Pirate History

PIRATES AND CAPE COD

In regards to plundering, while the Caribbean may have been the most profitable ( lots of ships milking the slave-rum-tabacco  triangle route) and easiest locale (not so many uptight Puritans ), Cape Cod earned a special place in pirate history for the following reasons:

The ONLY truly confirmed 18th century pirate ship wreckage was found (by Cape local Barry Clifford) on the shoals of Wellfleet. The wreckage was of a pirate ship called The Whydah.

The world’s most successful and infamous pirate, Captain Black Sam Bellamy, had a “‘Fleetian” girlfriend in the form of a babe named Maria “Goody” Hallett. Goody was from Wellfleet, Cape Cod. Sam was probably on his way for a love cuddle when The Whydah wrecked on the shoals of Wellfleet.

Some of the pirates aboard The Whydah survived and became a part of Cape Cod history.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PIRATE BLACK SAM BELLAMY (and why the “Black” in his name?)

Infamous Pirate Captain Sam Bellamy was called “Black Sam” because he didn’t wear a powdered wig. Most sea captains in those days touted their high rank by wearing snotty powdered wigs and other hoity-toity paraphernalia. Not Captain Bellamy. He let his black hair grow long and free and he was a man of the people who espoused democracy. The iconoclastic Bellamy was interested in getting booty from a young age but his first attempt at acquiring it didn’t exactly pan out. Here’s what happened:  At a youngster he left England via a normal sailing gig, sailed to Cape Cod and started dating local ‘Fleetian babe Maria “Goody” Hallett (the “Witch of Wellfleet”).

He must have wanted his dear “Goody” to have some “good” things around so he ventured to Florida with a biz partner in search of sunken treasure. After some hairy encounters and a whole lotta nuthin’ he must have pondered  “Why shovel a whole lotta empty sand when booty is something you can just take?” for he soon abandoned treasure-hunting in favor of pirating. More dangerous but easier on the back, at least if you’re captain.

It could have been his swordplay chops but more likely it was his well-spoken manner, his skilled oratory and his knack for embedding his arguments within the proper nutshells that helped him quickly climb ranks to become a Pirate Captain at an impressively young age. (He died, probably from aquatic hypothermia, as Pirate Captain of The Whydah at the tender age of 28 when The Whydah wrecked in extreme proximity to Wellfleet beach in 1717. Sadly, rarely did pirate parents take their little pirates to swimming lessons in the 1700s ). Read on to discover a big reason, a part from lack of swimming skills, that made Black Sam Bellamy special.

THE DEMOCRATIC PIRATE

While not all pirates were model citizens (and perhaps none of them were), piracy enjoyed an important role in the development of 18th century democracy. And if democracy is truly a good idea, why WOULDN’T this be the case? Democratic experiments often fail simply because of the messiness of people in flux. People move, people migrate. Folks on land have complex business deals with other folks “throughout the land”. But what about at sea? Where exactly would the “borders” of a sea-worthy democratic petri dish be? The edge of the boat, that’s where.

Pirate captains were usually elected by the crew, as was Captain Black Sam Bellamy. In fact, many piracy decisions were made democratically. (And whether ye were a rich-kid-runaway or a former slave, ye still got your fair share of vote and your fair share of barnacle-blasted toilet duty). For example, when Sam Bellamy and his crew captured a small ship (of the “sloop” variety) Sam wanted to return the sloop —emptied of valuable cargo of course— to the sloop’s captain. But his crew overruled him with a democratic vote. The sloop was burned. Sam, ever the gentleman, invited the sloop’s captain to join his pirate crew. When the captain declined on moral grounds Sam took offense. But instead of immediately pulling his sharp sword he brandished instead his sharp tongue. He chastised the captain’s refusal as cowardly, the act of a “sneaking puppy.” In earshot of many Sam said this to the poor brow-beaten man:

“Though you are a sneaking puppy*, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security; for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by knavery; but damn ye altogether: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage.”

So what argument is Bellamy essentially making? He’s basically saying that a pirate at least steals with courage and honesty which is better than how —according to Sam anyway— the rich oligarchy attain their wealth. Sam claimed that the rich oligarchy (aka: all those rich white fat cats running the show in the 1700s) manipulated laws and people for their own gain to such a degree that they were essentially thieves. But worse than open theft, this alleged theft by the oligarchs reeked of the rancid scent of hypocrisy and dishonesty. Better to be Robin Hood, Sam seems to think, than Bernie Madoff or a wealthy politician in bed with big oil and a Renaissance-Era-Haliburton. (Sidenote: Sam Bellamy often invited the folks he robbed to join him as a pirate.)

And what does this argument have to do with democracy? Well, Sam Bellamy is into “transparency”.  He robs and he’s honest about it. When he scores, his crew spreads the booty on the deck and divvies it up according to a pre-agreed-upon formula. (Usually the captain got 20%, the first mate 10% and all others split the rest equally.) He became captain because he was elected by the crew and if he let’s them down he gets the plank or a deserted island. (So he’s probably earning his 20%.)

Transparency, elections, accountability. All the things We The People (through trial and error) have learned to look for in a democracy.

LEGAL PIRATING? THE PRIVATEER PIRATE

The 1700s were a highpoint for piracy AND a highpoint for navies AND a highpoint for international warring. That’s not a huge coincidence. In the same way that the development of the airplane placed air forces on a World War II pedestal (the air raids on London, the Dresden firebombing, Hiroshima), developments in shipbuilding made the high seas “where it was at” in the 1700s. The Kings of Europe abhorred piracy until they realized striking a deal could give them military clout. “Privateers” were pirates who had special alliances with certain governments, usually Britain. For example, British privateers would rob any ship that wasn’t British. (info herein is current as of 2011)

*What’s with the “sneaking puppy” insult that Sam Bellamy dished out to the sloop captain? Possible Answer: The sloop captain, who was probably sporting the type of hoity-toity powdered wig Bellamy found pretentious, was perhaps too well-tailored for the oldskool diss “ye scurvy dog”.

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