Long before the blockbuster movies starring Johnny Depp came out, tales of pirates in the Caribbean, the Seychelles and elsewhere in the world had captured people’s hearts and imagination. The rough and hardened souls living the high life on the high seas and pilfering all around them represent something of the ultimate bad boy, a swashbuckling adventurer never afraid to venture into unknown territory and bag another load of treasure – all in the name of notoriety and excitement.
Stories of pirates’ adventures stretching back hundreds of years ago continue to spellbind people of all ages, but how much of what we read about and see is true, and how much is purely a work of fiction? Is it true, for instance, that pirates made people, “walk the plank”, to their death? Are there still vast amounts of treasure buried in coves in and around the islands of the Seychelles? Was it all as fantastical and richly rewarding as we’re led to believe (by Hollywood, at any rate)?
Certainly it’s true to say that over the course of several hundred years, various accounts of pirates’ goings-on have been embellished and romanticised as they were passed from mouth to mouth and generation to generation, This is how these heady and colourful tales have survived until today (we all know how tales lose a little and gain a lot as they’re transmitted this way). But when are we talking about? When was, exactly, the golden era of piracy in the gorgeously tropical white sand and aquamarine seas of the Seychelles?
Let’s cast our minds back if we can, to around the mid-1600s. Historical accounts tell us it was all a bit wild back then on the roaring seas, something of a sailing free-for-all when anything could happen and there was little, if any, order. That allowed piracy to flourish and attracted growing numbers of men to leave behind their dull lives and take up one of adventure and possibly filled with great riches.
Ask yourself what a pirate sounds like and the stereotype will pop up in your head quicker than you can say, “Arrr matey!” (or even the surprised expression, “Shiver me timbers!” – the visual: opulently, if raggedly, attired, possibly a talkative parrot on one shoulder, maybe a wooden leg, and an eye patch). The universal pirate accent is largely a myth but one that stemmed from some pirates originating in rural parts of England. One of the main reasons these stereotypes remain today is down to Robert Louis Stevenson collecting them all together for his famous book, Treasure Island, which first appeared in 1883.
So who were the most famous pirates of them all, and what do we know about them? Arguably one of the best known, and most ferocious, was Englishman Edward Teach (or Thatch). You will almost certainly not have heard of that name – but chances are you’ll definitely have heard of his nickname, that of Blackbeard. This is one scoundrel you wouldn’t wish to board your ship if you happened to be sailing the seas when he was around because you almost certainly wouldn’t have lived to tell the whole sorry tale.
What was it that made Blackbeard – who, incidentally, sported a black and bushy beard that engravings and illustrations show ended in what look like rats’ tails – so feared? Well, he was brutal in battle, carrying two long swords as well as a number of pistols and knives – everything he needed to kill as many people as possible. And kill he did, as commander of four ships and an army of 300 that seized more than 40 vessels and their treasure. It didn’t, however, end well for Blackbeard; he was beheaded during a ferocious battle with soldiers, at just 38 years of age.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that piracy began to die out in the Seychelles and elsewhere, due largely to the fleets of Western powers that took on the pirate ships causing all the mayhem – plundering ships, mass killings – in the region. But what of two of the most associated elements of old-world piracy, buried treasure and walking the plank – is there any truth to them, or are they just other myths?
Taking the plunge
It seems – from historical records, at least – that the “pirate favourite”, of making their captives walk the plank to an early and watery grave (unless they managed to swim ashore, but then their hands were usually bound) is mostly a work fiction from a number of (board) writers. That’s not to say it didn’t happen – but why all the drawn-out theatre when you could just dispatch your prisoner with a single slice of a sword?
Pirates, it seems, had a macabre sense of humour, and they appeared to be entertained by others’ distress. Hence the long, shuffling walk along the plank before plunging down to the depths – and death. Instances of this form of execution were rare, however, and it’s likely writers (and moviemakers) seized on it as a device to infuse their pirate stories with even more drama, murder and mayhem.
The legions of bold and daring pirates had to find shelter from the many wishing to do them harm, or eliminate them, and they found it in the Seychelles, in what became known as Pirate’s Cove. There, they were able to relax, treat their battle injuries and get ready for their next big adventure. It’s also where, according to lore, some pirates buried their ill-gotten gains – loot worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money.
In fact, rumour has it, there’s a great deal of pirate treasure buried in the many tiny islands (115) of the Seychelles. It suggests there’s loot buried in them there islands that may be worth around a billion dollars – stashed away over 300 years ago by the infamous Seychelles pirate Olivier Levasseur, commonly known as The Buzzard.
So if you’re feeling adventurous and are looking to get rich quick, set sail for the old pirate stomping ground of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, and bring a big shovel. You never know what you might find.