David Haycock and Barbara Tomlinson help dispel some pirate myths

Home  >>  Barbara Tomlinson  >>  David Haycock and Barbara Tomlinson help dispel some pirate myths

David Haycock and Barbara Tomlinson help dispel some pirate myths

To coincide with International talk-like-a-pirate day, David Haycock and Barbara Tomlinson look at some of our favourite pirate myths, with the help of the Museum’s collection.

Lucinda:
Hi, I am Lucinda Donnachie.

Every September there is a day that recognises the worldwide fascination of pirates, buccaneers and swashbucklers. The 19th September is International-talk-like-a-pirate day.

In honor of this day, I thought it would be great to investigate some of our ideas about pirates. I went to talk with some knowledgeable curators here at the National Maritime Museum.

First I met up with David Haycock. Hi David.

David:
Hello.

Lucinda:
Did all pirates talk in a West Country style accent?

David:
No, there were different sorts of pirates. I think it was Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island who probably popularised speaking in that kind of a way. They all had these rather Bristolian accents, although there were many different sorts of pirates from all over the world.

Piracy has a history of richness that dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years. As long as people have been on the seas people have been waylaying them from ancient Egypt to Greece to North Africa in the 17th century. And then most famously, the pirates in the Caribbean, in the 17th century particularly.

The most famous of those, although not actually a pirate, was Henry Morgan. He was a Welshman, so presumably he had a nice Welsh accent.

Lucinda:
Wasn’t he supposed to be a really famous pirate, though?

David:
He did have the reputation of being a pirate or a buccaneer, as they were also often called, and they sought different names for them. He called himself a privateer, which was quite distinctive from being a pirate or a buccaneer.

A privateer was licensed by what were called Letters of Mark and had official permission to take enemy ships at sea, even though he wasn’t part of the Royal Navy. But he had these Letters of Mark so that distinguished him as a privateer. Not a pirate or a buccaneer, as he explained in a court case in the 1680’s.

Lucinda:
What sort of things did he do?

David:
Most famously he took the Spanish towns of Portobello and Panama. Although he was a privateer and he was only supposed to work at sea, he undertook a couple of very daring land raids on the Spanish towns of Portobello and Panama on the Panama Isthmus.

Portobello was on the east coast, on the Caribbean coast, and was where a lot of the Peruvian silver was shipped by the Spanish, who then shipped it off to Spain. He captured Portobello with what was a very small force of about 500 buccaneers and took tens of thousands of pounds worth of loot, which would have been millions of pounds worth of money in today’s terms.

Having done that to Portobello, he then did the same to Panama. Except the governor of Panama burnt the city as they were arriving. So they were actually quite frustrated because a lot of the loot they could have made was made off with by the escaping refugees and was destroyed in the burning of the town.

But they were very famous for their exploits, and Henry Morgan was brought back to London and actually imprisoned in the Tower of London. In fact, Charles II was actually quite impressed at what he had done because although England wasn’t officially at war with Spain there was a lot of rivalry in the Caribbean Islands. England, by then, held Jamaica, and Barbados, and Morgan was sailing out of those islands.

Lucinda:
So what happened to Morgan in the end?

David:
He eventually made Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica and ended up buying lots of land on the island with some of his loot. He had African slaves and white servants working for him. But he ended up basically drinking himself to death in true buccaneer pirate fashion. That’s how he finished up, quite a respectable landowner in the end.

Lucinda:
Learning all of this made me want to challenge another assumption, the skull and crossbones. I went and found Barbara Tomlinson, curator of antiquities, to help me.

Hi Barbara.

Barbara:
Hello Lucinda.

Lucinda:
Do you know if all pirates flew the skull and crossbones flag, or did they have their own designs?

Barbara:
We all think we know what a pirate flag looks like; it’s a black flag with a skull and crossbones. This sort of flag was indeed in use by pirates in the late 17th and early 18th century. They were described in written accounts, which suggested that they were much more varied and complicated than this.

In 1700 Emmanuelle Wynne fought under a sable ensign with crossbones, a death’s head and an hourglass. A skeleton holding an hourglass and a dart piercing a heart also gets a mention in connection with a group of pirates hanged at Rhode Island in 1723.

If you live near an old church look at the 18th century headstones or the war tablets on the inside of the church and you’ll find lots of this sort of stuff. The memento mori in the graveyard were the origin of this imagery. ‘Remember, you will die!’

The term ‘Jolly Roger’ first turns up in the 1720’s, probably derived from the French, Jolie Rouge, referring to the red flag signaling that no quarter would be given in battle, a flag also widely used by pirates.

Lucinda:
What about pirates in other parts of the world?

Barbara:
Ah, the golden age of Caribbean piracy was relatively short. And it certainly continued in other parts of the world. During the 1840’s the Chinese pirate Shap-ng-tsai flew a red triangular flag with a black checkered border on all his ships. This is nothing like the flag in our collection reputedly associated with this gentleman.

Lucinda:
So the museum has a Chinese pirate flag?

Barbara:
Reputedly… this wonderful object is colourfully painted with a picture of one of the founders of Daoism, an inscription to the goddess, the Empress of Heaven, and a border of lucky bats. But, in fact, it’s probably a shrine hanging.

Lucinda:
Now that we know about who pirates were and what flags they flew I think it would be appropriate to celebrate it in proper pirate fashion, International talk-like-a-pirate day.

Arrr, Jim Lad.

Avast ye scurvy dogs, hoist the anchor.

Arrr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *