Buried treasure solves pirate’s perfect crime
Is it wrong to love pirates? They were ruthless killers who terrorised the high seas, but a long tradition of books and film celebrates their swashbuckling adventures and rebellious spirit.
Shiver me timbers, they’ve found Long Ben’s treasure!
Historians say 16 coins dug up in the United States may solve the mystery of Captain Henry Every’s disappearance, over 300 years ago. They are the oldest coins ever found in North America, and were stolen by the “king of the pirates” and mastermind of the biggest sea heist in history.
It was a “nearly perfect crime”, says historian Jim Bailey. In 1695, Every plundered the Indian emperor’s treasure ship, taking gold and silver worth almost £90m in today’s money. A worldwide manhunt went cold and the pirate escaped. These coins suggest he made his way to New England.
Piracy is as old as civilisation. In the 13th Century BC, mysterious Sea Peoples terrorised the ancient world. But the golden age of piracy was between 1650 and 1730, when fearsome pirates became household names: Captain Kidd, Blackbeard and Henry “Long Ben” Every.
Like many buccaneers, he began his career in the Royal Navy. In 1694, he was appointed the first mate on a privateer called Charles II, licensed to attack enemy vessels. But the crew mutinied, made Every their captain and renamed the ship the Fancy.
Poor and starving sailors were easily seduced by the pirate’s life, with its promise of freedom and treasure. They elected their leaders, shared the booty and even compensated the injured. When the Fancy boarded the emperor’s ship, each pirate pocketed the equivalent of 80 years pay.
Every fled to the Caribbean, where fugitive captains found safety in “pirate nests” like Port Royal in Jamaica – known as the “Wickedest City in the World”. He sailed the Fancy into the port of Nassau in the Bahamas, which later became a republic of pirates.
With his ship full of gunpowder and elephant tusks, he changed his name to Bridgeman and bribed the governor not to alert the authorities. When the Royal Navy finally tracked him down, he had vanished. The Arabian coins in New England support the theory he continued to North America, disguised as a slave trader.
Others were less fortunate. Captain Kidd was hanged in 1701 and Blackbeard died in battle in 1718. By the 1730s the golden age was over.
But our obsession with pirates had only just begun. Plays, sea shanties and broadside ballads immortalised their exploits. Pirate stories were enormously popular, from Daniel Defoe’s 1724 bestseller to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Hollywood settled the modern image of the pirate with Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in the 1950 film, Treasure Island: honourable but lethal, with a pegleg, a parrot and a distinctive West Country accent.
Real pirates were murderous thieves, but their legacy is a loveable rogue, like Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. A recent book even invites us to “be more pirate” by pushing boundaries and breaking rules in ordinary life.
Perhaps the lure of piracy is irresistible. As Apple founder Steve Jobs said: “Why join the Navy... if you can be a pirate?”
Is it wrong to love pirates?
Pieces of eight
Some say yes, pirates are violent criminals. They take advantage of peaceful trade and are guilty of heinous acts of torture and murder. The only reason we love them is that we no longer fear them, built up in fiction to excite and entertain. But modern pirates still cause misery to global shipping and it is wrong to glamorise a way of life that does not respect human life and property.
Others say no, pirates represent our desire for freedom and adventure. The imperial navies that hunted them were guilty of the same violent acts, often on a far greater scale. But pirates refused to play by society’s rules. They made their own code and set their own course. In our ordinary lives, it is only natural to be envious of this freedom, and even to fantasise about starting our own mutiny.
- Are pirates heroes or villains?
- Saint Augustine said an emperor is a pirate with a great fleet of ships. Do you agree?
- Design your own pirate flag.
- Henry Every has been caught and is on trial for piracy. Use the Expert Links to write the closing statement for either the prosecution or the defence.
Some People Say...
“Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”Mark Twain (1835 – 1910), American writer
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that the 1695 plunder of the Ganj-i-sawai was one of the most serious acts of piracy during the golden age. Henry Every’s men killed, tortured and raped Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb considered this sacrilegious and threatened to throw the English out of India unless they took responsibility. To appease the emperor, England declared Every an “enemy of the human race” and began the first worldwide manhunt.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is whether pirates were political radicals or simply ruthless opportunists. Some modern historians and philosophers see pirate society as an experiment in democracy and a rebellion against the rise of capitalism and empire. Others argue pirates shared the same beliefs as the rest of society, but took advantage of rapidly expanding frontiers and international trade.
- Shiver me timbers
- There is no evidence pirates used this exclamation of astonishment, although it is based on real nautical slang. Timbers refer to the wooden frame of a ship, which would splinter or “shiver” during storms or in battle.
- New England
- The first coin was found by Jim Bailey in 2014 in a meadow in the state of Rhode Island. Others have been found in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
- Sea Peoples
- It is still a mystery who they were and where they came from, but their piracy devastated ancient civilisation in the eastern Mediterranean.
- Originally free sailors and privateers of the Caribbean, the term was associated with the image of pirates as self-reliant adventurers.
- Also known as corsairs, filibusters or freebooters. Privateers were given a “letter of marque” to distinguish them from lawless pirates.
- Port Royal
- At one point the second-largest European city in the Americas, the English pirate stronghold was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1692.
- Republic of pirates
- Between 1706 and 1718, Nassau was governed by the pirate code of conduct. It was home to the Flying Gang, a notorious group that included two famous female pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny.
- Broadside ballads
- Printed song lyrics about current events set to traditional tunes. Whilst Every was still alive, a ballad appeared claiming to be: “A Copy of Verses, Composed by Captain Henry Every, Lately Gone to Sea to seek his Fortune.”
- A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. The book was written under the pseudonym Captain Charles Johnson but historians believe it was the work of Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe.
- Be more pirate
- Entrepreneur Sam Conniff’s book looks to the golden age of piracy for inspiration, describing Elon Musk and Taylor Swift as modern-day pirates.