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The Golden Age of Piracy

The Truth Behind Pirate Myths

In Print Now!
Hardcover & E-Book, October 2016. Trade Paper edition pushed back to February 2021.
Order Here or Buy at a Bookstore!

The truth behind the great pirate myths and legends of the Golden Age (1655-1725).

From the Publisher

For thousands of years, pirates have terrorized the ocean voyager and the coastal inhabitant, plundered ship and shore, and wrought havoc on the lives and livelihoods of rich and poor alike. Around these desperate men has grown a body of myths and legends—fascinating tales that today strongly influence our notions of pirates and piracy. Most of these myths derive from the pirates of the “Golden Age,” from roughly 1655 to 1725. This was the age of the Spanish Main, of Henry Morgan and Blackbeard, of Bartholomew Sharp and Bartholomew Roberts.

The history of pirate myth is rich in action, at sea and ashore. However, the truth is far more interesting. In The Golden Age of Piracy, expert pirate historian Benerson Little debunks more than a dozen pirate myths that derive from this era—from the flying of the Jolly Roger to the burying of treasure, from walking the plank to the staging of epic sea battles—and shows that the truth is far more fascinating and disturbing than the romanticized legends.

Among Little’s revelations are that pirates of the Golden Age never made their captives walk the plank and that they, instead, were subject to horrendous torture, such as being burned or hung by their arms. Likewise, epic sea battles involving pirates were fairly rare because most prey surrendered immediately.

The stories are real and are drawn heavily from primary sources. Complementing them are colorful images of flags, ships, and buccaneers based on eyewitness accounts.


"Little (Fortune’s Whelp), a former Navy SEAL, takes the wind out of many a pirate’s sail in this charming examination of the many myths surrounding the seafaring rogues... Little has a deep affection for his subject that occasionally leads him to affectation, but his use of piratical jargon is more charming than jarring; clearly he’s having a good time, and so will readers. Packed with insight and adventure, Little’s book is sure to strike a note with armchair swashbucklers of all ages."

Publisher's Weekly, September 11, 2017

"While a few other volumes discuss pirate myths, The Golden Age of Piracy goes far beyond these. Little sifts through the popular mythology and purposeful ideological speculation to introduce readers to the real pirates without turning a blind eye to their cruelty and crimes. That he does so in language that any reader will understand makes this a valuable resource and worthwhile addition to any pirate aficionado’s or historian’s library.".

Updates, Supplementary Material, & Corrections

"Das Schiff der Kirche" by Jacob Gerritsz, circa 1640 to 1649. Copyright DHM/Museum Catharijneconvent Utrecht.

An Early Skull & Crossbones Depicted at Sea.

Invariably as one of my books is published, my continued research uncovers relevant information ranging from corrections to supplementary material. In the past I have posted this information in a pdf file, often quite lengthy, but for this book I intend to post on the page itself, sometimes with full information, sometimes linking to my blog.

And for my first supplement, a painting by Jacob Gerritsz, mid-seventeenth century, of an allegorical ship representing the Holy Roman Catholic Church. The painting is intended as anti-Calvinist propaganda demonstrating that Calvinists and other "Reformers," including Calvin himself firing a musket at the ship, cannot harm the church. One of the banners the ship flies is a skull and crossbones, the earliest I've seen to date. The flag is merely a symbol here, representing death, but could the painter have been aware of the flag flying for real somewhere?

Probably not, for why would the Church depict a ship representing the Church flying a pirate banner? This is hardly the message the Vatican would like to present as an argument against Calvinism. More likely would be Calvinism, in the Roman Catholic Church's eye, flying the flag of piracy.

The same flag is similarly used in an allegorical poem of the early 18th century, prior to the American pirates who flew the skull and bones, to represent the banner of Charon, ferry-master of the Styx in Hades.

Detail from "Das Schiff der Kirche" by Jacob Gerritsz.

The death's head in the painting has a frightening three dimensional aspect, which would take a talented pirate to replicate with paint and brush. Most, we imagine--and we can only imagine, having no existing pirate flags from the Golden Age from 1655 to 1725, only written descriptions--would be simple fabric cutouts or simple painted images. However, in the book I do discuss the flag of Jean Thomas Dulaien who sailed shortly after the period, for which we have a written description, as well as images of a purported drawing and of a purported woodblock made from the drawing. All are similar but none exactly matches the other. The original flag was reportedly destroyed on the order of Louis XIV.

A few additional details on Dulaien's flag can be found in the column to the left. A few more details on the subject in general can be gleaned from my blog.

Detail from "Kapitein Lambert Hendrikszoon laat 125 zeerovers ophangen aan de ra's van zijn schepen of in zee gooien voor de haven van Algiers, ca. 1619, Jan Luyken, 1682 - 1684."(Rijksmuseum.)

Walking the Plank.

I've devoted an entire chapter to this myth of Golden Age pirates. The associated image is a detail of a Dutch flotilla commanded by Captain Lambert Hendrikszoon negotiating a peace treaty with Algiers, notorious for its "Barbary corsairs." Note that a corsair was a privateer, not a pirate, although often the Barbary corsairs were referred to as pirates--after all, they were not "Christian." Even so, they were lawfully commissioned and were pirates only if they went to sea without a commission to hunt prey. A major part of Barbary corsair plunder consisted of prisoners taken as slaves. This was a naturally objectionable, heinous, barbaric (note the origin of the word) practice. Yet Europeans--Christians--often hypocritically failed to note the irony that Barbary corsairs were enslaving people who themselves engaged in the slave trade of Africans, Native Americans, mixed races, and sometimes even of Asians.

In the image, Algerine prisoners are being murdered in reprisal, in this case (above them others hang from the yardarm) via "walking the plank"--yet clearly no plank was necessary. A few more details here.

Detail from "Carte particulière de la rivière de la Plata" by Paul Cornuau, probably 1684. (French National Library.)

Buccaneer Cutlasses

New blog on buccaneer cutlasses, providing additional information to chapter 8: Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know. The eyewitness image shows a French buccaneer with two Spanish prisoners.

Howard Pyle, How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas, Harper's Weekly, December 18, 1899.

Of Buccaneer Christmas, Dog as Dinner, and Cigar Smoking Women

A short piece based on an image I posted over the holidays, covering the one buccaneer Christmas we know of in fair detail, whether dog was served or not, how Christmas pig might have been seasoned, and whether buccaneer women might have smoked cigars.

As is often--perhaps always--the case, there is overlap--sometimes great, sometimes small, between pirate reality and pirate fantasy.

The discussion can be found here.

Keelhauling, In Living Color

Keelhauling is subject to the same myths and exaggerations as many of those associated with piracy: in reality it was a maritime, not a piratical, practice, and was fairly narrow in scope, limited to primarily to the Dutch and later added to the French. The original Dutch practice, as described in "A Relation of Two Several Voyages Made into the East-Indies" by Christopher Frick and Christopher Schewitzer, 1700:

"He that strikes an Officer, or Master of the Ship, is without hopes of pardon to be thrown into the Sea fasten'd by a Rope, with which he is thrown in on one side of the Ship, and drawn up again on the other, and so three times together he is drawn round the Keel of the Ship, in the doing of which, if they should chance not to allow Rope enough to let him sink below the Keel, the Malefactor might have his brains knockt out. This Punishment is called Keel-halen, which may be call'd in English "Keel-drawing." But the Provost hath this Priviledge more than the other, that if any one strikes him on Shoar, he forfeits his hand, if on Board, then he is certainly Keel-draw'd."

Click on the image to read the entire blog post.