The History of Maritime Piracy
Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425,
Keller, TX 76244-0425
Pirates & Religion
By Cindy Vallar
shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
free exercise thereof . . . .
Amendment of the Constitution
freedom for all people who live in the United States. Inclusion of
stems from the fact that the countries from which our ancestors hailed
this freedom. Each country practiced a state religion and its citizens
expected to adhere to that faith and pay that church’s taxes. Initially, most of Europe was Roman Catholic.
During the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, men like Jan Hus
Luther objected to some Church practices, which led to the Protestant
Of course, some citizens preferred to practice faiths other than the
religion, but they often encountered persecution because of this.
The intersecting of religion and piracy and/or privateering
took place over many centuries. At times these men and women championed
faith, while at other times they rejected all parts of the state, of
religion was one aspect. Pirates of the first quarter of the eighteenth
fell into this latter category. They rejected any convention of the
including religion, because they saw it as a way for the State to
and/or oppress the majority of its citizens. When Samuel Bellamy
and his crew
captured Captain Beer’s sloop in 1717, Bellamy explained:
. . there is no arguing with such sniveling Puppies, who allow
kick them about Deck at Pleasure; and pin their Faith upon a Pimp of a
a Squab, who neither practices nor believes what he puts upon the
chuckle-headed Fools he preaches to. (Defoe, 587)
Only when faced with their own deaths at the hangman’s noose
did some of these rogues return to the fold, oftentimes through the
clergymen who visited them in jail with the hope of extracting their
and to offer them redemption for their sins and solace during the final
of their lives prior to and during their executions. Perhaps the best
these ministers was the Reverend Cotton Mather,
who counseled men like William
Fly, John Phillips, and John
Quelch. Another such gentleman was the Reverend
Paul Lorrain, the Ordinary
(prison chaplain) at Newgate Prison.
Christopher Scudamore, the cooper in John Quelch’s crew, was
convicted of piracy in Boston in 1704. He “requested an extra three
days to say
his prayers and study the scriptures. At the gallows, he sang the first
the 31st Psalm through by himself.” (Travers, 48)
(Left to Right: Cotton Mather, Pirate
Dancing the Hempen Jig, Old Newgate Prison)
But what of earlier time periods? The Vikings
monasteries, but the primary target was the rich plunder contained
walls of these centers, rather than because their beliefs conflicted
of the Church. Simon of Durham witnessed one such raid.
came to the church of Lindisfarne,
laid everything waste with rievous
plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted feet, dug up the
seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the
some they took away with them in fetters; many they drove out, naked
with insults; and some they drowned in the sea.
In medieval times, religion played a crucial role in the
These holy wars
pitted European Christians against Muslims of the
Ottoman Empire. Both sides employed corsairs to attack enemy shipping
coastal villages. The Barbary corsairs
came from the Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and
Salé along the northern coast of Africa. Whenever Janissaries,
the warriors on
Barbary ships, boarded an enemy vessel, the khodja
(purser) “read out verses from the Koran in a loud voice”.
(Earle, 44) The corsairs’ Christian counterparts
came from religious orders, most notably the Knights of
St. John of Jerusalem
(eventually known as the Knights of Malta) and the Knights of
St. Stephen. Livorno
(also known as Leghorn) was a haven for Christian corsairs who sailed
Duke of Tuscany’s flag. Sometimes their raids crossed that gray line
privateering and piracy, and both sides sometimes attacked friendly
rather than just those of their enemies. According to documents dated 6
and 11 June 1607 in the Venetian Calendar of State Papers , the duke
shelters and caresses the worst of the English men who are proclaimed
by the King.”
