Fun-Loving Criminals


Blackbeard in Smoke and Flames, Frank E. Schoonover, 1922

by John Beckman

While writing an early draft of my recent book, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt, I became impatient with the Northeastern cultural glacier that stretched between the wild party that was 1620s Merry Mount and obstreperous 1760s Boston. 140 years of mirthless oppression? It seemed so un-American. Unable to get with historian Bruce C. Daniels, who contends that Puritans were actually quite lively, but also unable to leave the period alone, I took a little dogleg down the coast and saw what trouble the pirates had gotten themselves into. There was so much to see! In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a tidal wave of roaring decadence, popularly known as the Golden Age of Piracy, was storm-surging all of maritime society from the Caribbean Islands to the Indian Ocean. Pirates were the tyrannosaurus rexes of fun – insatiable, savage in their pursuit of pleasure, bloodthirsty in their disrespect for law and as tacky as magpies in their outlandish tastes for rainbow velvets and glittering jewelry. Most of all, with their swashbuckling flare, Golden-Age Pirates were indefatigably daring in their close-hauled death race for adventure and booty. What is more, as economist Peter T. Leeson has demonstrated, they were also crafty promoters of their own “devil-may-care” image and “their brand name for cruelty and insanity.”[1] No wonder then that as a subculture, they remain so widely well-beloved.

But pirates would have been a game changer for my book. Indeed, for all their exuberant transgressions, and even for all their mutual admiration, they sullied the trends in “radical civility” that I was tracing throughout the nation’s history. Nobody’s idea of brazen citizens, pirates were flat-out criminals. Which is not to say that they weren’t the exponents of some kind of American fun, and of a kind that has been wildly popular ever since. But whereas Sons of Liberty, rebellious slaves and even some of the roughest 49ers managed to craft transgressive joys that pulled the larger society together; pirates, just looking out for themselves, viciously drove society apart. By the same token, however, pirate fun, pursued in the privacy of pirates’ down-time, did have a refreshingly civilizing function that sharply contrasted with the rest of their ugly lives. Much as having wild fun at other moments in American history brought out the best in an array of embattled groups, so too did it show the pirates’ social side. When pirates had fun, they made light of their mutually outcast state, soothed each other for being vicious and toughened each other up for battle. They also fine-tuned their strange civil society.

North-American piracy reached a fever pitch following the summer of 1715, when one of the last great Spanish fleets, which for two centuries had been ferrying minted silver from the mines of Mexico and Peru, lost its full cargo, twelve ships in all, to a hurricane off the Florida coast. Treasure-hunters swarmed in from all around the Atlantic. Chief among them was Captain Henry Jennings, a privateer backed by 150 militants and his legendary protégé Charles Vane, who crashed the Spanish recovery effort and absconded with 60,000 pieces of eight. Though Jennings had been hired by the decidedly corrupt Governor Hamilton of Jamaica, he quickly turned rogue, divided the loot among his men and established himself as the alpha pirate on the Bahaman island of New Providence.[2]

If during this period Boston and Salem were the capitals of Puritanism, New Providence was the Western capital of sin. Populated by treasure-hunters, privateers, and prostitutes, ruled by heedless and drunken Governor Trott, its harbor fortified by ever-watchful gunmen and conveniently situated for staging ambushes on the constant stream of passing trade, New Providence was the pirates’ playground. It was also ensconced within beaches and tricky shoal water where outlaws could careen their crafts at will and take their time in making repairs. Two overworked taverns were the town’s only freestanding structures, but the gulf-stream air was so breezy and mild (though fragrant with these transients’ garbage and feces) that the pirates inhabited tents and lean-tos (cobbled together from spars and sails) and slept and drank and fornicated in the sand. Caribbean pirates developed discerning palates: they feasted on coconuts and citrus fruits, on salmagundi (a spicy salad comprising anything from fish to turtle to salt pork and pickles), and a variety of locally invented rum drinks – bumboo, rumfustian, and, as historian Jenifer Marx notes, “a rousing mixture of rum and gunpowder popularized by Blackbeard.”[3] Their fun, moreover, was rough and raw and compulsory. It was customary to squander new loot on liquor and to force it on every soul within reach, a practice that insured New Providence buzzed in a constant state of inebriation. Pirates disported themselves dancing hornpipes and jigs, organized days-long drinking marathons and even a notorious sex marathon that exhausted pirates and prostitutes alike.[4]

Capt. Bartho. Roberts, and His Crew”. From A General History of the Pyrates, by Daniel Defoe, 1724.
Engraving by Benjamin Cole.

