Pirates & Privateers
Pirate tales inflame
||X marks the spot on ancient treasure maps; galleons leave the Spainish
Main laden heavy with pieces of eight; swashbuckling characters rise from the mists of
time larger than life (above: The
Galleon by A.J. Rowley).
How much is true?
What part did the BVI play in this historical drama from the days of sail?
"He made a dashing
figure in his long deep-cuffed velvet coat, knee breeches, silk stockings, and
silver-buckled shoes; with a sword slung on his left hip and four pistols in his sash.
Unlike some of his fellows, Bellamy never wore the fashionable powdered wig, but grew his
dark hair long and tied it back with a black satin bow." See Black Sam Bellamy: The Prince of
Seeking his fortune,
first as a treasure hunter, so as to marry a New England maiden, "Black Sam"
Bellamy captured 50 prizes in a year's time, many while based at his namesake Bellamy Cay in the BVI's Trellis Bay.
After capturing his
richest prize, the Whydah, "Black Sam" perished in a shipwreck at 29 while going
back home. The Whydah
shipwreck from 1717 was recently rediscovered.
Pirates came from all nations and walks of life.
Fifty of Bellamys crew
were black, including his pilot, John Julian, who survived the Whydah shipwreck only to be
sold into slavery.
In many instances, pirates elected their
captains and lived by a commonly agreed set of rules, although punishments were severe and
included flogging, marooning and death such as hanging from the ship's yardarm or
"walking the plank."
Age of Pirates
Centered on the
Caribbean and its shores, the late 17th and early 18th centuries (1680-1725) is considered
the "golden age of pirates." Once useful to the English, French and Dutch in
attacking the Spanish empire, and each other, pirates and privateers flourished in this
period, wreaking havoc on maritime commerce and terrorizing travellers.
was reached between the colonial powers and the British Navy came to rule the sea. By 1725
the great age of priates ended as merchants successfully pressured colonial governors to
Yet the seeds of freedom
planted by these rebellious pirate crews, electing their own captains and practicing
equality of opportunity--these revolutionary ideas--would find fruition in the French and
American revolutions against the very colonial regimes that hunted them down and hung not
A buchaneer was another name for a sea robber
or pirate. Buchaneer came from the early French practioneers called
Columbus' voyage resulted in the
Spanish empire centered on the Caribbean shores of the Americas, known as the Spanish
Main. Precious metals and other riches flowed from inland mines and Indian empires to sea
coast towns and then on through the Caribbean by galleons under sail to Spain.
This wealth attracted English
privateers, the most famous of whom was Sir Francis Drake. A privateer was a government
sanctioned pirate given "letters of marque." These protected him from hanging if
Privateer and sea
captain extrodinaire, the legendary Sir Francis Drake, a self-made man detested by the old
noblility, rose to the rank of British Admiral and defeated the Spanish Armada.
Earlier as a privateer,
Drake collected his fleet in the North Sound before sailing with Sir John Hawkins to
attack Puerto Rico. Drake's Golden Hind is shown here.
as the Spanish called him, was buried at sea in a lead coffin off Nombres de Dios on the
Spanish Main, where in 1573 his illustrious career began when he plundered a "silver train" of
mules headed for Spain's annual Tierra Firme treasure fleet.
In those days, the Sir Francis Drake
Channel was called "Freebooters Gangway," a freebooter being a term for a
pirate. The nearby Anegada Passage
was the entrance to the Caribbean and the protected waters of The Channel attracted
merchantmen and pirates alike.
Pirates and privateers favored ships
with shallow drafts, especially the Bermudan or jib-headed sloop, noted for its speed and
handling. The Jamaican sloop, built of red cedar, was also well regarded for sea
worthiness and speed. A sloop in the 17th and 18th centuries described various small ships
of which a schooner was one variety.
Sound in particular lies astride The Passage and The Channel. Fronting the North Sound
is the still mysterious Eustatia Sound where
local knowledge affords escape "back doors" or exits through gaps in the
treacherous reefs that even modern charter captains fear. Some modern charts still show
Eustatia Sound, incorrectly, as being a few scant feet deep and unsailable.
An alternative, but little used,
entrance/exit to the North Sound, goes behind Saba Rock's reef in an "S" transit
through an opening between the islands around the back of Eustatia Island and out a little
used gap in Eustatia Reef at Prickley Pear's Opuntia Point.
This "pirate escape route" could be
used to lure pursuers onto the intervening reef shallows. Fit for fantasy pirate map, now
this fun route takes the adventurous snorkeling or beachcombing by dinghy.
Marooning was a common pirate punishment. After a mutiny,
the notorious Blackbeard is
said to have marooned 15 men on Dead Man's Chest with
only a bottle of rum. Hence the ditty:
"15 men on a Dead Man's
yo ho ho and a bottle of rum."
Going into battle, Blackbeard stuck slowly
burning matches in his hair. See On
Captain Teach, alias Blackbeard,
When Blackbeard Scourged
the Seas and Queen Anne's
"As Ridge Road finally dips to
the North Beach Coast, half way down to Windy Hill are the overgrown stone walls and other
ruins of the18th century St. Michael's Church, reputedly headed by a pirate priest who
used this vantage to spy passing ships, now usually charter boats."See Tour Tortola by Land.
Often called Treasure Island for its association with Robert Lewis
Stevenson's Treasure Island, the BVI's
Norman Island was reputed to be a favorite hangout of pirates while legends of buried
treasure still persist. See more pirate