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The Pirate Hunters

By

The Pirate Hunters

Blackbeard boards a ship

Frank E. Schoonover, 1922

Pirate Hunters of the Golden Age:

During the "Golden Age of Piracy," thousands of pirates plagued the seas from the Caribbean to India. These desperate men sailed under ruthless captains like Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, "Calico Jack" Rackham and "Black Bart" Roberts, attacking and pillaging any merchantman unfortunate enough to cross their path. They did not enjoy complete freedom, however: the authorities were determined to stamp out piracy in any way they could. One of the methods was the employment of "pirate hunters," men and ships specifically chartered to hunt pirates down and bring them to justice.

The Pirates:

Pirates were seamen who had tired of the harsh conditions on board naval and merchant vessels. The conditions on those ships were truly inhuman, and piracy, which was more egalitarian, appealed to them greatly. On board a pirate ship, they could share more equally in the profits and they had the freedom to elect their own officers. Soon there were dozens of pirate vessels operating all over the globe and particularly in the Atlantic. By the early 1700's, piracy was a major problem, particularly for England, which controlled much of the Atlantic trade. Pirate vessels were swift and there were many places to hide, so the pirates operated with impunity. Towns like Port Royal and Nassau were essentially controlled by pirates, giving them the safe harbors and access to unscrupulous merchants they needed to sell off their ill-gotten loot.

Bringing the Sea-Dogs to Heel:

The government of England was the first to seriously try to control the pirates. The pirates were operating out of bases in British Jamaica and the Bahamas and they victimized British ships as often as those of any other nation. The English tried different strategies to get rid of the pirates: the two that worked the best were pardons and pirate hunters. The pardons worked best for those men who feared the hangman’s noose or wanted to get out of the life, but the true die-hard pirates would only be brought in by force.

Pardons:

In 1718 the English decided to lay down the law in Nassau. They sent a tough former privateer named Woodes Rogers to be Governor of Nassau and gave him clear orders to get rid of the pirates. The pirates, who essentially controlled Nassau, gave him a warm welcome: notorious pirate Charles Vane fired on the royal navy ships as they entered the harbor. Rogers was not intimidated and was determined to do his job. He had royal pardons for those who were willing to give up the life of piracy. Anyone who wished could sign a contract swearing to never again return to piracy and they would receive a full pardon. As the penalty for piracy was hanging, many pirates, including famous ones like Benjamin Hornigold, accepted the pardon. Some, like Vane, accepted the pardon but soon returned to piracy. The pardons took many pirates off the seas, but the biggest, baddest pirates would never willingly give up the life. That's where the pirate hunters came in.

Pirate Hunters and Privateers:

For as long as there have been pirates, there have been men hired to hunt them down. Sometimes, the men hired to catch the pirates were pirates themselves. This occasionally led to problems. In 1696, Captain William Kidd, a respected ship's captain, was given a privateering commission to attack any French and/or pirate vessels he found. Under the terms of the contract, he could pretty much keep the spoils and enjoyed the protection of England. Many of his sailors were former pirates and not long into the voyage, when pickings were scarce, they told Kidd that he had better come up with some plunder…or else. In 1698 he attacked and sacked the Queddah Merchant, a Moorish ship with an English captain. Allegedly the ship had French papers, which was good enough for Kidd and his men. However, his arguments did not fly in a British court and Kidd was eventually hanged for piracy.

The Death of Blackbeard:

Edward "Blackbeard" Teach terrorized the Atlantic between the years of 1716-1718. In 1718 he supposedly retired, accepted a pardon and settled down in North Carolina. In reality, he was still a pirate and was in cahoots with the local governor, who offered him protection in exchange for part of his loot. The Governor of nearby Virginia chartered two warships, the Ranger and the Jane, to capture or kill the legendary pirate. On November 22, 1718, they cornered Blackbeard in Okracoke Inlet. A fierce battle ensued, and Blackbeard was killed after taking five gunshot wounds and twenty cuts by sword or knife. His head was cut off and displayed: according to legend, his headless body swam around the ship three times before sinking.

The End of Black Bart:

Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts was the greatest of the Golden Age pirates, taking hundreds of ships over a three-year career. He preferred a small fleet of two to four ships that could surround and intimidate his victims. In1722, a large warship, the Swallow, was sent to get rid of Roberts. When Roberts first sighted the Swallow, he sent one of his ships, the Ranger, to take it: the Ranger, was overpowered, out of sight of Roberts. The Swallow later returned for Roberts, aboard his flagship the Royal Fortune. The ships began firing on one another, and Roberts was killed almost immediately. Without their captain, the other pirates lost heart quickly and surrendered. Eventually, 52 of Roberts' men would be found guilty and hanged.

The Last Journey of Calico Jack:

In November of 1720, the Governor of Jamaica got word that notorious pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham was working the waters nearby. The governor outfitted a sloop for pirate hunting, named Jonathan Barnet captain and sent them off in pursuit. Barnet caught up with Rackham off of Negril Point. Rackham tried to run, but Barnet was able to corner him. The ships fought briefly: only three of Rackham's pirates put up much of a fight. Among them were the two famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who berated the men for their cowardice. Later, in jail, Bonny allegedly said to Rackham: "If you had fought like a man, you need not have hanged like a dog." Rackham and his pirates were hanged, but Read and Bonny were spared because they were both pregnant.

The Final Battle of Stede Bonnet:

Stede "the Gentleman Pirate" Bonnet wasn't really much of a pirate. He was a born landlubber who came from a wealthy family on Barbados. Some say he took up piracy because of a nagging wife. Even though Blackbeard himself showed him the ropes, Bonnet still showed an alarming tendency to attack ships he could not defeat. He might not have had the career of a good pirate, but no one can say he didn't go out like one. On September 27, 1718, Bonnet was cornered by pirate hunters in the Cape Fear inlet. Bonnet put up a furious fight: the Battle of Cape Fear River was one of the most pitched battles in the history of piracy. It was all for nothing: Bonnet and his crew were captured and hanged.

Hunting Pirates Today:

In the eighteenth century, pirate hunters proved effective at hunting down the most notorious pirates and bringing them to justice. True pirates like Blackbeard and Black Bart Roberts never would have given up their lifestyle willingly.

Times have changed, but pirate hunters still exist and still bring hard-core pirates to justice. Piracy has gone high-tech: pirates in speedboats wielding rocket launchers and machine guns attack massive freighters and tankers, looting the contents or holding the ship ransom to sell back to its owners. Modern piracy is a billion-dollar industry.

But pirate hunters have gone high-tech as well, tracking their prey with modern surveillance equipment and satellites. Even though pirates have traded their swords and muskets for rocket launchers, they are no match for the modern naval warships which patrol the pirate infested waters of the Horn of Africa, Malacca Strait and other lawless areas.

Sources:

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.

Raffaele, Paul. The Pirate Hunters. Smithsonian.com.

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