By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
There’s a basic irony to our attempts to learn the real history of pirates. The best information we have is largely about the least competent ones. This is because by far the best source of information, on at least the European pirates, comes from trial records. We have practically no verifiable information about the pirates at all outside the testimony of the witnesses and the charging elements from their trial.
Good Pirates Didn’t Stay Long
There’s not much information available, as smart pirates didn’t stay roving for very long, but instead went legitimate, either quietly, or loudly, and in turn remained either obscured or rewrote their stories. Just like the good Captain Morgan sashaying around London and accusing publishers of libel for printing The Buccaneers of America, which was basically his very unauthorized biography. Morgan insisted under oath that he held “against evil deeds, piracies and robberies, the greatest abhorrence and distrust”, despite having definitely done all of those things.
Thus, the fact remains that we mostly only have good information about the bad pirates. And to make pirate reality still more difficult to discern, men taken as pirates tended to claim that they had been forced. That being captured by another ship was to them not justice but the hopeful path to deliverance. Not infrequently they were telling the truth about this, and not infrequently they weren’t. So the courts normally took the claim seriously enough to make at least a perfunctory inquiry into such claims.
When it came to being put on trial, the pirates displayed an irreverence in the face of matters they should have taken seriously. They often felt that the deck was stacked against them and were acutely aware both of the shape of a trial and the theatrics that could attach to piratical justice. Pamphlets and news reports of trial proceedings were both common and popular by about the middle of the 17th century, and the 18th century pirate trial drew upon so many well-known tropes that it was almost a cliché in its own right.
The British judicial system during the high age of Atlantic piracies was greatly codified in its way. It would not strike a modern observer as fair or just per say. Nor, to be honest, did it strike all contemporary ones, as such. For example, the judge was not required to be neutral and could strongly support the prosecution. He could also examine witnesses directly and could give extremely partial instructions to the jury.
The most common evidence in piracy trials was the testimony of a fellow pirate who had made a bargain to save his own neck. But the reliability of such self-interested evidence was rarely questioned.
True, those accused could speak in their own defense, although oddly, they could not give sworn evidence, and even petitioned the court to call witnesses on their behalf. But there are often no defense attorneys to tell them they were allowed to do such things. There was no automatic right to counsel at all in Britain until 1836.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Admiralty Court
Trials were also usually very quick compared to modern standards. Often a matter of mere hours or less, with execution if called for following soon thereafter. The executions themselves were public displays, sometimes grim, but often brutally festive. Hanging via the short drop method, which usually does not break the neck of the condemned, could amount to a slow and painful strangulation. And, as was infamously the case with Captain Kidd, it could even be botched and need to be repeated.
Gregory Durston’s book, The Admiralty Sessions, shows that the Admiralty court, which dealt with matters of crime on the high seas, had some quirks of its own, including a symbolic silver ore that would lie before the judge’s bench and a velvet cloth embroidered with anchors.
A Jury of Peers
Trials of pirates also required a common law jury of their peers, according to the Offenses at Sea Act, levied by Parliament under Henry VIII, in 1536. Although this was less an attempt to make sure pirates had a fair day in court than to address the problem that the Admiralty courts were finding it almost impossible to convict anyone of piracy without a full and florid confession. With juries, the government reasoned, perhaps the prosecution would stand a fighting chance.
It also helped that juries could be pressured by judges in a variety of ways to arrive at the correct verdict. Even so, this was far from a sure thing, as it turned out. In both Elizabethan England and colonial North America, much to the consternation of the Board of Trade and frequently the Spanish Embassy, it could be hard to get an indictment against an accused pirate if he were properly greasing the wheels of community justice or if the community were otherwise set against the prosecutors.
More of a Spectacle
Non-English defendants could demand that their jury include a number of their own countrymen, which was a particularly relevant wrinkle for piracy cases. Although, not all accused foreign pirates requested a mixed jury. But this all applies to trials held in London. Trials in the colonies tended to be more ad hoc, using borrowed buildings and informal jails and hastily erected scaffolds. Pirates were traditionally hanged on the coast between the flood marks of high and low tide.
The proceedings of pirate trials were made public, in part because they were meant to act as deterrents. And large numbers of defendants were often tried at once, which created more interest and more of a spectacle. Stede Bonnet, in an example of the higher end of things, was taken with 35 of his crew, and they were tried in 11 little groups over the course of several days. Only 4 were acquitted. The fifth saved himself by peaching on the others.
Common Questions about What We Know about Pirate Trials
Captain Morgan accused publishers of libel for printing The Buccaneers of America, which was basically his unauthorized biography.
The judge was not required to be neutral and could strongly support the prosecution. He could also examine witnesses directly and could give extremely partial instructions to the jury.
Non-English defendants could demand that their jury include a number of their own countrymen, which was a particularly relevant wrinkle for piracy cases.