The Problem with Pirates

November 1, 2017
by Maryland Humanities

Who was Bartholomew the Portuguese? This daring buccaneer laid in wait for passing ships on their way to the Caribbean hoping to relieve them of their riches. That perspective is one of many in the complicated story of piracy in the Americas. With the Teaching with Primary Resources Inquiry Kits Maryland Humanities has brought together primary documents from each perspective so students can analyze history and form their own opinions.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

One of over 60 Inquiry Kits, “Problems with Pirates” kit takes a close look at pirates, privateers and buccaneers – who they were, and how they terrorized the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.  You have most likely heard the frightening stories about Blackbeard and his crew, but he was not the only one terrorizing the Caribbean.  Henry Morgan left his family in the Welsh countryside to take up a life of piracy in Jamaica. At the request of the English government in Jamaica, Morgan raided and looted Spanish ships. Meanwhile, King James of England made it a crime for ship captains to lose their sailing orders.  Governments both loved and hated piracy. It provided them a way to punish countries that they disagreed with by letting pirates do unsavory work for them. They, too, however, lost many of their treasures to pirates or to the bottom of the sea in the process. Government officials wrote up complicated directions for ship captains to avoid pirates, while treasure ships were lost all along the coast in battle after battle with pirates.

One downed treasure ship featured in the Inquiry Kits is the Whydah Galley.  The flagship of the famous Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, the Whydah shipwrecked off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717, scattering its wreckage and loot over a large area. Stories and legends developed about the wreck of the Whydah, inspiring young treasure seekers. Relying on primary documents and reports about period rescue efforts, underwater archaeologist Barry Clifford uncovered the remains of the Whydah. You can look though the Inquiry Kit to get a glimpse of what a fearsome sight the Whydah might have been to the other ships it encountered on the high seas and to folks in settlements along the coast.

The distinct and enticing place in history that Pirates inhabit brings “Conflict and Compromise”, the theme for National History Day 2018, into focus.  Which conflicts were direct results of piracy?  What compromises did settlements and governments have to make because of pirates?  How did governments deal with the benefits and backfires of piracy? These questions along with many others are a great start for students beginning their History Day research.

TPS Inquiry Kits are the result of a partnership among Maryland Humanities, Maryland Public Television, and the Maryland State Department of Education, funded by the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program. The new Inquiry Kits allow students to choose research topics that interest them, and to use primary sources from the Library of Congress to get more first-hand information about them. From life in pre-Columbian America to the modern-day United States, the Inquiry Kits examine social studies/history themes and align to Maryland curriculum units.  Inquiry Kits are great for use in classroom activities, and especially as springboards for History Day projects.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on our blog do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Maryland Humanities or our funders.