Angus Konstam on The Pirate Menace

Angus Konstam

The naval historian discusses the Golden Age of Piracy, and the fiction it inspired.
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Angus Konstam, many congratulations on the new book. Before the prologue we see wonderful maps that evoke the romantic locations of the period: the Caribbean, West Africa, the eastern seaboard of the American colonies, the Florida keys and of course the Bahamas. What were the Bahamas like in the early 18th century – a holiday destination or a lethal series of islands with pirates in every cove?

In the early 18th century the Bahamas were the perfect destination for pirates, or even pirate wannabees. The real advantage – the thing that first attracted pirates to the place – was the lack of any real government. In theory the islands were governed by Britain, but what little semblance of government there was had disappeared after the Spanish attacked the main settlement, Nassau, and burned it to the ground. The local inhabitants made a living form fishing, farming, plundering ships that wrecked in their waters, and either trading or smuggling with other colonies.

The first pirate to establish himself there was Benjamin Hornigold. Although he refrained from attacking British ships, other pirates were less fussy, and attacked whoever they could. Soon, thanks to Hornigold’s successes, the Bahamas became a true pirate haven.

By 1717 it was reckoned that over a thousand pirates were active in the Bahamas, although most simply used the place as a base, and cruised elsewhere, in the Caribbean or up America’s Atlantic seaboard. So, if you were a pirate at this time, the Bahamas was the place to be. There you could probably sign on as part of a pirate crew, and add to what was fast becoming a pirate menace.

Whilst we’re a little under 100 years before the era of Nelson and Britannia ruling the waves, did the Royal Navy hold supremacy in these areas?

The Royal Navy had warships stationed in the West Indies, and on the American seaboard, but the country was at peace with its European rivals at the time the pirate scourge erupted. So, the handful of warships on station there were hard-pressed to hunt down and destroy all of the pirates which were at large. They did well though, capturing a number of pirates, or chasing them ashore somewhere and hunting them down. It was the Royal Navy, after all, who carried out the attack on the pirate base on Ocracoke in the Carolinas that landed up with the killing of Blackbeard, the most famous pirate of the age. It was also the Royal Navy who defeated the infamous ‘Black Bart’ Roberts, killing him in a ferocious sea battle fought off the coast of West Africa.

The Navy were part of the British government’s ‘carrot and stick’ method of dealing with pirates. The carrot was a pardon, which let them go free if they renounced their pirate ways. The stick was the Royal Navy, who would hunt down and then kill or capture any pirates who refused to accept the pardon offer. The pirate menace was so great in the period from 1716 on, that the British Admiralty sent more ships to hunt down pirates, and to end the scourge on peaceable shipping. In the end, they played an instrumental part in stamping put the pirate menace once and for all.

Treasure Island is the introduction to pirates for many – though Pirates of the Caribbean may be the case nowadays, but are there accuracies to be found in the novel, such as parrots on shoulders, walking the plank, black spots and treasure maps?

Well, Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote treasure Island was a superb storyteller, and he clearly knew a thing or two about pirates. He almost certainly read the first real pirate history, Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of Pirates, first published in 1726, and still in print today. Many seamen of the time bought parrots on their travels, and took them home to sell, as they fetched a good price in British markets. Walking the plank was the invention of JM Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan. A real pirate wouldn’t bother. If they wanted rid of you, you were far more likely to be shot or stabbed, and then simply thrown over the side of the ship.

Black spots and treasure maps were an invention too. Prates didn’t really bury their treasure. For starters, most of their plunder was in cargo goods, like rum, wine, cloth or sugar. That was either drunk or thrown over the side. Anything valuable was divided up among the crew.  So, unfortunately black spots and treasure maps came from the wonderfully fertile mind of Mr. Stevenson.

What was the ideal pirate ship?

Almost invariably, most pirates began their careers in sloops. The sloop was a small, fast one-masted vessel, which could typically mount about eight or ten guns, and carry a crew of up to a hundred men. These sloops were fast, and usually shallow-draughted, which allowed them to escape from most pursuers in shallow water. Their only limiting factor was the stores they could carry, which limited a cruiser to a few weeks. Of course, if a ship was captured, the crew could live off its supplies, and keep on cruising. Eventually though, some pirates ‘traded up’, and swapped their sloop for a larger one, or for a bigger type of ship entirely. Some of the most successful had large three-masted ships as their pirate flagship, and often hunted in it, accompanied by smaller sloops. Blackbeard’s flagship for instance, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, could mount over 40 guns, while ‘Black Bart’ or Bartholomew Roberts had one, the Good Fortune, which was almost as big.

