Adventures of 17th-Century Pirate Alliance Uncovered in Ireland
Photo by Connie Kelleher
These steps at Dutchman's Cove in Castletownsend, County Cork, Ireland, were carved out of the rock to facilitate illicit trade, in the dead of night, by pirates and smugglers.
May 20, 2011 --
Captain Jack Sparrow may rule the high seas this weekend with "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," but long before this famous fictional pirate plundered the box office, other notable buccaneers, privateers, scoundrels and rapscallions controlled the seven seas. Explore some of the most famous pirates ever to sail the Caribbean in this slideshow -- or else we'll make you walk the plank.
Blackbeard, born Edward Teach, is not only the principle antagonist in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." He's also one of the most legendary pirates ever to fly the Jolly Roger. After spending the early days of his pirating career on the crew of Benjamin Hornigold, a privateer captain based out of New Providence, Teach rose through the ranks and eventually was given his own ship, a 300-ton frigate with 40 guns that he would christen Queen Anne's Revenge. The name Blackbeard came from Teach's trademark long, black beard, within which he would tie several ribbons of different colors. He also wore three pairs of pistols across his chest in addition to the sword and small blades he kept as his side. As the legend of Blackbeard grew and he continued to capture ships in the Caribbean, so did Blackbeard's wealth. Eventually Blackbeard even tried to retire from his pirating ways after receiving a pardon, selling his booty, abandoning his crew and settling in the American colonies. Even in retirement, however, Blackbeard couldn't give up being a pirate and soon fell, once again, into the habit of plundering ships. Eventually, the then-Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, commissioned Lieutenant Robert Maynard, an experienced naval commander, to capture or kill Blackbeard. Since Blackbeard had lost his flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge, prior to the battle, the pirate was short on firepower and men. The battle, which resulted in hand-to-hand combat between the navy and Blackbeard's men, included a fight between the two captains. Maynard eventually prevailed, but Blackbeard didn't go down easy. After he died, more than 20 wounds from gunshots and swords were found on his body. With victory assured, Maynard placed Blackbeard's head at the bow of his ship as a trophy and warning to other would-be pirates.
Known for his bravery and leadership, Henry Morgan was perhaps the most famous buccaneer of all time. Morgan was born in Wales in 1635, but his ambition took him to Jamaica as a young man to seek fame and fortune. As a privateer and a captain with the English, he built his wealth, amassed an army and grew his reputation in campaigns against the Spanish and Dutch by capturing enemy ships and sacking their towns. Morgan retired peacefully and died in 1688, just as the golden of age piracy had begun to sunset.
Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart, was only a pirate for a little more than three years, but he would leave his mark as one of the most successful pirates in history, having captured almost 500 ships during his career. Black Bart became known for his fearlessness, often successfully attacking ships much larger than his own. Even as navies started to crack down toward the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, Black Bart's gunboats were left unchallenged. Roberts was also known as a ruthless pirate. In one case, when the captain of a slave ship refused to pay a ransom, Roberts set fire to the ship with all of the slaves still inside. Black Bart did have his quirks as well. He was known for being an impeccable dresser, and, as a religious man, refused to attack on Sundays. In 1722, Roberts died during a battle with the HMS Swallow after getting hit by grapeshot during a broadside attack.
William "Captain" Kidd
Perhaps the most unlucky captain in the history of piracy, William "Captain" Kidd set to be a privateer, but ended up becoming a pirate. In fact, Kidd intended to hunt pirates ferociously after being commissioned to do so by Richard Coote, the governor of New York and Massachusetts. Shortly after Kidd set forth on his mission, a third of his crew succumbed to cholera. His ship also sprang numerous leaks. Early efforts to attack enemy ships failed. Even worse, Kidd didn't encounter any pirates. Kidd and his crew became desperate and violence within the crew was rampant. Kidd killed his own gunner, William Moore. The act held quiet what had been a mutinous crew. In January 1698, Kidd captured a ship belonging to British East India Company, which was loaded with gold, silver, silks and other valuables. Since Kidd was a privateer for the British, this attack was considered an act of piracy. (Kidd originally believed the vessel sailed under the French crown.) After capturing the ship, however, legends began to surface about where Kidd had hidden his treasure, as depicted in this illustration. When Kidd came ashore to New York City, he learned he had been declared a pirate. Kidd was arrested in Boston after traveling to the city with the false promise of clemency for his crimes. Kidd was convicted on one count of murder and five counts of piracy and sentenced to hang on May 23, 1701.
