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Piracy and America

Author: Mike Walser

The mere mention of the words “pirate” or “privateer” conjures up images of daring swashbucklers, bloodthirsty scoundrels and wicked rogues of the sea. As a nation, we have been reared on the media’s portrayal of pirates as either improbably romantic and dashing heroes or incorrigible villains. There has been no in-between. Those that explore the history of piracy in deeper detail find themselves exposed to a much more complex world than had previously been suspected. Often, many of these would-be scholars stop when they learn the truth of the gruesome and horrible deeds of some pirates. Unfortunately, they stop too soon. While it is true that there were several pirates and privateers that more than lived up to this reputation for evil, it is also true that as a nation we owe a great deal of our history to those very same pirates. In fact, the vast majority of historical pirates were nowhere close to the levels of villainy that have been attributed to them. During the so-called “Golden Age” of piracy, in the mid to late 18th century and early 19th century, the deeds of many pirates and privateers would prove to be invaluable to the development of the United States as an emerging world power. To understand the ramifications of this statement, one must first understand exactly what it is to be a pirate. Webster’s dictionary defines piracy simply as “an act of robbery on the high seas; also: an act resembling such robbery.” A pirate is someone who conducts such acts. There is another term that is often confused in its relation to that definition. Whereas a pirate commits such acts for personal gain, a privateer commits them ostensibly for the good of a patron nation. As Admiral Ernest Eller points out, “Privateering, on the other hand, was a distinguished practice whereby a sovereign power granted its commission and recognition to private armed vessels to prey on enemy shipping, i.e., ‘to grieve the enemy by sea’” (262).

Other terms that are often confused and misused as they regard to piracy are common in the English language. Pirates, corsairs and buccaneers are commonly lumped together as one and the same, although they mean different things. Corsairs were pirates who operated exclusively in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, while buccaneers, or “boucaniers” were actually runaway sailors and deserters who made their way to the waters of the Caribbean Sea, where they kept themselves alive by roasting stolen cattle on makeshift grills called “boucans” by the French (Rankin 151). Considering how much confusion we experience merely in using the proper names for pirates, it is easy to see that most people actually know very little about the truth of pirates and privateers.

Lest anyone think that all our conceptions are wrong, it must be pointed out that many pirates were indeed very wicked men. In fact, the city of Port Royal, Jamaica was pronounced to be “the wickedest city on Earth” (Rankin 118). It had become known across the world as a den and haven for pirates. They off-loaded their ill-gotten gains there, and spent many nights in a state of drunken debauchery over the years, until the sea swallowed the entire city in the aftermath of an underwater earthquake. The modern United States Marines were given a ceremonial sword to thank them for their defeat of the Barbary pirates. It is a symbol they still wear today, representing their triumph over those particularly evil men. The reputation of piracy is not undeserved. But it must be tempered with the knowledge that, as is so in many other cases, the reputation of some does not represent the facts of all.

The vast majority of pirates, although they could not be described as kind, were more than fair in their treatment of their crew and their captives. In fact, most pirate crews operated under a code of rules and laws referred to as “articles” that were remarkably democratic. Since most pirates came from mutinous crews of naval warships and merchant vessels, they had no desire to return to the often-tyrannical rule of a ship’s captain. Instead, most pirate captains achieved their command by vote. Even though punishments were gruesome and nearly always fatal, they were meted out with a very strict eye for fairness and discipline. Torture was rarely used by any but the most vicious of pirates, because it was simply pointless. Nobody ever really walked the plank.

The economic benefit of pirates to the colonial outposts of the European world was substantial as well. In fact, the colonial government of North Carolina enjoyed a string of beneficial arrangements with pirates. “It is true that as long as the pirates preyed on Spanish ships, and were free in spending Spanish gold and silver in Charleston, they were welcomed here, at least by those who were beneficiaries"”(anon. qtd. in Maclay 30). One of the earliest pirates to enjoy such an arrangement was perhaps the most famous of them all. Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, was known to have special considerations with the governor of North Carolina allowing him safe passage into Carolinian harbors provided he left English shipping alone. Despite this, he was eventually hunted down and killed by a British Navy lieutenant named Robert Maynard (Lane 207).

