A pirate ship was the single hardest and rarest thing a person could discover underwater. And while galleons had been largely forgotten, the voices of pirates never stopped calling, to the imaginations of children and anyone else who believed the world could be thrilling if one only dared step off the dock.”– from Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson, Random House New York, 2015.
It’s a common theme found in childhood fantasy – pirates and treasure. One of my earliest memories is looking at the cover of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. There was the quintessential peg-legged man with parrot on his shoulder and chest full of treasure in front. My Father took us on trips to Cape Cod, the Carolinas and Florida; places where pirates were once active. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always wanted to explore the Golden Age of Piracy and find treasures buried in the sand.
In December of 2021, just before Christmas, I took a brief trip to the Dominican Republic to rest-up, visit a shipwreck museum and try metal detecting on their beach.
As for the detecting, I didn’t expect much. To get the “gold” you have to put in the time and do more than a daily walk along the shore. Other than a bottle cap and a few metal cans, I found little of what you might call “treasure” yet the Dominican Republic was a jewel in itself, not to mention a great getaway.
For part of the trip I stayed near Puerto Plata. For what amounts to ten or twelve dollars back home, I was able to take a bus to the nation’s capital. Santo Domingo is the oldest continually inhabited colonial city of the Americas and still has some of the earliest colonial buildings. There I rented a room at the “Island” hostel in the Colonial Zone for a couple nights and enjoyed the nearby Museo Naval de Las Atarazanas, an excellent, modern and well-stocked museum that features some of the famous shipwrecks in Dominican waters. For a small fee, you can see treasures brought up by many a diver and archaeologist – gold coins, elaborate gem-studded rings and necklaces, firearms and swords.
Shipwrecks, Treasure Hunters and Archaeologists
The bane of archaeologists and possibly the apex of adventure-seeking, treasure hunting has long fascinated questors. My research has uncovered not all treasure hunters are in it purely for the money. There are some who are on a more meaningful holy grail-like quest. In fact, we sometimes find the seeker’s motivations complex, as is the case with divers like John Chatterton and John Mattera (more about them later!).
Pirates are People Too
If you look at rock stars, they live fast, die young and the only difference [between them and pirates] is rock stars choose that [life]. Pirates had very little else in the way of options — if you were an escaped slave, what would you do, turn yourself in? ‘I’ve been looking around and hey that slave thing was a pretty good deal’ — No, of course not. The pirates were men who the powers-that-be were ready to administer very severe punishments already. So they were kinda like, ‘I got nothing to lose.’ And I think that whole concept, you see people in that situation, they’ve got nothing to lose, and instead of running out in the jungle and hiding out in the bush, they’re like, ‘You know what? I may go down but at least I go down on my own terms.’ I think that lifestyle people find absolute fascinating.-John Chatterton, Deeper Blue Inteview by John Liang. see https://www.deeperblue.com/a-chat-with-two-pirate-hunters/
Back in the Dominican Republic, the “cool” tourists spend hot afternoons at a Sousa club called the Jolly Roger. This bar is dedicated to everything “pirate” and gives the patron a steady dose of classic rock. For a rebel and misfit, the Canadian-owned bar feels like a home away from home.
Last Summer, I began reading about pirates and was surprised to learn there was more to the golden age than we see in mainstream media and culture. Pirates were more than the simple-minded cutthroats and thieves we see in the movies. Of course, theft is wrong but these men were a variety unlike any other. In many cases, pirates practiced an early form of modern democracy that crossed both racial and social boundaries – they had the tools to team build for success.
Big-time golden age piracy was made possible thru a code of conduct (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirate_code). In a sense, the Pirate Code was a response to extreme mistreatment by the navy, merchant marine and powerful people.
Life in the 1500-1700s might have been filled with pleasure for the aristocracy but for most Europeans and colonists, it was nasty, brutish and short. According the author of The Republic of Pirates, Colin Woodward, from the 1500s to the 1800s, English “fields and pastures that were once used in common by local villagers were seized by feudal lords, enclosed with walls, fences and hedgerows”. Peasants could no longer raise their own livestock or rely on the commons for food. In order to survive, peasants were forced to “hire themselves out as laborers” but there was never enough pay. The huge loss in family and personal income was devastating. With indentured servitude, pathetic wages and various ruses, the European upper class made thralls of their own people (The Republic of Pirates, Colin Woodard, pg. 29).
