"A short life but a merry one"
That was the philosophy of the pirates who roamed the seas in the early 18th century. By the laws of the time all a pirate could look forward to was a short dance at the end of a long rope. There was no incentive to be merciful to the passengers of vessels that pirate crews attacked. Indeed, some pirates were psychotic murderers, riddled with STDs and with atrocious personal hygiene, who prided themselves on their savagery. Edward Teach, L'Ollonais and Edward Low revelled in their savagery but others took a far more measured approach to their piracy. Bartholomew Roberts, for instance, took over 400 ships in 2 years, without killing a single crew member. His crew, in common with many others, operated on soundly democratic principles.
They may have taken ships with blasts from their long guns, grappled them then poured aboard with bloodthirsty roars to terrorise and pillage, but they had generally had a meeting about it first where every man was entitled to have his say. The officers of a pirate ship were elected by popular vote from amongst the men best suited to the job and each had specific duties laid down in writing. They had to work as a team and to do that successfully every man needed to know his duties, the penalties for failing to do them and the rewards he could expect if they were successful. Punishments were brutal and immediate, the worst – marooning—being reserved for social crimes such as stealing from another crew member, but every man got his share of the booty and if he was injured he would be paid from the common fund, so much for an eye, so much for an arm or leg.Drawn from all walks of life, all creeds, nationalities and races, pirate crews were remarkably tolerant of each others foibles. They were literally all in the same boat. This tolerance extended to same sex relations. They even had their own word for it – matelotage. In 1700 a pirate ship was the only place in the western world where two men could make a lifelong commitment to each other in front of their peers, signing a document with the same legal clout as a marriage. This document would be honoured by the courts, especially in the old buccaneer havens of Hispaniola. Stories abound of the devotion and affection between members of the crews. Harry Glasby, the sailing master of Robert's ship, a forced man, was captured after an attempt to escape and was sentenced to death by firing squad but one Valentine Ashplant spoke up in his defence:
"By God, Glasby shall not die, damn me if he shall ... I love him, Devil damn me if I don't. I hope he will live and repent of what he has done. But, damn me, if he must die, I will die along with him!"
Impressed by his devotion, the pirate court allowed Glasby to live. Elsewhere there are records of a pirate trapped on a sinking ship whose matelot chose to stay and die with him. Bartholomew Roberts and his matelot, George Wilson, swore a suicide pact "to blow [the ship] up and go to hell together". Before battle, buccaneers exchanged embraces, keepsakes and promises of a happy meeting after the battle either on deck or in the hereafter. I think it likely that gay men and gay couples chose to become pirates because it was the only way of life where they didn't have to hide and where they could show their affection for each other in public. A 'moral' life meant constant stress, persecution, loneliness plus the fear of the noose should they be caught together as opposed to piracy with a pocket full of gold, rum and good company where their relationship would be celebrated and they would be free to kiss or more with only the piratical equivalent of 'get a room' as criticism- it's no contest really.
Elin Gregory enjoys writing about mayhem in all its many forms, car chases, chariot races, the Macedonian phalanx, SAS black ops, cavaliers or commandos, but has a special affection for pirates.
Her novel, On A Lee Shore, is available now.
"Give me a reason to let you live..."
Beached after losing his ship and crew, and with England finally at peace, Lt Christopher Penrose will take whatever work he can get. A valet? Why not? Escorting an elderly diplomat to the Leeward Islands seems like an easy job, but when their ship is boarded by pirates, Kit's world is turned upside down. Forced aboard the pirate ship, Kit finds himself juggling his honor with his desire to stay alive, not to mention his desire for the alarming--yet enticing--captain, known as La Griffe.
Kit has always obeyed the rules, but as the pirates plunder their way across the Caribbean, he finds much to admire in their freedom. He deplores their lawlessness but is drawn to their way of life, and begins to think he might just have found a purpose. Dare he dream of finding love too? Or would loving a pirate take him too far down the road to ruin?
There was no question of standing to fight. Outgunned and outnumbered, the only thing the Hypatia could do was run. So run they did, the crew hurling themselves in all directions in response to the master’s shrieked orders.
Kit joined them, kicking off his shoes to scamper up the rigging. The wind tossed his hair across his face and plastered his shirt to his back as he raced Forrest to the top. A quick glance back made his breath catch. The two ships were coming apace, a brigantine much larger than Hypatia and the other, closer, sloop rigged with a huge spread of white sails. The black flags were more apparent now, and Kit’s heart raced as he edged along the footrope.
“Have a care, Mr. Penrose, sir,” Forrest said as he too reached the yard. “Go back down, sir, do!”
“I know what I’m about, thank you, Forrest,” Kit said, and when he leaned to reach the reef lines with as much agility as any of them, the man grinned and left him to it.
The sails filled with a crack, and the Hypatia met the next wave head on. Kit looked back at the pursuing sails, calculating distances and speeds. As he watched, the tan sails of the brigantine were obscured by a puff of white smoke. A relieved curse ripped from Forrest’s lips as a spout went up well astern.
“That’s it,” he said. “Them devils’ll not catch us now.”
They both whooped their approval, and Forrest shook a fist. “You’ve no fancy to be a pirate then, Forrest?” Kit said with a laugh.“Me, sir? No fear, sir,” Forrest said. “There’s only one way that can end, and I’ve no desire to be turned off—God a’ mercy!”
A gun had boomed again, this time from the sloop. Forrest and Kit stared in horror at the wreckage of blood, flesh, and splinters that had exploded from where the master had been standing at the tiller. Hypatia shuddered and lurched, shaking Kit loose. For a sickening moment his legs swung free over the chaotic deck, before he hooked a toe into the footrope and clung to the yard to get his breath back. Below he could see Captain Dorling wringing his hands while Uttley hung over the stern, either retching or trying to see the damage.
Forrest cursed again. “He’s going to strike,” he muttered. “The captain’s going to strike.”
Kit envied Forrest the ease with which he swung hand over hand down the shroud. He followed, muscles protesting at the effort, jumped the last six feet, and ran aft.
The sloop and brigantine were approaching fast.
“Black flag,” Dorling shouted as Kit reached him, “so we have a chance. Strike the flag, strike it, I say. It’s La Griffe—once he flies the red flag there’s no mercy. Get the colors down, damn you.”
There was a shout from one of the hands as the tattered rag of black flapping from the brigantine’s main mast dipped and began to lower. On deck Kit could see a flash of red and gold, but Dorling was already scrambling to lower the ensign himself.
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