The second of the hugely popular Pirates of the Caribbean movie series released in 2006 has become a record breaking phenomenon. The movie begins in a traditional manner with story and costume faithful to the early 1700s. Soon though, it metamorphoses into a supernatural satire complete with spectacular special effects, more weird and wonderful than historically accurate.
What many people may be unaware of is that there is a real Dead Man's Chest, Dead Man's Bay and a true story of a treasure chest full of pieces of eight right here in the British Virgin Islands. Not only that, but adventure storyteller Robert Louis Stevenson used many incidents from the BVI's skullduggery to spice his famous novel, the immortal Treasure Island. The Hollywood Pirates of the Caribbean writers seem to have had no qualms in borrowing Stevenson's famous refrain:
Fifteen Men on the dead man's Chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum
The opening sequence of the movie rings eerily with the verse while the songster swigs from a bottle of rum.
On the south side of the B.V.I.'s Sir Francis Drake Channel and just to the east of Peter Island is the cay named Dead Chest. The movie glosses over the impossible fact that there were "fifteen men on the dead man's chest." How could fifteen men stand on one treasure chest? The answer is that in the days of yore a "dead man's chest" was a coffin and if you look at the outline of the island from the north-west it certainly resembles a coffin, perhaps containing a shrouded body with raised head. As long ago as the late 1700s the cay's moniker was Dead Chest, clearly marked on Jeffrey's 18th century chart of the Virgin Islands. Folklore has it that Blackbeard marooned 15 men on the cay with nothing but a bottle of rum. Some apparently tried to swim the half mile to Peter Island's eastern cove but didn't make it. This beautiful palm-lined bay has the ominous name, "Dead Man's Bay."
Pirate lore, complete with treasure chests and lovable villains, is as popular today as at any time in history. The B.V.I.'s myriad cays and islands together with its location at a crossroads of trade routes made it an attractive location for many adventurers, pirates and buccaneers. Just how ruthless cut-throats, rapists and robbers became lovable folkloric characters is hard to explain, but every year more and more visitors to the islands are intrigued by the stories.
Often it is my pleasure as a charter yacht captain to show our tourists the bays, creeks and cays where these ruthless devils plotted and carried out their mischief.
The Bight at Norman Island and the Treasure Caves both feature as hiding places for a vast treasure that was the spoil of a Spanish Galleon wrecked on the shore of the Carolinas in 1750. William Blackstock and Owen Lloyd were the main protagonists along with Owen's brother, a pirate named John, who had a wooden leg. Norman Island itself is named for a pirate who either bought or leased it sometime in the early 1700s and then used it as a retreat. It became a retreat from other pirates who may have been after his booty pillaged from foundering ships caught on the treacherous reefs of Anegada.
Recently Carlisle Benning, Charlie for short, and his wife Sara and two children, Joe and Susan, chartered a 45 foot catamaran and were interested in sailing the islands in search of pirate history. They were from North Carolina and had a home on the shore of Pamlico Sound not far from Blackbeard's favourite anchorage at Ocracoke Inlet. They were fascinated with Norman Island and the Treasure Caves and demanded to learn more of pirate history. What could I say? I was their captain so it was on to more locations where swashbuckling was apparent in the annals of history.
We tacked up the Sir Francis Drake Channel and we had a chance to chat about Caribbean history, "Drake and the Spaniards were always at loggerheads," I began. "Columbus was the adventurer/explorer who is credited with 'discovering' the Caribbean. In his day it was an amazing feat but the accolades should end there. He has been labeled by some, the leader of one of the worst genocides in history. The conquistadores thirst for gold and their religious fanaticism saw the decimation of much of the islands' indigenouse population, and Drake took exception to it. He disregarded the edict of the pope who gave all Caribbean lands to the Spaniards. And when he saw the Catholics burning Protestants at the stake and mutilating "Indians" for practicing paganism he saw red. He devoted his life to attacking the Spaniards and stealing their gold. This channel we're named for Sir Francis Drake; he sailed down through what is now known as the Sir Francis Drake Channel in 1595 with a fleet of over 20 ships to attack the harbour of San Juan and wrest the treasure from a richly laden Spanish Galleon. He was knighted for bringing back to England a huge treasure after circumnavigating the globe in uncharted seas. The Spaniards called him El Draco, The Dragon."
