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| Home | Reading Room Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates

Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates
Fiction, Fact & Fancy concerning the
Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main
By Howard Pyle

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WHY is it that a little spice of deviltry lends not an
unpleasantly titillating twang to the great mass of respectable
flour that goes to make up the pudding of our modern
civilization? And pertinent to this question another--Why is it
that the pirate has, and always has had, a certain lurid glamour
of the heroical enveloping him round about? Is there, deep under
the accumulated debris of culture, a hidden groundwork of the
old-time savage? Is there even in these well-regulated times an
unsubdued nature in the respectable mental household of every one
of us that still kicks against the pricks of law and order? To
make my meaning more clear, would not every boy, for instance--
that is, every boy of any account--rather be a pirate captain
than a Member of Parliament? And we ourselves--would we not
rather read such a story as that of Captain Avery's capture of
the East Indian treasure ship, with its beautiful princess and
load of jewels (which gems he sold by the handful, history
sayeth, to a Bristol merchant), than, say, one of Bishop
Atterbury's sermons, or the goodly Master Robert Boyle's
religious romance of "Theodora and Didymus"? It is to be
apprehended that to the unregenerate nature of most of us there
can be but one answer to such a query.

In the pleasurable warmth the heart feels in answer to tales of
derring- do Nelson's battles are all mightily interesting, but,
even in spite of their romance of splendid courage, I fancy that
the majority of us would rather turn back over the leaves of
history to read how Drake captured the Spanish treasure ship in
the South Sea, and of how he divided such a quantity of booty in
the Island of Plate (so named because of the tremendous dividend
there declared) that it had to be measured in quart bowls, being
too considerable to be counted.

Courage and daring, no matter how mad and ungodly, have always a
redundancy of vim and life to recommend them to the nether man
that lies within us, and no doubt his desperate courage, his
battle against the tremendous odds of all the civilized world of
law and order, have had much to do in making a popular hero of
our friend of the black flag. But it is not altogether courage
and daring that endear him to our hearts. There is another and
perhaps a greater kinship in that lust for wealth that makes
one's fancy revel more pleasantly in the story of the division of
treasure in the pirate's island retreat, the hiding of his
godless gains somewhere in the sandy stretch of tropic beach,
there to remain hidden until the time should come to rake the
doubloons up again and to spend them like a lord in polite
society, than in the most thrilling tales of his wonderful
escapes from commissioned cruisers through tortuous channels
between the coral reefs.

And what a life of adventure is his, to be sure! A life of
constant alertness, constant danger, constant escape! An ocean
Ishmaelite, he wanders forever aimlessly, homelessly; now unheard
of for months, now careening his boat on some lonely uninhabited
shore, now appearing suddenly to swoop down on some merchant
vessel with rattle of musketry, shouting, yells, and a hell of
unbridled passions let loose to rend and tear. What a Carlislean
hero! What a setting of blood and lust and flame and rapine for
such a hero!

Piracy, such as was practiced in the flower of its days--that is,
during the early eighteenth century--was no sudden growth. It was
an evolution, from the semilawful buccaneering of the sixteenth
century, just as buccaneering was upon its part, in a certain
sense, an evolution from the unorganized, unauthorized warfare of
the Tudor period.

For there was a deal of piratical smack in the anti-Spanish
ventures of Elizabethan days. Many of the adventurers--of the
Sir Francis Drake school, for instance--actually overstepped
again and again the bounds of international law, entering into
the realms of de facto piracy. Nevertheless, while their doings
were not recognized officially by the government, the
perpetrators were neither punished nor reprimanded for their
excursions against Spanish commerce at home or in the West
Indies; rather were they commended, and it was considered not
altogether a discreditable thing for men to get rich upon the
spoils taken from Spanish galleons in times of nominal peace.
Many of the most reputable citizens and merchants of London, when
they felt that the queen failed in her duty of pushing the fight
against the great Catholic Power, fitted out fleets upon their
own account and sent them to levy good Protestant war of a
private nature upon the Pope's anointed.

Some of the treasures captured in such ventures were immense,
stupendous, unbelievable. For an example, one can hardly credit
the truth of the "purchase" gained by Drake in the famous capture
of the plate ship in the South Sea.