(Left to Right: Viking,
Knights of St John of Jerusalem, Barbary Corsair)
Aside from the religious element of
these wars, trade and
politics also played important roles. Both sides sought not only
also slaves. Jewish
merchants played key roles in brokering sales of the
captured men, women, and cargoes the corsairs on either side plundered.
orders of Catholic priests assisted in negotiations with the rulers of
Barbary States to repatriate these captured people to their homelands.
captives “turned Turk,” converted from Christianity to Islam, to escape
slavery and gain wealth and prestige through plundering. Following the
of the Ottoman navy at the Battle
of Lepanto in 1571, both Christian and Muslim
privateers eventually devolved into pirates. Corsairs of the Knights of
continued to plunder Mediterranean trade until Napoleon
landed on the island in
1798. The Barbary corsairs, on the other hand, continued to plunder
into the first half of the nineteenth century.
Mediterranean Sea battle
between Christians and Muslims
Priests, themselves, were more often than not the victims of
piracy, rather than pirates. One exception was Eustace
the Monk (also known as
The Black Monk). As a Benedictine, he became Count Renault of
administrator. The count accused Eustace of some crime; he fled to
of the Channel Islands, and was declared an outlaw. He became a
the employ of King John of England in 1205 and sailed the English
demanding protection money from ships and attacking those who opted not
In 1212 when his men attacked English towns, he fell out of favor with
English king and changed sides, becoming a privateer for Philip II of
Five years later, English forces captured Eustace off the coast of
Alexander VI divided the New World between Spain and
Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. This didn’t sit well
European countries, especially after Jean Fleury (or Florin), a French
privateer, captured three Spanish vessels in 1523 laden with
filled with Aztec gold, sparkling jewelry, and religious statues;
jewels, including an emerald the size of a man’s fist; even a live
jaguar in a
cage. In all, the plunder was valued at more than 800,000 gold ducats –
equivalent of a staggering 234 million dollars today. (Konstam, World, 66)
This “find” confirmed rumors of the riches of the New World,
which enticed the English, Dutch, and French to stake their claims of
the Caribbean and North and South America. During the sixteenth and
centuries, these interlopers sailed as privateers or pirates, depending
whether the countries for which they sailed were at war or not with
Raids on Spanish vessels and holdings in the Caribbean
became particularly prevalent from 1568 to 1603. While the primary goal
these pirates and privateers remained financial gain with minimal
religious zealotry also played a vital role in the attacks. English
Sea Beggars, and French Huguenots
championed the Protestant faiths
against Spain, defender of Catholicism. One of the best known of the
was Sir Francis
Drake, Queen Elizabeth I’s “pirate.”
would have learned that salvation is a matter of absolute faith in God,
that his actions should stem from his faith. He would also have learned
despise the Catholic Church, its grasping, materialistic ways made
the fine altars of its cathedrals and the rich vestments of its clergy
it ignored the poverty and anguish of the common man.
Born around 1540, he lived in a Protestant England ruled by
VIII (1509-1547) and Edward
VI (1547-1553). When Mary I ascended the
throne on the death of her brother, Catholicism became the true
England once again and Protestants paid the price. During her reign,
many “heretics” to fiery deaths, which earned her the nickname, Bloody
Her younger sister, Elizabeth, returned England to
the Protestant faith of her
father, and Drake was one of many privateers who zealously protected
Queen, and Country.”
In 1573 he and his men captured a mule train laden with more
than fifteen tons of silver from Peruvian mines. Lacking the means to
this haul back to the ships, he buried all but a few chests of gold,
held 50,000 pieces of eight (valued at $6,000,000 today). Four years
Drake set off on a journey that took him around the world. A primary
for this voyage was to plunder Spanish treasure on land and at sea. He
Valparaiso where his men “desecrated a little chapel, stealing what
thought of as the superstitious paraphernalia it was decorated with.”
147), but his biggest prize was the Nuestra
de la Concepción, an unarmed treasure galleon, which he
1579. She carried
chests filled with silver, gold bars, and over 26 tons of silver
total haul was estimated at 400,000 pieces-of-eight – the equivalent of
million today. At the time it represented about half of England’s
. . . (Konstam, World, 80)
While a hero in his own country, Drake was anything but to
his victims. They considered him a “heretic and pirate”, and the
no distinction between piracy and privateering.