Most poignantly, pirates staged elaborate mock trials (a staple form of eighteenth-century transatlantic theater) like the one described by Daniel Defoe in his General History of the Pyrates. Laid up on a Cuban desert island, the playful crew of one Captain Anstis enjoyed the topsy-turvy pleasure of “try[ing] one another for Pyracy.” The mock-judge sat in a tree, bespectacled and wrapped in a dirty tarp; the accused were strutted out, “making a thousand sour Faces”; and the lawyers bandied “concise” and “laconick” arguments above the criminals’ heads. All of these men had committed brutal crimes, and many would die real deaths at the gallows, but these two facts only heightened the excitement of the faux-Attorney General’s theatrical charges:

An’t please your Lordship, and you Gentlemen of the Jury, here is a Fellow before you that is a sad Dog, a sad sad Dog; and I humbly hope your Lordship will order him to be hang’d out of the Way immediately. — He has committed Pyracy upon the High Seas, and, we shall prove . . . has escap’d a thousand Storms . . . yet not having the Fear of hanging before his Eyes, he went on robbing and ravishing Man, Woman and Child, plundering Ships’ Cargoes fore and aft, burning and sinking Ship, Bark and Boat, as if the Devil had been in him.

The fun of such mock trials was manifold. They both helped to ease the pirates’ self-loathing for the remorse and hardship of their criminal lives and let them bite back at the legal system that ultimately decided their fate. This latter pleasure is on full display when the judge delivers his self-serving verdict:

You must suffer for three Reasons: First, because it’s not fit I should here as a Judge, and no Body be hanged. – Secondly, you must be hang’d, because you have a damn’d hanging Look: — And thirdly, you must be hang’d, because I am hungry; for know, Sirrah, that ‘tis a Custom, that whenever the Judge’s Dinner is ready before the Tryal is over, the Prisoner is to be hang’d of Course. – There’s the Law for you, ye Dog. – So take him away Gaoler. [5]

A century earlier, when Thomas Morton poked fun at Pilgrim law in the pages of New English Canaan, the source of his humor was his reader’s awareness that William Bradford, for all of his legalistic chest-thumping, was less humane than either the Merry Mounters or Native Americans he outlawed. Morton’s Pilgrim send-up was, as such, an advertisement for his own civility, a claim that group pleasures served society far better than the rule of rigid, arbitrary law. The pirates’ mock trials were twice as brazen – and they produced a more poignant kind of fun. Not only did they revel in the chutzpah of pirates who sported their crimes on their jolly rogers, but they also celebrated their culpability, lording their willingness to mock themselves over the courts’ stingy hypocrisy. Having declared open war on decent society, these pirates enjoyed a brief window of freedom to celebrate “the Devil” in themselves and they exploited this freedom to the fullest.

Pirates lived according to a common code, the ethics of which were profoundly confused. While they could be as guilty as any of their contemporaries of sex crimes and racism, often raping female captives and stealing African slaves as booty, they were also known to include women and former slaves as equal members among their ranks. And while their hideouts like New Providence were social sewers, ruled by drunkenness and brawling disorder, their ships were typically finely tuned communities that honored common Articles of Agreement – detailed lists of dos and don’ts that were usually signed in ink or blood, sworn over crossed pistols or astride a cannon, and tacked up in full view on the captain’s hatch. The Articles maintained a coarse civil society while guaranteeing the maximum fun that made this outlaw life desirable. Fighting, whoring, drinking, swearing and the rest of the Puritans’ bugaboos were broadly sanctioned under the Pirate Code. Along with fair cuts of Spanish doubloon, these were treasures worth dying for. Honor, theft and murder, however, were matters subject to the highest scrutiny. One was required to deceive the enemy – to rob him, certainly – to kill him, if need be – but woe to the pirate who broke the Code and tricked, robbed or killed his crew, regardless of whether the victim were an enemy who had been forced or coerced to sign the Code, as was frequently the case. Just as the Code rewarded prowess (offering the finest looted pistol to the mate who spots a merchant sail) and daring (offering recompense for a mate’s severed limb – 600 pieces of eight under the notoriously sadistic Edward Low, 800 under the more benign Capt. John Phillips), it also sentenced its violators to maiming, lashes, marooning or death.

An Accurate Map of North and South Carolina With Their Indian Frontiers, Henry Mouzon, 1775

A shining example of pirate civility took place in late September 1718, on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. Edward Teach, the fearsome Blackbeard, the flamboyant criminal who entered battle with matches flaming in his hair and whiskers, was lying low with his multiracial crew after having held the town of Charleston for ransom. (The ransom was a chest of medicine, rumored to have been for Blackbeard’s syphilis.) He and twenty of his men had accepted a pardon from the Governor of North Carolina, a shady fellow named Charles Eden who shared in the plunder from several of Blackbeard’s adventures. Comfortably moored along Ocracoke, relaxing in a state of extra-legal immunity, Blackbeard bought friends among the locals, took up with the planters’ “Wives and Daughters” (as per Defoe), and was considering leaving the pirating life altogether, when he and his men were saluted with canon-fire from the passing vessels of Charles Vane, who by then was the coast’s second-most notorious pirate. Blackbeard and Vane drank to their mutual admiration, and for the rest of the month their two mingled crews cavorted in what one recent historian declares a “pirate playground” and “the largest pirate festival ever held on the mainland of North America.”[6] Roasting pigs and cattle, fishing and dancing, carrying on until the rum ran out, these peaceable pirates, partying in the eye of their lives’ hurricane, made the criminal fun of cutthroats and rapists look as sweet as a family picnic. Indeed, a woodcut of this so-called “banyan,” carved a century after the fact, depicts a merry crowd of men, women and children – gathered en plein air around a civilized table, kicking up the dust to a fiddler on a barrel, bobbing off-shore in a quaint little dinghy. In reality, however, the increasingly wary Governor, knowing this party spelled trouble for everyone, quickly stepped up military efforts to keep the revelry from infesting the mainland.

