Who's Who

Pirates and Port Royal

David Cordingly describes the seafaring daredevil who pirated the Caribbean 200 years after Columbus' arrival, and tells of a new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich, dedicated to their kind.

300 years ago this summer the town of Port Royal, Jamaica, was hit by a massive earthquake. The first tremor was felt at twenty minutes to twelve on the morning of June 7th, 1692, and it was followed by two more which caused the ground to move in a series of undulations like waves. Brick and stone buildings collapsed and a large section of the town along the northern waterfront slid beneath the sea.

Of the many eye-witness accounts few give a more poignant picture of personal tragedy than that of John Pike, who wrote to his brother twelve days after the event.

'The ground opened at Port Royal, where I dwell, with a shake and swallowed whole houses, nay, the street I dwell in was in less than three hours after, four fathoms under water, and nothing of my house to be seen nor any other, only one timber house which George Philips lived in. The shake opened the earth, the water flew up and carried the people in quick. I lost my wife, my son, a 'prentice, a white maid and six slaves and all that ever I had in the world'.

2,000 people were killed by the earthquake and tidal wave which followed in its wake. Nearly 2,000 more died later of disease and fever. The general opinion was that the catastrophe was a judgement of God on a town which had acquired a reputation for debauchery and wickedness.

Port Royal was probably no more wicked than Bristol, London, or any other seaport of the period, but it certainly had its seamy side. There were a large number of taverns and the more disreputable punch houses which according to John Taylor in 1687 'may fitly be called brothel-houses' and attracted 'a crew of vile strumpets and common prostitutes'. The most famous of the whores was Mary Carlton, an actress and thief who had been transported to Jamaica from London in 1671. She was pretty but 'as common as a barber's chair: no sooner was one out, but another was in. Cunning, crafty, subtle and hot in the pursuit of her intended designs'.

Port Royal was also the centre for a form of legalised piracy carried on by the buccaneers and privateers. Originally based in nearby Tortuga, the buccaneers were encouraged to make Port Royal their base by successive governors of Jamaica who believed that their presence would dissuade the Spanish from attempting to recapture the island. The buccaneers were given letters of marque which authorised them to attack Spanish ships, the most successful of them was Henry Morgan who ended a turbulent career, marked by a series of spectacular raids and pillaging expeditions, with a knighthood and the post of Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.

The buccaneers were followed by the pirates who made no pretence of acting legally and attacked any ship worth plundering. The authorities were forced to crack down on them, and Gallows Point, a low promontory to the east of the town, was the scene of numerous pirate executions betweens 1680 and 1830. The most famous of the pirates to be hanged there was Calico Jack Rackham, who was captured off Negril Bay at the western end of the island. The trial took place at Spanish Town on November 21st, 1720, and caused a sensation because the two most ferocious members of his crew were discovered to be women: Mary Read and Anne Bonny. The women were reprieved because they were both found to be pregnant, but Rackham was hanged and his corpse exhibited in an iron cage suspended on Deadman's Cay, later renamed Rackham's Cay. Two years later forty-one pirates from one captured ship were hanged at Gallows Point. Business continued to be brisk because in 1725 John Eles, a Port Royal carpenter, sent the council a bill for £25 for the construction of five scaffolds. Gallows Point was still in use for public executions in 1823 when Captain Boteler witnessed the hanging of ten Spanish pirates.

Sir Henry Morgan, Calico Jack Rackham and the female pirates, as well as Captain Kidd, Bartholomew Roberts and the terrifying Blackbeard all feature prominently in the major new exhibition, 'PIRATES: fact and fiction' which opens at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, from May 1st to September 6th. The exhibition begins with some famous pirates of fiction: Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Byron's Corsair, the Pirates of Penzance, and Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons; it looks at the swashbuckling pirate movies of the 1930s which starred Douglas Fairbanks Snr and Erroll Flyn; and goes on to compare the popular image of piracy with the reality. Pirate ships and pirate tactics, punishments and executions, marooning and desert islands will be included, along with the Barbary corsairs, the pirates of the China Seas, and piracy today.

Prominent among the exhibits will be fifty artefacts from Port Royal lent by the Institute of Jamaica. These have been selected from the hundreds of items recovered from the sea bed by archaeologists who have worked on the site over the past thirty years. Edwin Link led the first investigations in 1959. He was followed by Robert Marx and Phillip Mayes. Since 1981 a team led by Professor Donny Hamilton of Texas A and M University, working closely with the Jamaican authorities, has been systematically exploring the buildings of the submerged waterfront.

Most of the material brought to the surface has been of a domestic nature: a great number of pewter plates and tankards, silver and brass spoons, stoneware jugs and wine bottles. Axes, hammers and other tools have also been recovered, together with pieces of ships' gear. But as with findings from the wreck of the Mary Rose, it is the personal items which are particularly moving: a brass thimble, a pin and a needle, and delicately wrought buckles for shoes and belts.

Coins, including pieces of eight, have been recovered but no secret hoards of treasure, which is scarcely surprising. Contrary to popular belief pirates did not bury their plunder. Most of them came ashore after a raid and squandered their loot on gambling and women. In the words of the former buccaneer, Exquemelin, they 'wasted in a few days in taverns and stews all they had gotten, by giving themselves to all manner of debauchery and strumpets and wine'.

The Port Royal artefacts on display in the exhibition, together with the decorative charts of the buccaneer, Basil Ringrose, and the records of the trial of Captain Kidd, are a reminder that pirates were not mythical figures of legend. They were real people who ate off pewter plates, spent long hours at sea in uncharted waters, and could, and sometimes did, end their days on the end of a rope at Execution Dock on the shore at Wapping.

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