We speak with Colin Woodard, the historian who literally wrote the book on the golden age of piracy. His insight offers plenty of hints about what to expect in the upcoming game.

Colin Woodard is no stranger to the world of pirates. His 2008 book, The Republic of Pirates, is a thorough and fascinating glimpse into the true lives of the pirates who sailed the Caribbean in the early 1700s. The Republic of Pirates is also currently being adapted for TV; John Malkovich plays Blackbeard in the upcoming show, entitled Crossbones.

Historically, a relatively small group of pirates form the basis of the entire mythology that has grown up around pirates, but the actual history of their battles and adventures is at least as fascinating as the many fictional movies, comics, and books based on the period. 

With Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag on the way by the end of this year, we talked with Woodard about the incredible history of these men and women, and learned more than a little bit about what we can all expect out of the upcoming Ubisoft game, based on the same historical period. 

Tell me a little bit about your book, The Republic of Pirates, and why you wanted to write it.

This is the first attempt in many decades to reconstruct the actual historical story of the great Caribbean pirates, the ones who are responsible for virtually all of our pirate pirate-pop imagery today. And the amazing thing is that 95-98% of all of our pirate pop imagery is an ode to one small gang of pirates who operated for a very brief period at the beginning of the 18th century out of the Bahamas, who all knew each other and many of whom had overlapping careers before piracy, in the royal navy, as privateers. And they have been able to have this level of immortality and fame because they were extremely unusual pirates. I guess that’s part of what drew me to them. 

They were unusual in two respects: one was their level of success. They managed to bring five empires to their knees by threatening their commerce, before the counter-attack was launched, and they were able to do that because unlike many of the pirates who have come before and very much like some of our contemporary pirates, they were able to rely on the sanctuary and infrastructure of this sort of rogue-pirate state. 

In the case of the Bahamas pirates in the early 1700’s, the Bahamas was an unoccupied, abandoned and destroyed English colony hidden astride the straits of Florida, which in those days, due to the prevailing wind directions and the limited ability of square-rig vessels to sail into the wind, pretty much compelled all maritime commerce leaving the Caribbean basin and the Spanish main to go through with their treasure, galleons, everything else – all had to go through the straits of Florida. Right by this archipelago of uncharted islands and reefs and sandbars – a maze that pirates and small vessels or even sailing canoes could slip into and not be pursued by warships. 

This outbreak of piracy coincidentally occurred right at the end of a major colonial war, now forgotten to most of us, called the War of Spanish Succession, or in this continent often called Queen Anne’s War. During this long war, the enemy sacked and destroyed the English colony in the Bahamas four times, and by the time that the war ended, there was a bunch of people living in hovels in the woods and no effective government at all. And the pirates showed up and occupied Nassau and the Bahamas and put guns in the fort and fortified the harbor before the English government got around to reoccupying this colony, and made themselves very difficult to move. So from this pirate base, this pirate republic, they were able to grow large and dangerous.

The other element that made these pirates unusual and famous through history was their motivations were unlike those of the pirates that had come before. They didn’t see themselves as brigands or thieves, most of them seem to have seen themselves as social revolutionaries fighting a back door action against the ship owners and ship captains who’d made many of their lives miserable when they were serving in the Royal Navy and the merchant marines. 

What was that life like for these sailors?

There are accounts of life in the Royal Navy and the brutal discipline enforced, often by great violence. All the people weren’t getting paid, they were being forced into service – children literally being kidnapped and thrown aboard ships that provided wartime manpower that they needed. Then you’d finish your tour of beauty and if you happened to survive the battles and the terrible food  and the disease epidemics that would often take away half of the crew, you finally got home after your service, and before you can reach your port you’d often be drafted into service on another ship. 

So people were really upset. Then the merchant marines become even worse, especially with the end of the war. Because when the war ended, the Navy maybe contracted by two-thirds and threw something like 35,000 sailors off their ships and onto the docks of the Americas and London without any means of employment, but all of these specialized skills. And the merchant marines -- there was a post-war recession and that meant that anybody who could find work on a merchant vessel could be paid virtually nothing because they didn’t need to pay any more than that to attract people. 

So, there were lot’s of reasons for sailors to be upset and there were reasons to mutiny. Many people entered piracy because they knew they’d been cheated, and they took over their vessels. 

How did these pirates manage to be so successful?

Pirates would come and they would overwhelm a merchant ship and take it over and virtually always without firing a shot because there’d be 10 guys on a merchant ship with a cargo of molasses that wouldn’t belong to them and on the other side you have an armed vessel approaching with 200 heavily-armed pirates all going “arggh!” at you. 

With Blackbeard, you literally had a guy dressed to terrorize you; Blackbeard was putting lighted fuses in his beard, sparks and smoke pouring off him like he was the Devil, bandoliers of grenades – that was intentional. They were cultivating a visage of terror in the hopes that they would surrender without a fight. And that’s what happened. 

The whole point was to capture the cargo of the vessel and get the vessel itself, and you don’t want to damage it, but, where did they get their crews? They got them largely from volunteers on the vessels they captured. They’d break out the rum and start having a great party and the crew members were like: “well, I could stay here, being underpaid and starve on my voyage across the Atlantic, or I could join these guys,” and a lot of them were happy to join these guys. 

Once they captured a vessel and took it over, whether by mutiny or however it was, they immediately turned the government of the ship upside down. Instead of a top-down hierarchy; they elected their captains, and they elected their quartermasters, whose job was to keep an eye on the captain on behalf of the crew. They could depose the captain by popular vote at any time, except during battle. Perhaps most revealingly, the way they divided their treasure was astonishing egalitarian. On a mercenary vessel, where you are going to see and get permission from your sovereign to attack enemy shipping and keep and divide the loot you find, typically a captain would get 14 shares, and the ordinary sailor would get maybe one share or half a share. On a pirate vessel, the captain got maybe one and a half shares and everyone else got one share. The captain wasn’t allowed to have his own cabin, he had to share it with everyone else in the crew. The treasure was kept in the hold under the quartermaster’s supervision. Before they divided the treasure, they actually had a sort of primitive disability benefits, where if you’d lost an eye, you’d get a payout, of or if you died there’d be a payout set aside for your widow. And they did all that before dividing treasure for the men. So there’s this strange sort of radical democratic spirit aboard the ships, and people responded to it in the general public. 

Here’s the reason why the pirate have remained in our popular consciousness ever since. Because they were folk heroes at the time. These guys were being described by the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic as the devil’s children and the worst thing ever and as rogues that should be rounded up at all costs, but ordinary people seemed to embrace them. 

There’s this mysterious book in 1724, A General History of the Pyrates, which is where most of your pirate mythology comes from. This is what Robert Louis Stevenson drew on – the accounts of Blackbeard and these other people from this book. Which sometimes is incredibly accurate and sometimes its drawing and quoting unattributed from official documents, and at other times it is completely made up and untrue – it’s a weird mish-mash of things. But it was published in 1724, while some of these pirates were still active and its astonishingly sympathetic to their point of view. So these guys were sort of odd antiheroes even at the time and it remained so in our consciousness. 

[Next up: Who are some of the real life characters we'll see in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag?]