'Magical' 18th-Century Artifacts Found in Caribbean
Professor John Chenoweth
Small iron balls called grape shot, meant to be shot out of cannons, were found in the posthole of a plantation house discovered in the British Virgin Islands.
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.
Archaeologists working on two small Caribbean islands have found artifacts intentionally buried beneath two 18th-century plantation houses.
They appear to have been placed there for their spiritual power, protecting the inhabitants against harm, said John Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, in an interview with Live Science.
The discoveries were made recently in the British Virgin Islands, an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. [Photos Reveal Ancient Pirates of the Caribbean]
On one island archaeologists found "grape shot" — iron balls less than an inch (2 centimeters) in diameter meant to be shot from a cannon — buried in two postholes under a sugar plantation house. At this time on the British Virgin Islands "weapons were in short supply, so these bullets would have been likely relatively important," Chenoweth said. Why someone would bury them in postholes is a mystery, as one would need to dig up the house's foundation to access the iron balls, not to mention the balls would corrode over time, Chenoweth said.
That ammunition likely served a spiritual or magical purpose, he said. Supporting that idea, researchers Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud write in the "Dictionary of English Folklore" (Oxford University Press, 2002) that "the power of iron to repel evil is very well attested in Englishfolklore, and throughout Europe — all sorts of domestic objects, and even lumps of scrap iron, were placed in homes, stables and cowsheds as defenses against witchcraft and harmful fairies, or used in counter-spells."
Chenoweth believes that this ammunition was used like a counterspell. Grape shot was intended for warfare and therefore could be magically used to stop violence. "Following the idea of 'like cures like' the grape shot may have beenburied to keep violent attack away," he said in a follow-up email.
The inhabitants of the two-room plantation house had plenty of potential violence to worry about, as historical records show the island government continually warned London the colony was short of weapons and ammunition and was vulnerable to a Spanish attack or slave uprising, Chenoweth said. The fact that the plantation homeowners buried this scarce ammunition makes the find all the more remarkable.
"When they placed them there they had a good reason for doing so," Chenoweth said. (History of Human Aggression: 10 Ways Combat Has Evolved)
The quarters for the plantation slaves have not yet been found.
Archaeologist Rachel Cajigas records the top layers of an excavation unit in the British Virign Islands where a plantation house, and buried artifacts, have been discovered.Professor John Chenoweth
On another small island, in postholes of another two-room plantation house, Chenoweth's team discovered a whelk shell plugged so that it could be used as a container. Next to it they found fish bones, pins and the bones of a Puerto Rican racer snake.
Chenoweth thinks the shell, which would have held the bones and pins, had a spiritual purpose of sorts. It appears to have been inserted into the foundations around 1740 during a remodeling. Similar objects, called "witch's bottles," have been found at sites in England and America. "It has a long history in England and something that seems to be connected to pre-Christian spiritual practices," he told Live Science.
Objects like these are "seen as an effort to protect the house against bad magic basically, spirits and spells that might seek to harm some of the occupants of the house," Chenoweth said.
Placing the snake bone, which symbolizes something negative, in the shell could have magically canceled out the negative power that the creature represents, he noted.
This plantation was in use from 1720 until about 1780. The slave village is about 150 feet (46 meters) away and would have held no more than 20 slaves. This plantation produced mainly cotton, and, curiously, historical records indicate its owner was a member of the "Religious Society of Friends," also known as Quakers, a group that tended to stay away from rituals and ritual objects.
The two islands are located a few miles from Tortola, the seat of the British Virgin Islands government. The plantations are now part of private property, and the landowners prefer the name of the islands not be released.
The British Virgin Islands are "a beautiful place that many people visit for its culture,arts, and natural environment. I'm hoping that my work can help highlight the unique history of these islands from a plantation past, to freedom, to the modern vibrant society the people of the (British Virgin Islands) have created," Chenoweth said in an email.
Chenoweth reported the team's finds recently at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Austin, Texas.
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