The Power of Piracy

treasure island

I started out writing about the book Treasure Island. I wanted to explore it’s impact on the idea and image we have of what pirates were like back in ye ol pirate days. Those days for the most part, never existed as we think of them. I’m sorry kiddos, Captain Jack Back is 100% fiction.

The idea of sunken treasure is real and very documented but these were ships that were carrying usually plundered gold and riches from un-developed nations for the crowns of a few rich sea going European nations. I am NOT talking about sunken treasure. I am talking about buried treasure, and the need to forget about it.

I started with Treasure Island, and found myself exploring Oak Island, Captain Kidd and strangely enough, the Lost Dutchman Mine! So here we go.

Captain William Kidd, Pirate and Privateer, Legend and ended up as bird meat hanging dead over the Thames River. He was a privateer and a pirate and was convicted of piracy and murder in England and hung for it. He was also made an example of due to part of the ruling was for his body to hang over the Themes River for three years. WOW. Those were the days of justice!

There is a piece I wrote about Oak Island and the link is here.

It was written at the same time as this piece. Suffice it to say here, that it was the first known accounting of a THEORY of lost buried pirate gold. It predates Treasure Island, 1881-1882, and The Devil and Tom Walker, 1824 which Treasure Island is based on. However, this is the nature of Oak Island you have to get used to, although the events of Oak Island predate the stories, the first accounting of the events did not appear in print until 1856. So, which came first? Who knows.

So if I am searching for the origin of the myth of buried pirate gold, it has to start somewhere and it could have happened on Oak Island, the myth, not he burial, but a better and more likely source is a real pirate.

Captain William Kidd is the only known Pirate who buried any treasure, for sure. It was buried on Gardner’s Island and dug up and sent to England for Kidd’s piracy trial in 1699. It was not a big treasure. There was no treasure map. There was no X marks the spot.
That is well before the Oak Island myth. So maybe the start of all of this IS a case of real buried pirate treasure. The theory is that he buried the treasure because he knew that there was a warrant for his arrest and he would likely go back to England for a trial. He was also confident he would be pardoned since he was a privateer and not a pirate. But since he would lose his ship and be taken into custody, he theoretically buried his treasure so he would have some loot to return to once he was pardoned. It is reported that it was not much money. But he did bury ill gotten booty!

But that may not be the only genesis of the myth. When he was put on trial and it was clear he would not be pardoned he also claimed, in writing, that he buried more treasure and would disclose the location only if he was released. So he verified that on one occasion, a pirate did bury some treasure and claimed that he buried more. I believe this is the origin of the myth.

His claim of a second buried treasure didn’t work and he was hung in London on the Themes River. The first time he was hung the rope broke, this is usually a reprieve. He was re-hung till dead, then chained to the rocks to let the tide wash over him three times. Then covered in pitch and hung in a steel cage over the Themes, for three years. I’ll assume he was dead. Very dead. But the myth was just given life.

Just after this, and possibly before Captain Kidd’s body was removed from the Themes, there was a broadside (or broadsheet) song printed as a balled to Captain Kidd. Captain Kid’s Farewell to the Seas, or, the Famous Pirate’s Lament, claimed 200 bars of gold were out there to be found, buried.  If you want to start a legend, put it in a poem, just ask Longfellow.

This later appeared in The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving in 1824, “The Gold Bug” by Edgar Allen Poe in 1843, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1881 and Plum Island by Nelson DeMille 1997. Oak Island and its many permutations of myth and legend is likely a down stream result of Captain Kidd’s claim as well as many claimed searches for buried treasure on Gardiner’s Island (again), Grand Manan island, Long Island, Phu Quoc island and many more. Most of which are somehow connected to Captain Kidd.  Ironically, Captain Kidd is not connected to Oak Island.

It is worth noting, other than the original gold buried on Gardner’s Island which required no map with an X on it, there has never been any buried pirate treasure found, ever. At least none I can find proof of. Many claims of found Pirate treasure exist but all I can find are from ship wrecks, not buried in the ground. There is a reason that no pirate would likely bury a treasure and I am going to circle back to this.

This really isn’t the story I had planned on writing, this is the long way of getting to my main point. The modern day image of the pirate is almost entirely a product of fiction. From Poe to Irving to Stevenson, the image of a pirate was formed and repeated and made into a lasting image that most recently has been personified by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Black. This myth runs through Peter Pan from 1902 but immortalized by Disney in 1953 as well.

From Washington Irving and Robert Lewis Stevenson we get most of the image we have come to see as common knowledge, of pirate life. From Plank walking to peg legs to parrots, none of these were common if ever occurred. I’ll hit on the most common I know of:
Pirates were all criminals running from the law: Ok, some were. Most were not. Most were sailors not by trade but by training. Most sailors were originally “pressed” into service and not or barely paid. We get two modern terms that originated in the collection of men for service on a sailing boat that was very labor intensive. First is to be “Shanghighed”. This was to get someone drunk or high on opium on the west coast of the US and put them on a boat usually headed to China. When they came to, they were far out to sea and in the service now.
The British term was “pressed” into service which meant you were usually beaten till you submit or pass out and hauled off to a ship and again, wake up at sea and now work to survive. The modern term we have from this, is to be “drafted”.
Regardless most sailors on Pirate ships learned to sail this way, by being pressed into service but they did not get paid. So they might join a pirate crew that paid well if things went well. So most pirates were volunteers not running from any law.