In 1579 one of his men horrified their Spanish captives when he
a crucifix on a their ship before sending it into the ocean. While at
he forced his prisoners, including a priest, to participate in a
service. Eight years later, Thomas
Cavendish desecrated the town’s church.
In April 1576, John
Oxenham set out on a trading voyage, but
by February of the following year, he had turned to piracy. In
September he and
his men attacked the Pearl Islands off the coast of Panama. According
Spanish reports, there was “a furious outbreak of iconoclastic
the destruction of images and crucifixes, and the public assault and
humiliation of a friar, who was forced to wear a chamber pot on his
later report cited the “castration of two Franciscan friars.” (Appleby,
This and other incidents, whether actual or rumor, led Spaniards to
drastic measures after capturing pirates. They eventually captured and
Oxenham in Lima in November 1580.
Many of the French buccaneers were Huguenots, Protestants who
were persecuted in their homeland and had fled to the Caribbean. Since
was the defender of the Catholic Church, the religion that had
these men waged private wars against their enemy. One city these
was Nombre de Dios in 1537. Four years later they looted Margarita
le Clerc (also known as Jambe de Bois or Peg Leg) attacked villages
along the coasts of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. In 1554 he sacked
Cuba. One of his captains, Jacques de Sores, remained in the Caribbean
Clerc returned to France. Sores laid siege to Havana in July 1555,
capturing it, plundering the houses and desecrating churches, then
city. When he captured a ship off the Canary Islands in 1570, he tossed
Jesuits overboard, whether they were alive or dead. He also jettisoned
images, bibles, and relics he found about the Portuguese vessel.
In the early decades of the next century, Diego the Mulatto
sailed with Cornelius Corneliszoon Jol (also known as Piede Palo or
and Pierre le Grand.
In 1637 Diego captured Thomas Gage, a Catholic priest from
England, on his way to Havana. Since Diego’s mother resided there, he
Gage to dinner and asked him “to remember him to her, and how that for
he had used well and courteously in what he did.” He also recited a
proverb: Hoy por me, mañana for ti –
Today for me, tomorrow for you. (Little, How,
Jean le Vasseur, who oversaw Tortuga,
a haven for the
Buccaneers, was a French Protestant with a great hatred for all things
Catholic. When Spaniards fell into his hands they “were likely to find
themselves subjected to an Inquisition-like torture in one of his
cages (one of which he called ‘Purgatory’).” (Lane, 100) Although his
motives for such treatment involved financial gain, perhaps religion
small role in why he subjected these prisoners to such vile treatment.
In contrast, when Bertrand d’Ogeron became Governor of
in 1665, he arranged for two priests to accompany a boatload of French
maidens from France because he wanted the buccaneers to settle down.
women came ashore, each buccaneer introduced himself and selected a
The priests then sanctified their union.
Prins, a Dutch corsair, who sailed the Caribbean and
South Sea, was more akin to le Vasseur, though, in his treatment of
clerics. In 1670 he attacked Granada prior to joining Henry Morgan on
voyage to sack Panama. After seizing control of Granada, Prins demanded
ransom of 70,000 pesos. “[H]e made havoc and a thousand destructions,
the head of a priest in a basket and saying that he would deal with the
the prisoners in the same way,” according to a Spanish account. (Earle,
The buccaneers often used Petit Goave as a safe haven. The
first church there was built in 1670 and in 1685 two Capuchin monks
to the Catholic residents. Few firsthand accounts, written either by
buccaneers themselves or their contemporaries, rarely mention how
buccaneers worshipped, but Basil Ringrose cited two instances in his
comrade of William Dampier and
Wafer, he wrote on 9 January 1681:
day was the first Sunday that ever we kept by command and common
the loss and death of our valiant commander, Captain Sawkins. This
generous-spirited man threw the dice overboard, finding them in use on
day. (Esquemeling, 398)
Although French and
buccaneers formed alliances
against Spanish towns and villages in the New World, religious
sometimes caused problems. On one such expedition, Ravenau
de Lussan, a flibustier and chronicler, noted that
although the English pirates might observe the Sabbath and sing Psalms,
no scruples, when entering churches, against knocking down crucifixes
their sabres, firing guns and pistols, and breaking and mutilating the
of saints with their arms, scoffing at the veneration in which
them. (Little, Buccaneer’s, 108)
In contrast, after de Lussan and his fellow flibustiers
captured Granada, they
marched to the cathedral and celebrated with a Te Deum.