It is tempting to romanticize the pirates’ rough civility: typically they voted on major decisions and tolerated reasonable dissent; they divvied up their loot in equal portions (though rewarding more to the captain and first mate); and they honored a sense of mutual pleasure that kept their enterprise clipping along. What is more, their unit cohesion was only strengthened by their shared outlaw status, a thickness of thieves that has strengthened crude societies from the Spartans and Vikings forward. But such a halcyon view of pirates would have to ignore what a blight they were on larger civil society. Defying the virtues that would inspire American Patriots, they sailed under the flag of viciousness, vowing to terrorize civilization. Because, without a doubt, the pirates’ real fun, the nasty stuff, the tasty stuff, overshot mock trials and banyans by a mile. The fun that made American pirates infamous came from committing dastardly crimes – it came from firing all their canons in dramatic broadsides on quailing merchant and passenger ships, from boarding civilian vessels, taking hostages, upending purses, taking lives,and declaring an all-out war on decency. As exciting though this mission may have been, in effect it signed its own death warrant. Defoe, in his History, recounting the time Blackbeard readied his crew for Hell by locking them up in their ship’s airless hole with smoking pots of charcoal and brimstone, reaches this conclusion about pirate society: “so many Reprobates together, encouraged and spirited one another up in their Wickedness, to which a continual Course of drinking did not a little contribute.”[7] Wickedness goaded them on in their fun, but it also set them on a collision course that threatened the reckless freedom they lived for.

Blackbeard’s head hanging from the bowsprit. From “The Life, Atrocities, and Bloody Death of Black Beard” in The Pirates Own Book, by Charles Ellms, 1842.

Less than two months after his banyan with Vane, Blackbeard was killed on Ocracoke Inlet; his severed head was swung from his lawful avenger’s mast and is said to have turned into a silver-lined punch bowl in Raleigh’s Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia. One month after his death, on December 9, 1718, nine pirates were hanged by the strict new government that was cleaning up the shores of New Providence. Vane was executed in 1720, and by 1725 the Golden Age of Piracy had been usurped by maritime law.

Even when compared to that of history’s most dazzling highwaymen, Mafiosi and street gangs, the violence, daring and gaudy decadence of the 18th-century pirates and buccaneers reign supreme. For this reason, too, pirates are beacons for contemporary popular culture – from the gangster sabers of the Oakland Raiders to that cheap party trickster, Captain Morgan, from Disney’s international Pirates of the Caribbean roller coaster/log-flume rides to Johnny Depp’s Keith-Richards-inspired Jack Sparrow. All of these sanitized 21st-century amusements are laughable, of course, in contrast to Blackbeard’s crew’s choking stint in the sulphur-smoking hole of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, but they play on a similar fascination and thrill: the delight of swinging over the pits of Hell, with or without a safety net. I cut these infernal thrill-seekers out of my history of “fun” because their celebrated criminal heritage, for all its nasty deliciousness, misses transgression’s generative pleasure. Oppressive law, like criminal violence, severely limits society’s freedom. It keeps the people running scared. But when people hazard ways to elude those laws and enjoy the risks of forbidden liberty, a fleeting thrill of community can emerge. In the history of American fun, everyone is invited to share that thrill and get in on the big cosmic joke. For these reasons, then, the most penetrating avatar of pirate fun may have been enacted in September 2013, when Brooklyn’s Letter of Marque Theater Co. staged Defoe’s original pirate trials – with an eye to all their “derision, lampoonery, and gallows humor (. . . pun intended.)”[8]


[1] Peter T. Leeson, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. 117, 119.

[2] A wonderfully detailed account of this episode can be found in Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates (New York: Harcourt, 2007) 101-112.

[3] Jenifer Marx, Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1992) 233.

[4] Angus Konstam, Piracy: The Complete History (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2008) 104-159. A.B.C. Whipple, Pirate: Rascals of the Spanish Main (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957) 74-92. Marx, Jenifer, 231-263.

[5] Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.) 292-4.

[6] Robert E. Lee, Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1990) 89.

[7] Defoe, 86.

[8] Accessed February 3, 2014.

About the Author:


John Beckman’s publications include a novel, The Winter Zoo, and a cultural history, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt. He is a Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.