A hero to the English and a scourge to the Spanish, Sir Francis Drake was perhaps the most powerful pirate in history. At the end of his career he answered only to Charles Howard and Queen Elizabeth I, who is seen knighting Drake in this illustration. A skilled sailor and navigator, Drake attacked Spanish settlements, raided Spanish ports and captured galleons laden with gold. The Spanish even offered a rich reward for anyone who would capture or kill Drake, the equivalent of over $6 million today. Drake is also known as the first Englishman ever to circumnavigate the globe, which he completed in 1580.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read
Whoever said piracy was just a man's game? Anne Bonny and Mary Read were two pirates who proved they could more than hold their own in a profession dominated by men. Bonny first entered piracy after becoming romantically involved with Captain John "Calico Jack" Rackham, who would become famous for having these two notorious women serve under his command. After leaving her husband and setting sail with Rackham, Bonny became famous for her success as a pirate and her effectiveness in combat even though she didn't command a ship. All her life, Mary Read acted and was treated like a man. In 1720, she joined Bonny and Rackham as a pirate and despite the brevity of the union, the three would forever be linked in history. In the fall of that same year, Rackham and his crew, including Bonny and Read, were captured. During his trial, Bonny was asked to testify on Rackham's behalf when she uttered the famous line: "If he had fought like a man, he need not have been hanged like a dog." Rackham was executed, and Bonny and Read were due to follow, but they both claimed that they were pregnant and a temporary stay was imposed on their executions. Read died of complications from a fever related to childbirth. Nothing is known about what happened to Bonny after she escaped execution.
Was Jean Lafitte an American hero or a savage criminal? It seems like he was a little bit of both. On the one hand, Lafitte avoided American ships throughout much of his career as a pirate, instead preying on English and Spanish vessels that ventured into the Gulf of Mexico. He also successfully defended the city of New Orleans in the War of 1812 alongside Andrew Jackson. On the other hand, he was a smuggler and a pirate who stole a small fortune over his career (although he became known for treating enemy captives well). Although his reputation is up for debate, Lafitte's legacy is undoubtedly the rumors of buried treasure that he left behind throughout Louisiana -- a fortune that was sought after long after he died around 200 years ago.
The French buccaneer Francois L'Ollonais, born Jean-David Neu, may be the most bloodthirsty pirate on this list. L'Ollonais was particularly notorious for the manner in which he treated his prisoners. In one account of his ruthlessness during the sacking of Maracaibo, Venezuela (a town he had laid to waste and held for a ransom of gold, silver, gems and slaves), L'Ollonais cut out the heart of one of his Spanish captives and started taking bites out of it in front of his other prisoners, assuring them that he would kill and eat them all if he didn't get the information he wanted. Ironically, some months after this incident, his ship ran aground off the Las Petras Islands, where he was killed -- and possibly eaten -- by a native tribe.
Stede Bonnet might be known as the baddest pirate captain of them all. By baddest, we're not talking about his ruthlessness, but rather his sheer incompetence. Unlike other privateers and buccaneers whose stories document a tale of rags to riches, Bonnet started out as an educated, wealthy plantation owner before turning to piracy, despite the lack of sailing experience, when he was middle-aged. Although Bonnet himself wasn't the most capable leader, he did have an amicable relationship with Blackbeard -- which lasted until Blackbeard realized Bonnet was incapable and took over Bonnet's ship, the Revenge. In 1718, a little more than one year after he decided to take up piracy, Bonnet was captured and executed.
