The real pirates of the Cayman Islands

In the spring of 1717, a small turtling schooner was captured off the coast of Grand Cayman along with its crew. 

The ringleader of the raid was an exiled English sailor with a thick black beard and a fearsome reputation, named Edward Teach. 

That relatively minor act of piracy, at a time when the Caribbean Sea was awash with roving buccaneers, is a minor footnote in the life story of Blackbeard, who was killed a year later off the eastern coast of the U.S. 

It is also one of only three incidences of piracy in the Cayman Islands recorded in the history books. 

There may have been more, acknowledges Christopher Williams, a professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands, but the islands were never a “pirates’ lair.” 

As part of Pirates Week, a national celebration across all three Cayman islands, a flotilla – led by replica tall ship the Jolly Roger – will invade Hog Sty Bay on Saturday. 

Dressed as rum-swilling, dreadlocked pirates and wenches in fishnet stockings, hundreds will take to the streets for Cayman’s biggest party of the year. 

It’s good harmless fun, say historians, but the scenes on show owe a greater debt to the stories of Jamaica and the Bahamas than to the annals of the Cayman Islands. 

“We were never a home port for pirates in the sense that Port Royal was,” says Roy Bodden, president of UCCI and the author of several books on Cayman’s history. 

“They would come here to replenish their victuals and to repair their boats and perhaps to recruit, but they were never based here. 

“We didn’t have the rum supply, we didn’t have the women and we were not on the main merchant shipping routes.” 

Port Royal in Jamaica and New Providence in the Bahamas can lay more accurate claims to being the historical homes of piracy in the Caribbean. Both were central, at times lawless ports, dominated by pirates spending their plundered wealth in taverns and brothels. 

Cayman, during the golden age of piracy in the early 18th century, was more serene, a small society of fishermen and turtlers, like the unfortunate crew of the schooner that encountered Blackbeard’s fleet on that spring day in 1717. 

Mr. Williams, who charts the documented incidences of piracy in his new book “Defining the Caymanian Identity,” suggests the Cayman turtlers would have been lucky to escape with their lives following the encounter with a pirate known to “murder without provocation.” 

It is possible, he suggests, that some were recruited into Blackbeard’s crew. 

The infamous pirate was killed a year later after a bloody battle with British forces at Ocracoke Island, off the coast of the colony of Virginia. 

According to Williams’s book, there is historical evidence that two other infamous pirates, Captain Edward “Ned” Low and George Lowther met in Grand Cayman and together signed a treaty that “ratified future joint escapades in pillage and plunder throughout the Caribbean basin.” 

Eight years after that alliance was formed in 1722, Mr. Williams writes, another, lesser known pirate, Neil Walker, is recorded to have been in Cayman’s waters, “with the illicit intention of plundering two Spanish ships – the St. Michael and the Genouesa – laden with alcohol and wrecked on the reefs off the sister islands.” 

While the historical evidence of traditional piracy in Cayman is fairly slim, Mr. Williams believes that in the century that followed, the island may have become a kind of retirement haven for pirates chased out of their livelihood by the British navy. 

During the latter part of the 18th century and much of the 19th century, Cayman’s economy was supported by wrecking, the salvage and plunder of distressed ships. 

“Wrecking was right up there with fishing and turtling and was an important part of the islands’ economy,” he says. 

“It was known as the favored profession of retired pirates, so perhaps the 18th century Cayman wreckers were pirates at an earlier time.” 

Many of the more than 70 wrecks in Cayman’s waters were likely stripped of their cargo by wreckers, he suggests. A legitimate industry, when ships were in distress and requested assistance, wrecking sometimes strayed into a kind of land piracy, he suggests. 

“There is an old story in Cayman that wreckers would tie a lantern to a donkey and walk it up and down the shore in an effort to confuse ships and wreck them on the reefs. I’m not sure how true that is, or quite how it would work, but it is not impossible,” says Mr. Williams. 

From those slim historical pickings a folklore has emerged around piracy in the Cayman Islands that Mr. Bodden, president of the University College, believes has more to do with tourism than culture or history. 

“Pirates Week is an economic, rather than a cultural creation,” he suggests. 

“There is a little fact mixed with a lot of fiction.” 

For Mr. Williams, the fact that Cayman chooses to celebrate Pirates Week, rather than, say, Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery and a traditional holiday in many other parts of the Caribbean, is interesting. 

“We celebrate piracy,” he says. “Why not celebrate the abolition of slavery as well? It is a historical component that is part of who we Caymanians are today.” 

The Jolly Roger delivers a load of bloodthirsty pirates to central George Town.
Scenes of rum swilling pirates and wenches owe more to the histories of Jamaica and the Bahamas than the story of the Cayman Islands, say historians. – Photo: Stephen Clarke