They also preferred to ask “God ardently for victory and
silver” before any plundering endeavor. (Little, Buccaneer’s, 108)
Jean-Baptiste Labat, a Dominican priest who went to the
Caribbean to replace one of the missionaries who died during an
arrived in Martinique in 1694. In March
of that year, he presided over mass at the behest of a flibustier
captain and crew in the harbor of Saint-Pierre. He
claimed that rather than desecrating Catholic relics, they “fired
appropriate points during his ceremony and a portion of their booty was
to the Church.” (Marley, 672)
Catholic buccaneers might treat those who had taken
holy vows kindly, Ringrose wrote of one instance when his fellow
buccaneers did not.
day we cried out all our pillage, and found that it amounted to 3,276
pieces-of-eight, which was accordingly divided by shares amongst us. We
punished a friar, who was chaplain to the bark aforementioned, and shot
upon the deck, casting him overboard before he was dead.
Ringrose didn’t agree with this type of cruelty, but his
opinion wasn’t strong enough to sway his comrades.
Exquemelin, a pirate surgeon who wrote The
Buccaneers of America, “reported
that rovers prayed before eating – filibusters recited the Canticle
Zachariah, the Magnificat, and the Miserere,
while the ‘pretended
or most of the English and Dutch) read a chapter from the
recited Psalms.” Such practices, however, pertained only to the 1660s,
later periods of buccaneering make no mention of “formal religious
(Little, Buccaneer’s, 108)
In the final decade of the seventeenth century, some pirates
forsook the Caribbean and headed for the Indian Ocean to plunder ships
Muslims on their annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Darby Mullins was one of
men who remained loyal to William Kidd
and hanged with him in 1701.
confessed to Ordinary Lorrain, prior to his death, this Irishman
he didn’t know that it was unlawful to plunder the ships of Moslems.”
386) Philip Gosse, a pirate historian, paraphrased Mullins’ words more
. . he went to New York, where he met Captain Kidd, and was, according
own story, persuaded to engage in piracy, it being urged that the
of infidels, the enemies of Christianity, was an act, not only
one highly meritorious. (Gosse, 229)
When these ships returned to India, they carried vast
amounts of silk, jewels, silver and gold. The greatest haul came in
Every and his men captured the Gang-i-Sawai,
whose plundered treasure has been valued in excess of $1,000,000.
Above: Woodes Rogers
Left: Henry Every &
the taking of the Gang-i-Sawai
In 1709 Woodes
Rogers sailed around the world on a
privateering cruise. After rounding Cape Horn, he put in at Juan
Island. There he found Alexander Selkirk,
a privateer from William
expedition who had been marooned on the island for four and a half
his journal Rogers wrote:
employ’d himself in reading, singing Psalms, and praying; so that he
was a better Christain while in this Solitude than ever he was before,
he was afraid, he should ever be again. (Rogers, 72)
Years later, while attempting to persuade the pirates of New
Providence to accept the King’s pardon and retire from plundering,
included literature from the Society of the
Promotion of Christian
part of his arsenal. It probably wasn’t a particularly successful
knowing the pirates easily outnumbered him, he could ill afford not to
means necessary to achieve his goal.