An alliance of pirates preyed on ships laden with treasure, outmatched Britain's Royal Navy, elected their own admiral and, ultimately, were destroyed in a cataclysmic battle against a Dutch fleet in 1614.
They were a pirate alliance which operated on the southwest coast of Munster, Ireland, in the early 17th century, and now new archaeological and historical research reveals new details about their adventures.
Among the recent archaeological discoveries that may be connected to the alliance are two remote sites, each with a set of stairs reaching almost to the sea. One of them, located at modern-day "Dutchman's Cove," east of Baltimore, Ireland, held niches where candles or lanterns were used to signal pirates and smugglers who came in the dead of night. Another staircase at modern-day "Gokane Point" (also called "Streek Head"), located on the edge of a headland into Crookhaven Harbor, leads to a subterranean cavern with a waterway by which boats could enter. [See Photos of the 'Pirate Alliance' Sites in Ireland]
Both archaeological sites are unexcavated. Connie Kelleher, the underwater archaeologist who explored them, said she is not sure if they date back to the early 17th century. However, they would have been used by pirates and smugglers at some point, said Kelleher, a state underwater archaeologist with the Ireland National Monuments Service's underwater archaeology unit.
"Sites like that would have been used over a very long period by pirates, smugglers and others who wanted to do secret things,"Kelleher told Live Science in an email. Kelleher made Munster's early-17th-century pirates the focus of her doctoral thesis at Trinity College, Dublin, and her results are now detailed in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology. In addition to doing archaeological research, she analyzed historical records.
"One pirate haul is said to have been worth, in today's money, some $7 million," Kelleher said. "This was an amazingly lucrative commercial venture, and this is why it was so successful."
In the early 17th century, many of the pirates in Munster were Englishmen, but there were also Irish, Flemish and "renegade" Dutchmen. The records list one of the pirates as being black. "A pirate named Arthur Drake, who was lieutenant to pirate Capt. Robert Stephenson, is one of the only known black men to have held a position of command in a pirate crew," said Kelleher.
Searching for a lost pirate fleet
Kelleher plans to search Crookhaven Harbor for the pirate-alliance fleet destroyed by the Dutch in 1614. While some of the cargo and sails from these ships were salvaged after the battle — Kelleher found a list of loot from one ship — there could still be more for archaeologists to find. [Arrgh! Photos Reveal 'Pirates of the Caribbean']
"Certainly part of the lower hulls and its cargoes could be there — things that were in the hold of the ships," Kelleher said. "Similarly, if a ship exploded, then material could be scattered, and we could be dealing with a wider archaeological site."
It would be difficult for the researchers to determine if any ships they find belonged to the pirates, Kelleher said, though any intact cargo onboard could be matched up with historical records. "It would be amazing to find such a ship, she said. "Apart from the contribution it would make to our knowledge of ships from that period, it would be the first definitive pirate-associated wreck found in Irish waters discovered to date and one associated with such a tragic event."
Birth of the pirate alliance
Although pirates existed in Munster before the 17th century, a series of events led to the formation of an alliance in the area dominated by English pirates. In 1603, a new king — James I of England (VI of Scotland) — assumed the throne, uniting England and Scotland. He made peace with the Spanish, outlawed the practice of privateering (in which private sailors would be given consent by Britain to attack enemy ships) and cracked down on pirates in southern England.
As a result, the former privateers became pirates and moved their families to Munster, which, at the time, was the site of a British colonization program. With some distance between themselves and the king, the pirates thrived — their booty was smuggled ashore (often with the implicit consent of local officials), fueling the local economy.
