Next to the “Wickedest City in the World,” which was Port Royal in the 1600s, Tortuga was a pirate haven par excellence. It was a mountainous island on the Northwest Coast of Hispaniola, which is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. Tortuga sat near the Windward Passage that runs between Cuba and Hispaniola. Spain used this ocean passage to ferry its treasure fleets between Central and South America to home ports on the Spanish Mainland. Because of this, the pirates’ Brethren of the Coast anchored at Tortuga to harass and ransack Spanish ships as they sailed by. Also, Tortuga acted as a home base and recruiting ground for buccaneers who attacked Spanish colonies at large in the West Indies. The most famous of these cutthroats was Henry Morgan, who raised crews from Tortuga shores.
In the 17th century, many in Tortuga sought out Letters of Marque, commissions that were granted by countries, such as England and France, to persons then given legal right to prey on Spanish shipping in the Caribbean Seas. England and France often looked the other way when their buccaneers (sometimes almost outright pirates) took on Spanish ships in peace time as well as war. As long as the court received a significant cut of the wealth, the king was not inclined to listen too closely to the protests of Spanish ambassadors. It was a war by proxy to loot the gold, silver, and precious stones of South America. Each European country fought for a share, disregarding the rules of peace even when no longer formally at war.
Christopher Columbus first named Tortuga as he passed by in 1492. Its contours through the mist looked like a turtle, so Columbus named it for its appearance: Isla Tortuga, or Turtle Island. In its early days in the 1600s, Tortuga was alternately held by the Spanish, French, and English. It changed hands through battle several times during the century. Finally, the English prevailed and used buccaneers to protect its Caribbean ports from its enemy, the Spanish threat. Thus, a home base for pirates was born. Although buccaneers often acted as privateers (ships with a Letter of Marque), they strayed into piracy more often than not. Tortuga was a lawless place with as many disreputable people as there were benches to accommodate them in the burgeoning taverns. Its governors knew the value of pirates and indulged their tastes and need for a safe port to careen their ships while provisioning for the next voyage. For a while, it was a marriage made in hell, but it was an effective one throughout the 17th Century. If you visited Tortuga, you’d best be prepared to drink your rum with gunpowder in it (one recipe for grog) and fight your duels on the beach rather than onboard ship.
Do you like scary movies? Do you delight in spooks or look for monsters beneath the bed? Is Halloween your favorite holiday? Monster stories and poems are an enduring and common feature in history. Today, monsters that scare us only do so in our dreams. Real ghosts don’t linger in windows, and fierce beasts are nowhere to be found outside the realm of our imagination.
In the Middle Ages, witches were thought to lurk in communities bringing sickness and death. The witch hunts we are surprised to read about were the results of very real fears of the natural world and our lack of control over health and well-being in daily life. Our superstitions about supernatural beings faded as we began to implement a scientific world view and turn our attentions to understanding the real world in terms of research into the structure of existence, such as atoms or things such as veins and capillaries of the human body. Earlier men and women saw magic in the dark of night or the mists of the unknown. Today, we talk instead about great events like black holes in the universe or the confusing actions of quantum physics at the very heart of what exists in the world we call home.
But magic remains. The wonder and fear of the natural and spiritual world cannot be denied. And so today we entertain ourselves with monsters. We no longer explain the uncertain in terms of evil creatures who want to destroy us. Instead we pass on fairy tales of ghouls that (hopefully) only scare us a little. And that is the point. The fearsome has become entertainment value only. We’re sure that werewolves don’t exist and that vampires don’t really haunt castles in Transylvania. We know that electrons and things like quarks are real. We can test for them and study their interactions with the primary elements of existence. On the other hand, the monsters of our imagination have migrated to the realm of fiction where we can read about creatures made from old corpses like Frankenstein or lurking werewolves beneath a full moon.