As we rounded Beef Island and entered Trellis Bay the island of Bellamy Cay hove into view, the reputed lair of Black Sam Bellamy. "Can we explore the island?" queried Joe, excitedly.
"You sure can," I answered, "but now you're only likely to find a donkey, a parrot and a singing chef," referring to the bar and restaurant that now occupies the island.
"Sounds like a swarthy bunch," replied Charlie, "We'd better keep our powder dry."
"What was Black Sam like?" asked Joe. "Did he have a pirate ship?"
"Indeed he did," I replied. "Black Sam was master of an 18 gun, 300 ton, sleekly designed sailing ship, the Whydah. He plundered between 40 and 50 ships and loaded a huge cargo of gold, silver, jewels and valuable navigational instruments. He took no prisoners. Trellis Bay was his base; he victualled his ship with fresh beef from cattle that ran wild on Beef Island.
"His downfall was a woman. Rumour has it that the memory of a ravishing beauty, Maria Hallett, lured him north and one stormy night off the coast of Cape Cod the Whydah struck a lee shore and sank. Only two of the pirate crew survived to tell the tale. Black Sam perished along with the rest of the crew."
"What about the treasure?" asked the wide-eyed Joe.
"Sank along with the ship - straight to Davy Jones' locker. And there it stayed for nearly 270 years. In 1985 some treasure salvors found the treasure. They even identified the ship by its big bronze bell. On it was stamped: The Whydah 1717."
"I wanna be a treasure hunter," said eight-year-old Joe. "Can we go snorkelling now?" And we did. We dinghied over to Diamond Reef close to Marina Cay and spent nearly an hour looking for pieces of eight.
The next day our destination was Anegada, once a pirate haven occupied by beachcombers, wreckers and beached buccaneers. It was an attractive place for scoundrels of the sea; its waters were teeming with fish, lobster and conch. The reefs made it impenetrable except for those with intimate local knowledge and the surrounding reefs and currents made it a veritable Venus fly trap for shipping. A fast running westerly set would wreck ships on a regular basis especially with a little help from a professional wrecker who would position false lights to guide ships to an early grave.
The family spent the whole day snorkeling at Loblolly Bay and had a delicious lobster lunch at the Big Bamboo. In the evening I took the family to the Pomato Point restaurant and bar. In a room in one corner is a collection of artifacts, a mini museum of relics and memorabilia down through the pages of time since Arawak Indian days. There were gin bottles, apothecary jars, coins, sword handles, naval buttons, even an old wreck map. By this time Joe was just too tired to take much interest and he fell asleep in the dinghy on the way back to the boat.
We continued on in the wake of many a buccaneer, the morning fresh and the wind on the beam. Our compass was pointing to Jost Van Dyke and the "bubbly pool," a natural jacuzzi formed by a narrow opening in the rocks that allows the sea to rush in under pressure, "Pirate Jost used this pool for his annual bath," I told the ever wide-eyed Joe.
"Once a year," he said, "He must have stunk like a skunk ."
"Ripe as rotten cheese," I replied, "They liked it that way."
We had a quick stop at Soper's Hole, once the careening cove of many a barnacle encrusted ship. Now it's home to the nautically named Pusser's and the Jolly Roger, both watering holes of distinction. On our easterly beat we tacked by Peg Leg's Landing, "That were Long John Silver's favourite tavern," I explained in pirate dialect to my new best buddy, Joe, "Apart from the Admiral Benbow in Bristol o' course."
"Wow," there sure are a lot of pirates around these parts," he said. And that was how we parted company a few days later. Joe had a tattoo, a pirate flag, a pirate book, a bandanna and a jolly roger tee, emblazoned with a skull and crossbones.
When we reached the marina and we had said our good byes the family was half way down the dock on their way to the cab when Joe turned around, "Always watch your back," he said, "And keep your powder dry!"
It seems that the "pirates of the Caribbean" live on today, as they did in yesteryear.