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The True History Of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

by Matt Miller on Mar 22, 2013 at 01:30 PM

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?]

Ubisoft Montreal has talked about several intriguing characters from the period they plan to include in the new Black Flag story, and I'd love your perspective on who these people actually were. Starting with somebody you already mentioned, who was Blackbeard?

He was definitely a thinking man’s pirate. I got the impression as I went through the documents and reconstructed what he was doing, you could see what a chess player he was. As I mentioned before, he was cultivating this image of terror to get people to surrender without fighting, and that was carefully thought out. And people were terrified of his reputation. When you realized it was Blackbeard coming with all of his men going “arggh” and you know this fire and smoke coming off his beard, people surrendered. But the fact is in all of the documentation, much of it from surviving people who had been captured and later reported it to the authorities, they’re not necessarily sympathetic witnesses – there’s not a single instance of any killing of anybody in his entire career until his last battle to the death with the Royal Navy. 

It was a cultivated vision of terror, but he himself rarely actually tried to kill anybody, and that’s really unusual in this time. It was a very brutal age where justice itself was quite arbitrary if a child is caught, an eight year old in London stealing a loaf of bread, you hang him. It was a very violent age, so it almost sticks out. But he was also thinking about what he was doing. He sees what’s happening before anyone else seems to and has an endgame worked out. He tries to set himself up as a sort of Tony Soprano-like figure in North Carolina. He went there and managed to get the protection of the governor and work out a deal where he was just “an ordinary citizen”, you know, hanging around in North Carolina, but also quietly and unofficially, running a gigantic piracy operation and dragging the ships in and looting them and shipping in small boats up the creeks. All of the stolen goods were being stored under bales of hay where they were later discovered. So he had set himself up and bought off the authorities and set up a deal and was trying to become a sort of underworld figure with plausible deniability and protection of a sovereign government. Pretty smart – throughout his career he was thinking many moves ahead. Unfortunately, he underestimated the ruthlessness of the government of Virginia. Alexander Spotswood was willing to violate all sorts of laws without permission to invade north Carolina and capture Blackbeard and conquer his men, but that was Blackbeard underestimating the ruthlessness of his host. So, Blackbeard was an extremely intriguing character and the one I found most interesting of the group. 

One of the other people they’ve mentioned including is Calico Jack; what can you tell me about him?

Yeah, Calico Jack had his name because he apparently liked to wear brightly colored calico dyes from the subcontinent – a pretty flamboyant dresser. He’s a leader of pirates. He would’ve been a junior member of the rank and file crew during most of the pirate republic age, but he ends up going into piracy himself in the aftermath, when the pirate republic is brought down. Calico Jack was one of the bright lights that sort of flared out trying to do piracy after the collapse of the republic. He was fairly incompetent; he seems to have made a lot of bad decisions that fit a pretty poor commander, and ends his days stranded and shipwrecked where he’s picked up by a passing merchant, who ends up turning him in and he ends up going off to prison – he’s probably the opposite of Blackbeard. He’s not somebody who thought things out very well. He didn’t seem to earn the respect of his crew on any of his voyages. From what we can see, he seems like he might’ve been a little bit more shallow, you know all Calico and no horse, or whatever you want to say. 

How about Charles Vane? That’s another character they are hoping to explore. 

Yeah Charles Vane is less known to the general public but one of the intriguing figures I found and brought forward in the book because he ended up later in the pirate republic history. Most of these pirates, in comparison with the authorities, were very circumspect in the use of violence. If you put them side by side with the governors and the royal navy and stuff, they seem almost pacifist, even though some of the things they did would be sort of shocking to our ears. Not so Charles Vane – this guy was the sociopath of the group. He was going around torturing people and reveling in it and was very much an “arrgh, charge!” kind of guy. And when the pirate republic started coming down, he was going to have nothing of it. He and his crew continued raiding ships and moved to a nearby island attacking everything in sight, and he was pretty much going to continue being a forceful and violent pirate until someone succeeded in bringing him down. If you want to have someone who can report to the authorities as a picture of the pirates as horrible, violent rogues, this guy fit the bill pretty well. 

Another figure Ubisoft has mentioned is Hornigold. Where does Benjamin Hornigold fit into that whole equation?

There are two guys who are a little less known to history but were a big deal then. Benjamin Hornigold and Henry Jennings, and they’re the two sort of co-founders of the pirate republic. And Hornigold was actually first. We don’t know a ton about him before he entered piracy. It seems he was probably like Blackbeard and a number of these other guys: he’s probably involved in privateering out of Jamaica during the war, and when the war ended and everybody withdrew their permission to be privateers,  everyone’s out of work. 