Peg Legs: Although it had to happen at least on occasion that men lost their leg due to some accident on the ship, it was not common for men to have a wooden leg in replacement in the age of the pirates. The 1700s was when usable and affordable prosthetic legs started appearing. Most prosthetics were invented in the 1800s after the US Civil War. Pirates were unlikely to have them, and very unlikely to be common.

Eye Patches: Just like peg legs, the opportunity to lose an eye on a ship is great. And in the case of losing one, an eye patch would be warn. Glass eyes were very uncommon in the pirate era and quite expensive so a practical solution was to use an eye patch. But it seems in common pirate lore, that each ship has one, or two, maybe seven pirates who had one. My question would be, if it was so common to lose an eye, why were there no pirates with two eye patches? Ok, that’s a little over board, but we’ll get to that.
There is also the tested myth that they were used to improve vision in the dark when going below decks during an attack. This can work, but if this were the case, you would never wear one all the time.  This is more a modern theory than a real documented tactic.  We also have no way of knowing how many wore them, for need or tactic.

Walking the Plank: There is no recorded reputable source that said this ever was done. Yes it can be conceived, likely by Irving or Stephenson, as a way to torture someone and get information but what is the value? Why waste the time? However, the term “Heave to” is quite common and in common lexicon at that time. It simply meant to toss someone overboard. A much more practical solution.

A Parrot on the Shoulder: Oh I love this one, as does Jimmy Buffet. No, just no. This is a product of Stephenson reinforced by Disney and every stereotype ever since.

Pirate’s Code: Lets think about this for a minute. Imagine all the pirates getting together for a conference, say in Atlantic City, and agree to laws that all will abide by! They sent out a fax or text or email or telegram or carrier pigeon or posted on the pirate bulletin board to coordinate this, right? No, no and also no. Not possible and not likely and no one would follow such rules. No.

Pirate language and song: Yes there had to be some terms and songs common to the lifestyle, just like there is to any. But the ones we know, “AAARGGG”, and “Shiver me timbers” and all those songs, are a product of Stephenson and Disney. One British actor was in two movies about Pirates in a short time used his exaggerated British accent to form the fictional pirate accent.  Considering pirates were from many nations and languages, there could not be a common vernacular.

The Jolly Rodger: OK, this one is based on truth but … no. Think about the name, Jolly Rodger. How does that name come in? If a Pirate ship approached and it meant business, it would not fly a black flag. It would fly a red flag. In French, a red flag could be called a “Jolie Rouge”. The red flag meant you are about to be attacked and boarded, prepare drinks and bandages. The black flag was flown and quite common but it was simply black. Some did use symbols but the most common was not a skull or cross bones or crossed cutlasses. The most common was an hour glass. The Jolly Rodger, skull and crossbones, is largely a product of Stephenson and Disney.
To be fair, the skull and crossbones did appear on occasion. But keep in mind, these were sailors, not artists. Black was easily made and easily understood. The meaning was that they would accept surrender. Red simply meant were gonna fire on you regardless. Oh and as a note … flags on ships blow FORWARD. With the wind, not back, due to motion of the boat. Please doodle correctly.

One a side note, most Pirates flew a common national flag for the region, the same as the ship they were approaching if they had one.  Then as they got close they would drop it and fly their own flag.  This is where the term “show your true colors” comes from.

The last myth was the point of my journey all along. Buried treasure. I have already commented on how this has only happened once that I can find. But let’s look at the logic of it. Pirates were not looking for gold! Believe it or not the most valuable thing they could find on a ship, was the ship! Gold was not a common cargo. What was common was food and medical supplies and regular everyday things like, water.

The quest was not to find gold, it was rare. The quest was to find the common everyday things that we need to survive. Even things such as silk or spices were more valuable in some cases than gold. But the most desirable was the ship itself. They were very expensive and a sizable one or new one was worth a lot either to them as a faster better boat or to sell or salvage.

Let’s play along and say they found a veritable pirates treasure (chest) full of pieces of eight and jewels. What they would do is simple and obvious. BLOW IT. They would head to port and drink and whore until the money was done. They had no retirement plans and the life expectancy of a pirate was not long.

If they were to bury it, how many people knew it was there? Most of the crew if not all. How many would agree that putting all that gold in a hole for one of them to come back to is a good idea? I’d bet none.

No pirate map has ever been authenticated. No treasure has ever been truly found. No treasure has ever been found other than the small stash of Captain Kidd’s. It was not in a chest by the way.  And it was dug up the next day by a man who witnessed it being buried and he turned it over to the law.
So, the point of all this was not to tear apart all we hold dear about the pirate myth. It is actually to point out that history, (remember I like to deconstruct it) is often a product of long time accepted myth. Most life is regular and mundane and boring. My life is not that different than yours. Mine is not that different than my parent’s lives were.

When history gives us magic and the extraordinary, it is usually partially if not wholly made up. But I love and marvel at the power of well done fiction. I mentioned the story of Paul Revere in another post, it is another example of the power of literature, in that case a poem.

I’m going to be looking into Washington Irving soon as a force in the history of the United States. I’ll also be writing about The Lost Dutchman’s Mine. The reason I brought it up here is simply this. Myth is often handed down and over time morphs into accepted fact. Time and belief makes fact in the eye of the believer. I’ll compare The Lost Dutchman mine to the idea of lost pirate gold. You have already made some connections I bet …


2 thoughts on “The Power of Piracy

  1. Pingback: Deconstructing Oak Island and its Money Pit | 5280nup

  2. Pingback: The Flying Dutchman – wordstowardsclarity

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