The 1600s and early 1700s were known as “The Age of Blood and Gold.”
The Spanish had claimed just about all of North and South America and all the islands in between. They robbed the new lands and its people by taking most of their gold, silver and jewels and only left the people their deadly diseases.
England, France and other European countries decided they wanted a piece of the action too. War was declared on Spain and great navies and ships were compiled. Every able-bodied man was pressed into service, either in the Royal Navy or as buccaneers.
The buccaneers were hired to rob the robbers (Spanish) of their shiploads of gold headed from the Americas to Spain. Great battles were fought on the high seas between Man of War ships and the Spanish galleons.
After several years, a truce was made between the countries and large numbers of the seafaring men were out of a job. Most knew no other trade other than the sea, and so they became pirates.
The life of a pirate wasn’t an easy way of a life, no-sirree. If a pirate survived disease (the principal cause of death), he might develop a burst belly (hernia) from lifting so much and by pulling on ropes; or he might break a finger from loading cargo; or fall from the mast; or be washed overboard; or suffer a fatal blow in a battle.
Pirates also met the notorious punishment of being marooned on a desert island with just the clothes on their back, one cup of fresh water and a pistol with just one shot. This type of punishment was referred to as being “the governor of the island.”
Another infamous punishment was being made to walk the plank (at the point of a sword) right down into “Davey Jones’ locker,” the ocean.
When a pirate ship got in the best position to attack, it raised a black flag. This was to let the opposing ship know that if it offered no resistance, its crew would be spared or given quarter. If the opposing ship’s crew tried to resist or sail away, the pirates would raise a red flag, indicating no mercy aboard the ship that was being attacked.
A pirate ship was well-armed with cannons and all types of small arms. When a pirate ship attacked another ship, the main object was not to sink the other ship, but to loot it of all its treasure and weapons and maybe persuade some of its trained crew to join the pirates. The captured ship would then be converted into a pirate ship or be set on fire if the pirates couldn’t use it themselves.
In the Golden Age of Piracy, there were many pirate captains who changed their names; although a few kept their Christian names. Names like the notorious Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Captain Blood, Sir Harry Morgan and Anne Barney are only a few that went down in the history books.
By 1725, piracy was just about eliminated along our East Coast. Many a pirate met his death from a hangman’s noose but some hid their treasures and went into hiding. Thus the rest of this story is about a few who managed to evade the hangman’s noose but came to an untimely demise on the banks of the Pee Dee River.
Our story begins in the early 1700s in Wales, a part of Great Britain. You see, there was a lad by the name of Master Bartholomew Hawkins. One day, Master Hawkins’ father asked if he would like to go on a far- away business trip with him.
The trip would be to the eastern coast of Africa and they would be sailing on one of the newest ships in his father’s company called the New Horizon. His father had made several trips to Africa without any problems but this trip would take a tragic turn and affect young Hawkins for the rest of his life.
The trip went fine until they sailed along the African coast. With such a fine ship loaded with medicine, rum and dry goods, it became a prime target for pirates operating off the coast. The pirates raised the black flag and moved. Master Hawkins’ ship’s captain thought they could outrun the pirate ship; but to no avail. They were boarded and everyone on the ship, except Master Hawkins, was either thrown overboard or killed outright.
Only by a miracle of God was Master Hawkins spared and also because the pirate captain somehow took a liking to him and needed a cabin boy.
With such a fine ship, the pirates decided not to sink it but to outfit her with cannons from the old ship. Things went well for a while but the pirate crew was not at all satisfied with the captain’s decision on how the loot was going to be divided, especially the rum.
Things went from bad to worse on the new pirate ship. Mutiny, if not stopped, meant death to the old captain; or at the very least, he and his officers would be placed in a small boat and set adrift. This is exactly what happened on the New Horizon.
After the mutiny occurred, young Hawkins was placed in a small boat with the captain and two more sailors with a small amount of fresh water. They drifted for a couple of days and during that time, two of the sailors died from injuries sustained during the mutiny.
Luck or fate was with the captain and Master Hawkins, for on the third day, their small boat drifted up on the sandy African shore.
They went inland to find fresh water and food, but that’s where their luck ran out. They were captured by a group of headhunters and an evil witch doctor who made short work of the old captain by boiling him in a pot. Then they shrank his head and placed it on a pole.
The witch doctor decided not to kill young Hawkins but made him a slave, along with two more young boys who had been captured earlier.
Young Hawkins, and the two other boys, were treated with indignities no one should go through. But as time went by, the old witch doctor took a liking to Master Hawkins and taught him the art of black magic and how to cast spells and curses on people — an art he would never forget.
Several years passed and Master Hawkins, the other two boys and some of the natives were captured by another group of pirates who wanted slaves to take to the New World.
Next week I’ll finish this story and tell you more of how Master Hawkins became Black Bart, the scourge of the Seven Seas, and how he meet his demise on the banks of the Pee Dee River.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, the Anson County Writers Club, Richmond County Historical Society and the Story Spinners in Laurinburg, North Carolina.