Member only
Episode
198

A History of Pirates

Oct 1, 2021
History
-
27
minutes
17th Century
18th Century
Crime
True crime
Colonialism
European history
Central America
Adventure

"Let's jump on board and cut them to pieces!" - Blackbeard.

"A merry life and a short one" - Captain Bartholomew Roberts.

Pirates have a special place in our imagination. They are both heroes and villains, their lives attractive but scary.

In this episode, we'll take a closer look at pirates through history, the situations that allowed them to exist and prosper, what life as a pirate was actually like, what caused the Golden Age of Piracy to come to an end, and the legacy that they left behind.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Pirates.

[00:00:27] Now, we all know something about pirates.

[00:00:31] As a child, we learn about pirates at school, we dress up as pirates, countless books, films and TV series have been made about the lives of pirates.

[00:00:42] But in this episode we are going to go a little deeper.

[00:00:47] We’ll talk about the different types of pirates, who actually were these pirates, why did they become pirates, what was life as a pirate actually like, what was it like to be attacked by pirates, why pirates were the early masters of the power of image, what happened to a pirate when he was caught, and why pirates don’t exist, at least in the same form, today.

[00:01:13] And, of course, we will learn all about this through the stories of some of the most famous pirates in history.

[00:01:21] I should say that this episode comes hot off the heels of episode number 197, our members-only episode that came out on Tuesday, and was on Highwaymen, the men and occasionally women who would stop you on the road, point a gun in your face, and relieve you of your money. So, that episode was on one of the most famous types of land-robber, and today, we’re covering the most famous type of sea-robber.

[00:01:49] OK then, pirates.

[00:01:54] When you hear the term pirate, a certain image might spring to mind.

[00:02:00] For many, it will be a man with a hat, long dark hair, perhaps an earring, a parrot on his shoulder, he might be carrying a sword and a pistol, maybe he is holding a bottle of rum, and he’s probably wearing some extravagant, colourful clothes. 

[00:02:19] Perhaps he has a wooden leg, or even a hook instead of one of his hands.

[00:02:26] These images, although there are elements of truth to them, mainly come from the books and films that have chronicled the lives of pirates, from authors and directors who have created pirate characters, and fabulous stories about a particular type of pirate.

[00:02:45] And that is the pirate from the Golden Age of Piracy, a period which lasted from the mid 17th century to the early 18th century, a period of around 70 years.

[00:02:59] While this period will be the focus of today’s episode, these pirates are far from the only type of pirates.

[00:03:07] Indeed, for as long as there have been ships with goods to steal, there have been pirates in some shape or form.

[00:03:16] Going back all the way to Ancient Egypt, there were reports of something called the “Sea Peoples”, a group of people who lived in the Mediterranean and attacked Ancient Egyptian boats and cities.

[00:03:30] Essentially, pirates.

[00:03:32] And the Middle Ages saw the arrival of a people from Scandinavia we don’t normally refer to as pirates, but who certainly weren’t much different from pirates: The Vikings.

[00:03:46] And it is of course not just a European phenomenon - piracy in different shapes and forms has existed all over the world, ever since ships have sailed, people have sought to steal their goods.

[00:04:01] But no period in history is more famous for pirates than the period between 1650 and 1720, otherwise known as The Golden Age of Piracy.

[00:04:13] It was during this period that piracy boomed, that it became a real problem for maritime trade, and from which most of the popular conception of who pirates were originated.

[00:04:29] So, why was there a boom in piracy in the mid 17th century?

[00:04:34] Well, there are several reasons, both on the supply and the demand side.

[00:04:41] For piracy to be attractive, pirates need ships to steal from.

[00:04:47] The Age of Discovery had started a couple of centuries before. By the mid-17th century, European powers had established trade routes between Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America.

[00:05:02] Much of this was, as you will know, the grisly and heinous business of slave trading.

[00:05:09] Ships would sail from Europe south to west Africa, where they would exchange weapons and machinery for human beings.

[00:05:18] These poor people would be packed into ships and sent to the Caribbean and North America, where they would be sold as slaves, to work in plantations.

[00:05:28] In exchange for the slaves, the ships would receive goods like tobacco, coffee, sugar, and rum.

[00:05:36] They would then return to Europe filled with these riches, that they would sell to European traders.

[00:05:43] In order to cut costs and increase profits, these ships would typically have very few sailors on them, normally around 20 men on a ship.

[00:05:55] So, the Caribbean, the North Atlantic and the waters off West Africa contained an increasing amount of ships filled with valuable goods and not many men to guard them.

[00:06:07] An attractive proposition for a potential pirate.

[00:06:11] Back in Europe, the 17th and 18th centuries were characterised by long and brutal wars, which were increasingly being fought at sea.

[00:06:22] Every time one of these wars ended, it resulted in well-trained sailors being out of work, and looking for a new job.

[00:06:32] Even if they did manage to find a job on one of these merchant ships, one of the ships transporting goods, the pay was terrible, and conditions were worse. 

[00:06:44] There is even one report of more merchant seamen dying on the journey from west Africa to the Caribbean than the slaves that the ship was carrying.

[00:06:55] In England, more and more small farmers were being pushed off the land, and industrialisation was starting to push people towards the cities in search of work.

[00:07:08] These conditions were ripe for a boom in piracy.

[00:07:13] But this wasn’t just a case of people deciding “well, I’m going to be a pirate now”, and setting sail on a pirate ship from London to the Caribbean, which was the centre of pirate activity.

[00:07:25] In many cases there was actually a thin line between who was a pirate and who wasn’t.

[00:07:33] Indeed, one of the most famous pirates in British History, a man called Captain Kidd, protested that he was never actually a pirate, and he was acting on the orders of the English King, King William III.

[00:07:49] Kidd was something called a privateer, which one might best describe as a state-sanctioned pirate. This meant that he was given official permission to engage in acts of piracy by the English king.

[00:08:06] This was in 1696, when England was fighting in The Nine Years' War against France. 

[00:08:13] Partly in order to raise money, and partly in order to steal from and disrupt the enemy, countries would give special licenses to ships to attack and steal from ships from certain countries.

[00:08:27] Captain Kidd was the leader of one of those ships, so at least when he first set sail, he wasn’t an illegal pirate.

[00:08:35] He was given specific permission from the king to attack and steal from ships from certain countries who were not allies of England.

[00:08:45] He was provided with a large ship with powerful cannons, and a crew of sailors eager to go and find merchant ships, because they would all get a proportion of what was stolen.

[00:08:58] But knowing which ships to attack and which ships not to attack wasn’t always easy.

[00:09:06] After having set off from London, Kidd sailed all the way down the Atlantic and around the southern tip of Africa without finding a suitable ship to attack.

[00:09:17] When they came across a Dutch merchant ship, his crew urged him to attack it, despite The Dutch Republic being an ally of England’s at the time, and the King of England, William III, being Dutch by birth.

