The Real Pirates of the Caribbean
By Paris Permenter & John Bigley

Shiver me timbers--we were caught in the middle of one of the most notorious pirate hangouts in the Caribbean. Ahead of us: the sea. Behind us: imposing cannons that meant business. And beside us: our tour guide.

This was Fort Charles in the community of Port Royal, Jamaica. Guarding Kingston Harbour, this town was once called "the wickedest city in Christendom," a waystation for pirates who returned from their expeditions laden with gold, silver, and jewels--to be greeted by a thriving community of taverns, brothels, and gaming houses.

Port Royal had captured our attention in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean, serving as the setting for much of the movie's action. (In reality, the movie was shot in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.) But long before Johnny Depp--not to mention Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.--brought these nautical renegades to the big screen, the public was already captivated by pirates.

As long as there has been sea trade, there have been pirates, by one name or another. Dating back to the days of Egyptian, Greek and Roman excursions by sea, pirates have roamed the waters in search of easy money. Corsairs in the Mediterranean became buccaneers in the Caribbean, where the islands offered excellent hiding places.

Pirates went where the prizes were and, with the Spanish conquest of gold and silver in the Aztec and Inca civilizations, that meant turning their attention to the Caribbean. Spanish treasure ships were soon followed by Spanish, Dutch, English, and French merchant ships supplying their colonies in the West Indies, all ready targets for the marauding sailors.

Many of those pirates made their home base on the small island of Tortuga, located off the north coast of Hispaniola (today shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In the early 1600s, drifters and deserters settled this island, hunting wild hogs and cattle that lived on Hispaniola. They smoked the pork and beef on grills of green wood the French called boucans, making them boucaniers or, in English, buccaneers.

All went swimmingly for the buccaneers until the year 1635, when Spain's King Philip IV declared the settlement too close to the country's trading routes and ordered buccaneers and their families removed. Many of the men were killed and their families were shipped off to the dungeons of the Inquisition; those men that survived turned to a life of piracy. Through the years, no ship from Bermuda to Panama was safe from the plunder and pillage of these ships flying under the Jolly Roger.

Closely associated with the buccaneers were the privateers, looting pirates who worked under the sanctioning letter of their governments. By maritime law, these crews could not be charged with piracy but they operated like pirates: capturing vessels and plundering loot from the ships of opposing nations.

Sometimes the line between buccaneer and privateer was blurred, as in the case of Sir Francis Drake. The well-known explorer who circumnavigated the globe raided many Spanish ships, bringing home the loot to his queen. Later, when England was no longer at war with Spain, Drake returned home with the bounty from a raid, but was disowned and forced to go into hiding for two years. Only after his triumphant circumnavigation of the globe did he return home a hero and gain his knighthood.

As actual pirate threats began to diminish, romantization of the pirate lifestyle grew, finding expression in many literary works. In 1719, Daniel Defoe followed the publication of his Robinson Crusoe with Captain Singleton, a novel presented as a pirate's autobiography. Defoe's research was far more than just academic; in 1683 he himself had been captured by Algerian corsairs.

Almost a century later, Lord Byron penned The Corsair, the story of an Aegean pirate, which proved the public's interest in the subject: the book became an instant bestseller, with over 10,000 copies purchased on its first day of publication. Byron's romantic portrait of the pirate lives on to this day:

That man of loneliness and mystery,
Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh;
Whose name appals the fiercest of his crew
And tints each swarthy cheek with sallower hue

Norman Island, British Virgin Islands

For us, though, our image of pirates dated back to childhood days spent with Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Our heads had been filled with ideas of treasure maps and buried loot sought by the one-legged pirate Long John Silver. Surely the Caribbean must be filled with gold doubloons, pieces of eight, and jewels from afar.

Well, not really. Thanks to this classic novel, buried treasure is often considered synonymous with pirates, but in reality the buccaneers rarely buried their loot (although hurricanes and shipwrecks created many involuntary treasure sites throughout the Caribbean.) Most preferred to spend it in a buccaneer's version of "wine, women, and song": rum, women, and gambling (and some song, too.)

But Stevenson did base his research on reality, including the setting for much of the action. On one trip, we'd sailed the British Virgin Islands and viewed Norman Island, believed by most researchers to be the inspiration for the book.

Dead Chest, British Virgin Islands

Norman Island wasn't the British Virgin Islands' only brush with pirate legacy. Ever heard the ditty "Sixteen men on a dead man's ship? Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum"? That jingle told the tale of 16 pirates marooned on the BVI's island of Dead Chest with a single bottle of grog. The fight which ensued left no survivors.

Turks & Caicos and Grand Cayman

Through the years as we'd plied the Caribbean waters, pirate connections were difficult to miss. In the Turks and Caicos, we walked the streets of the capital of Grand Turk to see houses constructed from ballast and boards harvested from ships which wrecked on the surrounding coral reefs. Those ships' demise was no accident, though; Bermudan pirates living on the island lured in the vessels with signal of safe passage. On Grand Cayman, we'd celebrated the swashbucklers at the annual Pirates' Week, later exploring sea caves where some claimed buried treasure still waited.