As the American Revolutionary War raged, the role of privateers could not be underestimated. In fact, strictly speaking, one of the first acts of American defiance was an act of piracy. The Boston Tea Party could technically be defined as piracy. During the whole of the Revolutionary War from the years 1776 to 1782, the total number of privateering ships outnumbered the ships of the Continental Navy by a factor of eleven to one (Maclay VIII). The Continental Congress even issued a proclamation authorizing large-scale privateering against English ships.

You may, by Force of arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels belonging to Subjects of the King of Great-Britain, on the High Seas, or between High-water and Low-water Marks, except… Friends to the American Cause, which you shall suffer to pass unmolested, the Commanders thereof permitting a peaceable Search, and giving satisfactory information of the Contents of Ladings, and Definitions of the Voyages.

One of the most famous privateers of the Revolutionary War was a former sailor in the Continental Navy named Joshua Barney. While in command of his slooop Pomona, he sunk or captured many English raiders and ships of war, attaining a fair amount of personal wealth while doing so (Maclay 117). It is this personal wealth that often made the deciding factor between joining the Navy and becoming a privateer. Privateers “combined patriotism with the hope of profit” (Eller 262).

The influence of privateers and pirates on the developing United States did not stop at the War of Independence. Twenty-eight years later, during the War of 1812, one of the most significant battles of that conflict was decided by the deeds of well-known pirate and his band. Jean Lafitte had been extremely active and successful in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, near New Orleans. He had been conducting raids against Spanish and French shipping in the Caribbean for years, and had become quite wealthy doing it. He had over 100 pirates under his command, headquartered in the self-styled Kingdom of Barataria, hidden away on some forgotten islands off the coast of Louisiana. After he had stolen goods from the Spanish and French, he sold them to the Americans in makeshift black markets. He was actually considered a local hero by the populace, as Remini points out. “Through this efficient operation the people of the city had a steady and relatively inexpensive supply of dry goods, wine, all sorts of manufactured items, and iron” (29). He was also a fervent patriot.

When the British became intent on capturing the city of New Orleans in 1812, they first approached Lafitte and tried to bribe him to aid their cause. Instead, Lafitte went straight to the governor of Louisiana to inform him of the British plan. Indeed, he offered his assistance to the American cause by saying “…I am the stray sheep, wishing to return to the sheepfold” (qtd. in Remini 34). Governor Claiborne did not believe him and had him jailed, along with over eighty of his Baratarian pirates. When Andrew Jackson came to lead the defense of the city, he released Lafitte and accepted his offer of assistance.

Lafitte delivered, providing enough ammunition and supplies that the American artillery was able to maintain a constant bombardment of English forces and prevent them from building any type of fortification or barricade. Lafitte even fought personally, leading groups of scouts and raiding parties through the swamps and bayous against the British. Without Lafitte’s aid, it is plain that the United States would have lost control of the city of New Orleans (Ward 250).

In light of all the influence and benefit provided to the fledgling United States during the 18th and 19th centuries on the part of pirates and privateers, it is hard to understand why we condemn them so thoroughly. Again, it should not be overlooked that many pirates were vicious killers and torturers, like the infamous Francois L’Ollonais who forced one of his prisoners to eat the heart he had just cut out of another prisoner. Men like that should be heroes to no one. Men like Jean Lafitte, Joshua Barney and even to an extent the notorious Blackbeard deserve little of history’s condemnation. They were not saints. They were not necessarily role models in their choice of life, either. But they were invaluable to our country, and should be remembered fairly for the roles they played. Without men such as these, our nation might very well not exist.


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