[00:09:31] Kidd knew that attacking this ship would have been a very bad move.

[00:09:36] He refused to attack it, and as a consequence was called a “lousy dog” by one of his crew.

[00:09:45] Furious, Kidd took an iron bucket and hit the man over the head with it. He must have hit him very hard, because the man died of his injuries the following day. 

[00:09:58] Although captains were allowed to use violence to discipline their men, Kidd had gone too far. He had killed one of his crew, and he risked being put on trial for murder when he returned.

[00:10:13] Kidd was becoming increasingly desperate to find a target. He needed to return with huge riches so that the King would be happy, and that he would have a better chance of not being charged with murder.

[00:10:27] A couple of months later he came across a huge Armenian ship called the Quedagh Merchant, which was carrying vast amounts of silk, textiles, and opium, treasure that would be valued at tens of millions of euros in today’s money. 

[00:10:44] Crucially, the ship was flying under French colours. 

[00:10:49] England was at war with France, and so this ship was fair game, it looked like it was ok to attack.

[00:10:57] But, when Kidd’s sailors boarded the ship, they discovered firstly that the owner of the goods was a Mughal lord, and the captain of the ship was an Englishman. The entire trip had also been organised by the East India Company, a British company. Suddenly it wasn’t so clear whether this ship was actually ok to attack.

[00:11:23] Kidd reportedly tried to return the goods, but his men rebelled, they refused.

[00:11:29] Kidd took the treasure, and with it he had completed the transition from privateer, or state-sponsored pirate, to real pirate.

[00:11:40] As news returned to England, the king was furious. Kidd was a wanted man, and eventually he was lured, he was tricked into returning to New York, whereupon he was arrested, sent back to England, and hung.

[00:11:56] As a warning to other and future pirates, Kidd’s body was left hanging on the edge of the river Thames.

[00:12:05] Now, not all pirates took the same route as Kidd, and went from privateer to pirate. 

[00:12:12] Most skipped the privateer step.

[00:12:15] Many would actually come from merchant ships that had been attacked by pirates, and they weren’t all forced to become a pirate either.

[00:12:25] The life of a pirate, although dangerous and often short, was an attractive one while it lasted.

[00:12:33] It was remarkably democratic, compared to normal life back on land but also on a merchant ship.

[00:12:41] On a merchant or navy ship, the captain held all the power, and conditions were terrible for normal sailors.

[00:12:50] On a pirate ship, there was a captain, and a certain hierarchy, but it wasn’t nearly as strict, and it was a lot more equal.

[00:13:00] Stolen goods would be shared between the men, and there were rules for how goods would be shared.

[00:13:07] Ordinary pirates would be given one share, and a pirate captain would be entitled to two to three times the amount of treasure that an ordinary pirate would.

[00:13:19] So, when one hears of the bosses of large companies being paid thousands of times more than ordinary employees, a pirate ship seems like an incredibly democratic institution.

[00:13:33] What’s more, pirates seemed to be far more tolerant of people from different backgrounds and of different races.

[00:13:41] Pirate crews were made up of people from a multitude of different countries, countries that were often fighting each other back in Europe.

[00:13:50] A pirate called Blackbeard, whose story we’ll hear shortly, had a crew that was 60% black. 

[00:13:57] They were also meritocratic organisations, if you did a good job as a pirate you would get promoted quickly, no matter who you were, where you came from, or what colour skin you were.

[00:14:11] So, although they might have been living a life of crime, they lived, in lots of respects, in a very forward-thinking society, at least one that was a lot more tolerant and democratic than “normal society”.

[00:14:26] Plus, of course the major attraction of being a pirate was the opportunity to get rich.

[00:14:32] Their standard pay was pretty low, but each time they successfully managed to attack a ship they would typically receive goods that were valued at around a year’s salary. 

[00:14:45] So, there was of course a large incentive to attack as many ships as possible.

[00:14:51] And when it came to these pirate attacks, for many people there’s this idea of pirates being incredibly vicious and aggressive, attacking ships and killing everyone onboard.

[00:15:04] But this isn’t actually completely true.

[00:15:08] Pirates wanted you to think that they wouldn’t hesitate to kill you if you resisted, but if you surrendered without a fight they would spare your life, and perhaps would even invite you to join them as a pirate.

[00:15:24] Pirates really were early masters of the power of image, of the power of PR - they knew that what people thought about you was more important than the truth.

[00:15:37] If word got out that pirates would kill every sailor on board, then these sailors would have fought bravely and aggressively, they would have fought to the last breath if they believed that certain death awaited them.

[00:15:52] But if they knew that they would escape with their life, and perhaps even be able to escape the terrible life of a merchant seaman and become a pirate, then they were much more likely to give up without a fight.

[00:16:06] The important thing was that people needed to be afraid of pirates, and to think that they were so ferocious that it was better not to even challenge them.

[00:16:17] A master of this was a famous pirate captain called Blackbeard. 

[00:16:23] His name, of course, wasn’t actually Blackbeard, his name was Edward Teach. But he was known by everyone as Blackbeard.

[00:16:32] He had a huge long beard, which reportedly went up to just below his eyes.

[00:16:38] He would twist the hair of his beard into little plaits, and when it was time to attack a ship he would light matches and stick them in his beard and under his hat, so there was smoke coming out from his head.

[00:16:55] Above his ship he would fly a flag with a skull and crossbones, but also a red heart to indicate death.

[00:17:05] He knew that his reputation was far more powerful than his sword.

[00:17:10] Ironically perhaps, given his reputation as a fearsome and terrifying pirate, there are no verified reports of Blackbeard actually killing anyone.

[00:17:22] Most often, instead of actually resisting a pirate attack, especially against someone with the fearsome reputation of Blackbeard, merchant ships would simply surrender

[00:17:34] The pirates were well armed, and there were almost always more pirates than sailors, there were normally around 20 sailors on a merchant ship and 80 to 100 pirates.

[00:17:45] The pirates had this terrible reputation and were better armed, so in most cases the sailors would simply surrender, resulting in pirates actually ending up doing significantly less fighting than most people think.

[00:18:00] In fact, the most vicious of the pirate battles were almost always against the British navy, the official sea forces of the government.

[00:18:11] And it was in one of these battles, in 1718, that the pirate career of Blackbeard was to be ended.

[00:18:20] Blackbeard was one of the most wanted pirates in the whole world, and eventually his ship was found by a British navy lieutenant named Robert Maynard. 

[00:18:30] A fierce battle ensued, and Blackbeard was killed on deck.

[00:18:36] In order for Maynard to collect the reward for killing Blackbeard, he needed to prove he was dead. So, Blackbeard head was chopped off, and hung up from one of the masts, the wooden bar that holds the sails.

[00:18:52] His headless body was thrown over the side of the ship, and the legend goes that it swam all the way around the ship several times looking for its head before sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

[00:19:08] And Blackbeard’s fate was not unique.

