Dead Men Tell No Tales, But Pirate Historian and Author Captain Byrd Tells Plenty
Anyone can find themselves down on their luck in a societal slump. But it takes a special brand of misfortune to find yourself failing at something during that something’s “golden age.”
Any superhuman with a decent cape was likely to land a comic strip from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. A film producer with one household name on the marquee could feel confident of filling cinema seats in 1940. And in the decade from 1985 to 1995, “lyrical poets” with varying degrees of street cred were popping up all over MTV rap videos.
It seems, however, that even an era of abundance cannot insulate those inherently ill-equipped for a particular vocation. (Anyone remember Shaquille O’Neal’s rap album from 1993? Neither did we.)
In his presentation during last Wednesday’s Daniel Island Community Speakers Series event, U.S. Coast Guard licensed boat captain and author/historian Christopher Byrd Downey told an intertwined tale of Charleston’s two “Unluckiest Pirates.” And both subjects earned that regrettable distinction during what became regarded as the Golden Age of Piracy.
Captain Byrd, as he is known from the pirate-themed boat tours he runs out of Shem Creek, received his B.A. in History from Virginia Tech and has worked in the maritime industry – including his current “day job” with Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) - since the turn of the century. But it was his hobbyist examination of pirates in the early 1700s that led him to pen two books and step up to speaker podiums across the Lowcountry, including the one at the Daniel Island Club on April 13.
Downey told the audience that the Golden Age of Piracy is generally considered to have taken place from 1700 to 1725. But the story of Charleston’s most ultimately downtrodden pirates happened within the span of one year: 1718. And Downey related it comfortably, and colorfully.
As “runner-up” for unluckiest pirate, Richard Worley began his career by stealing a glorified canoe and shoving off from the New York coast. With a meager crew and supply stock, Worley managed to board and capture a sloop near Charleston. “Pirates are very unoriginal,” explained Downey, “and they always use ‘revenge’ in the names of their ships.” True to form, Worley named the sloop “New York’s Revenge.” Further bound by the stereotype, he would name the second ship he takes “New York Revenge’s Revenge.”
Meanwhile, famed pirate Christopher Moody is looming just off the South Carolina coast, and commerce is frozen for fear of pirate ambush beyond the harbor. Under the governance of the Lords Proprietors, Charleston is without war ships, so Governor Robert Johnson assembles a fleet of merchant ships outfitted with cannons to lead a preemptive attack on Moody.
As two pirate ships near Charleston, it is clear that they have mistaken Johnson’s four vessels as unarmed merchant ships, and the governor’s “wolf in sheep’s clothing” fleet fires its cannons at the buccaneers. For four hours the ships battle near Sullivan’s Island, and it’s not until the New York’s Revenge and the New York Revenge’s Revenge surrender that Johnson learns he is taking Richard Worley, not Christopher Moody, into captivity. Worley and his surviving crew are tried expeditiously in Charleston, and hanged in White Point Gardens.
(Downey offers an interesting footnote to the story: The Revenge’s Revenge was sluggish and relatively easy to capture because of the weight of the “loot” the pirates had inherited when they captured the sloop. It was not bars of gold or other treasure, but rather scores of women that were being brought to the colonies to be sold as wives. These were strange times indeed.)
It was a victory for Charleston, as she had been plagued by piracy in the months prior to the encounter with Worley. In June of 1718, Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge had rolled into the harbor with its three sister ships. The QAR alone boasted 40 cannons, and the entire fleet had a combined crew of over 500 pirates. Blackbeard sent a ransom note to Charleston, with the principle demand of medicine (specifically, mercury, which was used to treat “social diseases” – Blackbeard was apparently somewhat of a ladies man…) in exchange for a moratorium on the plundering of every vessel in the harbor. Charleston was essentially held hostage for a week, and the city was irked.
Meanwhile, number one on Downey’s list of Charleston’s Unluckiest Pirates is also onboard the QAR. The “gentleman pirate,” Stede Bonnet, also happens to be Downey’s favorite pirate and the subject of his first book. “He is, to me, like a crazy uncle,” the historian relates. “I’ve done so much research on him that he seems like a relative.”