What we do know is that in the first summer after the end of the war in 1713 he led a band of disgruntled, unemployed former sailors to the Bahamas. He’s the one who first stepped off in Nassau and found this abandoned colony and set up shop. He’s the founding pirate figure, if you will. 

He had about 75 people with him, almost certainly including Blackbeard, who would emerge as one of his lieutenants and was presumably in the original band. He’s sort of Blackbeard and some of the other pirates’ early mentor and leader, and later, as the republic evolves he becomes secondary, but he’s always been one of the forces within the pirate republic and the founder of it. 

One other figure that Ubisoft has publically said that they’re exploring in this new game is Anne Bonny. Who is she?

So both Anne Bonny and Mary Read are somewhat famous. The women pirates. The original tale comes from A General History of Pyrates, that book I told you about, which again is a mix of fantasy and absolute accuracy. The story about them which has made them sort of famous is that they were cross-dressers. They had hidden themselves within the merchant community dressed as men so they could earn a living. It would have been forbidden to them otherwise. And they accidentally discover that one another are actually women and later when the pirates reveal this themselves, they go scaring people and being as tough and rugged of pirates as anyone else. 

The cross-dressing part isn’t all that clear from the historical record, but the fact that these two joined pirate crews and Calico Jack and were involved in piracy and gave as good as all the male pirates was absolutely true and supported by all this documentary evidence. As is the rather spectacular story [of] Anne Bonny, which is that when they finally get captured and brought to Jamaica for trial the intent is that they are to be executed. They plead that they couldn’t be executed because they were pregnant, and that was in fact true and their sentence was suspended until after they would have given birth. It seems, the story goes, that Anne Bonny was perhaps pregnant with Calico Jack’s child; they seem to have been a couple. She is not recorded as having died in the Jamaican legal records or in the church records.

Mary Read was, but Bonny wasn’t, and there’s been speculation that somehow she escapes. There’s a whole sub-culture that claims that she was actually the child of some influential planter in Charleston and she managed to escape there, and live out her days there. The documents supporting that have never actually been presented to the wider world, so that’s all speculation at this point, but it’s an intriguing story.

[What locations will players visit in Black Flag, and what was historically significant about those places?]

Ubisoft discussed the inclusion of some cities and settlements like Havana, Nassau, and Kingston. What in your mind make those cities compelling locations?

Nassau is the base of the republic of pirates. That’s where they’ve shored up the fort after the war.That’s at the center of the pirate’s story. 

Havana is the longtime capital of the Spanish presence in the Caribbean and perhaps their most important port of all. Cuba was the pirates’ near neighbor. The prime targets if you were raiding Spanish plantations and shipping would be those plantations on Cuba, or the shipping going around Cuba, so it was sort of the center of the Spanish universe in influence from the pirate’s point of view in the area.

Kingston, Port Royal, and Spanish Town were the three primary settlements on the island of Jamaica. And Jamaica in this time period was, in the English world, the most important colony in the Caribbean. It was the center of Royal Navy operations in the Americas. That’s where they had their big supply depots, and to be the governor of Jamaica was probably the most important posting in the Caribbean region in the English world. In the Americas, it is kind of the base of operations and the center of many of these pirates’ lives before they went into piracy. If they were going to be captured they were probably going to end up in the jail in Jamaican Spanish Town, probably going to be hung out in New Kingston if they were sentenced. This is kind of the center of the British operations after 1707. 

Eventually this period of piracy ends after roughly a decade. What is it that finally brings them down?

When the Bahamas are finally pacified by Woodes Rogers, which was not easy to do by any means -- there was this whole period where Woodes Rogers comes ashore and manages to install himself as the governor of the Bahamas, but he was governing over a whole bunch of hardened pirates. Many of whom, including the followers of Charles Vane, are eager to go back into piracy. He knows that he’s outnumbered because the men he brings with them are all sick and dying from tropical diseases, so he’s on a knife’s edge, and then the Spanish start threatening to invade the island. It’s a long period where the pirates aren’t officially in control of the island, but it’s not clear that Woodes Rogers and the British officials are going to keep control. 

But once that refuge is taken away, all the individual pirates are much more vulnerable. They’re out there on the seas and one wrong move and they can fall into the hands of the authorities. Rogers starts off in the Bahamas in 1718. By 1721 or 1722, almost all these pirates have either disappeared into retirement or been captured and killed. 

Their ability to survive out there without the support of this sanctuary and base was clearly compromised. Some of them had stunning careers – I mean they burned twice as bright for a brief period, but Bartholomew Roberts emerges after this, and I can’t remember, captures like 200 ships off the coast of Africa, but he is captured and killed because your chance of surviving out there without such a base to work from, the odds were not in your favor. 