Some young men tried to escape poverty by going to sea. Sadly, most found themselves virtual slaves aboard a merchant or military ship for years at a time. Often, they endured bad food, unhealthy conditions and were even cheated of their pay. Those who complained found out the hard way; sailors were at the lowest level of an abusive system. The sensitive, safe-spaced, social media-wielding people of today would be mortified:
“The captain ruled with absolute authority and many of them exercised it with shocking brutality. The admiralty’s trial records are filled with accounts of sailors being flogged or clubbed for minor mistakes…. Even sailors who managed to survive their terms of service rarely received the wages they were due. Merchant captains used a variety of ruses to shortchange their crews…. No wonder, then, that young sailors like Samuel Bellamy (Black Sam), Charles Vane and Edward Thatch (Blackbeard) regarded Henry Avery as a hero”.– from The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodward, 2007, pages 42-44.
Disgruntled sailors began to hear of the exploits of pirates. They learned of Henry Avery capturing a treasure ship owned by the Great Mogul of India and how the fabulous wealth gave him the option to retire. They were encouraged to hear how sailors could work together as a team and receive equal shares in a profitable enterprise.
“As well as having crew members assigned certain duties, pirates found a way to reduce conflict among themselves and maximize profits. They used a democratic system, spelled out by ‘articles of agreement’ written to limit the captain’s power and to keep order on board the ship… Piratical checks and balances proved quite successful. According to Captain Charles Johnson, owing to the institution of the quartermaster, aboard pirate ships “the Captain can undertake nothing which the Quarter-Master does not approve… he speaks for, and looks after the Interest of the Crew.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Governance_in_18th-century_piracy
Sure, there were a few peg legs and eye patches but the pirates were more than a Hollywood stereotype. It seems these men were not only after ill-gotten gains but were, in effect, rebels. Some were happy to trade merchant misery for a short-life of adventure, brotherhood and freedom – even if that should mean eventual death by hanging.
Others had gotten use to being sailors on privateer ships and found themselves unemployed once warring countries like Britain, France and Spain signed treaties and made-up. Rather than go back to a horrid existence as subservient sailors they chose the closest thing to being a privateer – the pirate’s life.
Pirate Influence on Government
“To secure social order and prosperity you need endow an authority with some power but constrain that authority so it doesn’t abuse that power. That’s what the pirate system of government was all about”.– Peter T Leeson, Author and Economist, in interview on Under The Crossbones Podcast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRmks9rkFWU&t=2166s
The history of Golden Age Piracy is filled with the unusual. Many pirate ships had crews of mixed backgrounds. Some pirates remained loyal to their country; other pirates were Jacobite. Some alternative researchers have even connected groups of pirates to the Knights Templar. It all begs the question, what were the pirates up to? Surely many envisioned a brighter future than swinging from a rope. They are mysterious. What were they planning to do with all that treasure? Are pirates the missing link between the Knight’s Templar and Freemasons who “fathered” America?
Pirates were willing to try new systems and democratic ideas were popular. On some pirate ships, Captains were little different than ordinary sailors and often only “led” their men in times of battle. The Captain was not the only one to enjoy finery – it seems the good life onboard was shared. Big decisions were put to a vote and leaders could be voted out of captaincy.
History reveals how the economic life of pirates became intertwined with that of American colonists. Pirates often sold their spoils to the colonists who resold to other locals. In fact, the “sweet trade” of pirates and privateers had become an essential part of business for the colonial ports due to the impossible Navigation Acts imposed by England, where English merchants were said to dominate trade and set high prices (see Raiders and Rebels, 1986, by Frank Sherry, pages 23-24). It’s not a stretch to suppose systems of ‘power checking power’ and the constraining of authority practiced by the pirates were influential on those who would later champion democracy:
“The men who sailed under the skull and crossbones were ordinary folk, like America’s revolutionaries, standing firm against oppressive governments and economic systems”.– Richard Burg, Arizona State University professor, see https://phys.org/news/2006-06-pirates-pursued-democracy-american-colonies.html
People can find a way to flourish but this often requires a careful balance A close examination of the pirates, their daily life and key leaders can shed light on how equitable systems form. Examining the remnants of pirate wrecks can give us new clues, check hypotheses and reveal hidden history.