[00:19:11] Most pirates, like Blackbeard, were victims of their own success.

[00:19:17] The more ships they attacked, the more they drew attention to themselves, the greater problem they posed to the powers back in Europe, and the more forces were sent to deal with them.

[00:19:29] In 1670, there were just two British Royal Navy warships in the Caribbean, where most pirate activity was taking place.

[00:19:38] By 1718 there were 124 warships, and by 1815 there were 214.

[00:19:46] What’s more, in 1698 Britain had changed the laws around piracy, making it easier for pirates to be put on trial and executed. 

[00:19:58] Before, they would have to be captured and taken back to England and then tried.

[00:20:04] After 1698 the pirates could be put on trial anywhere, and executed immediately.

[00:20:12] Put simply, it was a lot harder to be a pirate and survive for long, and by around 1720, the Golden Age of Piracy was over.

[00:20:22] Most pirates had been killed, either at sea or were captured and executed back on land.

[00:20:29] Some had actually retired from a life of piracy. 

[00:20:34] Although we think of pirates as living at sea, of course they needed to come to land to spend their money, and they often had close relationships with people on land. 

[00:20:45] They had to exchange their stolen goods, and they would need to come ashore to find ways to spend their money - it’s not much good having a load of gold or silk on your pirate ship; you need to exchange that into something you can actually use.

[00:21:03] So, for some pirates, they took their riches and essentially retired, using them to buy pieces of land and live an honest life.

[00:21:14] Now, the legacy that pirates have left is... vast, and incredibly impressive for such a small group of people.

[00:21:23] It’s hard to know exactly, but at its peak historians believe that there were around 5,000 pirates roaming the seas. 

[00:21:33] In the grand scheme of things, this is an absolutely tiny group, but one that has fascinated people ever since.

[00:21:41] It is, on one level, a completely understandable fascination, both at the time and now.

[00:21:49] During The Golden Age of Piracy people would hear or read about pirates, mysterious people who lived on ships, taking treasure, creating their own society, and one that was very different to the one on shore.

[00:22:04] Much like the Highwaymen we heard about in the last episode, the life of a pirate was alluring, it was attractive, it was interesting, it was completely understandable that normal people were so curious about them.

[00:22:20] Pirate executions, when pirates were caught and publicly killed, might be the first and only time that anyone would ever see a pirate, and they were always incredibly popular events.

[00:22:34] And even now, we as a society are obsessed with pirates. 

[00:22:39] We make films about them, we dress up as them, there is even an International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which was on September 19th by the way.

[00:22:48] We have also created this image of a pirate which isn’t completely true, so before we end let’s bust some of these myths, and confirm some that are partly true.

[00:23:01] Firstly, no there is no record of real pirates ever having parrots on their shoulders. This all comes from a book by Robert Louis Stevenson called Treasure Island.

[00:23:13] Secondly, there was no real “pirate language”. 

[00:23:17] Most pirates came from Britain, so most would have spoken English, but there wasn’t some secret pirate language, although there were no doubt a few words or phrases that pirates would have used. 

[00:23:30] The “pirate language” we think of is actually a form of accent from Cornwall, in south west England. This accent has come to be associated with pirates only because of a comic opera called Pirates of Penzance, written by Gilbert & Sullivan.

[00:23:49] Thirdly, did pirates have hooks for hands or wooden legs? Actually, yes they probably did. 

[00:23:56] Losing a hand or leg was quite common not just for a pirate, but for anyone working on a ship. 

[00:24:03] Pirate ships would often specify how a pirate would be compensated, how much they would be paid if they lost certain body parts. And there is evidence of pirates having hooks and using wooden prosthetics replacing their legs, making at least that one partly true.

[00:24:23] And finally, did pirates actually bury their treasure? 

[00:24:28] Well, there isn’t much evidence of this. The myth of pirate treasure comes from books such as Treasure Island, and is based on the real story of Captain Kidd and the treasure he took from the Quedagh Merchant. 

[00:24:42] While he was in prison, awaiting execution, he wrote a letter to a friend saying that he knew the location of goods valued at £100,000, which is around 25 million Euros in today’s money. 

[00:24:58] But, Kidd was a desperate man, and historians believe that he had written this in the hope that it might save his life.

[00:25:07] It didn’t, and this treasure, if indeed it ever existed, has never been found.

[00:25:15] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Pirates.

[00:25:20] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that you now know a little bit more about pirates than you did 25 minutes ago.

[00:25:28] One thing we didn’t talk about in this episode is piracy today. 

[00:25:33] And you will probably know that pirates aren’t sailing around the Caribbean with large black beards, but piracy today is debatably an even bigger problem than it was 300 years ago, the pirates have just changed location.

[00:25:48] Luckily we did an episode on Modern Pirates, it is episode number 78, so if you want to learn more about that, then I’d recommend giving that one a listen.

[00:25:58] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:26:02] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:12] The place you can go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.
You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:22] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Pirates.

[00:00:27] Now, we all know something about pirates.

[00:00:31] As a child, we learn about pirates at school, we dress up as pirates, countless books, films and TV series have been made about the lives of pirates.

[00:00:42] But in this episode we are going to go a little deeper.

[00:00:47] We’ll talk about the different types of pirates, who actually were these pirates, why did they become pirates, what was life as a pirate actually like, what was it like to be attacked by pirates, why pirates were the early masters of the power of image, what happened to a pirate when he was caught, and why pirates don’t exist, at least in the same form, today.

[00:01:13] And, of course, we will learn all about this through the stories of some of the most famous pirates in history.

[00:01:21] I should say that this episode comes hot off the heels of episode number 197, our members-only episode that came out on Tuesday, and was on Highwaymen, the men and occasionally women who would stop you on the road, point a gun in your face, and relieve you of your money. So, that episode was on one of the most famous types of land-robber, and today, we’re covering the most famous type of sea-robber.

[00:01:49] OK then, pirates.

[00:01:54] When you hear the term pirate, a certain image might spring to mind.

[00:02:00] For many, it will be a man with a hat, long dark hair, perhaps an earring, a parrot on his shoulder, he might be carrying a sword and a pistol, maybe he is holding a bottle of rum, and he’s probably wearing some extravagant, colourful clothes. 

[00:02:19] Perhaps he has a wooden leg, or even a hook instead of one of his hands.

[00:02:26] These images, although there are elements of truth to them, mainly come from the books and films that have chronicled the lives of pirates, from authors and directors who have created pirate characters, and fabulous stories about a particular type of pirate.

[00:02:45] And that is the pirate from the Golden Age of Piracy, a period which lasted from the mid 17th century to the early 18th century, a period of around 70 years.

[00:02:59] While this period will be the focus of today’s episode, these pirates are far from the only type of pirates.

