The Legend of a Lady


“She knew that this was happiness, this was living as she had always wished to live.”
 Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek

 Safe Harbour

The setting: Cornwall, England in the 16th century.

The players: Sir John and Lady Elizabeth Killigrew

The plot:  Lady Elizabeth vs. Queen Elizabeth I

The Killigrews were rich members of the English aristocracy.  In their spare time, they were pirates who used their distinctive coastal location to operate as outlaws.  From their prestigious home, Arwenack House, which overlooked Falmouth Harbour, Sir John directed fleets of pirates. Even Queen Elizabeth I kept her distance, turning a blind eye to their family business on the condition that they never bothered anyone who had her ear.

The Spanish ship, Marie of San Sebastian, was caught in a tempestuous gale one fateful day in 1581.  The crew barely managed to navigate the ship to safety in Falmouth harbour.  The Killigrews, observing the storm battered ship, rushed to their assistance.  They magnanimously offered the captain and his first mate all the comforts of their home.  Indulged by Lady Elizabeth’s hospitality, the captain decided to prolong their stay for a few days.

Meanwhile, Lady Elizabeth was assessing the ship and its contents to determine whether it was worth looting. Yes indeed, it was!  She set her plan into action.  One evening, while Sir John entertained their guests, Lady Elizabeth rounded up her staff, which doubled as her pirate crew, and led them down a secret tunnel that connected the house to the shore.  The noise of the gale force winds allowed them to take the ship and unload the cargo.  Lady Elizabeth returned home while her pirates sailed the ship out of sight.   The operation took less than two hours. The Spaniards suspected the Killigrews, but no one could prove anything.  The Queen overlooked this episode.

The Queen did not overlook the 1582 incident, however, involving the German merchant ship loaded with gold, silver, and jewels.  Lady Elizabeth could not resist the temptation.  How was she to know that the Germans had close ties to Queen Elizabeth I?  The fury of a Queen came down on Lady Elizabeth.  Alas, she was to be hanged.

There is a happy ending.  The Queen changed her mind.  The sentence was changed to imprisonment.  And before long, Lady Elizabeth was set free.  She rejoined her husband at Arwenack House. Whether they continued their pirate ways, is unknown.  One thing is certain; her legend still lives on… 

“This is our day, our moment, the sun belongs to us, and the wind, and the sea, and the men for’ard there singing on the deck. This day is forever a day to be held and cherished, because in it we shall have lived, and loved, and nothing else matters but that in this world of our own making to which we have escaped.”
Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek

All The Queen’s Men


“If England had not used the services of privateers and pirates during its long struggle with Spain, there is some likelihood that people today in North America would be speaking Spanish rather than English.” 
Robert Earl Lee, Blackbeard the Pirate

A Ship

They were called the “Sea Dogs.”

Queen Elizabeth I was surrounded by dynamic, brilliant, intrepid and creative men.  They were her privateers, independent, but used as an auxiliary navy to plunder Spanish ships. If the Spanish took exception, the Queen could deny that she had any hand in the mischief.

Sir John Hawkins, the leader of the Sea Dogs, engaged with the Spanish ships in the Caribbean. His résumé included slave-trading pioneer, treasure-hunting pirate, high-ranking naval commander, spy and war hero.  He reformed the navy and improved the pay and conditions for sailors.

Sir Francis Drake, sea captain, slaver, and politician, is usually remembered as a hero, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who awarded him with a knighthood.  He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588.  On the other side of the channel, the Spanish knew him as the ferocious pirate, El Draque – the Dragon.  Perhaps his greatest feat was to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Sir Walter Raleigh was destined to be one of the most celebrated figures in British history. A privateer, explorer, poet and favourite of the Queen, he was the first to attempt colonization in  North America.  He was unsuccessful, but his efforts opened the way for others to follow.

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth I, peace was made with Spain.  The Sea Dogs continued their piratical activities on the Barbary Coast, to the embarrassment of the English Crown.  The time of the Privateers was coming to an end.  Once the force behind British imperialism and expansion, they became, in the end, a threat to national security.  As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil.”

“And what is the sea?” asked Will. 
“The sea!” cried the miller. “Lord help us all, it is the greatest thing God made!”
Robert Louis Stevenson


Letters of Marque


“The sun shines on me just the same as on the other; and I should like to see the clause in Adam’s will that cuts me out of my share in the New World!”

Francis I of France, 1494

 The Sail

Christopher Columbus may have been the discoverer of the New World in 1492, yet his previous employment was that of a pirate under the French flag, looting Venetian galleys that sailed from Lisbon to England.  His jaunt across the Atlantic Ocean opened the window to the riches of a freshly discovered continent.  In 1519, Hernán Cortés laid claim to the gold belonging to the Aztec Empire and packed it into three ships to take back to his king, Charles V of Spain.  His grandiose gesture was foiled near the Azores when his ships were attacked by French privateers under Jean Fleury of Honfleur.  It was Jean Ango of Dieppe, Fleury’s patron, not the court of Madrid, that was the first to share in the wealth of the New World.  To Spain’s chagrin, France said that since they were at war, the seizure was legitimate. After all, the licensing of armed private vessels, also known as privateers, was an internationally recognized and accepted practice.