Darby Mullins wasn’t the only one who thought there was
nothing wrong with attacking non-Christian ships. In 1719 Turner
gunner aboard George Shelvocke’s privateer Speedwell,
suggested they sail for the Red Sea, rather than Spanish waters,
could be no harm in robbing the Mahometans, whereas the Spaniards were
Christians, whom it was a sin to injure.” (Shelvocke, 34) Shelvocke,
heeded his letter of marque and attacked Spanish towns and vessels.
when pirates failed to receive their ransoms, they torched the towns
caring what burned. When Shelvocke captured Payta in 1720, he didn’t
burn the churches, but he did order his men to set fire to several
. . the governor was determined not to ransom the town, and did not
became of it, provided the churches were not burnt. Though I never had
intention to destroy any place devoted to divine worship, I answered
should have no regard to the churches, or anything else, when I set the
fire. . . . This seemed to make a great impression, and he promised to
in three hours with the money. (Shelvocke, 92)
Whereas English pirates of the previous century observed the
Sabbath and sang Psalms, not so the pirates who followed Howell Davis.
William Snelgrave made their acquaintance in 1718 when they took
execrable oaths and blasphemies I heard among the ship’s company,
shocked me to
such a degree, that in Hell its self I thought there could not be
though many seafaring men are given to swearing and taking God’s name
yet I could not have imagined human nature could ever so far
degenerate, as to
talk in the manner those abandoned Wretches did. (Konstam and
Nor were some pirates inclined to treat priests as the
French corsairs of Martinique had done several decades earlier. Edward
known for his kind treatment of prisoners, especially those audacious
fight back, reserved a special punishment for two friars taken in 1722
captured the Wright Galley.
. . because at first they shewed Inclinations to defend themselves and
they had, the Pyrates cut and mangled them in a barbarous Manner;
some Portuguese Passengers, two of
which being Friers, they triced up at each Arm of the Fore-Yard, but
down again before they were quite dead, and this they repeated several
out of Sport. (Defoe, 324)
In June of that year, Philip
Ashton became another captive
of Ned Low’s. In his memoir of his time with the pirates, he frequently
the saving of his life to God’s intervention. He also noted that “every
that had the least face of Religion and Virtue was entirely banished.”
(Rediker, Between, 176)
But what of pirates in other parts
of the world?
Tavernier, a French traveler, recounted a tale involving
pirates who preyed in Indian waters. They were Muslims with
tolerance for Christians.
have seen a Barefoot Carmelite Father who had been captured by these
In order to obtain his ransom speedily, they tortured him to such an
that his right arm became half as short as the other, and it was the
one leg. (Little, Pirate, 240)
Unlike their western counterparts, Chinese pirates never
became enmeshed in religious conflicts. They did, however, pray to
dieties, called Joss, before sailing. Chang
Pao, who was Cheng
I Sao’s lover and husband after the death of his
father, had a temple constructed aboard his flagship. He and his men
before each venture and burned incense and sought signs that each would
They frequently visited temples whenever they were ashore and donated
priests who tended the temples.
The pirates frequently stopped at the Hui-chou’s temple,
made famous because its deity was noted for miracles. Legend says
pirates decided to take the idol with them, but were unable to remove
the pedestal upon which it sat. At least not until Chang Pao touched
he did, they had no problem transporting it to their junks.
Although the gods frequently indicated Chang Pao’s plans
would succeed, every once in awhile, they did not. Once, his junk
four guardhouses made out of mud. There he waited for two days. One the
the forts defending the town fired on him, but he never returned fire
the Joss indicated he would fail in
this endeavor. At another time in 1809, he lost three hundred men in an
So he consulted the Joss, which
recommended he retreat. The day after Chang Pao ceased the attack,
permitted his men to break through the blockade and sail away.
