Brutal. It’s one of the first words people utter when they read a true account of pirates, and they’re right. As a group, pirates were among the hardest, toughest, and most dangerous men a person could encounter on the high seas.
You’ll notice that qualification: “Among the hardest, toughest, and most dangerous men….” It must be understood a wide range of brutality existed not only on pirate ships, but on merchant and Royal Navy vessels as well. Running into a pirate ship was not exactly like running into the Red Cross, but then neither was running into a ship from the Royal Navy.
The Royal Navy was notorious for its institutionalized cruelty and violence. Some captains were despotic, sadistic leaders encouraged by the top brass to keep discipline at all costs. Like hardened sailors on pirate ships, these captains found a home in the British Navy. Life on one of their ships was no less than a chamber of horrors.
On a scale of violence from one to ten, most pirates were somewhere around a five. Several pirates, however, like some captains in the Royal Navy, were off the charts. Their cruelty and sadistic tortures knew no bounds. If we are to be accurate about this, we should call them for what they were. Psychopaths. Piracy just happened to be the profession they chose like captains of the Royal Navy who relished the pain and misery they inflicted on their crew with little provocation.
If I had to select the top five cruelest pirates in history, I’d have to include Rock Barziliano, Francois L’Olonnais, Edward Low, Benito de Soto, and Don Pedro Gilbert. I won’t go into specifics here, but I will tell you their horrific attacks are chronicled in Uncommon Mariners and a number of other riveting books by expert authors such as David Cordingly, Benerson Little, Peter Earle, and Colin Woodard.
The mutilations and murders by these men were so brutal that I have no doubt that it would make Blackbeard and Kidd flinch. In fact, I’ll go even further than that. I believe in my pirate soul that most of the pirates of the Golden Age would be embarrassed to have their names associated with the likes of them.
“That’s not what we were about, mate. Damn ye, scalawag, for even suggesting such a thing!” Blackbeard would no doubt thunder.
I highly recommend Marcus Rediker’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Rediker pulls the curtain back and gives us a glimpse into life on Navy ships in that time period. Among the documented practices that he reveals are:
… the beating of a man half to death then sending him aloft to trim the sail alone 100 feet above the deck in the dark.
…the whipping of a man so brutally and hard that some of the hardened seamen forced to witness it finally shouted out for the captain to stop.
…another sailor because he returned late to the ship was beaten over the head so badly with a board that he was unable to swallow or eat for days.
… one captain beat a sailor so viciously that he broke his arm then threatened to break his other.
And you thought pirates were cruel? The fact is, when pirates stopped a ship and took booty, they asked for volunteers. Often men joined them willingly. They had been exposed to so much violence on other ships, a pirate ship meant an immediate end to the vicious beatings they had been subjected to.
The Golden Age of piracy may be past, but pockets of institutionalized cruelty much like that once found in the old Royal Navy remain in our society. If it didn’t, why are so many blacks imprisoned disproportionately to whites? Why does a culture of sexual harassment continue in civil and military environments? Why is it acceptable for a presidential candidate to dehumanize Hispanics, women, and the physically and mentally challenged?
Edward Low’s history has been written in the same books as Blackbeard’s and Sam Bellamy’s. I’m not sure either of the latter would be happy with that. I wonder what history will say of this nation’s institutions when its story is written. The overt barbarism of Edward Low and some of the Royal Navy’s practices may be gone, but a pernicious undertone of institutionalized cruelty still abides in our society.
We can’t wretch or shudder at the cruelties of Edward Low and Benito de Soto then wink at the cruelties we see around us. In some ways that makes us participants. My wish for you is that you stand tall and do what is right whatever ship you sail in life, and if you have to be a pirate, be one of the good guys.
The Uncommon Mariner