Critical Intel

A Piracy Primer for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag sails the series into uncharted territory. Previous installments dropped players into well-known historical periods like the Renaissance, Crusades, and American Revolution, but AC4 is the first time the series has to deal with a period that the public primarily knows through myth. Pirates are probably the most romanticized figures in history. Far from their origins as vicious sea-borne criminals, torturing and murdering across the waves, we now see the sea rovers as symbols of freedom and individualism. Indeed, Ubisoft will have to walk a fine line trading on the most appealing aspects of the pirate legend while still keeping its chops as an historical series.

But legends aren’t what we deal with here at Critical Intel – we like facts. So I’ve compiled a helpful primer either supporting, or debunking, the myths Ubi’s going to throw at you this week.

The Secret War

The war between the Assassins and the Templars didn’t fuel the Golden Age of Piracy. That much is obvious. However, during the 16th and 17th centuries, two opposing ideologies actually did fight a worldwide struggle that led to the pirates’ ascent – Catholicism and Protestantism.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the European wars of religion tore the continent apart for over a hundred years. The toll was tremendous. Not only was there the human cost-the Thirty Years War alone killed 8 million people-but Europe’s political borders shattered and reformed, dragging entire countries into anarchy or decline. One of those countries was Spain. Decades of conflict drove the Spanish Empire to near bankruptcy as it simultaneously fought Protestant nations, the Ottoman Empire, France, and tried to hold onto its colonial possessions. The result was that the Spanish became dependent on the supply of silver from their colonial possessions in the New World to keep their economy afloat, and began to expand its colonial efforts to protect the financial lifeline.

Simultaneously, Spain’s largest rivals the English, French and Dutch saw an enormous opportunity – to take bread from the Spanish mouth through privateering and licensed piracy. This strategy had a dual purpose: not only did privateers bleed the Spanish, but the large influx of cash served to build fledgling English and French colonial ports like Jamaica and Port Royal that could challenge Spanish possession of the New World. (The Dutch, for their part, mostly fought the Portuguese in Brazil). During this time, privateering and piracy flourished as colonial governors handed out letters of marque to anyone who’d attack the enemy and bring back the spoils, but by the 1690s this fell out of practice, leading many would-be privateers to go freelance. This got even worse when the War of Spanish Succession ended in 1714, and Britain and France dismissed their privateer fleets from duty.

In other words, there were a lot of unemployed men hanging around the Caribbean who didn’t know how to do anything but raid shipping – the massive upswing in piracy was entirely predictable.

Pirate Articles

With the Assassin’s Creed franchise’s ongoing narrative about centralized versus diffused power, prepare to hear a lot about how pirate ships were egalitarian proto-democracies. To a certain extent this is actually true. Pirate crews elected their captain by democratic vote, split up any spoils in previously agreed-upon shares, set their own rules aboard ship and even paid compensation for injuries. Crews laid out all these decisions in the ship’s articles (also called a charter), a document that laid out rights, rules and punishments in a form that some historians have compared to an early constitution – they even had checks and balances. Functionally, that meant captains had full authority over their ships during combat operations, but could be voted out of office at any other time. A captain’s executive power was also balanced the judicial power of the quartermaster, who acted as the ship’s magistrate, represented the crew and led any boarding parties during battle. This anti-class ethos even extended to the symbols of leadership – captains were expected to share their cabins, crockery and even food with ordinary sailors.

The reality is more complicated, though. Pirates were not above impressment – forced recruiting – and it’s well known that some crewmen were forced to sign ships’ articles under duress. But like everything in pirate lore, the coercion stories aren’t clear-cut either. Some willing recruits apparently requested this treatment, since signing under duress meant they could plead innocent and escape the noose if they were caught.

