By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
A majority of the accounts of pirate attacks are pieced together from trial testimony and newspaper stories, and then some less reliable sources like ballads and popular histories. Even the eyewitness versions often add their own spin. Still, enough verifiable details can be gleaned from all of these sources to give some solid ideas about pirate behavior. To understand all of it, let’s take a look at some sailing terms and tactics as well as consider the attack on the Prosperous.
Weather Gauge and Lee Gage
A basic principle of fighting in the age of sail, at least according to English naval traditions, is that one has to have what is known as the ‘weather gauge’—that is, one wants to position themselves so that the wind, and where applicable, the current, and the shore are all helping you. Ships can’t sail directly into the wind, but they sail very well with the wind behind them.
A ship that’s already downwind of another vessel, which is known as having the ‘lee gage’, has fewer options because it has to tack, or zigzag into the wind, in order to engage unless it plans to run for it.
And note here that most of the time a pirate has no desire at all to sink its prey, at least not at first, it wants to do something more along the lines of cross in front of it, fire off a quick, crippling broadside, and then close and board in the confusion. And it’s far easier to board from the windward than from the lee side. So this is another reason the weather gauge is advisable. Speed and supplies are enormously helpful in such cases, as is in numerically superior crew.
The Attack on the Prosperous
The British National Archives holds a letter written in 1720 by a merchant named David Aubin who traveled from Barbados to London, describing both a pirate attack and its aftermath. Aubin’s ship, the Prosperous, was at anchor near Dominica, which is an island in the Lesser Antilles, when a large sloops approached flying French colors, the ship first past casually by to windward, that is up wind, and then suddenly tacked and headed down one for the Prosperous.
Aubin’s ship was in a really bad position because it was anchored. It seems clear, in retrospect, that the aggressor ship had been positioning itself for an attack run. Auben fired at her twice, but she ignored the warning, closed the distance and then, as he wrote, “Fired her chace Gun loaded with Great Shot of Partridge and cryed Vive Le Roy then fired a volley of great guns and small arms into us.”
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The attacking slope was the Unique, which carried six great guns, which are large mounted cannons, plus 20 lighter swivel guns. Aubin returned fire once, but there was no time to reload. The slope boarded him, he reported, “with her Bowsprit over our Stern”—that is, with the front of her ship extended over the rear of the Prosperous—“and Entered upwards of 50 of their Men.”
Aubin’s crew was only eight plus himself, so they barricaded themselves under the quarterdeck, and he related, “There we defended ourselves for near two hours, but my quarterdeck being at last, cut to pieces in many places, and the Granados and powder flashes being thrown down amongst us, my people cried for quarters.” That is, his men surrendered before he did.
Still, the pirates were furious, 13 of their own number had fallen in the assault and many more were wounded, when the doors were opened, they rushed in and said Aubin, “Fell a cutting me and my people in a most barbarous manner and I should have had no quarters, if one of the privateers men which did know me had not rescued me from the hands of those villains.”
The Issue with the Narration
This all sounds terribly traumatic. But interestingly, Aubin’s purpose in writing to his brother and sister-in-law was that he was hoping they could help drum up some political pressure to redress his wrongs.
Aubin was careful to note in his letter that the pirate ship flew French colors the entire time of the battle. After his ship’s surrender, Aubin and his remaining crew were transported to Martinique, where he headed straight to the governor to complain of what had happened.
A French privateer had no obvious right in 1720 to be meddling with an English merchant, but the governor and intendant insisted that the Unique held a Spanish commission, which they suspiciously refused to show to Aubin, instead allowing the avowed privateer captain to sell off Aubin’s ship and wears.
Surprise: A Pirate Tactic
There is clearly slippery boundaries between a privateer and pirate, and how the connivance of local Caribbean colonial governments are keeping those distinctions blurry. One can see how the pirates used tactics of surprise, and superior numbers to try to overwhelm the merchants.
If Aubin is to be believed, most of his men, minus a handful who seemed to have been in league with the pirates, resisted bravely, but they were doomed to fail. Pirates are unlikely to select prey that will obviously be too difficult to subdue. The merchants were treated with brutality, but also not without mercy, quarter was mostly given when called for, and the captain was protected by a stranger among the pirates. So far, this pretty well tracks, as more evidence of precisely what we’d expect in Golden Age Caribbean piracy.
Common Questions about the Fusion of Fact and Fiction in Pirate Attacks
A basic principle of fighting in the age of sail is that one has to have what is known as the ‘weather gauge‘—that is, one wants to position themselves so that the wind, and where applicable, the current and the shore are all helping you. Ships can’t sail directly into the wind, but they sail very well with the wind behind them.
David Aubin was a merchant aboard a ship from Barbados to London. The ship was attacked by pirates.
British merchant David Aubin’s ship, Prosperous, was attacked by pirates in 1720. The attacking slope was the Unique.