If life at sea wasn’t all luxury and ease, neither was it all tedious and full of suffering. True that drinking and gambling were problems, but there were also more creative amusements. Music, dancing, theatricals, boxing, cudgel play, storytelling, and other pastimes were encouraged by some commanders.
We can find stories of pirates finding means beyond song to indulge their need for creative expression. A number of anecdotes in the General History of the Pyrates show them indulging in theatrical performance, the accounts of both Bart Roberts and Thomas Anstis, who served under Roberts before captaining his own pirate crew include mock trials for example.
Anstis’ men “passed their time here in dancing and other diversions agreeable to these sorts of folks. And among the rest, they appointed a mock court of judicature to try one another for piracy. And he that was a criminal one day was made judge another.”
In Robert’s chapter, a drunken trial is held for several men who had tried to desert the pirate company. All are sentenced to be shot for real except for Harry Glasby the master.
According to Johnson, in a memorably disreputable anecdote, a pirate named Valentine Ashplant stood up and taking his pipe out of his mouth said he had something to offer to the court on behalf of one of the prisoners and spoke to this effect: “Goddamn you, gentlemen, I am as good a man as the best of you. Damn my soul if ever I turn my back to any man in my life forever will by God; Glasby is an honest fellow, notwithstanding this misfortune and I love him. Devil! damn me! if I don’t, I hope he will live and repent of what he has done. But damn me! If he must die, I will die along with him.”
And thereupon he pulled out a pair of pistols and presented them to some of the learned judges upon the bench, who, perceiving his arguments so well supported, thought it reasonable that Glasby should be acquitted. And so they all came over to his opinion and allowed it to be law.
Curiously, when the oddly popular reluctant pirate Glasby was arrested with the other pirates after Robert’s death, his erstwhile shipmates testified in his favor. He was acquitted a second time in a more regular court of law.
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Johnson also includes stories of pirates putting on real theatricals instead of merely playacting a lawful ritual. There’s an apocryphal but influential story that among Sam Bellamy’s crew was a former actor turned pirate who composed and staged a play entitled the Royal Pyrate about Alexander the Great.
Unfortunately, a drunken gunner becomes convinced that the play is real, and in the climactic scene where the pirate is interrogated by Alexander, the gunner nearly blows up the ship, Alexander loses an arm in the scuffle, and the captain forbids an encore.
This account appears in the second and less reliable volume of the General History, and it can’t be taken too seriously. But the larger point is that as soldiers, and sailors, both frequently put on amateur theatricals to amuse themselves, there’s no reason to believe pirates wouldn’t have done the same, or that they might not have aspired to acts of authorship, as well as of piracy.
Indeed, Raleigh and Dampier were both celebrated for their writing as well as for their roving. The Elizabeth and Welsh pirate David Gwyn has the unusual distinction of being a rover who was also a published poet, albeit not a very popular one.
Gwyn had long been a prisoner forced to serve in the Spanish galleys. When he escaped, he celebrated in part, through patriotic verse dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. It includes a laudatory verse about Francis Drake, that begins, “O Noble Knight, O worthie wight/ O prince of navigation/ in martiall affaires is thy delight /for countries preservation.”
Lording Barry, Gwyn’s approximate contemporary, was both the pirate and a playwright. He was an investor in and was writing for a boys’ theatre, in London called the Children of the King’s Rebels. His city comedy Ram Alley or Merrie Trickes, was lightly, but repeatedly plagiarized by Ben Jonson.
When plague repeatedly forced the closing of the London Theatres, Barry’s debts came due, and unable to pay them, he turned pirate. And seems to have been more or less successful at it, at one point sailing with Raleigh.
He eventually had enough interest to command his own ship, and was known in at least one record as “Captaine Barrowe… who was a player in England”. So, if pirates sometimes kidnap musicians, to force them to go roving unwillingly, some other types of starving artists, apparently took up the life of their own volition entirely.
Common Questions about Pirate Theatre
A number of anecdotes in the General History show pirates indulging in theatrical performance. For example, the accounts of both Bart Roberts and Thomas Anstis, who served under Roberts before captaining his own pirate crew include mock trials.
Raleigh and Dampier were both celebrated for their writing skills. The Elizabeth and Welsh pirate David Gwyn has the unusual distinction of being a rover who was also a published poet. Lording Barry was both a pirate and a playwright.
The pirates sometimes conducted mock trials. For example, in Bart Roberts’s chapter, a drunken trial is held for several men who had tried to desert the pirate company. All are sentenced to be shot for real except for Harry Glasby the master.