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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Avast ye! Wiki Wormhole checks out an arrr-ticle about pirates

Illustration for article titled Avast ye! Wiki Wormhole checks out an arrr-ticle about pirates

With over 4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you're throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or you need convincing that Transylvania University is a real thing (it's one of America's oldest universities; alumni include Jefferson Davis, Stephen F. Austin, John Breckinridge, and Ned Beatty. And, of course, Dracula.). But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia's oddities in our 4,396,950-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This Week's Entry: List of Pirates

What It's About: Someone once said any movie could be improved with the addition of monkeys or pirates. Piracy has fascinated people for centuries, as pirates' exploits combine thrilling adventure and a life of freedom and rebellions. Also, most pirate stories tend to play down the scurvy and syphilis. Never ones to be outdone by Gore Verbinski, the salty scalawags at Wikipedia have compiled the definitive list of buccaneers throughout history.


Strangest Fact: While pirates are renowned for sailing the seven seas, and in fact have raided the coasts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, "Roaring Dan" Seavey is a rare pirate who stuck to fresh water. Around 1900, having failed in the Klondike Gold Rush, Seavey moved to Michigan and acquired a schooner, which he used to steal cargo from ships and warehouses under cover of night. His most common tactic was to move or extinguish guiding lights, causing ships to sail into rocks so Seavey and his crew could salvage cargo from the wrecks. Eventually, he stole a ship by getting the crew drunk and then throwing them overboard. After a chase, he was caught by the authorities, but when the ship's owner failed to appear in court, charges were dropped, and for the rest of his life, Seavey claimed he had won the ship in a poker game. He seems to have ended his career as a rum-runner during Prohibition, and retired by the end of the 1920s. Rare among pirates, he not only escaped any punishment, but actually lived to the ripe old age of 84.

Controversy: While piracy in American waters died down by the middle of the 19th century, the second half of that century saw the rise of "blackbirders," pirates who would raid Pacific islands and kidnap the locals to be forced into labor, usually on Central American plantations. Among them is Albert W. Hicks, the last man hung for piracy in American history, and James "Shanghai" Kelly, who reportedly kidnapped 100 men in one stroke by holding a booze cruise on his ship and simply not returning to port.

Thing We Were Happiest To Learn: Piracy been going on for a long, long time. The earliest timbers appear to have been shivered by Dionysius the Phocaean (Phocaea was a port in the ancient Greek Empire, now part of modern-day Turkey). He plundered Carthaginian and Tyrsenian merchants around 494 BC. 1700 years before Pavlov, Chinese pirate Gan Ning conditioned people to associate bells with bloodthirsty pirates, as his sailors all carried bells to stir up fear in advance of their attacks.

Thing We Were Unhappiest To Learn: A fancy title can't hide one's past as a scurvy bilge rat. Much like Sir Mick Jagger, several knighted nobles of the Elizabethan era had shady pasts that no number of honors could expunge. Sir John Hawkins' ship design helped the crown defeat the Spanish Armada, but he had honed his ship designing skills during his career as a pirate. Sir Francis Drake was a British naval hero, but only because his career as a privateer focused on harassing the Spanish and not the Brits. Sir James Lancaster was an Indian Ocean pirate whose cheating and thieving ways served him well later in life as director of the East India Company. Likewise, Sir Henry Morgan (the inspiration for both Errol Flynn's Captain Blood and the brand of rum that bears his name) was a retired pirate when he served as Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. In at least one instance—that of Sir Francis Verney—a nobleman left behind his respectable life to become a scourge of the high seas.


Also Noteworthy: Pirates didn't seem to have colorful nicknames until the arrival of the Golden Age Of Piracy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. That span of time saw "Black Bart" Roberts, "Black Sam" Bellamy, "Calico Jack" Rackham, William "Captain" Kidd, and, most famously, Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, whose fearsome persona is largely responsible for the image of the pirate that rests in the popular consciousness.

A lesser-known name but perhaps the most fascinating story of the bunch was Black Caesar, a West African pirate who plundered for a decade while avoiding slave traders. When he was eventually captured at sea, he befriended one of his captors and the two men stole a longboat at gunpoint and escaped together just before the ship was destroyed in a hurricane. The duo used the longboat to flag down passing ships for help, which they then robbed. After falling out over a woman, Caesar killed his partner, built up a crew, and based his activities on an island north of Key Largo that still bears his name. Legends of buried treasure on the island have yet to bear fruit, but at the time, Caesar reportedly had a harem of over 100 captured women, and a prison camp for people he hoped to ransom. According to legend, a handful of children escaped the camp, and lived on berries and shellfish elsewhere on the island, creating their own society with its own language. Eventually, Caesar joined up with Blackbeard and became a lieutenant on his flagship. He was captured when Blackbeard was killed, and hanged in 1718 by Virginia Colony authorities.


Best Link to Elsewhere On Wikipedia: There are a small number of women on the list, but the subject of Women In Piracy has its own expanded list that presents mythological pirates alongside historical figures. Notable on the list are several Viking pirates, including Stikla, who "became a pirate to avoid marriage," and more than one Medieval European noblewoman who became a pirate to avenge the deaths of her husband. Rachel Wall was not only a pirate, but a Revolutionary War vet. Most famous of all may be Ching Shih, who led her husband's crew and then took over his command upon his death, controlling hundred of ships, creating a Pirate's Code, and defeating the navies of China, Britain, and Portugal in battle before China finally gave up fighting and offered her amnesty. But the best story of them all may be Lady Mary Killigrew, and English pirate from the mid-1500s who plundered the seas while her husband was away at his job… as a Vice-Admiral in charge of capturing pirates.

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