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
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
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
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.
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.