[00:03:07] Indeed, for as long as there have been ships with goods to steal, there have been pirates in some shape or form.

[00:03:16] Going back all the way to Ancient Egypt, there were reports of something called the “Sea Peoples”, a group of people who lived in the Mediterranean and attacked Ancient Egyptian boats and cities.

[00:03:30] Essentially, pirates.

[00:03:32] And the Middle Ages saw the arrival of a people from Scandinavia we don’t normally refer to as pirates, but who certainly weren’t much different from pirates: The Vikings.

[00:03:46] And it is of course not just a European phenomenon - piracy in different shapes and forms has existed all over the world, ever since ships have sailed, people have sought to steal their goods.

[00:04:01] But no period in history is more famous for pirates than the period between 1650 and 1720, otherwise known as The Golden Age of Piracy.

[00:04:13] It was during this period that piracy boomed, that it became a real problem for maritime trade, and from which most of the popular conception of who pirates were originated.

[00:04:29] So, why was there a boom in piracy in the mid 17th century?

[00:04:34] Well, there are several reasons, both on the supply and the demand side.

[00:04:41] For piracy to be attractive, pirates need ships to steal from.

[00:04:47] The Age of Discovery had started a couple of centuries before. By the mid-17th century, European powers had established trade routes between Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America.

[00:05:02] Much of this was, as you will know, the grisly and heinous business of slave trading.

[00:05:09] Ships would sail from Europe south to west Africa, where they would exchange weapons and machinery for human beings.

[00:05:18] These poor people would be packed into ships and sent to the Caribbean and North America, where they would be sold as slaves, to work in plantations.

[00:05:28] In exchange for the slaves, the ships would receive goods like tobacco, coffee, sugar, and rum.

[00:05:36] They would then return to Europe filled with these riches, that they would sell to European traders.

[00:05:43] In order to cut costs and increase profits, these ships would typically have very few sailors on them, normally around 20 men on a ship.

[00:05:55] So, the Caribbean, the North Atlantic and the waters off West Africa contained an increasing amount of ships filled with valuable goods and not many men to guard them.

[00:06:07] An attractive proposition for a potential pirate.

[00:06:11] Back in Europe, the 17th and 18th centuries were characterised by long and brutal wars, which were increasingly being fought at sea.

[00:06:22] Every time one of these wars ended, it resulted in well-trained sailors being out of work, and looking for a new job.

[00:06:32] Even if they did manage to find a job on one of these merchant ships, one of the ships transporting goods, the pay was terrible, and conditions were worse. 

[00:06:44] There is even one report of more merchant seamen dying on the journey from west Africa to the Caribbean than the slaves that the ship was carrying.

[00:06:55] In England, more and more small farmers were being pushed off the land, and industrialisation was starting to push people towards the cities in search of work.

[00:07:08] These conditions were ripe for a boom in piracy.

[00:07:13] But this wasn’t just a case of people deciding “well, I’m going to be a pirate now”, and setting sail on a pirate ship from London to the Caribbean, which was the centre of pirate activity.

[00:07:25] In many cases there was actually a thin line between who was a pirate and who wasn’t.

[00:07:33] Indeed, one of the most famous pirates in British History, a man called Captain Kidd, protested that he was never actually a pirate, and he was acting on the orders of the English King, King William III.

[00:07:49] Kidd was something called a privateer, which one might best describe as a state-sanctioned pirate. This meant that he was given official permission to engage in acts of piracy by the English king.

[00:08:06] This was in 1696, when England was fighting in The Nine Years' War against France. 

[00:08:13] Partly in order to raise money, and partly in order to steal from and disrupt the enemy, countries would give special licenses to ships to attack and steal from ships from certain countries.

[00:08:27] Captain Kidd was the leader of one of those ships, so at least when he first set sail, he wasn’t an illegal pirate.

[00:08:35] He was given specific permission from the king to attack and steal from ships from certain countries who were not allies of England.

[00:08:45] He was provided with a large ship with powerful cannons, and a crew of sailors eager to go and find merchant ships, because they would all get a proportion of what was stolen.

[00:08:58] But knowing which ships to attack and which ships not to attack wasn’t always easy.

[00:09:06] After having set off from London, Kidd sailed all the way down the Atlantic and around the southern tip of Africa without finding a suitable ship to attack.

[00:09:17] When they came across a Dutch merchant ship, his crew urged him to attack it, despite The Dutch Republic being an ally of England’s at the time, and the King of England, William III, being Dutch by birth.

[00:09:31] Kidd knew that attacking this ship would have been a very bad move.

[00:09:36] He refused to attack it, and as a consequence was called a “lousy dog” by one of his crew.

[00:09:45] Furious, Kidd took an iron bucket and hit the man over the head with it. He must have hit him very hard, because the man died of his injuries the following day. 

[00:09:58] Although captains were allowed to use violence to discipline their men, Kidd had gone too far. He had killed one of his crew, and he risked being put on trial for murder when he returned.

[00:10:13] Kidd was becoming increasingly desperate to find a target. He needed to return with huge riches so that the King would be happy, and that he would have a better chance of not being charged with murder.

[00:10:27] A couple of months later he came across a huge Armenian ship called the Quedagh Merchant, which was carrying vast amounts of silk, textiles, and opium, treasure that would be valued at tens of millions of euros in today’s money. 

[00:10:44] Crucially, the ship was flying under French colours. 

[00:10:49] England was at war with France, and so this ship was fair game, it looked like it was ok to attack.

[00:10:57] But, when Kidd’s sailors boarded the ship, they discovered firstly that the owner of the goods was a Mughal lord, and the captain of the ship was an Englishman. The entire trip had also been organised by the East India Company, a British company. Suddenly it wasn’t so clear whether this ship was actually ok to attack.

[00:11:23] Kidd reportedly tried to return the goods, but his men rebelled, they refused.

[00:11:29] Kidd took the treasure, and with it he had completed the transition from privateer, or state-sponsored pirate, to real pirate.

[00:11:40] As news returned to England, the king was furious. Kidd was a wanted man, and eventually he was lured, he was tricked into returning to New York, whereupon he was arrested, sent back to England, and hung.

[00:11:56] As a warning to other and future pirates, Kidd’s body was left hanging on the edge of the river Thames.

[00:12:05] Now, not all pirates took the same route as Kidd, and went from privateer to pirate. 

[00:12:12] Most skipped the privateer step.

[00:12:15] Many would actually come from merchant ships that had been attacked by pirates, and they weren’t all forced to become a pirate either.

[00:12:25] The life of a pirate, although dangerous and often short, was an attractive one while it lasted.

[00:12:33] It was remarkably democratic, compared to normal life back on land but also on a merchant ship.

[00:12:41] On a merchant or navy ship, the captain held all the power, and conditions were terrible for normal sailors.

[00:12:50] On a pirate ship, there was a captain, and a certain hierarchy, but it wasn’t nearly as strict, and it was a lot more equal.

