In the first part of the 1700s, the southeast coast of North America was teeming with pirates. What tends to come to mind is a romanticized view: Swashbucking adventurers of the high seas seeking treasure and romance.
Actually, Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Anne Bonny and other infamous freebooters were often filthy, disease-ridden, toothless and weighed down mostly by misfortune. They lived hard and died young, executed at the hands of provincial authority, slain in battle, drowned at sea, lost to madness, booze and dungeon-darkness.
Nevertheless, they did provide us with legends to tell and reason enough to throw a good party.
The second annual Charleston Pirate Festival gets underway 11 a.m.-3 p.m. today at the Charleston Maritime Center. Organized by the Old Exchange Building, this free family-oriented event includes re-enactments, storytelling, parrot and musket demonstrations, harbor tours and a lecture about modern-day piracy.
Last year's festival drew more than 400 people, and organizers are anticipating another good turnout of seafarers and lubbers alike.
The festival will include at least two features that adults are likely to find fascinating.
Derek Hankerson and James Bulloch will be in town from St. Augustine, Fla., to talk about the many black pirates who patrolled the waters of the Caribbean and southeast coast back in the day.
And, Chris Downey, author of "Charleston and the Golden Age of Piracy" and "Steed Bonnet: Charleston's Gentleman Pirate," will lecture about the threat posed by pirates today in the waters off the coast of Africa and in the Strait of Malacca, a narrow passage between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Hankerson said he is combining years of experience in the tourism industry and an interest in African-American history to share with young people information not typically presented by school textbooks.
The explorers of the New World active in the late 1600s and first part of the 1700s (a period that coincides with the peek years of the Transatlantic Slave Trade) were Spanish adventurers and Africans, usually working together, according to Hankerson.
Of the 5,000 or so pirates marauding and pillaging during this time, around 30 percent of them were black, he said. Which makes sense.
Given the choice between the plantation and piracy, Hankerson said, what would you do? "Take a chance."
Piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries flourished because of extensive international trade in numerous commodities (including slaves) and the plethora of Caribbean seaports, islands and hidden coves.
Spanish Florida was a land of promise for enslaved Africans, Hankerson said. There, they could win their freedom, so long as they promised to convert to Catholicism and defend the interests of Spanish rulers.
Many took to the seas: Black Caesar, James Black, Thomas Gates, Juan Andres, Peter Cloise and hundreds more. Others were honest men who got caught up in the crimes.
After the schooner S.J. Warner, on the way from New York to LaPlata, was hijacked by privateers and rerouted toward Charleston, its black steward William Tillman killed the assailants and restored the ship to its owners.
Freedom was the catchword of the day, Hankerson noted.
"People were seeking freedom way before 1776, and way before the Civil War, which really makes fascinating history for young boys and girls," he said.
Downey, who works for the Mediterranean Shipping Company, has more than an intellectual interest in pirates. In some ways, it's part of his job. Downey will be sharing his insights into modern-day piracy at the festival.
The true story recounted in the recent movie "Captain Phillips" no longer describes the majority of pirate attacks today. The waters off the coast of Somalia have been relatively calm for a couple of years. Now, most of the action takes place along the west coast of Africa and within the Strait of Malacca, Downey said.
The Somalian strategy was seizing ships and holding crews hostage until a large payment was made. Once the money arrived, the pirates would return to their small boats and motor away fast. Now, pirates are stealing cargo, or even entire ships, Downey said.
There have been about 150 attacks in the first six months of 2014, he said. The buccaneers are a brutal bunch, sometimes killing crew members, sometimes colluding with government officials.
After the Indian merchant ship MT Ocean Centurion was seized by pirates last summer, its injured captain, Sunil James, reported the incident to authorities in Togo, a small West African nation. Togo officials charged James with aiding the pirates (whose numbers included one or two Indians) and jailed him, according to news reports. James was released in December, after five months of detention and significant diplomatic lobbying. He arrived home in Mumbai two and half weeks after the death of his baby son.
That's just one of many such stories, Downey said. Today's pirates are as violent and ruthless as those of yesteryear. And efforts to address the problem often are hampered by the complex global shipping system, he said.
Vessels are registered in one place, crews come from somewhere else. The captain is typically not related to the crew or the ship's operator. The ship's owner likely is of another nationality still. This makes it difficult to know which laws apply, what charges to bring against raiders and where to litigate piracy cases, Downey said.
Often the cost of security and enforcement exceeds the cost of lost goods or ransom, he said. These days, shipping companies charge piracy fees when their vessels must pass through infested waters.
Michael Coker, operations assistant at the Old Exchange Building, said the history of piracy surely is sensational, though not usually in a good way. Blackbeard's famous blockade of Charles Towne in 1718 was done mainly for the purpose of securing medicine, including mercury, used then to treat syphilis.
But the festival will not draw too much attention to the hazards of high-seas high jinks, emphasizing instead other aspects of the pirate life: swordfights, for example, the use of talking birds, the appeal of golden treasure and the early history of Charleston.
During the city's Colonial days, fearsome Judge Nicholas "Hangin'" Trott sat on the courtroom bench and ruthlessly sentenced pirate after pirate to death. The walled city depended on its 85 cannons and numerous bastions to defend itself from aggressors on land and at sea, when the settlement featured one tavern for every five men, when pirate hunter George Anson won a stretch of land north of the settlement in a card game then named the streets of Ansonborough after his ships, the Squirrel, Centurion and Scarborough (they would be changed later).
"We fostered a culture of pirates coming here," he said. So it is incumbent upon Charleston historians and history enthusiasts to remember this legacy and share it with younger generations.
Tony Youmans, director of the Old Exchange, hastened to add: "Educate, but have fun!"
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