Captain Bannister and the American Treasure Hunters
“…pirates were wilder than in any movie, more treacherous than in any novel. They conquered entire cities, devised ingenious methods for plundering, and struck terror into the hearts of their enemies, sometimes without raising a sword. By a single act alone – perhaps by eating the still beating heart of a merchant captain who refused to surrender- they broadcast their reputations across oceans. Even the downtime was epic, so packed with debauchery and fast living it would have spun the heads of modern millionaire rock stars. And yet, these pirates lived by a code of conduct and honor so far ahead of its time it made them nearly invincible”.
-from Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson, 2015, Author’s Note, page xii.
One of the reasons compelling me to visit the DR was to learn more about the pirate Captain Joseph Bannister. I read Robert Kurson’s “Pirate Hunters”(x) and wanted to see artifacts belonging to Bannister’s ship. His vessel, the “Golden Fleece” had been recently located by an American diving team led by John Chatterton and John Mattera.
Being rugged individualists themselves, Chatterton and Mattera especially liked Bannister because he chose a challenging path. He was a well-respected merchant sea captain and could have easily played the game, saved his money and retired to a pleasant cottage in later years. Instead, Bannister chose to put his skills and knowledge to the task of pirating.
Bannister Went Bad Ass
After some success as a pirate, Bannister was captured by the royal navy who took him to stand trial in Port Royal, Jamaica. Despite the evidence presented, the jury found him “not guilty” – it seems everyone in Port Royal was either a pirate or doing business with pirates and no local would convict him. This more than angered the Jamaican governor – he was said to have died from aggrievement and embarrassment related to Bannister only a few weeks later. The new governor was also humiliated when Bannister stole his ship back and returned to the sweet trade.
The new governor sent out two royal navy ships to retrieve the rogue and this is where Bannister became legendary. Most pirates who encountered the British navy ran away. The Royal navy were an ominous adversary, often possessing formidable speed in battle, well-trained crews and superior fire power but this time, Bannister would fight.
Bannister careened* his ship in a small bay yet instead of being an easy target, took the guns off his ship and placed them upon a hillside in the jungle – an enemy ship returning fire would fail to spot the cannon positions due to the dense brush and trees. When the two British ships came upon the careening Golden Fleece, they thought they had the rogue trapped. They expected surrender but were given a two day battle instead. The Royal Navy ran-out of ammunition and had to retreat back to Port Royal.
It was difficult for the governor to fathom how a small band of pirates defeated two royal navy ships! He gave the captains censure and demanded Bannister’s defeat. The royal navy were sent out again and later claimed to capture Bannister on the Mosquito Coast of Central America. They returned to Port Royal with a dead man hanging from the yard-arm, claiming this was the renegade. Bannister fans believe this was only to appease the governor and the rotting corpse could have been anyone. They say Bannister was too smart to lose.
That someone well-respected would choose to be a pirate makes Joseph Bannister a true antihero. For the two Americans, finding a sunken Spanish Galleon might be an accomplishment but finding Bannister’s pirate ship seemed far more meaningful and challenging.
The Hunt is On
“Finding treasure is all about research… (but) what you ultimately learn is not about sources, not about treasure hunting, rather it is all about critical thinking skills.-Otto Von Helsing, How to Research for Treasure Hunting and Metal Detecting (2013), page 11-12.