[00:13:00] Stolen goods would be shared between the men, and there were rules for how goods would be shared.

[00:13:07] Ordinary pirates would be given one share, and a pirate captain would be entitled to two to three times the amount of treasure that an ordinary pirate would.

[00:13:19] So, when one hears of the bosses of large companies being paid thousands of times more than ordinary employees, a pirate ship seems like an incredibly democratic institution.

[00:13:33] What’s more, pirates seemed to be far more tolerant of people from different backgrounds and of different races.

[00:13:41] Pirate crews were made up of people from a multitude of different countries, countries that were often fighting each other back in Europe.

[00:13:50] A pirate called Blackbeard, whose story we’ll hear shortly, had a crew that was 60% black. 

[00:13:57] They were also meritocratic organisations, if you did a good job as a pirate you would get promoted quickly, no matter who you were, where you came from, or what colour skin you were.

[00:14:11] So, although they might have been living a life of crime, they lived, in lots of respects, in a very forward-thinking society, at least one that was a lot more tolerant and democratic than “normal society”.

[00:14:26] Plus, of course the major attraction of being a pirate was the opportunity to get rich.

[00:14:32] Their standard pay was pretty low, but each time they successfully managed to attack a ship they would typically receive goods that were valued at around a year’s salary. 

[00:14:45] So, there was of course a large incentive to attack as many ships as possible.

[00:14:51] And when it came to these pirate attacks, for many people there’s this idea of pirates being incredibly vicious and aggressive, attacking ships and killing everyone onboard.

[00:15:04] But this isn’t actually completely true.

[00:15:08] Pirates wanted you to think that they wouldn’t hesitate to kill you if you resisted, but if you surrendered without a fight they would spare your life, and perhaps would even invite you to join them as a pirate.

[00:15:24] Pirates really were early masters of the power of image, of the power of PR - they knew that what people thought about you was more important than the truth.

[00:15:37] If word got out that pirates would kill every sailor on board, then these sailors would have fought bravely and aggressively, they would have fought to the last breath if they believed that certain death awaited them.

[00:15:52] But if they knew that they would escape with their life, and perhaps even be able to escape the terrible life of a merchant seaman and become a pirate, then they were much more likely to give up without a fight.

[00:16:06] The important thing was that people needed to be afraid of pirates, and to think that they were so ferocious that it was better not to even challenge them.

[00:16:17] A master of this was a famous pirate captain called Blackbeard. 

[00:16:23] His name, of course, wasn’t actually Blackbeard, his name was Edward Teach. But he was known by everyone as Blackbeard.

[00:16:32] He had a huge long beard, which reportedly went up to just below his eyes.

[00:16:38] He would twist the hair of his beard into little plaits, and when it was time to attack a ship he would light matches and stick them in his beard and under his hat, so there was smoke coming out from his head.

[00:16:55] Above his ship he would fly a flag with a skull and crossbones, but also a red heart to indicate death.

[00:17:05] He knew that his reputation was far more powerful than his sword.

[00:17:10] Ironically perhaps, given his reputation as a fearsome and terrifying pirate, there are no verified reports of Blackbeard actually killing anyone.

[00:17:22] Most often, instead of actually resisting a pirate attack, especially against someone with the fearsome reputation of Blackbeard, merchant ships would simply surrender

[00:17:34] The pirates were well armed, and there were almost always more pirates than sailors, there were normally around 20 sailors on a merchant ship and 80 to 100 pirates.

[00:17:45] The pirates had this terrible reputation and were better armed, so in most cases the sailors would simply surrender, resulting in pirates actually ending up doing significantly less fighting than most people think.

[00:18:00] In fact, the most vicious of the pirate battles were almost always against the British navy, the official sea forces of the government.

[00:18:11] And it was in one of these battles, in 1718, that the pirate career of Blackbeard was to be ended.

[00:18:20] Blackbeard was one of the most wanted pirates in the whole world, and eventually his ship was found by a British navy lieutenant named Robert Maynard. 

[00:18:30] A fierce battle ensued, and Blackbeard was killed on deck.

[00:18:36] In order for Maynard to collect the reward for killing Blackbeard, he needed to prove he was dead. So, Blackbeard head was chopped off, and hung up from one of the masts, the wooden bar that holds the sails.

[00:18:52] His headless body was thrown over the side of the ship, and the legend goes that it swam all the way around the ship several times looking for its head before sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

[00:19:08] And Blackbeard’s fate was not unique.

[00:19:11] Most pirates, like Blackbeard, were victims of their own success.

[00:19:17] The more ships they attacked, the more they drew attention to themselves, the greater problem they posed to the powers back in Europe, and the more forces were sent to deal with them.

[00:19:29] In 1670, there were just two British Royal Navy warships in the Caribbean, where most pirate activity was taking place.

[00:19:38] By 1718 there were 124 warships, and by 1815 there were 214.

[00:19:46] What’s more, in 1698 Britain had changed the laws around piracy, making it easier for pirates to be put on trial and executed. 

[00:19:58] Before, they would have to be captured and taken back to England and then tried.

[00:20:04] After 1698 the pirates could be put on trial anywhere, and executed immediately.

[00:20:12] Put simply, it was a lot harder to be a pirate and survive for long, and by around 1720, the Golden Age of Piracy was over.

[00:20:22] Most pirates had been killed, either at sea or were captured and executed back on land.

[00:20:29] Some had actually retired from a life of piracy. 

[00:20:34] Although we think of pirates as living at sea, of course they needed to come to land to spend their money, and they often had close relationships with people on land. 

[00:20:45] They had to exchange their stolen goods, and they would need to come ashore to find ways to spend their money - it’s not much good having a load of gold or silk on your pirate ship; you need to exchange that into something you can actually use.

[00:21:03] So, for some pirates, they took their riches and essentially retired, using them to buy pieces of land and live an honest life.

[00:21:14] Now, the legacy that pirates have left is... vast, and incredibly impressive for such a small group of people.

[00:21:23] It’s hard to know exactly, but at its peak historians believe that there were around 5,000 pirates roaming the seas. 

[00:21:33] In the grand scheme of things, this is an absolutely tiny group, but one that has fascinated people ever since.

[00:21:41] It is, on one level, a completely understandable fascination, both at the time and now.

[00:21:49] During The Golden Age of Piracy people would hear or read about pirates, mysterious people who lived on ships, taking treasure, creating their own society, and one that was very different to the one on shore.

[00:22:04] Much like the Highwaymen we heard about in the last episode, the life of a pirate was alluring, it was attractive, it was interesting, it was completely understandable that normal people were so curious about them.

[00:22:20] Pirate executions, when pirates were caught and publicly killed, might be the first and only time that anyone would ever see a pirate, and they were always incredibly popular events.

[00:22:34] And even now, we as a society are obsessed with pirates. 