Some of the great books in the canon of literature we read in school are horror stories. Have you heard of Dracula by Bram Stoker or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley? They are some of the first tales that began a basic story for us from which later movies and literature would draw. How many vampire movies can you count on your hand? And in how many ways has the novel Frankenstein influenced popular fiction? Today’s movies and books are derived from the foundation story that Shelley and Stoker dreamt up in the dark night of their hearts. Frankenstein is about a scientist who makes a living creature out of the parts of a corpse. Dracula is about a vampire who exists on the far borders of Europe, just ready to invade the civilized world. Both books lean toward the lesson that civilization or society is a thin veneer ready to fall apart into the horror of nightmares. That is, science can’t always protect us from the evil that exists in our hearts.
Scientists can tell us that scary monsters aren’t real but that doesn’t protect us from evil that people do, the way Stalin and Hitler killed millions of people in their quest for power. Evil that exists as ferocious creatures intent on doing us harm isn’t real. But people can still do bad things. And maybe that is what horror fiction is all about. It helps us to come to terms with large scale bad actions by states, politicians, or evil men. It allows us to acknowledge the evil that exists but also to dismiss it as a fiction in when we get too afraid. We get a little fun out of horror fiction as written by Edgar Allen Poe. But there’s also a lesson in there. Compassion for others, peace in the world, and charity that begins at home are forces we need to practice. They can fall anytime as our horror movies remind us but it’s up to us to stick to our values and act with decency even when it seems the harder course.
Edward Teach (or sometimes Thatch) shipped out of Bristol, England. He sailed as a privateer in the Caribbean during the early 1700s and attacked French and Spanish ships with whom England was at war. In the American Colonies, this was known as the French and Indian War and helped determine the balance of power in the New World. Perhaps you’ve never heard of Captain Teach. Neither had the inhabitants of the coastal cities and towns along the Atlantic seaboard and the Caribbean islands. But like you, they would come to know the name of Blackbeard, the infamous pirate and brute. He’d likely set your town on fire just for spite, and that was after he had looted all the treasure and goods he could find. His name struck fear in the hearts of many, and his legend for ferocious behavior has followed him down the centuries. Although some of his deeds may be only the stuff of fanciful stories or nightmares today, Blackbeard terrorized the Atlantic Coast from Caribbean waters to New England bays from about 1716 to 1718. It was even said that when he finally died in battle and his body was thrown overboard, it swam three times around the ship despite the fact that it was missing its head.
Blackbeard was so called because he wore his dark beard exceptionally long. Then he tied it in bows much like the towering, fancy wigs that were so popular among the upper classes at the time. In fact, it’s been said that Blackbeard’s appearance was much like a feared comet that foretold or brought evil upon European society. Blackbeard was so fierce that he tucked slow-burning fuses beneath his hat so that fire and smoke surrounded his huge form. In battle, he looked and behaved like a devil. I don’t know about you, but I would hate to meet him at sea or on land, far from the safety of a modern police force, or at that time, the officers of governor and king.
Fear of Blackbeard was crucial to his authority on ship, as one story demonstrates. One night, in a savage humor, Blackbeard took up and cocked his pistols and held them beneath a table where sat himself, his first mate (Israel Hands), an unspecified man, and the ship’s pilot. Blackbeard discharged his pistols beneath the table and shot Israel Hands through the knee. This shot crippled Hands, who could no longer go to sea. When asked why he did it, Blackbeard gave a reply that if he didn’t keep them in fear of him, they’d forget who he was. This indicates that if his crew wasn’t afraid of him, there might be chaos on board as each pirate strove to be leader himself. Not all pirates were such devils, but on the other hand, they weren’t Robin Hood either. If you ever meet a real pirate, be sure to give him a lot of space. Maybe only a real pirate’s mother loved him, but you can be pretty sure no one else in the world did.
Two stories reveal something of the legend that Blackbeard has become. It’s said that Blackbeard once wanted to try out hell before he got there in person. Maybe since some would say he really was on his way there, it wasn’t such a foolish idea. In order to recreate the experience of damnation, Blackbeard took and burned brimstone (sulfur) and other noxious agents in a pot. He took that pot and his crew below deck and shut up the hold to see how they would fare in the burning pit of perdition. Soon his crew was calling out for fresh air and relief. However, Blackbeard proved himself to be in league with the agents of evil. He lasted the longest of his motley mates below deck and only came up for moist sea air after his shipmates, who lacked his fortitude to withstand burning up in the hold.