It was just a matter of time at that point. The trick was conquering the Bahamas and that was Woodes Rogers’ role and strategy, which he didn’t do head-on, by the way. It was a bait and switch. The king realized that their position was so poor that they had to offer a pardon to the pirates. If you guys turn yourselves in now we’ll give you a get out of jail free card and you keep all your loot. They’re basically having to offer an amnesty because they were sure they can’t conquer the pirates without it, and that created divisions within the pirate camp that Woodes Rogers was able to exploit to get a toehold of things. 

Gamers have grown accustomed to exploring this fictionalized version of major historical events in previous games within the series. I’m curious about your perspective about one or two significant or exciting events from this period you’d like to see brought to life in an interactive game? 

In 1712, there’s a hurricane that strikes Kingston and Jamaica and destroys half the town and sinks many of the vessels there, with great loss of life, and may have pushed many of these pirates into going into piracy because their vessels were destroyed and the commerce off Jamaica was destabilized. This happened in the last weeks of the war before news of the peace treaty came and it was sort of this final blow to the colony and to the merchant economy there. And by all accounts it was one of the most horrific storms ever to strike the island. 

There’s also the classic showdown, which has been in other movies, where Blackbeard’s final fight for his life against the Royal Navy off Ocracoke Island is a classic end to a motion picture kind of battle where there’s an entire melee onboard a vessel worthy of Errol Flynn.

Another poignant moment is when Woodes Rogers arrives to try to pacify the Bahamas. That’s a key moment, symbolically and otherwise, where he’s not sure if he’s going to arrive and be shot at, or if he’s going to arrive and march and parade up to the fort and take his position unopposed. This whole uncertainty would be intriguing to see. 

One interesting thing the game developer is interested in exploring in this is the idea of underwater exploration, particularly with a diving bell. I wonder if you can describe what that is and if these things ere these really used in the period?

I was surprised to discover when researching the book that, yeah, in the early 1700s, there were fairly well developed underwater salvage methods. You would send divers down to recover things from wrecked ships and this came into play in a big way in my book, because when these pirates were just getting started in the Bahamas, there was another terrible hurricane that destroyed the annual Spanish treasure fleet on the shores of Florida.

The Treasure Coast it’s called now, not coincidentally. All these ships and staggering amounts of treasure that were bound back to Spain that had been gathered from the Silver Mountains of Peru, and the gold looted from the Aztecs, and rarities from Asia that had been put on the annual Manila Galleon that sailed all the way across the Pacific to the Pacific coast of Mexico, all the treasures brought by mule train to Acapulco, and then transferred onto these treasure ships. They were all lying in the shallow waters off Florida. 

And the Spanish mounted this massive salvage operation with all kinds of teams of divers and diving bells and I had no idea that this kind of technology was already perfected, but indeed it was. And they recovered a very large portion of the treasure that they’d lost using these methods. It of course attracted the attention of pirates and other rogues, who wanted to, as they put it, “Fish on the wrecks,” which meant try to dive down or use hooks and trolls and try to capture things on the wrecks themselves, but they had to contend with the Spanish almost immediately. 

Henry Jennings, one of the founders of the pirate republic, solved this dilemma by simply invading the camp. That’s another story.

Can you describe the diving bell?

It’s very similar to diving bells that would have been used later in the 19th century. The principal is the same as if you took a pot and you turn it upside down full of air and you sink it to the bottom of your bathtub. 

The air is going to stay in the pot. You basically trap a bunch of air in there, even though it’s at the bottom of your bathtub. Well, you put a bunch of guys in there and you sink it to the bottom of the ocean over whatever you’re trying to salvage, and there, in a pocket of air, are presumably able to pick up and put in bags and stuff, whatever’s on the bottom of the ocean, and then come back up again. Of course the problem is this is not necessarily compressed air; you have all kinds of issues with decompression, and the bends, and how long people are down there, and if you’re down there very long, the air’s not recirculating very well. It’s very limited how long you can be down there and probably a pretty dangerous undertaking.

I’m not sure what the Spanish made these bells out of at the time. They were able to actually just deploy these things and know what to do when they heard that the fleet had sunk, and the call went back to Havana from St. Augustine, and they basically delivered  an entire salvage operation to the middle of nowhere on this abandoned beach to try to get back the treasure. The pirates are like wolves; they’re circling on the outside waiting for the chance to move in for the scraps.  

To learn more about Colin Woodard’s insight into the golden age of piracy, check out Woodard’s Republic of Pirates website. For more on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, read our first look feature on the game