British Virgin Islands
Pirates & Privateers
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Pirate tales inflame the imagination!
X marks the spot on ancient treasure maps; galleons leave the Spainish Main laden heavy with pieces of eight; swashbuckling characters rise from the mists of time larger than life (above: The Galleon by A.J. Rowley).
How much is true? What part did the BVI play in this historical drama from the days of sail?
Black Sam Bellamy
“He made a dashing figure in his long deep-cuffed velvet coat, knee breeches, silk stockings, and silver-buckled shoes; with a sword slung on his left hip and four pistols in his sash. Unlike some of his fellows, Bellamy never wore the fashionable powdered wig, but grew his dark hair long and tied it back with a black satin bow.” See Black Sam Bellamy: The Prince of Pirates.
Seeking his fortune, first as a treasure hunter, so as to marry a New England maiden, “Black Sam” Bellamy captured 50 prizes in a year’s time, many while based at his namesake Bellamy Cay in the BVI’s Trellis Bay.
After capturing his richest prize, the Whydah, “Black Sam” perished in a shipwreck at 29 while going back home. The Whydah shipwreck from 1717 was recently rediscovered.
Pirates came from all nations and walks of life. Fifty of Bellamy’s crew were black, including his pilot, John Julian, who survived the Whydah shipwreck only to be sold into slavery.
In many instances, pirates elected their captains and lived by a commonly agreed set of rules, although punishments were severe and included flogging, marooning and death such as hanging from the ship’s yardarm or “walking the plank.”
Golden Age of Pirates
Centered on the Caribbean and its shores, the late 17th and early 18th centuries (1680-1725) is considered the “golden age of pirates.” Once useful to the English, French and Dutch in attacking the Spanish empire, and each other, pirates and privateers flourished in this period, wreaking havoc on maritime commerce and terrorizing travellers.
Gradually equilibrium was reached between the colonial powers and the British Navy came to rule the sea. By 1725 the great age of priates ended as merchants successfully pressured colonial governors to end piracy.
Yet the seeds of freedom planted by these rebellious pirate crews, electing their own captains and practicing equality of opportunity–these revolutionary ideas–would find fruition in the French and American revolutions against the very colonial regimes that hunted them down and hung not a few.
Privateers & Buccaneers
A buchaneer was another name for a sea robber or pirate. Buchaneer came from the early French practioneers called “boucaniers.”
Columbus’ voyage resulted in the Spanish empire centered on the Caribbean shores of the Americas, known as the Spanish Main. Precious metals and other riches flowed from inland mines and Indian empires to sea coast towns and then on through the Caribbean by galleons under sail to Spain.
This wealth attracted English privateers, the most famous of whom was Sir Francis Drake. A privateer was a government sanctioned pirate given “letters of marque.” These protected him from hanging if captured.
Sir Francis Drake
Privateer and sea captain extrodinaire, the legendary Sir Francis Drake, a self-made man detested by the old noblility, rose to the rank of British Admiral and defeated the Spanish Armada.
Earlier as a privateer, Drake collected his fleet in the North Sound before sailing with Sir John Hawkins to attack Puerto Rico. Drake’s Golden Hind is shown here.
“El Draque,” as the Spanish called him, was buried at sea in a lead coffin off Nombres de Dios on the Spanish Main, where in 1573 his illustrious career began when he plundered a “silver train” of mules headed for Spain’s annual Tierra Firme treasure fleet.
In those days, the Sir Francis Drake Channel was called “Freebooters Gangway,” a freebooter being a term for a pirate. The nearby Anegada Passage was the entrance to the Caribbean and the protected waters of The Channel attracted merchantmen and pirates alike.
Pirates and privateers favored ships with shallow drafts, especially the Bermudan or jib-headed sloop, noted for its speed and handling. The Jamaican sloop, built of red cedar, was also well regarded for sea worthiness and speed. A sloop in the 17th and 18th centuries described various small ships of which a schooner was one variety.
The North Sound in particular lies astride The Passage and The Channel. Fronting the North Sound is the still mysterious Eustatia Sound where local knowledge affords escape “back doors” or exits through gaps in the treacherous reefs that even modern charter captains fear. Some modern charts still show Eustatia Sound, incorrectly, as being a few scant feet deep and unsailable.
Pirate Escape Route
An alternative, but little used, entrance/exit to the North Sound, goes behind Saba Rock’s reef in an “S” transit through an opening between the islands around the back of Eustatia Island and out a little used gap in Eustatia Reef at Prickley Pear’s Opuntia Point.
This “pirate escape route” could be used to lure pursuers onto the intervening reef shallows. Fit for fantasy pirate map, now this fun route takes the adventurous snorkeling or beachcombing by dinghy.
Dead Man’s Chest
Marooning was a common pirate punishment. After a mutiny, the notorious Blackbeard is said to have marooned 15 men on Dead Man’s Chest with only a bottle of rum. Hence the ditty:
“15 men on a Dead Man’s Chest,
yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.”
Going into battle, Blackbeard stuck slowly burning matches in his hair. See On Captain Teach, alias Blackbeard, When Blackbeard Scourged the Seas and Queen Anne’s Revenge?
“As Ridge Road finally dips to the North Beach Coast, half way down to Windy Hill are the overgrown stone walls and other ruins of the18th century St. Michael’s Church, reputedly headed by a pirate priest who used this vantage to spy passing ships, now usually charter boats.”See Tour Tortola by Land.
Often called Treasure Island for its association with Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the BVI’s Norman Island was reputed to be a favorite hangout of pirates while legends of buried treasure still persist. See more pirate books.