You yourself served in the Royal Navy but had you lived in golden era of pirates, would you have jumped ship and joined up with Blackbeard?

It would certainly be tempting. However, the career prospects wouldn’t have been very good. Most pirates were well aware that they would be hunted down, and the chances were that they would eventually land up swinging from the gallows. Life in the Royal Navy during the age of sail wasn’t so rosy either, with poor conditions and pay, plus the very real chance of being killed when the ship sailed into action. On the whole, I think I’d have stayed loyal to my shipmates, and remained under the colours. That way you might live long enough to draw a pension!

During this period, vast numbers of slaves were being transported to the North America, the Caribbean and Brazil. How did piracy impact the slave trade?

For the most part, slaves weren’t much use to pirates. The exception though, was if the slaves on a captured slave ship were either mariners, or they were skilled warriors. Then pirates would most likely invite them to join their crew. Others though, would usually be set ashore, to fend for themselves. Some pirate crews though, had quite a few forme3r slaves among them, particularly those who operated off the Wesat Indian coast. If captured by the authorities, in most cases, these unfortunate slaves turned pirates would simply been thrown into the slave pens, and sold back into slavery.

What was probably more useful to pirates were the slave ships these unfortunate people were transported on. A slave ship needed to be fast, to avoid needless deaths among its human cargo as it made the ‘Middle Passage’, the transatlantic voyage across the Atlantic, between West Africa and the slave markets of the Americas or the Caribbean. Slave ships were fast, but they also had to be commodious. So, when Blackbeard (Edward Thatch) or ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy captured slave ships, they kept them, and turned them into their own flagships – in their case the Queen Anne’s Revenge and the Whydah. After converting them by cutting down their upper works slightly, and adding more guns, they made the perfect status symbol for a pirate of the period.

Edward Thatch, aka Blackbeard, is a remarkable figure – but is that as a result of myth developed after his death, or is there truth to his reputation?

Edward Thatch (or Tache, or Teach – the name varies in the records) was probably the most notorious pirate of the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ – the period my book is all about. About a decade ago I wrote Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate, and researched his life pretty thoroughly. It turned out there was no evidence he actually killed anyone – at least not before he fought his final battle in November 1718. He was something of a pussy cat really. However, Blackbeard didn’t need to kill his victims. Instead, his reputation was built on his appearance – his long beard, his long hair tied up in plaits, with bits of burning matchcord hanging from the brim of his hat – the slow-burning rope fuses used to fire off guns or muskets of the period.

It was all designed to intimidate – Blackbeard built up a fearsome reputation, but it didn’t involve random killings. After he died, his myth was augmented by other stories, and like most pirates the fiction and romance of the character almost completely obscured the real pirate at the centre of it all. My whole interest in pirates – my 30 year fascination of you will – largely came about by me wanting to try stripping away the myth and legend from the real thing, and to uncover the truth about the pirates of the Golden Age.

Do you have a favourite character from the book?

I do, and he isn’t a pirate. He’s a naval officer a pirate hunter, Lt. Robert Maynard was the man who finally hunted down and killed Blackbeard, after a brutal hand-to-hand fight on the deck of Maynard’s sloop. There are others – I have a soft spot for a few pirates, including Edward Thatch – or Blackbeard, and Benjamin Hornigold, the man who kicked the whole thing off. Above all though, I admire the way the amazing spirit of these people shines through – their sense of freedom as pirates, and the reluctance of men like Charles Vane to give it all up.

Who is your favourite fictional pirate?

Oh, it has to be Captain Hook, from Peter Pan. I always rooted for him, even when I was a kid. I always hope he’d manage to capture Peter Pan, Wendy and the Lost Boys, and not bother with walking the planks, but just put the lot of them, to the sword! Captain Hook deserved a better fate than being eaten by a crocodile, while being jeered at by a bunch of kids.

Angus Konstam is the author of The Pirate Menace: Uncovering the Golden Age of Piracy, published by Osprey.