I’m reading a fascinating history book, Piracy in the West Indies and its Suppression, by Francis B.C. Bradlee.
The so-called golden age of piracy might have ended before the American Revolution, but there was a spurt of piracy during the late Georgian period as well. The Spanish empire in the new world was in upheaval. New South American republics commissioned privateers to prey on Spanish ships, and some of these turned to piracy. Also, some believed that the Cuban government encouraged piracy against U.S. merchants in retaliation for the 1808 act of Congress abolishing the foreign slave trade.
Bradlee’s book, originally published in 1923, draws on the records of the Marblehead Marine Insurance Company, reports of naval officers, and letters from victims reported in New England newspapers. He estimates the number of prizes (ships)captured by pirates to be as high as five hundred. Merchant crews were robbed, terrorized, and sometimes murdered.
During this era, merchants and bankers customarily transmitted money not by checks or bank drafts but by actual specie in boxes or kegs. Merchants suspected that the pirates
had agents in the seaport towns of the United States, who by fair means or foul, found out when large sums of money were to be shipped in vessels bound to the West indies, South America, or southern ports of this country, and were able to notify their friends to be on the lookout for them. It was even hinted that a certain consul of one of the South American republics might not be a stranger to these schemes.
Spurred on by the New England shipping interests, in 1822 the U.S. Congress authorized five hundred thousand dollars for an expedition to wipe out the pirates.
Commodore Davie Porter formed his “Mosquito Fleet” of small, shallow draft vessels, including the navy’s second steam vessel, the Sea Gull. Naval crews pursued pirates through the Florida Keys, and along the coastal areas of Cuba and Mexico, and even on to shore:
On July 21  they anchored off Cape Cruz, and Lieutenant Kearney went in his boat to reconnoiter the shore, when he was fired upon by a party of pirates who were concealed among the bushes. Several cannon in position on a hill a short distance off also opened fire.
More U.S. vessels were brought up and fired their guns, sending the pirates into retreat.
A small hamlet, in which the pirates resided, was set on fire and destroyed. Three cannon, one a fourpounder brass fieldpiece, and two swivels, with several pistols, cutlasses, and eight large rowboats, were captured. A cave, about 150 feet deep, was discovered near where the houses were, and after considerable difficulty, a party of seamen got to the bottom, where we found an immense quantity of broadcloths, dry goods, female dresses, saddlery, etc. Many human bones were also in the cave, supposed to have been the remains of unfortunate persons who were taken and put to death.
With no chapter breaks and little white space, this book is a slog at times, but great reading if you’re interested in the history and geopolitics of this period.
The personal stories convinced me there’s not much romantic about the pirate life. Crafting a sympathetic pirate hero for a romance requires consummate creativity.
What do you think? Do you know of a good romance with a pirate hero? I’d love to hear about it!
Images: Wikimedia, some images tagged for U.S. Public Domain