About That Black Flag…

The black flag, variously known as the skull and cross bones or “jolly roger” actually came fairly late in piracy, since it was only widely adopted around 1700. Pirates flew the black flag before battle, where it served as an intimidation tactic to convince ships to surrender or be prepared to suffer the consequences. Several layers of symbolism combined to make the flag and its dire message so recognizable. The skulls, hourglasses and skeletons were symbols of death, and commonly used on headstones at the time. Black flags generally indicated quarantine in nautical parlance, configuring the pirates as riding a literal “death ship” toward their enemies. However, black wasn’t the universal color either, as some pirates preferred red, which was the traditional sign of “no quarter” and signaled that no one was to be left alive.


Diving Bells and Salvage

One historian of the period has estimated that between 1500 and 1820, Spanish treasure convoys made 17,000 return trips from the Caribbean, carrying bullion with a modern value of $20 billion. These convoys, known as flotas, sailed in packs to minimize losses from privateers and pirates, but in doing so they exposed themselves to greater danger – Mother Nature.

The logistical nightmare of organizing the fleets meant they always left port later than anticipated, rarely getting underway until August or September. That meant the flotas had to negotiate the treacherous reefs between Florida and Cuba in hurricane season. Statistics bear out how dangerous this could be. One study of 11,000 Spanish return voyages found that 16.7% of the ships were lost due to weather. It was only a matter of time before people tried to harvest the riches that were lying on the sea floor.

Most salvage operations in the Caribbean weren’t conducted by Europeans, but by native peoples who had a tradition of clam-diving or harvesting food from the sea. Originally the Spanish Empire enslaved these indigenous tribes and forced them to dive for pearls – a fate that meant most of them died spitting blood from lung trauma – but soon Spanish authorities realized it was more profitable to utilize them as quick-reaction salvage crews. These diving teams would set out as soon as they received word of a sinking, locate the wreck with a dragline, and recover its guns and cargo. In shallow water they might simply free dive down to the wreck, but for deeper jobs they – like Edward Kenway – used a diving bell. These contraptions looked fairly similar to church bells, and would be lowered down into the water to create a breathable pocket of air for divers operating at depth. (Later versions included weighted barrels to refresh the bell’s air supply.) The idea was that divers would swim out from the bell in order to grab items off the sea floor, use long tools to recover goods from the safety of the bell, and attach cables or tongs to cannons so their shipmates could haul them to the surface.

Diving bells had a limited effectiveness. By nature they were expensive and cumbersome, and only provided bottom time of a half hour at most. Further, they were unusable in anything but sheltered waters, since any sort of turbulence could spill their air. Finally, their depth was fairly limited, since water pressure compressed the air inside by one-half for every thirty-three feet the bell descended. Still, under the right conditions the Spanish – and others – recovered enough to make the venture worthwhile. In 1686 for example, English treasure hunter William Phips salvaged 26 tons of silver from the wreck of the Concepción using native divers. By the end of the 17th century, there were even crews working in the frigid waters of Northern England, Scotland and Sweden, recovering lost goods or clearing wrecks with barrels of gunpowder in underwater demolition operations. Two Englishmen, John Lethbridge and Jacob Rowe, even developed “diving engines” that amounted to airtight cylinders with a porthole and leather-sealed armholes.

There’s no evidence that pirates ever utilized diving bells to scavenge a wreck, and indeed, it’s unlikely due to the how expensive the bells were. However, there are accounts by legitimate salvage crews of having to scare off opportunistic free-divers, so it’s possible pirates capitalized on shallow water wrecks – and we know of at least one instance where pirates raided salvage divers after they’d already done the hard work.

Pirate vs. Privateer – A Finer Line Than You Think

Everyone knows the difference between a privateer and a pirate. A pirate is just a sea-borne robber, while a privateer carries a government-sanctioned letter of marque. Pretty clear cut, right? Not so fast.

