By John Morris
Mention the word Pirate and visions of 18th century galleons ploughing the blue waters of the Caribbean may quickly spring to mind. Large white sails billow in the breeze, the skull and crossbones – the Jolly Roger – flutters at the masthead, and rows of cannon protrude menacingly from the ship’s sides.
On the prow, bracing himself against the wind and rolling of the ship, a full-bearded figure with black eyepatch, pistol in his belt, and fearsome appearance scours the ocean searching for his treasure ships. His cutthroat crew, no less terrifying, display a chilling assortment of weaponry which they are eager to use – such is the traditional portrait of pirates that many of us hold.
This, however, is not an accurate picture of all pirates.
In November 1720 an unexpected development took place during a trial in Jamaica where a number of captured pirates were being sentenced to death.
An English privateer, Jonathan Barnet, testified that he had boarded a pirate ship off the north coast of Jamaica, only to find the entire brigand crew – except for two spirited young buccaneers – were blind drunk, and incapable of offering any resistance. The two youngsters had put up a fight and a pistol was discharged, but they were soon overcome and the entire band of brigands was put in chains and taken back to Jamaica.
There was never any doubt what their fates would be. Piracy was a capital offence for which death by hanging was – usually – the only possible outcome.
Their sentences were handed down by Nicholas Lawes, the Governor of Jamaica. The prisoners were each asked if they knew of a good reason why their sentence should not be carried out, though no objections were expected.
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