In 1858 Fanny Loviot published
an account of her capture by
and time with Chinese pirates near Hong Kong. In this book she
evening prayer ceremony.
junk . . . is furnished with an altar. On this altar they burn small
wax-lights, and offer up oblations of meat and drink. They pray every
the same hour, and begin with a hideous overture played upon gongs,
and drums covered with serpent skins.
of all, I saw a young Chinese come forward with two swords, which he
upright in the very centre of the deck. Beside these he then placed
saucers, a vase filled with liquid, and a bundle of spills, made of
paper, and intended for burning. A lighted lantern was next suspended
to one of
the masts, and the chief fell upon his knees before the shrine. After chanting for some time, he took up the
vase and rank; and next proceeded, with many gesticulations, to chink a
coins and medals together in his hands. The paper spills were then
carried round and round the swords, as if to consecrate them. These
completed, the captain rose from his knees, came down to the after-part
junk, waved the burning papers to and fro, and threw them solemnly into
sea. The gongs and drums were now played more loudly, and the chief
pray more earnestly than ever; but as soon as the last paper was
the last spark extinguished, the music ceased, the prayer came to an
the service was over. Altogether it had taken quite twenty minutes . .
After reading these examples, one soon comes to the
conclusion that not all pirates forsook their beliefs in a higher
were immoral. Others zealously championed their faiths. Still others
from a righteous path until faced with death. To depict all pirates as
men contradicts reality. It would also be inaccurate to say that
the time period religion had little to do with piracy. Before these men
women) went on the account, religion would have played an important
their daily lives. Just because they became pirates didn’t negate its
them. William Fly, who stood trial for piracy in 1726, had several
conversations with the Reverend Cotton Mather, who wished for Fly to
his sins. Mather wanted Fly to forgive the man who betrayed him and
malice against someone as being as great a sin as lying. Fly indicated
forgive would be wrong: “I won’t dy with a Lye in my mouth.” (Mather,
Emily Collins pointed out in her senior thesis on religion and piracy
eighteenth century, sometimes a pirate did believe, but perhaps not
to the tenets of a particular religion:
continued to illustrate his piety when he stated that he read The
Sinners book, about piety, before he was
brought in and convicted . . . . At the same time he stated this, Fly
holding the Bible in his hands. Even though Fly never confessed to
pirate or repented his sins before his final hour, it is quite apparent
his dialogue that he was a man who did have knowledge and respect of
additional information, please see:
Antony, Robert J.
Pirates in the Age of Sail. W. W.
Appleby, John C. Under the Bloody Flag. The
Bromley, J. S.
“Outlaws at Sea, 1660-1720: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity among the
Caribbean Freebooters” in Bandits at Sea
edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001.
Collins, Emily E.
Eyes on God and Gold: The Importance of
Religion during the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy.
University of North Carolina, 2004.
Coote, Stephen. Drake. Thomas Dunne, 2003.
Under the Black Flag. Random House,
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates.
G. Drake: For God, Queen, and Plunder.
Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. Thomas Dunne, 2003.
John. The Buccaneers of America. Rio
Grande Press, 1992.
Gosse, Philip. The Pirates’ Who’s Who. Rio Grande
Greene, Molly. Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants.
J. “Black Men under the Black Flag” in Bandits
at Sea edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001.
Konstam, Angus. Piracy: The Complete History.
Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Lyons
and David Rickman. Pirate: The Golden Age.
Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire. M. E. Sharpe,
The Buccaneer’s Realm. Potomac, 2007.
How History’s Greatest Pirates Pillaged,
Plundered, and Got Away with It. Fair Winds Press, 2011.
Pirate Hunting. Potomac, 2010.
Loviot, Fanny. A Lady’s Captivity among Chinese
National Maritime Museum, 2008.
E.P. Dutton, 1980.
Marley, David F. Pirates of the Americas.
Mather, Cotton. The Vial Poured Out Upon the Sea . .
Murray, Dian H. Pirates of the South China Coast
Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Beacon
Rogers, Woodes. A Cruising Voyage Round the World.
Narrative Press, 2004.
and Captain Michael MacLeod. The Book of
Pirates. Gibbs Smith, 2010.
If a Pirate I Must Be . . . .
George. A Privateer’s Voyage Round the
World. Seaforth, 2010.
Thomas, Graham A.
Pirate Hunter. Pen & Sword, 2009.
Weiss, Gillian. Captives and Corsairs. Stanford, 2011.
Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter. Hyperion, 2002.
© 2012 Cindy Vallar
Click on the Cannon to Contact Me