In return for the locals allowing the booty to be brought ashore, the pirates bought local goods at three times the normal price. It was a lucrative scheme that attracted not just pirates, but also businessmen, and helped pay for colonial projects in the New World. During this time, individuals invested in colonization projects in the Americas, such as Jamestown and Bermuda. [Gallery: Lost in the Bermuda Triangle]
"Legitimate businessmen and merchant venturers were deeply involved, as it was assured access to venture capital, that was, in turn, invested in colonial ventures elsewhere in the New World, which was opening up to the maritime empires globally at this point in time," Kelleher said in the email.
Steps cut out of the bare rock on Gokane headland, Crookhaven, West Cork, Ireland, would have led to a subterranean cavern below that boats possibly carrying pirates could access around thee 17th century.Photo by Connie Kelleher
The pirates also collaborated to deal with common problems. For instance, in 1609, the pirateselected an "admiral" named Richard Bishop, Kelleher said. "Bishop could perhaps correctly be called the pirates' broker, as he successfully bridged the gap between official and unofficial operations, middleman to the middlemen," Kelleher wrote in the journal article.
The pirates also decided to limit their attacks to ships coming from countries that they judged to be traditional enemies of Britain, such as Spain.
The strength of the pirate alliance grew quickly, outmatching anything the Royal Navy could send against them.
In 1609, a senior government official in Ireland, Sir Arthur Chichester, wrote to Lord Salisbury, saying the pirates "are grown to a height of strength and pride that [efforts to combat them] will hardly prevail without the assistance of some of His Majesty's good ships." King James, who had reduced the size of the Royal Navy to save money, did not have the ships in Ireland to take on the pirate alliance, Kelleher said.
In addition to their home bases in Ireland, the pirates sailed seasonally to North Africa and Newfoundland (in modern-day Canada) making contacts with the people there that allowed them to resupply their ships. This extended their range and allowed them to send their fleets away from Ireland when the weather became inhospitable.
Defeat of the pirate alliance
While King James was unable to take on the pirate alliance, the Dutch were. The pirates had been preying on Dutch ships, and by 1612, the Dutch government was making plans to attack them, suggests a detailed "anti-pirate" chart showing Munster's pirate bases dating to that time. [10 Epic Battles That Changed History]
In 1614, after getting consent from King James to capture the pirates and turn them over to local authorities, the Dutch attacked Crookhaven. Dutch Capt. Moy Lambert destroyed a pirate fleet under Capt. Patrick Myagh, Kelleher wrote in her journal article.
A scroll written by English trader Edward Davenant and analyzed by Kelleher gives a play-by-play of the attack. "In an attempt to escape, Capt. Myagh, his two sons and fellow crew members jumped overboard but were caught and murdered by Lambert's crew; his third son survived but was seriously wounded. Others also attempted to make it ashore and were assisted by locals," Kelleher wrote.
Lambert proceeded to loot Myagh's ship, the scroll noted. "What he did manage to take included 3 whole pieces of satin, 3 whole pieces of silk grograine, about 1 whole piece of velvet, 120 whole pieces of Holland cloth, 24 whole pieces of canvas, 1 chest containing about 300 turbans, 2 great chests of sugar, 1 chest of sweetmeats, silver and gold, coined and uncoined, to the value of £3,000," Kelleher wrote. "The goods taken were given an overall value of some £5,000.” Some of these goods were obtained through plunder by Myagh's men, but some, such as the turbans, may have been from trade the pirates conducted in North Africa, she said.
The defeat of the pirates exposed the vulnerability of their base at Crookhaven. Additionally, the same year, a port used by the pirates at Mamora, in North Africa, was lost to the Spanish, and new legislation was passed that allowed for pirates to be tried and executed in Ireland. (Before that, the pirates had to be sent to England for trial.)
"Piracy continued, however — but in a changed format from 1615 onwards, when we see the Algerian Turks and Barbary Corsairs taking over," Kelleher said in the email.
Shipwrecks that are more than 100 years old are protected under Ireland's National Heritage Law, and people who wish to dive down to see them must get a license from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Kelleher noted.