The replica of HMS Bounty lies on the railway at Boothbay Harbor. To any child and to many who should know better, any square rigged ship is a “pirate ship” with its romantic associations of the tropical seas, secret hideaways, and swaggering rascals, patch on eye, wooden leg, cutlass and rum bottle in hand. Actually, the pirate was a desperate criminal, a robber and a murderer, openly at war with the world.
Although piracy has been common in all ages and is so today, let us consider piracy in its best-known region, the Caribbean Sea in the 19th century. During the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 when privateering was legitimate warfare, governments issued commissions to private shipowners to attack any ship of their enemies, make prisoners of their crews, and if judged “fair prize,” sell ship and cargo. With the United States, Britain, France and Spain at war with each other, great profits were made by privateers, and ships were built for the purpose. These were often in the tradition of the swift “Baltimore clippers,” fast, lightly built, lightly armed, heavily sparred and canvased and carrying large crews. They could catch any ordinary merchant vessel and escape any naval vessel.
However, with peace generally overspreading the waters after 1815, the privateers found themselves unemployed. Many easily obtained commissions from the new South American republics fighting for their independence from Spain. They continued to capture shops in their accustomed way, but the situation was different. The pirate needed shore connections to dispose of his loot, and if caught in the act of piracy, he was hanged. Consequently, on the principle that “dead cats don’t mew,” the pirates murdered crews of captured vessels. All we know about piracy is from the few who escaped, or from the confessions of condemned pirates.
A pirate often got into the “trade” by shipping as an honest seaman, fomenting a mutiny, killing the officers and attacking honest traders. The brig Morning Star was attacked by the pirate Soto and his crew. The captain and mate of Morning Star were murdered at once. Six armed pirates were sent aboard Morning Star with orders to kill everyone. They began at once, but some of the crew and some of the women passengers fled into the hold. The six pirates then fell to feasting and drinking, keeping the steward out to serve them. When Soto ordered them to return aboard his vessel immediately, they did not have time to kill everyone. They hastily battened down the hatches, shut the women up in the cabin, bored holes in Morning Star’s planking, sawed the masts through, cut up the rigging and left men and women to drown in the sinking brig.
However the strong and resourceful women forced a way out of the cabin and released the men in the hold, who fell to pumping at once as Soto’s vessel was disappearing into the lowering dark.
When he found out what his six men had done, he was furious and put back at once to be sure no cat mewed, but he was unable to find Morning Star. Her crew was rescued by another vessel. Soto was later hanged at Gibraltar.
Another even more ruthless pirate was Charles Gibbs. In early life he was a sailor during the War of 1812 aboard USS Hornet and then aboard USS Chesapeake. After the latter’s defeat, he was a British prisoner in Dartmoor. He made his way to Buenos Aires, joined an Argentine privateer in the war against Brazil, mutinied and went pirating. He and his crew burned at least 15 ships and murdered over 400 men. These are conservative figures. He and his crew personally killed men, individual defenseless men, one at a time in cold blood. After being involved in another mutiny, Gibbs was hanged in New York.
Of course many piracies occurred of which we have no record or knowledge. Ships bound for the Caribbean failed to return because of hurricane, fire, a lee shore or piracy, but the few we do know about assures us that piracy was no romantic adventure.
By the universal law of nations, robbery or forcible depredation upon the high seas, `animo furandi’ is piracy. Fletcher Christian led a mutiny aboard the original Bounty in 1789 and set her captain, William Bligh, adrift with a few loyal men in an open boat. Then he ran off with the ship, leaving some of the mutineers on Tahiti, and founded a colony on the then unknown Pitcairn Island. The mutineers on Tahiti were later hunted down and most of them hanged, but those on Pitcairn were not discovered until 1808. So “HMS Bounty” is indeed a pirate ship. She was stolen on the high seas from King George.