[00:22:39] We make films about them, we dress up as them, there is even an International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which was on September 19th by the way.

[00:22:48] We have also created this image of a pirate which isn’t completely true, so before we end let’s bust some of these myths, and confirm some that are partly true.

[00:23:01] Firstly, no there is no record of real pirates ever having parrots on their shoulders. This all comes from a book by Robert Louis Stevenson called Treasure Island.

[00:23:13] Secondly, there was no real “pirate language”. 

[00:23:17] Most pirates came from Britain, so most would have spoken English, but there wasn’t some secret pirate language, although there were no doubt a few words or phrases that pirates would have used. 

[00:23:30] The “pirate language” we think of is actually a form of accent from Cornwall, in south west England. This accent has come to be associated with pirates only because of a comic opera called Pirates of Penzance, written by Gilbert & Sullivan.

[00:23:49] Thirdly, did pirates have hooks for hands or wooden legs? Actually, yes they probably did. 

[00:23:56] Losing a hand or leg was quite common not just for a pirate, but for anyone working on a ship. 

[00:24:03] Pirate ships would often specify how a pirate would be compensated, how much they would be paid if they lost certain body parts. And there is evidence of pirates having hooks and using wooden prosthetics replacing their legs, making at least that one partly true.

[00:24:23] And finally, did pirates actually bury their treasure? 

[00:24:28] Well, there isn’t much evidence of this. The myth of pirate treasure comes from books such as Treasure Island, and is based on the real story of Captain Kidd and the treasure he took from the Quedagh Merchant. 

[00:24:42] While he was in prison, awaiting execution, he wrote a letter to a friend saying that he knew the location of goods valued at £100,000, which is around 25 million Euros in today’s money. 

[00:24:58] But, Kidd was a desperate man, and historians believe that he had written this in the hope that it might save his life.

[00:25:07] It didn’t, and this treasure, if indeed it ever existed, has never been found.

[00:25:15] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Pirates.

[00:25:20] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that you now know a little bit more about pirates than you did 25 minutes ago.

[00:25:28] One thing we didn’t talk about in this episode is piracy today. 

[00:25:33] And you will probably know that pirates aren’t sailing around the Caribbean with large black beards, but piracy today is debatably an even bigger problem than it was 300 years ago, the pirates have just changed location.

[00:25:48] Luckily we did an episode on Modern Pirates, it is episode number 78, so if you want to learn more about that, then I’d recommend giving that one a listen.

[00:25:58] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:26:02] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:12] The place you can go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.
You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:22] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Pirates.

[00:00:27] Now, we all know something about pirates.

[00:00:31] As a child, we learn about pirates at school, we dress up as pirates, countless books, films and TV series have been made about the lives of pirates.

[00:00:42] But in this episode we are going to go a little deeper.

[00:00:47] We’ll talk about the different types of pirates, who actually were these pirates, why did they become pirates, what was life as a pirate actually like, what was it like to be attacked by pirates, why pirates were the early masters of the power of image, what happened to a pirate when he was caught, and why pirates don’t exist, at least in the same form, today.

[00:01:13] And, of course, we will learn all about this through the stories of some of the most famous pirates in history.

[00:01:21] I should say that this episode comes hot off the heels of episode number 197, our members-only episode that came out on Tuesday, and was on Highwaymen, the men and occasionally women who would stop you on the road, point a gun in your face, and relieve you of your money. So, that episode was on one of the most famous types of land-robber, and today, we’re covering the most famous type of sea-robber.

[00:01:49] OK then, pirates.

[00:01:54] When you hear the term pirate, a certain image might spring to mind.

[00:02:00] For many, it will be a man with a hat, long dark hair, perhaps an earring, a parrot on his shoulder, he might be carrying a sword and a pistol, maybe he is holding a bottle of rum, and he’s probably wearing some extravagant, colourful clothes. 

[00:02:19] Perhaps he has a wooden leg, or even a hook instead of one of his hands.

[00:02:26] These images, although there are elements of truth to them, mainly come from the books and films that have chronicled the lives of pirates, from authors and directors who have created pirate characters, and fabulous stories about a particular type of pirate.

[00:02:45] And that is the pirate from the Golden Age of Piracy, a period which lasted from the mid 17th century to the early 18th century, a period of around 70 years.

[00:02:59] While this period will be the focus of today’s episode, these pirates are far from the only type of pirates.

[00:03:07] Indeed, for as long as there have been ships with goods to steal, there have been pirates in some shape or form.

[00:03:16] Going back all the way to Ancient Egypt, there were reports of something called the “Sea Peoples”, a group of people who lived in the Mediterranean and attacked Ancient Egyptian boats and cities.

[00:03:30] Essentially, pirates.

[00:03:32] And the Middle Ages saw the arrival of a people from Scandinavia we don’t normally refer to as pirates, but who certainly weren’t much different from pirates: The Vikings.

[00:03:46] And it is of course not just a European phenomenon - piracy in different shapes and forms has existed all over the world, ever since ships have sailed, people have sought to steal their goods.

[00:04:01] But no period in history is more famous for pirates than the period between 1650 and 1720, otherwise known as The Golden Age of Piracy.

[00:04:13] It was during this period that piracy boomed, that it became a real problem for maritime trade, and from which most of the popular conception of who pirates were originated.

[00:04:29] So, why was there a boom in piracy in the mid 17th century?

[00:04:34] Well, there are several reasons, both on the supply and the demand side.

[00:04:41] For piracy to be attractive, pirates need ships to steal from.

[00:04:47] The Age of Discovery had started a couple of centuries before. By the mid-17th century, European powers had established trade routes between Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America.

[00:05:02] Much of this was, as you will know, the grisly and heinous business of slave trading.

[00:05:09] Ships would sail from Europe south to west Africa, where they would exchange weapons and machinery for human beings.

[00:05:18] These poor people would be packed into ships and sent to the Caribbean and North America, where they would be sold as slaves, to work in plantations.

[00:05:28] In exchange for the slaves, the ships would receive goods like tobacco, coffee, sugar, and rum.

[00:05:36] They would then return to Europe filled with these riches, that they would sell to European traders.

[00:05:43] In order to cut costs and increase profits, these ships would typically have very few sailors on them, normally around 20 men on a ship.

[00:05:55] So, the Caribbean, the North Atlantic and the waters off West Africa contained an increasing amount of ships filled with valuable goods and not many men to guard them.

[00:06:07] An attractive proposition for a potential pirate.

[00:06:11] Back in Europe, the 17th and 18th centuries were characterised by long and brutal wars, which were increasingly being fought at sea.

[00:06:22] Every time one of these wars ended, it resulted in well-trained sailors being out of work, and looking for a new job.

[00:06:32] Even if they did manage to find a job on one of these merchant ships, one of the ships transporting goods, the pay was terrible, and conditions were worse. 

