Pirates were the stealth fighters of the Age of Sail. They kept no records. No one sent out a search party if they sank. Contrary to popular myth, they didn’t mark X on maps where they buried their treasure. Many pirate ships were also commandeered merchant vessels—they didn’t exactly spell out S.V. Pirate Ship on their gunwales.
As a result, finding and identifying pirate shipwrecks is extremely difficult. So when Robert Kurson, author of Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship heard that two treasure hunters believed they had located the Golden Fleece, a 17th century pirate ship captained by the notorious British outlaw, Joseph Bannister, he dropped everything.
Talking from his home in Chicago, Kurson describes how pirate ships practiced democracy; why new maritime laws are driving treasure hunters out of business; and how gold coins sing when you touch them.
What inspired you to write this book?
I knew one of the primary characters, John Chatterton from writing my first book, Shadow Divers. Years later, I got a call at home in Chicago. The caller didn’t introduce himself. He just said something to the effect, “If you like pirates, meet me in New Jersey.”
I knew Chatterton’s voice. He’s got this distinctive, baritone kind voice. But it was not a good time to go to New Jersey. It was the holidays; it was cold. But I had learned from Chatterton in the past that when there’s an opportunity to go, you go.
And that’s what I did. I drove all the way from Chicago and met him at this steakhouse. He was with a friend and his friend proceeded to tell me a singular story about going to hunt for a pirate ship from the Golden Age of Piracy, which ran from about 1650 to 1730. I knew that only one pirate ship had ever been found and positively identified: The Whydah, which was discovered in 1984 off Cape Cod. So, the idea of going to look for a Golden Age pirate ship was irresistible.
At the center of the story is a British pirate named Joseph Bannister. His is an unusual story, isn’t it?
It’s very unusual because he began his career as an upstanding English merchant captain, in charge of a ship called The Golden Fleece, a beautiful merchant ship Bannister captained to move cargoes like sugar, hides and indigo dyes between London and Port Royal Jamaica. In the 1680s when Bannister was sailing The Golden Fleece, Port Royal was known as the most lawless place on earth. One day, for reasons lost to history, Bannister stole The Golden Fleece and went “on the account,” as turning pirate was known.
Do we know what his motivation was?
We don’t and it’s especially vexing because at the time he did it, in 1684, pirates were in great jeopardy, especially in that part of the world. The Royal Navy had become adept at hunting them. If a pirate captain was caught, he was going to hang. So, it’s very hard to say why Bannister did this. That was one of the challenges presented to the two main characters in my book. They quickly discovered when they set out to search for The Golden Fleece that unless they got into the mind, and especially the heart, of Joseph Bannister, they were not going to come close to finding his ship.
Plenty of wrecks are found every year. Why are pirate shipwrecks so rare?
In the first place, there weren’t that many pirates in the golden age of piracy according to the best research I could find, there might have been a few thousand over the 70-year course of the golden age of piracy. Pirates were about stealth. They were about being invisible. They were outlaws and belonged to no country, so they never filed crew lists or paperwork. If they sank or got captured, no government or navy went looking for them.
Many pirate ships were also converted merchant ships, so if someone happened to find a wreck later on, it would be very difficult to identify it as a pirate ship. You might find cannons, muskets or coins, but those were being traded by any number of merchant ships. Proving a wreck is a pirate ship is virtually impossible.
These days, we associate pirates with Keith Richards and Johnny Depp in Pirates Of The Caribbean. Is there any truth to the Hollywood portrayal?
There’s some truth to it. Pirates did keep parrots as pets; they did commit terrible acts of violence, although only when necessary. That’s an interesting thing I learned about pirates. They didn’t like to use violence. They were like the Mafia, and used it to instill fear in people. But business was better when you didn’t have to use violence. So, there are a lot of things that Hollywood didn’t get right about pirates. And the things they didn’t get right are the most interesting.
Finding treasure is exciting. Searching is actually pretty boring. Tell us about “mowing the lawn.”
When you’re looking for a sunken ship, the primary tools treasure hunters use are side scan sonar and the magnetometer. The magnetometer is especially important because it locates ferrous objects. When a wooden ship—which a pirate ship would have been—sinks, there’s nothing that an instrument can do to detect old sunken wood under the waves. What they’re looking for are cannons or anchors or other iron objects. These are the tell-tale signs of a shipwreck.