With a letter of marque from their government, privateers were given permission to attack the ships of any other country.  It was a profitable partnership, in a high stakes game. France, Spain and England participated with enthusiastic expectation.  In reality, the privateer system worked only for a few, and was nothing more than a state-sanctioned form of piracy.  We all know their names from our school days, but behind their titles of “sir” were men who sought fame and fortune.  In the end, privateers were only pawns in the great chess game of a global power struggle. Perhaps we should leave the last word to Sir Francis Bacon, a famous critic of the privateer system.

“Money is a great servant but a bad master.” 
 Francis Bacon

A Merry Life, But Short


“In honest service, there are commonly low wages and hard labour; in this – plenty, satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power.  Who would not balance credit on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two on choking?  No, a merry life and a short one, that’s my motto.”

Bartholomew Roberts, Welsh Pirate, 1722


John Roberts, born in 1682 in Pembrokeshire Wales, went to sea at the young age of thirteen. By 1719, the year his life changed, he was third mate on the slave ship, Princess, under Captain Abraham Plumb.  The Princess was anchored at Anomabu, along the Gold Coast of West Africa (Ghana), when she was captured by two pirate vessels, the Royal Rover and the Royal James, led by Captain Howell Davis, a fellow Welshman.  John Roberts was forced into piracy, but soon recognized the benefits of his new position. In the merchant navy, his wage was less than £3 per month.

John Roberts had several advantages.  Besides being confident, outspoken and opinionated, he was an excellent navigator and a natural leader.  He understood Welsh, which allowed Captain Davis to speak with him in confidence. As fate would have it, a captaincy would be his within six weeks of his capture, when Captain Davis was ambushed and fatally wounded during a layover on the island of Principe off the coast of West Africa.

John Roberts, duly elected as the new captain, changed his name from John to Bartholomew.  Bravery and success earned the loyalty of his crew. Unlike other pirates, he planned his attacks in detail, disliked drunkenness (preferring tea over beer) and maintained absolute discipline on his ships.

On February 5, 1722, he met destiny, swiftly, by a broadside of grape-shot on his deck, in the heat of battle with two Royal Navy ships.  Tall, dark-haired, he wore his legendary red damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather in his hat, a diamond and gold necklace and ornamented pistols and swords.  When he fell, his crew wrapped his body in a ship’s sail, weighing it down before assigning their captain to the sea.

Black Bart, as he became known years after his passing, was the most successful pirate of the 17th century taking over 470 prizes in his three-year career.  He was legendary and considered invincible. His death shocked the Royal Navy and the pirate world, marking a tipping point in history.  Many believe his passing signaled the end to the Golden Age of Piracy.

“The defeat of Roberts and the subsequent eradication of piracy off the coast of Africa represented a turning point in the slave trade and even in the larger history of capitalism.”

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

The Pirates Are Coming


“The HISPANIOLA still lay where she had anchored; but, sure enough, there was the Jolly Roger–the black flag of piracy–flying from her peak.” 
 Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island


Pirates, the very name strikes both dread and fascination deep within our hearts.  We fear them, because of their ruthless disregard for those who stood in their way of fortune and fame.  Good folk trembled when they heard their bloodcurdling shouts or saw the Jolly Roger flapping in the brisk sea wind.  And yet, we continue to view those who wore the jaunty tricorne hat, the black eye-patch and the flamboyant, tattered clothes, as a symbol of freedom.   For those of us who have not experienced the terrifying visage of a “real” pirate, we enjoy the adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and the more recent movies like Errol Flynn’s, “Captain Blood” or Johnny Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.

Pirates have been with us since ancient times.  During the Greek and Roman civilizations, the Thracians, Tyrsenians, Illyrians and Phoenicians were the known source of the dreaded pirates.  In fact, the “pirate” term comes from the Latin pirata and from the Greek piera meaning “to attempt.”  Even Julius Caesar was captured by notorious pirates who demanded a ransom of 25 gold talents.  Affronted by the low value placed on his life, Caesar insisted that the ransom should be 50 gold talents.  The pirates received the higher amount, but in the end they realized their mistake when Caesar hunted them down.

This week, I want to explore the ‘golden age’ of piracy within the comfort of a safe environment.  What are the myths and facts? Was there really buried treasure?  Why did men and, indeed, women, chose the pirate’s life?  We are on another sea adventure, so batten down the hatches!  We are heading to open waters.

“Life’s pretty good, and why wouldn’t it be?  I’m a pirate, after all.”

Johnny Depp

There Are More Stories


“A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne,

And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne.”

Canterbury Tales, General Prologue

The Hightlands

According to Suetonius, a Roman historian during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire, Nero played a type of pipe known as the Roman reedpipes, “with his mouth as well as his armpit.” In fact, some suggest that he played the pipes, rather than the fiddle, as Rome burned.  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales makes specific reference to the Miller being able to play the bagpipes. Early folk bagpipes found their way into paintings by Brueghel, Teniers, Jordaens and Durer.  The Irish had píob mhór, which means, in Gaelic, Great Irish War pipes.  Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo, wrote that  the bagpipe “is much used by the Irish: to its sound this unconquered fierce and warlike people march their armies and encourage each other to deeds of valour.” 

Bagpipes tell the story of the world.  Bulgaria has the kaba gaida, Southern Italy, the zampogna, Turkey, the tulum, Galicia the giata, Southern India, the sruti upanga, Sweden, the säckpipa; all of which bears witness that bagpipes have roots in many traditions.  It is a global instrument that continues to gain entrance into modern music. There is a greater narrative that continues to unfold.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.
Robert Burns
My Heart’s in the Highlands