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Tuesday 21 May 2024

So You Want to be a Pirate

Speaker: Chris Helme

The guest speaker at the May 2024 u3a Todmorden Members Meeting was Chris Helme, who presented 'So You Want to be a Pirate'.

He began by telling us how this particular talk came about. Chris had once thought of giving up public speaking, after cruise ship audiences didn't like talks about his local area, and his experiences – some walking out during the presentation.

His agent encouraged him to stick at it, but change his subjects. A subsequent engagement on a ship sailing for seven days in the Caribbean Sea went down well after he had created, and delivered, the talk that we heard today.

It is mainly about what Chris termed as the 'Golden Age' of piracy on the Caribbean seas between 1660 and 1730. Piracy had been taking place, for a thousand years and more with Romans, Greeks and Phoenicians taking part. We learned that Julius Caesar was captured by Cilician pirates in 75BC. The prisoner told the pirates that the ransom they had demanded was too low, and they should ask for more. Caesar survived the experience, and the pirates were subsequently captured and crucified.

The Caribbean sea has over seven thousand islands, and Chris asked the audience how many pirates they thought would be operating in the 'Golden Age'? The answer was about four thousand. Women pirates also existed at the time, but only around forty of them, and not all in the Caribbean Sea. Chris mentioned one woman, Zheng Yi Sao. She operated in the South China Sea, and was in charge of twenty thousand other pirates.

The average age of a pirate around this time was 24, and the pirates averaged two to three years of 'service'. The backgrounds of the pirates were varied – some were disenchanted sailors from the British Navy who were not well treated, escaped African slaves, American Native Indians and criminals 'on the run'.

Chris spoke about more things we associate with pirates. The black eye patch, which we see in films, particularly older ones, doesn't always mean that the wearer has lost his eye. The crew members spent much of their time on deck and in bright sunlight – below deck was a very dark, almost black, area. The patch might well have been to protect at least one of their eyes. Pirates are often depicted wearing gold earrings. These could have been to sell, if the wearer died, to pay for their funeral. Chris said that there are pirate graves to be seen on the south coast of England, and showed a slide of one nearer home, at Whitby.

Films about pirates began early in the twentieth century, but Errol Flynn's accent in productions such as 'Sea Hawk' was a mixture of Irish and American. Other pirate films were made, and the same accent was used in them until 1950, when Robert Newton played Long John Silver in Walt Disney's 'Treasure Island'. The actor used his own Cornish accent which replaced Errol Flynn's for many films that followed.

'Privateers' is another term we might have heard in relation to pirates. These were ships, and crews, that were authorised by Britain to attack any ship on the high seas – as long as they weren't British ones. Part of anything stolen would be payable to the British Government, and the Privateer status would be withdrawn if privateers attacked British ships.

Captain William Kidd, a Scottish privateer, is one of the very few pirates that buried their treasure. It was buried on Gardiners Island, near to Long Island, New York. Lion Gardiner, the islands' owner, subsequently dug the treasure up as Captain Kidd didn't come back for it; Kidd was hanged in 1701.

Piracy was almost worldwide around this time – there were Barbary Pirates, from the coast of North Africa, raiding villages and taking slaves to sell in Turkey and North Africa – around one and a quarter million people. They were active until into the nineteenth century, and took the whole population of Baltimore, Ireland as slaves in 1631.

Chris told us that the most successful pirate in terms of money etc, known as 'booty' was Captain John Bowen. His booty was valued at £170,000 in his career – the equivalent today is forty million US dollars. He was one of the pirates featured on chewing gum cards known as 'Sea Raiders' on sale in the nineteen thirties.

Pirates also captured whole ships, Captain Bartholomew Roberts, known as 'Black Bart', took the most - four hundred and seventy.

A more familiar name to us, Blackbeard, regarded as one of the most ruthless and fierce pirates, actually killed only one person himself.

Captain Henry Morgan was a privateer and a slave holder, but this is not mentioned on the labels of whisky bottles, which bear his name.

Some of what we thought we knew about pirates was covered by our speaker. 'Walking the plank' is an invention and never took place. Pirates followed some rules when aboard ship, examples being: no playing cards for money, lights out at 8pm, and no fighting with each other. The punishment for killing shipmates was to be tied to the deceased and thrown into the sea. Deserting the ship was punishable by death or marooning.

Keelhauling was last recorded as being used by Dutch seamen in 1853, when miscreants were punished by being tied to a rope looped beneath the ship before being thrown overboard, and dragged underneath it.
Davy Jones' Locker, the term used when a ship sinks with the crew aboard, is possibly connected with the story of Jonah and the 'sea monster', or the whale.

'Pieces of Eight', sometimes heard from a parrot on a pirate's shoulder - in films at least, was two centuries old in the 'Golden Age'.

Christopher Columbus had discovered silver on Caribbean Islands around 1492. Coins, called Pesos, made from silver were very valuable, so they were cut up into pieces – eight from each coin - so small items could be bought and sold. The pieces were known as 'bits' and are still part of the value of US dollars today.

The most well-know female pirates are Anne Bonney and Mary Read. These women dressed as men and were together on-board ship. They were said to be as fierce as the rest of the crew – but when captured both said they were pregnant.

Chris reminded us that piracy still exists on the seas today, Somali pirates for instance. But why did the 'Golden Age' end? Peace between warring countries came about around 1730 to 1740, and the new allies joined together to resist, and eventually overcome the pirates, some of whom we learned much more about in his highly entertaining presentation.

The next Todmorden U3A Monthly Members Meeting will be on Thursday 20th June at 2pm, Todmorden. The speaker for this meeting is Sheila Antrobus, who will present "The Victorian Era and its Legacy of Antiques"

Not yet a member? We're always delighted to welcome new members. Contact details: website at or email at

Many thanks to Colin Sanson for this report


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