To do that requires going back and forth over small segments of the water. First, you have to have a good idea where a shipwreck might be. Then, using these instruments, you go back and forth, moving up and down in lanes. It’s very similar to mowing a lawn in a large back yard. You go in one strip all the way down, turn around and go back up. But, in the ocean, that can take days, months or even years. It can be very tedious work. And very expensive, too.
Chatterton’s partner, John Mattera, is an archival truffle hound. In the end, it’s a book not a dive that pinpoints the Golden Fleece. Tell us a bit about his hunt through the archives in America and Europe—and why historical research is so important for finding wrecks.
Since about the age of eight, John Mattera had been a total history buff. He had a rough and tumble kind of life growing up in certain ways, but he always loved history and libraries, archives and rare book dealers. So, when it came time to look for sunken ships, especially The Golden Fleece, Mattera didn’t expect to do much research at all because history seemed clear on where the ship had sunk.
But very early on he and Chatterton realized that the ship was nowhere near where history insisted it must have sank. The only thing Mattera knew to do was conduct his own research into the ship’s history and especially into Captain Bannister’s history.
By going to the Spanish naval archives in Seville, Spain and opening documents people might not have touched for over 300 years, or combing the New York Public Library or The Strand bookstore in New York, he might piece together a history, not just of The Golden Fleece, but of Bannister himself. Those kinds of historical insights have led to some of the greatest shipwreck discoveries.
You say that pirates practiced democracy “a century before the concept took hold in the United States.” Is that hype?
[Laughs] It’s absolutely true! The majority of pirates came from the Merchant Marine, where the captain was the sole ruler in charge of everything. On a pirate ship, captains took a vote on everything: where to go, who to steal from, how to steal it, where to go next, what to do with prisoners.
The captain’s vote didn’t count any more than the lowliest deck hand’s. If they wanted to throw the captain out, they could dismiss him or lower his rank; they could maroon him on an island; or dump him into the sea. All by vote. That was true even if a captain, like Bannister, owned his own ship.
They had a constitution and even compensation schemes for injuries. The captain almost never earned more than two or three times the wage of the lowliest deck hand. Think about how that must have struck a guy who’s come from tyrannical rule on a merchant ship where the hours were terrible and the conditions even worse. He gets on a pirate ship and suddenly he has a real say in what they’re doing.
Pirates also meted out treatment to the captains of ships they captured which make Game of Thrones seem tame. Go on, shock us.
They would do anything from pull a person’s eyeball out to cut open their chest, pull the still beating heart out and show it to the dying man who’d crossed them, almost any kind of brutal torture you could possibly dream of. But, that was not what they wanted to do. What they really wanted to do was to scare the hell out of their prey. The message was, “We’re crazy, don’t mess with us, don’t resist us, just give up.” That’s what the pirate flag announced when they hoisted it.
The Spanish government recently won a lawsuit against Odyssey Marine Exploration over the ownership of half a billion dollars worth of silver coins. Is the end of the road approaching for wreck-chasers like Chatterton and Mattera?
It sure looks like it. Since Chatterton and Mattera stopped working, the Dominican Republic, has for the first time in decades not issued any new salvage leases. So there are no treasure hunters working in the DR at the moment, as I understand it. The UNESCO Convention and other interests have made private treasure hunting very rare. There are good arguments on both sides of the issue as to why treasure hunters should or should not be allowed to work.
That’s a good thing, surely. Treasure hunters are essentially in it for money, but these finds should be properly conserved.
They should always be properly conserved but I wouldn’t say that treasure hunters are in it just for the money. Most not only respect history. They want things to be well preserved because it’s in their interest to do so. If they go and destroy things, their discoveries lose value.
Also, treasure hunting, whether by private guys or archaeologists, is extremely expensive. One of the primary arguments treasure hunters use on their own behalf, is that if they don’t go looking for these ships no one will. Sometimes it’s only the guy who can raise millions of dollars from private investors, who can go out looking. Do you want to leave something unfound and in good shape? Or find it and hope it gets preserved because it’s in the salvager’s best interest to do so?
Why do you think treasure hunting captures people’s imaginations?
Putting your hands on history is irresistible. Chatterton and Mattera took me to the Ministry Of Culture in Santo Domingo. There were silver coins and artifacts, gold chains. I put my hands into the treasure and scooped it up. It was like nothing I had ever felt before. This was treasure. There’s something about gold and silver and the way it sounds – it sings! – that goes deep inside a person. The idea that there’s something spectacular out there, just beyond the limits of our vision, is a very exciting idea and always has been, for centuries.