[00:06:44] There is even one report of more merchant seamen dying on the journey from west Africa to the Caribbean than the slaves that the ship was carrying.

[00:06:55] In England, more and more small farmers were being pushed off the land, and industrialisation was starting to push people towards the cities in search of work.

[00:07:08] These conditions were ripe for a boom in piracy.

[00:07:13] But this wasn’t just a case of people deciding “well, I’m going to be a pirate now”, and setting sail on a pirate ship from London to the Caribbean, which was the centre of pirate activity.

[00:07:25] In many cases there was actually a thin line between who was a pirate and who wasn’t.

[00:07:33] Indeed, one of the most famous pirates in British History, a man called Captain Kidd, protested that he was never actually a pirate, and he was acting on the orders of the English King, King William III.

[00:07:49] Kidd was something called a privateer, which one might best describe as a state-sanctioned pirate. This meant that he was given official permission to engage in acts of piracy by the English king.

[00:08:06] This was in 1696, when England was fighting in The Nine Years' War against France. 

[00:08:13] Partly in order to raise money, and partly in order to steal from and disrupt the enemy, countries would give special licenses to ships to attack and steal from ships from certain countries.

[00:08:27] Captain Kidd was the leader of one of those ships, so at least when he first set sail, he wasn’t an illegal pirate.

[00:08:35] He was given specific permission from the king to attack and steal from ships from certain countries who were not allies of England.

[00:08:45] He was provided with a large ship with powerful cannons, and a crew of sailors eager to go and find merchant ships, because they would all get a proportion of what was stolen.

[00:08:58] But knowing which ships to attack and which ships not to attack wasn’t always easy.

[00:09:06] After having set off from London, Kidd sailed all the way down the Atlantic and around the southern tip of Africa without finding a suitable ship to attack.

[00:09:17] When they came across a Dutch merchant ship, his crew urged him to attack it, despite The Dutch Republic being an ally of England’s at the time, and the King of England, William III, being Dutch by birth.

[00:09:31] Kidd knew that attacking this ship would have been a very bad move.

[00:09:36] He refused to attack it, and as a consequence was called a “lousy dog” by one of his crew.

[00:09:45] Furious, Kidd took an iron bucket and hit the man over the head with it. He must have hit him very hard, because the man died of his injuries the following day. 

[00:09:58] Although captains were allowed to use violence to discipline their men, Kidd had gone too far. He had killed one of his crew, and he risked being put on trial for murder when he returned.

[00:10:13] Kidd was becoming increasingly desperate to find a target. He needed to return with huge riches so that the King would be happy, and that he would have a better chance of not being charged with murder.

[00:10:27] A couple of months later he came across a huge Armenian ship called the Quedagh Merchant, which was carrying vast amounts of silk, textiles, and opium, treasure that would be valued at tens of millions of euros in today’s money. 

[00:10:44] Crucially, the ship was flying under French colours. 

[00:10:49] England was at war with France, and so this ship was fair game, it looked like it was ok to attack.

[00:10:57] But, when Kidd’s sailors boarded the ship, they discovered firstly that the owner of the goods was a Mughal lord, and the captain of the ship was an Englishman. The entire trip had also been organised by the East India Company, a British company. Suddenly it wasn’t so clear whether this ship was actually ok to attack.

[00:11:23] Kidd reportedly tried to return the goods, but his men rebelled, they refused.

[00:11:29] Kidd took the treasure, and with it he had completed the transition from privateer, or state-sponsored pirate, to real pirate.

[00:11:40] As news returned to England, the king was furious. Kidd was a wanted man, and eventually he was lured, he was tricked into returning to New York, whereupon he was arrested, sent back to England, and hung.

[00:11:56] As a warning to other and future pirates, Kidd’s body was left hanging on the edge of the river Thames.

[00:12:05] Now, not all pirates took the same route as Kidd, and went from privateer to pirate. 

[00:12:12] Most skipped the privateer step.

[00:12:15] Many would actually come from merchant ships that had been attacked by pirates, and they weren’t all forced to become a pirate either.

[00:12:25] The life of a pirate, although dangerous and often short, was an attractive one while it lasted.

[00:12:33] It was remarkably democratic, compared to normal life back on land but also on a merchant ship.

[00:12:41] On a merchant or navy ship, the captain held all the power, and conditions were terrible for normal sailors.

[00:12:50] On a pirate ship, there was a captain, and a certain hierarchy, but it wasn’t nearly as strict, and it was a lot more equal.

[00:13:00] Stolen goods would be shared between the men, and there were rules for how goods would be shared.

[00:13:07] Ordinary pirates would be given one share, and a pirate captain would be entitled to two to three times the amount of treasure that an ordinary pirate would.

[00:13:19] So, when one hears of the bosses of large companies being paid thousands of times more than ordinary employees, a pirate ship seems like an incredibly democratic institution.

[00:13:33] What’s more, pirates seemed to be far more tolerant of people from different backgrounds and of different races.

[00:13:41] Pirate crews were made up of people from a multitude of different countries, countries that were often fighting each other back in Europe.

[00:13:50] A pirate called Blackbeard, whose story we’ll hear shortly, had a crew that was 60% black. 

[00:13:57] They were also meritocratic organisations, if you did a good job as a pirate you would get promoted quickly, no matter who you were, where you came from, or what colour skin you were.

[00:14:11] So, although they might have been living a life of crime, they lived, in lots of respects, in a very forward-thinking society, at least one that was a lot more tolerant and democratic than “normal society”.

[00:14:26] Plus, of course the major attraction of being a pirate was the opportunity to get rich.

[00:14:32] Their standard pay was pretty low, but each time they successfully managed to attack a ship they would typically receive goods that were valued at around a year’s salary. 

[00:14:45] So, there was of course a large incentive to attack as many ships as possible.

[00:14:51] And when it came to these pirate attacks, for many people there’s this idea of pirates being incredibly vicious and aggressive, attacking ships and killing everyone onboard.

[00:15:04] But this isn’t actually completely true.

[00:15:08] Pirates wanted you to think that they wouldn’t hesitate to kill you if you resisted, but if you surrendered without a fight they would spare your life, and perhaps would even invite you to join them as a pirate.

[00:15:24] Pirates really were early masters of the power of image, of the power of PR - they knew that what people thought about you was more important than the truth.

[00:15:37] If word got out that pirates would kill every sailor on board, then these sailors would have fought bravely and aggressively, they would have fought to the last breath if they believed that certain death awaited them.

[00:15:52] But if they knew that they would escape with their life, and perhaps even be able to escape the terrible life of a merchant seaman and become a pirate, then they were much more likely to give up without a fight.

[00:16:06] The important thing was that people needed to be afraid of pirates, and to think that they were so ferocious that it was better not to even challenge them.

[00:16:17] A master of this was a famous pirate captain called Blackbeard. 

