Take a journey back to the dawn of the age of piracy in the Caribbean, in the mid-seventeenth century. England — having just overcome years of civil war after Charles I was executed and Oliver Cromwell has finally died, Charles II becoming king — is at war with Spain. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the Caribbean controlled by Spain, England has begun taking settlements: first Barbados and now Jamaica. Captain Morgan arrives with men and ships and as a privateer has carte blanche to seize Spanish ships in the name of the English crown, and so begins Empire of Blue Water.
It is during this time that the term privateer and the term pirate become blurred together. The clear difference is that a privateer must donate a portion of all that he seizes to the crown of his nation, while a pirate keeps it all for himself and his crew. Naturally, when you’re many thousands of miles away from the country you are privateering for, it is easier to just keep it all for yourself and not have anyone know about it.
Captain Morgan takes this dangerous road, living on the island of Jamaica in the pirate capital of Port Royal. The pirate’s life can be a treacherous one, but it can also be a lucrative one – whether you’re a captain or a lowly seaman. With a fully-crewed ship, the pirate captain can spend as long as he wants cruising the Caribbean waters, taking ships, keeping them and making them part of the fleet, or taking all of worth from them and then abandoning them. Some of the crew may be forced to become pirates, especially when they have valuable skills on a ship: surgeons or doctors of any kind, cooks and sail makers, for example. A pirate ship is a very democratic place: during battle the captain has final say and commands everyone, but otherwise all decisions are made by the crew as a whole. The amount of pay they receive depends on their services, starting with the captain getting the highest, and then going down to officers and the ranks below; again skilled seaman will receive a better share, especially surgeons who are invaluable on a pirate ship. Pirates also received excellent compensation if they suffer an accident during battle or on their voyage: a loss of a limb warrants a specific stipend which will increase depending on how important that limb is, such as an arm or leg; if more than one limb is lost, the reward is even greater.
From this viewpoint, a life of piracy seems almost acceptable as a position at that time, of course there were many pirates in the seventeenth about which little is known or remembered, simply because they lost the battle, lost the ship, and died. Many lives were lost during this time as ships filled the Caribbean waters looking for plunder, while dead bodies filled the seas.
The pirates would decide when they had enough plunder, constantly working out their share, and would return to Port Royal, where they would proceed to spend everything they had earned as fast as possible on drink and women, spending anywhere from six months to over a year doing this, depending on how long they could make their money last. Captain Morgan was a little more careful with his earnings, buying a piece of land on Jamaica and then living there with his family until the money ran low, and then he would take to the seas again with a new crew, a new ship, and plenty of Spanish ships to be taken.
Stephan Talty does an excellent job of revealing the life of Captain Henry Morgan, going into detail on his major raids on Granada, Portobelo, Maracaibo, and finally Panama. This last battle saw the pirates taking to the land in an unusual attack that nearly resulted in them dying of thirst and starvation. Naturally, as all good things must come to pass, this is true even more so for a pirate whose life can end at any moment on the high seas. For Captain Morgan, it was the arm of the British crown knowing of his piratical efforts, stretching across the Atlantic and bringing him to trial. But when everything was revealed, Morgan was knighted and eventually returned to Jamaica as governor, yet was never the same man again and in 1688 died of dropsy. In 1692, a devastating earthquake and then a succession of tidal waves struck Port Royal, essentially obliterating the pirate capital. Port Royal was eventually rebuilt, but never became as great a pirate town as it once was.
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Originally written on August 17th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.