St. Lucia

In St. Lucia, we climbed to the top of Pigeon Island, now a national historic park. In the 16th century, its purpose was far less ecological, however; the tiny island served as the home base of François Le Clerc, better known as Jambe de Bois because of his wooden leg. The French buccaneer would attack Spanish galleons from the vantage point--all the while fending off attacks from the island's Carib residents.

Pirates of he USVI

And in St. Thomas, it was Blackbeard whose tale ruled the day. This US Virgin island was a favorite watering hole for Edward Teach, who earned his famous moniker due to a waist-length beard which he wore braided and tied with ribbons. Across his chest, he strapped numerous pistols--but he relied on his hat to bring real terror to those he attacked. In true pirate fashion which dictated that the more outrageous a man looked, the more he was feared, Blackbeard tucked hemp fuses beneath his hat, lighting them to produce a cloud of smoke as he approached.

Back to Jamaica

While Blackbeard's theatrics may have ensured his notoriety, two of the Caribbean's most unique pirates were noted not only for their ferocity but for also being members of the "fairer sex." Anne Bonny and Mary Read masqueraded as men, riding the waves as members of the crew of the notorious Calico Jack, a pirate nicknamed for his striped pants. The women were said to have fought as vigorously (and lived as wildly) as their male counterparts. Anne had previously been married before meeting the dashing Calico Jack and turning to a life as a pirate; Mary had long disguised herself as a man and served as an infantryman and in the cavalry, later marrying then becoming a widow before heading out for a life at sea. In 1720, Calico Jack's ship, with a crew which included Bonny and Read, was captured off Jamaica. The revelation that both women were pregnant delayed their execution. Mary died of fever, and Anne's fate was never known. Captain Calico Jack was hanged near Port Royal.

For many pirates, Port Royal was their last stop. Through the years, the community grew as Jamaica's early English governors, eager to plunder treasure-laden Spanish ships, welcomed buccaneers. The city expanded and became more lawless--and more and more drunken. In one month alone, over 40 new tavern licenses were issued. Rather than rein in the wild city, King Charles decided to create a royal monopoly on sales of brandy in Port Royal, using the profits to fortify and enlarge Fort Charles and to construct two smaller forts.

But brandy was not the downfall of most Port Royal residents; for most pirates, rum was their drink of choice. A wicked rum drink called "kill-devil" was the pirate's preference. Jamaica's governor Sir Thomas Modyford wrote that "the Spaniards wondered much at the sickness of our people, until they knew of the strength of their drinks, but then they wondered more that they were not all dead."

Indeed, it was drink, not swashbuckling, that did in the most notorious of all the pirates of the Caribbean: Sir Henry Morgan. The Welshman came to the West Indies as an indentured servant, eventually becoming a licensed privateer. With government approval in hand, Morgan plundered Spanish ships -- as well as towns of the Spanish Main.

Morgan's raids took him to Cuba's Puerto Principe (today's Camagüey) then on to Portobello, raiding the city and returning to Jamaica laden with gold and silver. The next year, Morgan's fleet was caught by the Spanish but a clever Morgan escaped by secretly abandoning one of his ships, filling it with tar and pitch, and aiming the volatile vessel right at the largest of the Spanish ships. When the Spanish hit the craft with gunfire, Morgan's ship exploded and the pirate headed off for more exploits.

His raids--including his most famous attack in Panama as retaliation for invasions in Jamaica--earned Morgan the favor of King Charles II. Morgan was knighted and became Deputy Governor of Jamaica.

It was a job change for Morgan--in many ways. Soon Charles II requested an end to the privateering so England could enjoy better relations with Spain. Morgan was asked to persuade the privateers of Jamaica--which some say made up a fifth of the island's population--to give up their marauding ways. Some of those who wouldn't stop privateering (now unlawful piracy) were caught and sent to trial--and often to the gallows.

Morgan himself died in Jamaica--not by the sword or noose, but by the drink. Years of alcoholism caught up to the swashbuckler in 1688. The privateer turned knight was buried in Port Royal.

But Port Royal was not yet to see peaceful times. Four years later, on June 7, 1692, an earthquake hit the town, plunging two-thirds of the city into the sea, where it remains today. Much of the surviving city collapsed or was hit by a tidal wave sending the remains of Sir Henry Morgan into the sea, never to be recovered.

Today visitors come to Port Royal, now a small, quiet fishing village, its wild ways replaced by a handful of small fish stands, an outdoor restaurant or two, a few churches, and the occasional rum shop.

And Fort Charles lives on. It cannons still point to sea, guarding what was once one of the world's wealthiest ports. A few visitors stroll the ramparts of this fort and tour its Maritime Museum for a look at some of the artifacts which have been recovered.
But it's easy to look out to sea and imagine the riches which now lie 40 feet below the sea's surface. Here, spread across 33 acres, rest the watery remains of the old Port Royal.

As we watched, the sun dropped like a gold doubloon, marking the place where all the reminders of those wilder days, rum bottles, dice, and the pirates' bones, now rest beneath the sea.

We'd found the buried treasure of the real pirates of the Caribbean.