[00:16:23] His name, of course, wasn’t actually Blackbeard, his name was Edward Teach. But he was known by everyone as Blackbeard.

[00:16:32] He had a huge long beard, which reportedly went up to just below his eyes.

[00:16:38] He would twist the hair of his beard into little plaits, and when it was time to attack a ship he would light matches and stick them in his beard and under his hat, so there was smoke coming out from his head.

[00:16:55] Above his ship he would fly a flag with a skull and crossbones, but also a red heart to indicate death.

[00:17:05] He knew that his reputation was far more powerful than his sword.

[00:17:10] Ironically perhaps, given his reputation as a fearsome and terrifying pirate, there are no verified reports of Blackbeard actually killing anyone.

[00:17:22] Most often, instead of actually resisting a pirate attack, especially against someone with the fearsome reputation of Blackbeard, merchant ships would simply surrender

[00:17:34] The pirates were well armed, and there were almost always more pirates than sailors, there were normally around 20 sailors on a merchant ship and 80 to 100 pirates.

[00:17:45] The pirates had this terrible reputation and were better armed, so in most cases the sailors would simply surrender, resulting in pirates actually ending up doing significantly less fighting than most people think.

[00:18:00] In fact, the most vicious of the pirate battles were almost always against the British navy, the official sea forces of the government.

[00:18:11] And it was in one of these battles, in 1718, that the pirate career of Blackbeard was to be ended.

[00:18:20] Blackbeard was one of the most wanted pirates in the whole world, and eventually his ship was found by a British navy lieutenant named Robert Maynard. 

[00:18:30] A fierce battle ensued, and Blackbeard was killed on deck.

[00:18:36] In order for Maynard to collect the reward for killing Blackbeard, he needed to prove he was dead. So, Blackbeard head was chopped off, and hung up from one of the masts, the wooden bar that holds the sails.

[00:18:52] His headless body was thrown over the side of the ship, and the legend goes that it swam all the way around the ship several times looking for its head before sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

[00:19:08] And Blackbeard’s fate was not unique.

[00:19:11] Most pirates, like Blackbeard, were victims of their own success.

[00:19:17] The more ships they attacked, the more they drew attention to themselves, the greater problem they posed to the powers back in Europe, and the more forces were sent to deal with them.

[00:19:29] In 1670, there were just two British Royal Navy warships in the Caribbean, where most pirate activity was taking place.

[00:19:38] By 1718 there were 124 warships, and by 1815 there were 214.

[00:19:46] What’s more, in 1698 Britain had changed the laws around piracy, making it easier for pirates to be put on trial and executed. 

[00:19:58] Before, they would have to be captured and taken back to England and then tried.

[00:20:04] After 1698 the pirates could be put on trial anywhere, and executed immediately.

[00:20:12] Put simply, it was a lot harder to be a pirate and survive for long, and by around 1720, the Golden Age of Piracy was over.

[00:20:22] Most pirates had been killed, either at sea or were captured and executed back on land.

[00:20:29] Some had actually retired from a life of piracy. 

[00:20:34] Although we think of pirates as living at sea, of course they needed to come to land to spend their money, and they often had close relationships with people on land. 

[00:20:45] They had to exchange their stolen goods, and they would need to come ashore to find ways to spend their money - it’s not much good having a load of gold or silk on your pirate ship; you need to exchange that into something you can actually use.

[00:21:03] So, for some pirates, they took their riches and essentially retired, using them to buy pieces of land and live an honest life.

[00:21:14] Now, the legacy that pirates have left is... vast, and incredibly impressive for such a small group of people.

[00:21:23] It’s hard to know exactly, but at its peak historians believe that there were around 5,000 pirates roaming the seas. 

[00:21:33] In the grand scheme of things, this is an absolutely tiny group, but one that has fascinated people ever since.

[00:21:41] It is, on one level, a completely understandable fascination, both at the time and now.

[00:21:49] During The Golden Age of Piracy people would hear or read about pirates, mysterious people who lived on ships, taking treasure, creating their own society, and one that was very different to the one on shore.

[00:22:04] Much like the Highwaymen we heard about in the last episode, the life of a pirate was alluring, it was attractive, it was interesting, it was completely understandable that normal people were so curious about them.

[00:22:20] Pirate executions, when pirates were caught and publicly killed, might be the first and only time that anyone would ever see a pirate, and they were always incredibly popular events.

[00:22:34] And even now, we as a society are obsessed with pirates. 

[00:22:39] We make films about them, we dress up as them, there is even an International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which was on September 19th by the way.

[00:22:48] We have also created this image of a pirate which isn’t completely true, so before we end let’s bust some of these myths, and confirm some that are partly true.

[00:23:01] Firstly, no there is no record of real pirates ever having parrots on their shoulders. This all comes from a book by Robert Louis Stevenson called Treasure Island.

[00:23:13] Secondly, there was no real “pirate language”. 

[00:23:17] Most pirates came from Britain, so most would have spoken English, but there wasn’t some secret pirate language, although there were no doubt a few words or phrases that pirates would have used. 

[00:23:30] The “pirate language” we think of is actually a form of accent from Cornwall, in south west England. This accent has come to be associated with pirates only because of a comic opera called Pirates of Penzance, written by Gilbert & Sullivan.

[00:23:49] Thirdly, did pirates have hooks for hands or wooden legs? Actually, yes they probably did. 

[00:23:56] Losing a hand or leg was quite common not just for a pirate, but for anyone working on a ship. 

[00:24:03] Pirate ships would often specify how a pirate would be compensated, how much they would be paid if they lost certain body parts. And there is evidence of pirates having hooks and using wooden prosthetics replacing their legs, making at least that one partly true.

[00:24:23] And finally, did pirates actually bury their treasure? 

[00:24:28] Well, there isn’t much evidence of this. The myth of pirate treasure comes from books such as Treasure Island, and is based on the real story of Captain Kidd and the treasure he took from the Quedagh Merchant. 

[00:24:42] While he was in prison, awaiting execution, he wrote a letter to a friend saying that he knew the location of goods valued at £100,000, which is around 25 million Euros in today’s money. 

[00:24:58] But, Kidd was a desperate man, and historians believe that he had written this in the hope that it might save his life.

[00:25:07] It didn’t, and this treasure, if indeed it ever existed, has never been found.

[00:25:15] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Pirates.

[00:25:20] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that you now know a little bit more about pirates than you did 25 minutes ago.

[00:25:28] One thing we didn’t talk about in this episode is piracy today. 

[00:25:33] And you will probably know that pirates aren’t sailing around the Caribbean with large black beards, but piracy today is debatably an even bigger problem than it was 300 years ago, the pirates have just changed location.

[00:25:48] Luckily we did an episode on Modern Pirates, it is episode number 78, so if you want to learn more about that, then I’d recommend giving that one a listen.

[00:25:58] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:26:02] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:12] The place you can go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.
You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:22] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


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