People often wonder how pirates recruited. Did they kidnap people and force them to join the crew? Did the worst of the worst of rapist s and murders simply go down to their local seaport and sign on? Were children brought up to be pirates?
A little of each is true.
|Maybe Not Quite Like This|
In the past – as recently as the 1500’s in some places, as recently as yesterday in others, children were born to a pirating life. Probably the most famous of these pirates is Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland. Grace inherited her father’s pirate fleet, after a youth spent on shipboard learning the trade. When pirating was a family affair, a tradition of taking ships out to robe the neighbors, or the inhabitants of the next country, people were indeed born into the pirating life.
For the most part, this tradition ended with the growth of corporations and corporate shipping. Raiding between clans or nations was just that… raiding. But attacks on powerful, rich, international entities like corporations brought legal reprisals.
At the beginning or piracy’s Golden Age, a large number of young men who had been employed by their national navies suddenly found themselves out of work. Often this included entire crews, from officers on down. Common sailors often followed a captain who turned to piracy.
Ben Hornigold was one such captain. It seems certain that Hornigold was a good leader, beloved by his crews and skilled at running a ship. When the European wars ran out, Hornigold continued to do what he considered to be his duty as an Englishman, robbing French and Spanish ships. As a navy captain at the time, this was legal, even praiseworthy behavior. But without the support of a national war, actions that he had been carrying on for perhaps a decade suddenly became illegal.
Hornigold was a natural teacher, and he taught men to be pirates. His most notable student was no less than Blackbeard himself. But scholars charting the “linage” of Hornigold-taught pirate captains believe that 1,500 individual pirates owe their occupation to the “school for pirates” that Hornigold ran as he sailed through the Caribbean.
Some pirates joined the trade for revenge. The Lioness of Brittany, Jeanne de Clisson, vowed revenge when her husband was accused of treason and beheaded by the King of France. She sold her lands to by three war ships, and set about a career in piracy, being sure to behead any Frenchmen of the noble classes who had the misfortune to be captured by her black-hulled ships.
Jeanne was of a time period (the mid 1300’s) and a class (nobility) which allowed her to retire quietly once her pirating career was over. Most pirates who became Gentlemen of Fortune came from a much lower class.
Common sailors were often badly mistreated by their captains and officers. Food was often far worse that it had to be, beatings were common, and punishments could run to the sadistic, as sailors might be hung up by their wrists, deprived of rest and sleep, and sometimes even killed. This sort of thing led to rage that led crews to disregard their own futures in order to get payback. Some crew rose against their officers due to some initiating factor. This might become a mutiny, or might lead to full-blown piracy.
The most common way that a person became a pirate was to be robbed by pirates. Once they captured a ship, pirates took opportunity to recruit from among the ranks of the captured sailors. Offers of money, better food, more liquor, or a chance to get back at people who had abused them led many men to sign the papers that made them pirates. It should be noted that, by far, the most popular name for a pirate ship was “Revenge.”
But it was a frightening business to leave everything one knew to take up a life of crime that might end in hanging. Some sailors approached pirates on the quiet, asking for a show of being kidnapped, so they could later deny that they had joined the brigands willingly. The pirates usually complied.
Some folk were actually kidnapped, but not many. Skilled workers, who were paid more and treated better on merchant ships, were not so anxious to take up with sea-thieves. Sam Bellamy is known to have forced carpenters to join his crew, though he did make an effort to take single men, who were not married and presumable had few family ties.
But the reasons for becoming pirates, and the methods used to achieve this goal, were as varied as the people who had them.
Stede Bonnet, a rich man from a rich family, paid to have a pirate ship built and hired a crew. His reason is said to be that he didn’t like living with his wife.
The cross-dressing former soldier Mary Reed seems to have gone to the pirate island of New Providence with the intention of simply being herself. In a world where women were confined to the home, Mary had a unique solution to her desire for freedom.
Many African slaves who had been captured by pirates were freed and joined their liberators. Hampered by lack of experience as sailors, few of these black pirates became famous, but they made up large percentages of some pirate crews.
The nine-year-old boy, John King, kicked his mother in the shins and demanded that Sam Bellamy’s crew allow him to join. We don’t really know what prompted the child, but one report states that “the boy’s father didn’t like him.”
The fact is that, if you wanted to be a pirate, it wasn’t that hard to find a way.