Chatterton and Mattera’s hunt for Bannister’s ship, the Golden Fleece, began with treasure hunter Tracy Bowden. Using his own time-tested techniques, Bowden had become a well-known and successful treasure hunter but he was stumped by the case of the Golden Fleece. All of his research suggested the pirate ship had sunk off Cayo Levantado, just of the North of the Dominican Republic. Bowden had come across an old map showing this island was once referred to as “Bannister Island” (it had been called “Kaye Bannistre” by the French and later “Pirate Island”). This and a series of clues convinced him the wreck of the Golden Fleece was nearby. Bowden had been given the rights to treasure hunt in the area and so he decided to ask Chatterton and Mattera to go after the wreck with their modern equipment.
Chatterton and Mattera followed Bowden’s instructions using high-tech magnetometer and side scan sonar but it eventually became clear they were looking in the wrong spot. Their survey failed to pick up any sign of the ship and Chatterton realized the original search area did not make sense as a hiding spot for a careening pirate ship. Bannister would be too smart to careen his ship out in the open where passing ships could easily spot him.
His partner, John Mattera traveled to research records in Seville, Spain and other libraries to find information on the pirate ship. Unlike the Spanish empire records on Galleons, however, information on the whereabouts of pirates and their shipwrecks is relatively scarce. To find a path forward, Mattera interviewed famous and successful treasure hunters to see if they might have insight. Time and again the treasure hunters said the same thing; if you want to find the ships you have to know the pirates.
The Americans began anew and finally discovered an intriguing locale in Samana Bay. Here was a place the Golden Fleece could hide from view while careening and there was a hillside where cannons could be mounted in defense against attacking ships. It was the sort of spot Bannister would choose. Slowly, the two men pieced it together and made their discovery close to the shore. Planks of wood formed the unmistakable shape of a ship’s hull and there were artifacts. After careful survey and cooperation with authorities, they were able to salvage “pirate” artifacts and some of these are on display at the awesome Museo Naval de Las Atarazanas (the shipwreck museum I visited) in Santo Domingo:
It All Depends on How You Define “Treasure“
As used clothing and other thrift stores seem to confirm, one person’s garbage can be another person’s treasure. It’s might only be a silver cup to some but the Holy Grail holds invaluable spiritual significance to others.
For the archaeologist, the “treasure” is a better understanding of the past. Archaeologists might be surprised to learn not all treasure hunters are fixated on numerical value and this is why archaeologists should consider them people and not swine. If the archaeologist and treasure hunter can align their interests and share “treasure” sensibly and fairly, all will be richer for it. Discouraging finders by passing too many restrictions will only lead to a black market where secrecy, hoarding and the loss of valuable knowledge continues.
Interestingly enough, it is the British who are at the forefront with progressive laws for treasure hunters. Instead of simply confiscating the hunter’s finds, the UK will pay them fair value for an artifact so it can be placed in a museum or lab as culturally significant heritage (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treasure_Act_1996). The treasure hunter is obliged to report the find but gets paid no matter what.
In the past twenty or thirty years many laws have been passed to discourage the looting of marintime treasure and save cultural heritage underwater. A treasure ship is usually judged to be the property of its owners and country of origin. Pirate ships, however, are a little different as it can be difficult to ascertain which country the “pirate ship” actually belongs. Unless they were privateers, pirates did not belong to any official nation and pirate crews were often of multi-national origin. If found in international waters, who can really claim ownership?
Pirates are of special interest to our collective past. The “democracy” and “codes” of pirates are an interesting study in human nature; we see how power can be shared and why some might reject systems that only benefit the “entitled few”. Bannister makes us wonder even more about pirate motivations. Chatterton and Mattera efforts in finding the Golden Fleece might not have made them financially rich but they bring everyone closer to the history; finding pieces to the puzzle of Joseph Bannister. (Post by Andrew James Brown, February 6, 2022)
x– The adventures of Chatterton and Mattera are chronicled in the excellent book “Pirate Hunters” by Robert Kurson.
* Careening is “the act of beaching your boat in shallow water at high tide so that when the tide goes out, the hull is exposed and dry. This allows repairs and bottom work to take place…” (see https://www.riggingdoctor.com/life-aboard/2018/2/2/careening#:~:text=Careening%20is%20the%20act%20of,is%20not%20viable%20or%20available.). It is often done to clean off barnacles and ship worm that can impede the speed and sea-worthiness of the craft.