest cargoes snagged by golden age pirates had travelled from India or Africa passed through Madagascar.

Barry Clifford, the man who found Black Sam Bellamy’s Whydah off Cape Cod in Massachusetts, tells Wreckwatch how his wreck’s African gold, slave shackles and manilla bracelets recall the human ‘cargo’s’ tragic past. Many of these enslaved victims of Western greed ended up liberated and voting and fighting on pirate ships. Ironically, it was only on these supposed blood-soaked decks that a West African slave could enjoy a democratic existence in the Western world. Barry Clifford’s Whydah (1717) is the richest pirate wreck ever found.

John Masters, meanwhile, hunts down the legend behind Edward Thatch, aka Blackbeard the mad-dog pirate, who lit candles in his beard to scare grown men into thinking he was the devil. Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge started out as a slave trader too, La Concorde. Check out what John thinks about whether Blackbeard broke the pirate’s code and abandoned some of his crew at Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina, along with the grounded Queen Anne’s Revenge (1718), to give himself a larger slice of the spoils. Did Blackbeard do the dirty on his men?

Pirate central today is St Marie Island on Madagascar where Barry Clifford discovered four pirate wrecks, including Captain Kidd’s Adventure Galley (1698). Jean Soulat and John de Bry dive into these cracking wrecks, mainly William Condon’s the Fiery Dragon (1721), stuffed full of Chinese porcelain, Asian figurines and gold coins minted from Venice to India – an Aladdin’s Cave of loot accumulated from ships originating in far-flung lands.

Wreckwatch’s Editor-at-Large, Nauticus, wonders who the real pirates are in Madagascar, the rig swinging, brandy chugging band of brothers in the early 18th century or a group of experts from UNESCO, who in 2015 condemned these pirate ships as small fry, denouncing the discovery of the Adventure Galley as just a crumbled old wharf. Nauticus tells us who’s right.

The Madagascar angle is rounded off by three more sunken gems. Frederick Hanselmann’s new book tracks down the final resting place of Captain Kidd’s Quedagh Merchant (1699), an Indian-owned rich trader based in Surat and sailed under French colours by Armenian merchants. Kidd’s dashing capture of the ship sparked a catastrophic chain of trouble. India went ballistic at the brazen seizure and put huge pressure on the East India Company to control England’s lawless mob.

Kidd, a legally chartered pirate hunter with King William III’s blessing, was tarred a pirate. And all pirates were now enemies of mankind. The best minds and pirate hunters of today are convinced Kidd was stitched up, thrown under the king’s carriage to save the dodgy reputations of his high society backers. The pirate hunter, as Wreckwatch features by Richard Zacks and Sarah Barringer show, was served up as a convenient sacrificial lamb. Noel Young tells us why he’s running a campaign to get Kidd pardoned, backed by the Hollywood actor Brian Cox.

Next, Jean Soulat, Patrick Lizé and Yann Von Arnim hunt down the mysteries of the Speaker (1702), captured in Madagascar by the pirates John Booth, a gentleman of fortune, and John Bowen. The Speaker was yet another slave ship. Once seized, it ended up shattered by a cyclone off the Dutch trade outpost of Mauritius. The wreck has turned up gold coins and bars, trade beads and porcelain from Italy, Yemen, India and Mexico, as well as cannon.

On the far side of the Indian Ocean, your humble Editor-in-Chief (that would be me, Sean Kingsley) travels back in time to revisit the world’s only Mughal treasure wreck, discovered by a stranger than fiction team: stargazer Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and man who brought sci-fi and space to the masses. Off the Great Basses reef in Sri Lanka, Clarke’s mission pulled up 340 kilograms of silver coins minted in 1702, the iconic reign of the Emperor Aurangzeb and exactly the mega booty pirates got misty eyed dreaming about. Clarke’s team archaeologist was none other than the legendary Peter Throckmorton, the grand-daddy of underwater archaeology. Peter is our Icon for December.

Wreckwatch’s December pirates special ends on the European stage. Sean Kingsley introduces a 43-metre Ottoman trader recently found 2,000 metres down in the Levantine Basin, outside Lebanese waters – the largest wreck found in the Mediterranean and crammed with the goods of 14 cultures from China, Persia and Yemen to Spain and Italy. Unexpected ship graffiti found on the side of a merchant or janissary’s walking stick reminds us how dangerous the sea lanes between Alexandria in Egypt and Istanbul were around 1630 when the trader sank. The graffiti was born from the fear of the Order of the Knights of St John in Malta, who blitzed Saracen sea trade in the name of the pope. Who knew the crusades were still raging in the 17th century?

Below the gallows of London’s Execution Dock, where William Kidd was hung in 1701, in an eight-page lead article Monika Buttling-Smith takes us mudlarking through a trail of treasures thrown into the River Thames when it was the highway of Empire. Over many years she's collated one of London's most impressive Thames collections, everything from trade beads to shiny coins, wig curlers and tobacco pipes - exactly the kind of cargoes and everyday objects handled by pirates of the golden age. Monika shares both her personal voyage of discovery and the history behind the finds. (Photo at left: © M. Buttling-Smith).

And the best-selling author David Gibbins merges fact and fiction in the Schiedam, a Dutch merchant ship captured off Spain by Barbary pirates in 1683 and wrecked off Cornwall’s Gunwalloe Cove the next year. The Schiedam has been a legally Protected Wreck for a while but, alongside Mark Milburn, David is turning up amazing fresh wonders from the ship’s bustling life. The Schiedam and its adventures in Tangier inspired David’s latest novel, Inquisition.

Last but not least, don’t forget that a hardy crew of women rebels sweated shoulder to shoulder on pirate decks. Cindy Vallar, who runs the all-knowing website ‘Pirates & Privateers’, rights that wrong. Among 40 known women pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read are household names. But Cindy adds to their lot the 9th-century Swedish pirate Alfhild, the late 16th-century Irish hellraiser Grace O’Malley and the most successfully pirate in human history. Not Kidd, Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts or any man, but Zheng Yi Sao, who worked her way up from a lowly prostitute in China to become the leader of a confederation of more than 1,000 vessels and 70,000 pirates – so the story goes.

The December issue of Wreckwatch brings all the big movers and shakers in pirate exploration together to share what the golden age of piracy was really all about. Don’t miss the 100 colour pages of mayhem, treasure and truth. Huge thanks to our esteemed contributors. It’s been a blast.

Wreckwatch Issue 3 launches on 20 December 2020.
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