There be pirates at HMNS

I like pirates.  I am not going to lie.  Maybe it is the bad boy effect I have heard so much about on the covers of newsstand magazines.  Or perhaps, it is all the GREAT history you can learn while you aren’t looking! Either way, get excited now because we are hosting “Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship.

Spanish reales. Part of the treasure recovered from the Whydah.

What makes pirates so cool?  Well, it isn’t how they made people walk the plank (because they didn’t), and it isn’t how they buried their treasure (because they didn’t) and it isn’t because they were the fiercest crews on the seas (okay this one is true).  Rather, the truth is stranger than fiction and that gives them a certain appeal. Their conduct during the Golden Age of Piracy, around 1650 to 1720, also gives you an amazing inside look at global politics and policy decisions at the time.

Most of what people today know about pirates comes from the movies, like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Goonies, but when it comes to accuracy these movies are more swishbucklers than swashbucklers.  In fact, most of what we think we know about pirates is based on works of fiction, like Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and like any good work of fiction, it doesn’t let the facts stand in its way.

Generally, pirates were a democratic bunch, with crews of every race, nationality and social status, but whose members were judged on their abilities, not their affluence.  They had a solid business plan and opportunities for advancement within the company. And my favorite, they had disability insurance for the crew.

Now there were a few bad apples that spoiled the bunch (and you know who you are… Blackbeard), but overall they conducted themselves in remarkable egalitarian way and were much beloved by the colonists who might find themselves in possession of goods from the continent and a significant discount through the good graces and skills of said pirates.

There is so much to say that one blog simply can’t do it all, so stay tuned for future blogs.  And now I leave you with a joke, courtesy of a cherry Laffy Taffy wrapper:

What is a pirate’s favorite vegetable?
The arrrrh-tichoke of course.

Don’t miss your chance to see Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship  for a limited time, only at HMNS.

How To Rule the Sea: A Guide for Privateers 1500 – 1800s [Real Pirates]

Imagine for a moment you are the king or queen of a country and war is on the horizon.  Both you and your enemies are dependent on the sea for trade, which keeps the economy going and taxes coming in.  If you want to win the war, you have to attack your opponent’s trading ships and keep them from pulling in money to continue fighting you.  For the sake of argument, we will say that both nations are roughly equal in the quality and quantity of ships in their navies and that you are desperately looking for a winning edge.

What would you do?

If your first thought was to buy and build more ships you would be wrong.  First, navies are expensive and require a lot of maintenance.  Second, the war might be over by the time your new ships are built.  So in the end, your nation might be bankrupt with a large navy it cannot even afford to maintain after the war.

On second thought, maybe you could hire some mercenaries.  Not really, because ships and crews are expensive and no one can afford to maintain a privately owned personal navy they can loan out to you in case of a war.

Here’s a hint:  how about getting the merchant ships you are protecting to do some of the fighting for you?  It sounds like a good idea, but how would you do it?

The answer is by legalizing piracy and creating what are called privateers or privately owned ships that are willing to fight for you.  The incentive for privateers to put themselves in harm’s way was that they would often be able to keep or sell off any cargo or ships that they captured.  Additionally, they sometimes could also receive a prize or bounty for capturing ships.  This is exactly what nations did from the 1500s through the 1800s, and it allowed them to use armed ships and sailors without spending tax dollars to build and maintain a navy.

Real Pirates at HMNS
Step aboard a recreation of the pirate ship Whydah in the Real Pirates exhibition – now open!
And, see a full set of photos from the exhibit on Flickr.

The first step in becoming a privateer or “legal pirate” was to receive a letter of marque.  Simply put, a letter of marque is an agreement between the owner of a ship and the government that allows the ship to attack a rival nation’s trading vessels.  One of the advantages of having a letter of marque over freelance piracy was that if you were captured by a rival nation’s navy, you would be treated as a military prisoner instead of being hung for piracy.

