By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: A pirate’s life for them

We are on vacation, having lunch at The Pirates’ House in Savannah, Georgia. And, while waiting for our crab cakes, it occurs to us Oregonians that we are indeed lucky to never have experienced tornadoes, hurricanes — and piracy — as known here on the East Coast.

The name of this popular tourist attraction indicates that it indeed knows about piracy.

The Pirates’ House is one of the oldest buildings in Savannah, dating back to 1734. In 1754, it became an inn and a tavern. It soon was a rendezvous point for bloodthirsty pirates and sailors, and became an “underbelly of society.”

A “The Pirates’ House CookBook,” bought here while having lunch, relates some of the history of this old landmark. In its Captain’s Room, short-handed ships’ masters negotiated plans to shanghai unwary seamen to supplement crews. Stories still persist of the tunnel, extending from the old Rum Cellar in this tavern, through which these men were carried, drugged and unconscious, to ships waiting in the harbor. Many a sailor drinking in carefree abandon at Pirates’ House awoke to find himself at sea on a strange ship bound for port half a world away.

Nor was piracy by any means limited to America’s East Coast. For thousands of years, piracy has existed all over the world. Pirates sailed the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, and the rest of the Seven Seas. And piracy is still practiced today.

Around the eighth century, piracy was known to have flourished when Vikings from Denmark to Norway sailed the Atlantic, raiding and burning vessels.
One of the “10 Most Famous Pirates in World History,” Sir Henry Morgan (1635-1688) of Welsh descent, with his “army” of 30 ships and 1,200 men, captured wealthy Panama City.
Another of those famous 10 was Scotsman William Kidd (1645-1701), who originally was hired to help rid the seas of pirates — as a privateer.
A privateer — as opposed to a pirate — was a private person (or ship) authorized by a government to prevent other ships from taking possession of their property. Many pirates legally plundered foreign merchant ships as per royal authority.

And the previously mentioned Sir Morgan successfully undermined Spanish rule, and was said to have been “inconspicuously” sanctioned by England. He also terrorized Spain’s Caribbean colonies and eventually was knighted by King Charles II of England. He became deputy governor of Jamaica and a respected planter.

Sir Francis Drake (1540-1595) was the most celebrated privateer of his time — often by order of Queen Elizabeth I. He sacked the Spanish army numerous times and plundered Spanish cities off the Florida coast. In North America, he claimed new land for the queen, and is credited with “rescuing” unsuccessful English colonists off the coast of the Carolinas, allowing them passage back to England aboard his vessel.

A Chinese pirate, Cheung Po Tsai, on the “most famous” list, aided his government by capturing other pirates with his army of many thousands and several hundred ships.
While in “piracy land,” we Oregonians learn something else — to our surprise. Despite being known for their cruel, infamous practices, our country should thank pirates for their help, as per the views in this quote: “During the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of piracy, in the mid- to late l8th century and early l9th century, the deeds of many pirates and privateers would prove to be invaluable to the development of the United States as an emerging world power.”

Charleston merchants were said to welcome the pirates as customers who came with gold and silver looted from Spanish ships.

Another “most famous” pirate, the legendary Blackbeard (Edward Teach), was known to have had “special considerations with North Carolina’s governor for safe passage into Carolinian harbors with certain provisos as to which ships he should not attack.”

During the Revolutionary War, the role of privateers was considerable. From 1776 to 1782, privateer ships outnumbered those of the Continental Navy 11 to 1. The Continental Congress was said to have authorized large-scale privateering against English vessels.

During the War of 1812, Jean Lafitte, who had raided Spanish and French ships in the Caribbean, came to the American side during the war and provided American artillery for “continuous bombardment of English forces sufficient to prevent their capture of New Orleans.”

But, certainly, some pirates were vicious killers and marauders.

Others on the “most famous” list include Bartholomew Roberts, known as “Black Bart”; Henry Every, or “Long Ben”; and Francois l’Olonnais.
We Oregonians are a bit surprised that two women pirates also are on that list. One was Irish, Anne Bonny (1700-1782), and the other Chinese, Ching Shih (1775-1844). Ching Shih was said to have been the most successful of all female pirates and to have controlled more than a thousand ships and many thousands of men. Additionally, she was said to have been beautiful.

Today, piracy still exists. The principal Piracy Reporting Center, based in Kuala Lumpur, is conducted by the International Maritime Board and the International Chamber of Commerce.

Over the years, Indonesia has been a hot spot for piracy incidents. The Straits of Malacca also have been on the high danger list.

Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia regularly patrol waters in their area for pirates. When in dangerous seas, ships are warned to be cautious, docking only in safe places, maintaining full speed when passing through risky areas and practicing adequate security procedures, such as charged fire hoses to repel pirates attempting to board a ship.

What with all the folklore surrounding piracy, it is difficult to determine how much is legend — and how much legitimate history. But it is interesting that there are those who believe pirates were invaluable to our country — and that without them, the United States of America might not exist today.
Elaine Rohse can be reached at