Stede Bonnet, a “filthy rich” sugar cane trader from Barbados, decided during what might be considered a mid-life crisis to become a pirate. Downey describes his three-century-old friend as a “nerd,” with an extensive library featuring many volumes about pirates. His book smarts, however, did not necessarily translate to swashbuckling seaworthiness; he had no boating experience and was prone to getting seasick. But he did have the money to hire a salaried crew and commission a boatyard to build him a ship (which he names, simply, “Revenge”).
In fairly short order, Bonnet’s ship encounters a series of unfortunate attacks. His ship is torn up, and his crew deserts him. It is at this low point that he experiences what he considers a stroke of good luck: he meets Blackbeard in Nassau. With an opportunity to add another vessel to his fleet, Blackbeard offers to team up with Bonnet, and together they capture another ship off the coast of Martinique, which would become the QAR.
Following their successful siege of pharmaceutical booty in Charleston, Blackbeard and Bonnet head up the coast. Off the shore of North Carolina, Blackbeard informs Bonnet of his intentions to retire, and pledges his fleet and all its bounty to Bonnet once he is awarded a pardon from the state’s governor. As they reach the coast, however, the QAR runs aground; Downey says it is unclear whether or not this was part of a swindle, but when Bonnet returns to the ship after obtaining his pardon, Blackbeard has moved everything to a smaller ship and sailed away without his Barbadian buddy.
And things are about to go from bad to worse for Bonnet. Charleston is still “bitter” about being pillaged by the likes of Blackbeard and Bonnet. When speaker of the South Carolina Assembly Colonel William Rhett learned that there was a pirate ship in North Carolina, he led two ships up to the Cape Fear River to face off with the nemesis. In a scene that – as Downey narrates it - would surely appear comical today, both the pirate ships and Rhett’s fleet run aground, and must wait for the tide to change before their cannons can shoot straight. After five hours of shouting, Rhett’s crew is able to fire upon the pirates, and takes Bonnet and the ragtag crew of replacement pirates he’d picked up along the way.
Bonnet is brought back to Charleston, and while his crew is tossed in the dungeon at what is today the Old Exchange Building, the pirate “captain” is taken to the sheriff’s home. Dressed in stolen women’s clothing, Bonnet makes a brief escape one evening, and hunkers down on Sullivan’s Island, certain that he will be rescued by a fellow pirate lurking near Charleston: Christopher Moody. Of course, this never happens, and Bonnet suffers the same fate in White Point Gardens as his pirate peer, and superlative second, Richard Worley.
It is clear that Downey has conceded – and committed – to this affinity for Stede Bonnet and the history of piracy in Charleston. In fact, he recently got married in the Old Exchange Building, and guests of the wedding reception were treated to tours of the downstairs dungeon. “I wore cufflinks that were Stede Bonnets flag,” shares Downey, “so Stede was there in spirit.” Though he has done, and continues to do, his homework on the pirate lifestyle and characters, he is not afraid to poke a little fun at his subject matter. The humor he injects into his presentations underscores the reckless lunacy of the Golden Age pirates – both those that fulfilled a dark destiny, and those that proved destined for disaster.
The Daniel Island Community Speakers Series is a collaborative effort of the Rotary Club of Daniel Island, the Daniel Island Business Association, the Daniel Island Community Association, and the Daniel Island Club. The next event in the series will take place on September 14, when speakers Brad and Jennifer Moranz will share how they’ve brought Broadway to Charleston.
Why Does Piracy Happen Today?
As a vessel planning manager for MSC, Downey knows a thing or two about modern day piracy as well. And he says the root cause of the outbreak of pirate attacks, particularly around such places as the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea, and the straits of Malacca and Singapore, is the price of fuel. Container ships, which spend around 60% of their budget on fuel, are often advised to travel at low speeds and take the most direct route to slow its burn. But this can put them dangerously close to pirate-laden shorelines and increase their vulnerability to boarding from even the simplest vessels. Over time, shipping companies have concluded the fuel savings are not worth the risk, and today advise ship captains to widen their arc around hotspots, such as Somalia, to 600 miles. There has not been a successful pirate attack in that area in three years. But Downey reports that there could be more trouble on the horizon: “The fear today is that pirates and terrorists could join forces.”