One of the old buccaneer writers of a century later says: "The
Spaniards affirm to this day that he took at that time
twelvescore tons of plate and sixteen bowls of coined money a man
(his number being then forty-five men in all), insomuch that they
were forced to heave much of it overboard, because his ship could
not carry it all."

Maybe this was a very greatly exaggerated statement put by the
author and his Spanish authorities, nevertheless there was enough
truth in it to prove very conclusively to the bold minds of the
age that tremendous profits--"purchases" they called them--were
to be made from piracy. The Western World is filled with the
names of daring mariners of those old days, who came flitting
across the great trackless ocean in their little tublike boats of
a few hundred tons burden, partly to explore unknown seas,
partly--largely, perhaps--in pursuit of Spanish treasure:
Frobisher, Davis, Drake, and a score of others.

In this left-handed war against Catholic Spain many of the
adventurers were, no doubt, stirred and incited by a grim,
Calvinistic, puritanical zeal for Protestantism. But equally
beyond doubt the gold and silver and plate of the "Scarlet Woman"
had much to do with the persistent energy with which these hardy
mariners braved the mysterious, unknown terrors of the great
unknown ocean that stretched away to the sunset, there in faraway
waters to attack the huge, unwieldy, treasure-laden galleons that
sailed up and down the Caribbean Sea and through the Bahama

Of all ghastly and terrible things old-time religious war was the
most ghastly and terrible. One can hardly credit nowadays the
cold, callous cruelty of those times. Generally death was the
least penalty that capture entailed. When the Spaniards made
prisoners of the English, the Inquisition took them in hand, and
what that meant all the world knows. When the English captured a
Spanish vessel the prisoners were tortured, either for the sake
of revenge or to compel them to disclose where treasure lay
hidden. Cruelty begat cruelty, and it would be hard to say
whether the Anglo-Saxon or the Latin showed himself to be most
proficient in torturing his victim.

When Cobham, for instance, captured the Spanish ship in the Bay
of Biscay, after all resistance was over and the heat of the
battle had cooled, he ordered his crew to bind the captain and
all of the crew and every Spaniard aboard--whether in arms or
not--to sew them up in the mainsail and to fling them overboard.
There were some twenty dead bodies in the sail when a few days
later it was washed up on the shore.

Of course such acts were not likely to go unavenged, and many an
innocent life was sacrificed to pay the debt of Cobham's cruelty.

Nothing could be more piratical than all this. Nevertheless, as
was said, it was winked at, condoned, if not sanctioned, by the
law; and it was not beneath people of family and respectability
to take part in it. But by and by Protestantism and Catholicism
began to be at somewhat less deadly enmity with each other;
religious wars were still far enough from being ended, but the
scabbard of the sword was no longer flung away when the blade was
drawn. And so followed a time of nominal peace, and a generation
arose with whom it was no longer respectable and worthy--one
might say a matter of duty--to fight a country with which one's
own land was not at war. Nevertheless, the seed had been sown; it
had been demonstrated that it was feasible to practice piracy
against Spain and not to suffer therefor. Blood had been shed and
cruelty practiced, and, once indulged, no lust seems stronger
than that of shedding blood and practicing cruelty.

Though Spain might be ever so well grounded in peace at home, in
the West Indies she was always at war with the whole
world--English, French, Dutch. It was almost a matter of life or
death with her to keep her hold upon the New World. At home she
was bankrupt and, upon the earthquake of the Reformation, her
power was already beginning to totter and to crumble to pieces.
America was her treasure house, and from it alone could she hope
to keep her leaking purse full of gold and silver. So it was that
she strove strenuously, desperately, to keep out the world from
her American possessions--a bootless task, for the old order upon
which her power rested was broken and crumbled forever. But
still she strove, fighting against fate, and so it was that in
the tropical America it was one continual war between her and all
the world. Thus it came that, long after piracy ceased to be
allowed at home, it continued in those far-away seas with
unabated vigor, recruiting to its service all that lawless malign
element which gathers together in every newly opened country
where the only law is lawlessness, where might is right and where
a living is to be gained with no more trouble than cutting a
throat. {signature Howard Pyle His Mark}


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