Wednesday 11 October 2023

Pirates! by Susan Brownrigg

My book Kintana and the Captain's Curse is inspired by the 'Golden Age of Piracy' between the 1650s and the 1730s. Many people associate pirates with the Caribbean because of the famous theme park ride and film series - but did you know they also inhabited a small island off the coast of Madagascar!

Ile Sainte Marie - or Nosy Boraha in Malagasy - was home to 1500 pirates at the height of the golden age, and some may even have been buried on the island as the cemetery features headstones engraved with skulls and crossbones!

Pirate cemetery, Ile Sainte Marie, Madagascar

Pirates who stayed on the island include David Williams, Thomas White, John Every, Thomas Tew and best known William Kidd - who inspired the plot of my book.

William Kidd

William Kidd was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1655. He was employed as a pirate hunter but apparently wasn't very good at finding pirates so his crew grew mutinous and forced him to turn pirate! 
Kidd and his crew captured a ship called Quedah Merchant along with her cargo of silks, opium, iron and saltpeter (a vital ingredient in gunpowder) and renamed her The Adventure.

Unfortunately they soon learned that the ship was rotten and leaky so they stripped her of anything valuable then deliberately scuttled (sunk) her off the coast of Madagascar.

Later, Kidd asked the English authorities for a pardon, blaming his crew for his actions. This was granted and he sailed to Boston, America but on arrival he was arrested! Kidd was taken back to England to face trial. The evidence was heard really quickly and he was found guilty of several counts of piracy and of murdering one of his crew.
He was sentenced to hang. On the day of his execution the rope snapped on the first attempt - but the second try was successful. Kidd's body was placed in a gibbet and was placed at the entrance to the River Thames as a warning to others not to turn pirate.

Treasure hunters and divers continue to search around Ile Saint Marie for the wreck of Kidd's ship and any of his booty!

Captain Kidd with his buried treasure
from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates

The second pirate who inspired by book is Blackbeard! Originally from Bristol, Blackbeard's real name is traditionally reported to be Edward Teach although some researchers think it may actually have been Edward Thatch!

His nickname came from his long black beard, which may have reached down to his waist! He used to tie tapers into his beard and hair and light them so smoke would billow around his head during attacks on other ships - making him look terrifying!

In 1718 Blackbeard had accrued a flotilla of ships and he used them to blockade the harbour near Charlestown and during one week he attacked nine ships as they left, and plundered them.

The local governor sent Lieutenant Maynard to capture Blackbeard. Maynard told his men to hide below deck, so when Blackbeard and his crew came on board they ambushed them.
In a man-to-man battle with Maynard, Blackbeard received five gunshots and 25 stab wounds, before he died from his injuries.

After his death, his head was chopped off and hung from his ship as a warning to others not to become pirates. A story began to spread that his headless body had been swimming around his ship looking for his head!

This woodcut from 1725 featured in Charles Johnson's book A General History of the Pyrates features the famous Jolly Roger flag and shows a skull and crossbones.
Charles Johnson's book included lots of stories that may or may not have been true, but which had a big influence on how people think of pirates ever since. It particularly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island and J M Barrie to write Peter Pan - two very successful pirate books for children.

Individual pirates designed their own flag. Blackbeard was said to use this flag featuring a horned skeleton - perhaps representing the devil - spearing a heart. In his hand is an hour glass. The message seems to be something like Your time is up! You're going to die!

Among the crew named as working for Blackbeard was a pirate called Israel Hands. Israel features in Treasure Island and is thought to be based on a real person.

Israel Hands depicted by Howard Pyle

He is the third pirate who inspired my book. It is said that Blackbeard shot Israel Hands in the knee and when asked why, the captain said "if he did not now and then kill one of them they would forget who he was!"
An injury like that, may well have led to an amputation. Israel was said to have later become a beggar in London - though in my book I have given him a reprieve and he is running a pet shop on Ile Sainte Marie with his daughter Kintana.

WRITING CHALLENGE: A lot of pirate stories feature a hunt for buried treasure - with clues on a map. Can you design your own map? What features will you include? A harbour, a fortress, secret caves? Don't forget to mark a big X where your treasure is located. You can use your map to plot out your own treasure hunt adventure!

Susan Brownrigg is the author of Kintana and the Captain's Curse, and the Gracie Fairshaw mystery series. (Uclan Publishing)

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