In reality pirates and privateers weren’t as easily discernable as we may think, and many changed from one to another over the course of their careers. A privateering vessel, for example, could commit piracy by attacking and looting ships of a non-enemy nation, then continue on its legitimate duties. Likewise, a privateering crew could mutiny and turn pirate through greed, or violate its letter of marque by attacking enemy ships after a war ended. Others committed piratical acts through underreporting their takings, essentially embezzling money from the crown. It gets even more complex when you factor in international diplomacy – Spain, for instance, considered all English privateers to be pirates, and frequently petitioned the British government to turn them over for trial. But it worked in reverse as well – some pirates behaved like privateers, attacking enemy shipping out of patriotic duty, and some even carried forged or illegitimate letters of marque to purposely confuse the issue.


To understand how murky these situations could get, consider the case of Henry Morgan. In 1668 Morgan was a vice-admiral in the English Navy commanding 15 ships. He sailed under a letter of marque signed by the governor of Jamaica. There was only one problem – the governor had issued the letter against the orders of King Charles II, who wanted out of the privateering business. Ergo, while Morgan was a privateer on paper, his actions against the Spanish could also be deemed piracy. This situation came to a head after Morgan sacked Panama, unwittingly violating the Treaty of Madrid that had ended hostilities between England and Spain earlier that year. Bending to diplomatic fury, the government recalled Morgan to England and placed him under arrest. However, by the time the accused pirate arrived, relations with the Spanish had broken down again, and instead of punishing Morgan, King Charles knighted him and appointed him Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. Morgan went from privateer to pirate to government official – all in five years.

Racial Equality Among Pirate Crews – A Contested Issue

Popular culture tends to cast pirates as enlightened with regard to inclusiveness and ethnicity, arguing that freebooter crews represented a vast stew-pot of cultures and nationalities and a rare example of racial equality in the 18th century. Democratic pirate crews welcomed black men as equals, the argument goes, and slaves were known to swim out to pirate vessels in order to escape their bonds. It’s a seductive argument – after all, who doesn’t want to believe something so heartwarming? Unfortunately, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest this is either false or only partially true.

There’s no question that black men were prevalent among pirate crews. Contemporary accounts often mention the racial makeup of pirate crews with hard numbers, and according to these accounts we can estimate roughly 20-30% of pirates were black. What we don’t know, however, is what kind of status these men held aboard ship.

Men from all over the world (and some women) drifted into piracy. They could be merchant seamen, former navy men or landmen seeking wealth and adventure. Among them were also indigenous peoples from the Americas, Africans and mixed race people of almost every combination imaginable – some of whom did not serve willingly. Native divers, for example, were not only prized for their salvage skills but for ability to fix hull leaks below the waterline – pirates often kidnapped them for this purpose. Likewise, historians are unsure whether the black men aboard were full members of the crew, partial members, or were treated effectively like slaves. Unfortunately, most sources seem to support that they were held in some form of servitude. William Dampier described his own expedition in 1681 as being made up of Europeans, Indians and five black men that didn’t carry weapons. Captain Kidd employed slaves to do the heavy lifting on his own ship – though these men were Asian Lascars, since he sailed in the Indian Ocean – and Basil Ringrose records how his privateering vessel hit a Spanish ship in 1679, taking “twelve slaves, of whom we intended to make good use to do the drudgery of our ship.” Indeed, by the 1720s pirates were so infamous for preying on slave trading vessels, and even kidnapping slaves from plantations, that in 1724 Jamaican merchants wrote to the Council of Trade and Plantations in London demanding something be done. It seems that many pirates used black men to do the worst jobs on the ship such as working the pumps, going ashore for wood and water, and doing the washing – though all told this may have been preferable to life in the sugar plantations, explaining why slaves might escape to a pirate ship.

Given the evidence, it seems logical to conclude that most pirates shared the entrenched belief of most Europeans at the time – that non-white persons were at best curiosities and at worst property. AC4 seems to have taken the other tack, with Edward’s second-in-command being a former slave named Adewale, and frankly, I can’t blame them for not wanting to take the topic on. Apparently, the DLC will feature a story where the player controls Adewale liberating slaves in Haiti, so perhaps we will get to see that side of the story dealt with in a more serious manner.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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