Privateers were so effective that the British government began to license privateers to attack and capture pirates that were plaguing the Atlantic during the 1700s.  These privateers were remarkably effective at curbing pirate raiding and helped bring to an end the golden age of piracy.

To see what life was like on a real pirate ship, visit the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now open! You can also see privateer models Tuesday through Saturday from 9 am – 4:30 pm at the Houston Maritime Museum. Want to know more about pirates? This post is based on information in Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly.

New Blogger! Meet Ben, the Maritime Man [Real Pirates]

Our Real Pirates exhibition opens Friday! It’s the first exhibition of an authentic pirate shipwreck – ever. I got a chance to check it out this morning, and it’s pretty amazing – everything from real pirates’ booty to a walk-through recreation of The Whydah, a slave ship that was captured by pirates before sinking in 1717.

There’s a ton to explore in the exhibit, and so I’m super-excited to introduce you to our newest blogger! Ben, Assistant Director of the Houston Maritime Museum, is going to be sharing his knowledge of ships – a fairly essential piece of the pirate lifestyle -  with us throughout the run of the xhibition here on the blog. We asked him to tell us a little about himself – check back Friday for his first post!

Tell us a little bit about your background.  Since you work at the Houston Maritime Museum, I’m assuming you like ships.

Well , it all started with a summer internship that I did on board the Battleship Texas.  I worked alongside their then curator Susan Smyer and loved every minute of it.  At that point, I decided that if I wanted to work in museums, I would need to further my education.  My wife and I then traveled all the way up to windswept Lubbock,  Texas where I attended Texas Tech University for two years to get a Master’s degree in History with a minor in Museum Science.

After that, I worked as an Educational and Maintenance Assistant at Varner Hogg Plantation and as the Educational Assistant and  Bookstore Manager at the Brazoria County Historical Museum.  I loved both jobs immensely.  For me, the most rewarding aspect of working in the museum field is bringing science, and history to life for kids of all ages and letting them experience the past, as well as learning in general in fun, hands-on ways.

This year,  I landed my dream job at the Houston Maritime Museum and I have been enjoying it ever since.  Honestly, I enjoy learning about maritime history in general,  but pirates just happen to be the icing on the cake.  I think the reason I like maritime history so much is because I grew up in Baytown near the Ship Channel, so I was never far from the water and large boats.  That combined  with my many visits to maritime museums like the Battleship Texas and the Nimitz Museum just made me feel right at home in the field.

Learn more about the Real Pirates
exhibition on the exhibit web site!

What is the most fascinating thing on display at the Maritime Museum?

Everyone has their favorites, but I would have to say that the model we have of the Chinese Junk is my personal favorite at the moment.  Although it is a fairly unassuming model, once you get into the history of some of the people that sailed the Junks, their stories are pretty amazing.  I actually wrote a blog about a Mrs. Cheng (coming soon!) who was arguably one of the most successful pirates east or west to ever live.  The story has everything from awkward family drama to murder and mayhem on the high seas.  I don’t want to give away too much here,  so you will have to read my blogs to get the whole scoop.

What do you hope people will learn from your upcoming posts on the HMNS blog?

I hope that everyone who reads our blogs will become  interested enough in maritime history that they will want to visit our museum and learn more about both the maritime industry and the history that surrounds it.

People tend to think of pirates from a very specific time period.  Is there a broader context?

Absolutely!  There have been pirates as long as there have been boats.  Really, when you boil it all down, piracy is just robbery on water.  Piracy can be something as mundane as a fisherman stealing another fisherman’s catch for the day or something as extreme as the raids of Blackbeard and others like him.  In reality piracy was not limited to just the Caribbean (which movies such as the one Johnny Depp stars in might lead you to believe).  The Far East sometimes had incredibly powerful pirate navies that defeated the national navies that were sent to kill or capture them.

Who is your favorite pirate?

Don’t tell my wife, but I still have a crush on Mrs. Cheng even though she’s some 200 years older than me.   I think we could make it work.  She has one of the most exciting and well-documented female pirate stories on record, but again, I don’t want to give too much away.