University of North Carolina at Asheville









Eyes on God and Gold:

The Importance of Religion during the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy






A Senior Thesis Submitted to

the Faculty of the Department of History

in Candidacy for the Degree of

Bachelor of Arts in History










Emily E Collins








Dr. Pierce

Hist 452

11-12-04 [donated to Special Collections August 2005]


During the Golden Age of Piracy, from 1680 to around 1725, European and colonial clergy depicted pillagers of the sea as immoral criminals.  “They ran as far as they could from God, and strove as far as they could to keep all Thoughts of God out of their Minds,” wrote an unnamed pirate executed on July 19, 1723 in Newport, Rhode Island for “robbery on the high seas.”[1]  Even today, pirates are looked at as godless creatures who wasted their stolen booty for booze and women.  Yet, over the past twenty years, scholars have significantly increased the body of research particularly on the pirates who roamed the Caribbean during this Golden Age of Piracy.[2]  Thus far, research conducted on pirates has primarily focused on the evolution and definition of the term “pirate,” voyages of individual pirates, and the social causes that drove men to become pirates.  However, much remains unknown and misunderstood about these legendary buccaneers.  As the background of pirates and piracy is explored, new evidence suggests that pirates were not the godless, immoral men so commonly portrayed in such popular media as Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Despite the interest in the adventures of infamous pirates, many scholars have failed to examine an aspect of life mistakenly perceived as uncommon among pirates—religion.  Although pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy were interested in Spanish pieces of eight and other treasure, many pirates were religiously motivated and thus religion played a significant role in their everyday lives.

From the start piracy in the New World held religious ties.  This is due to the fact that the New World was claimed by Portugal and Spain through the power of the Pope. Thomas Astley helps trace the rise of piracy by noting that after Christopher Columbus opened the gate to the mysterious islands and continents of the West Indies in 1492, European nations set sail to Caribbean to lay claim its land.[3]  Two years following Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World, with the Pope Alexander VI’s Treaty of Tordesillas Spain and Portugal claimed all land in the New World.[4]  This proclamation divided the New World strictly between the two nations.  Spain gained much of the Americas, including the Caribbean, from this papal doctrine, while Portugal received Brazil.[5]  Prior to the Reformation, few countries crossed the lines drawn by the Treaty of Tordesillas.  Yet when England and Holland broke from the Catholic Church in the mid-1600’s, the line was ignored and the Caribbean became the focal point of political conflict between European nations with piracy as the weapon of choice.[6]  These acts of piracy and the Treaty of Tordesillas, allowed the Spanish to define pirates as any, “Northern European interloper in American waters […] or unsanctioned sea-raiders.”[7]

With the Spanish’s broad definition of piracy, it is understandable why historians disagree on what constitutes a pirate.  Since the word “pirate” has been debated and used interchangeable with other words, like buccaneer or freebooter, it is important to understand what constituted a pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy.  Ritchie argues that prior to the Golden Age of Piracy three distinctly different types of pirates raided ships passing through the waters of the Caribbean.  The classifications of these pirates were officially sanctioned privateering, commercial buccaneering, and marauding.[8]  Each type of pirate had a different origin and intention.

According to Ritchie, officially sanctioned piracy, or privateering, flourished in the New World.  Though it was clearly piratical by law, it went unpunished due to governmental documentation, called letters of marque, authorizing pillaging.[9]  Ritchie also mentions the use of false marques among sea raiders as a common practice in order to make their plundering appear legal.[10]  Alfred Rubin notes that piracy, as defined in the 1696 English case of Rex vs. Dawson, is a term for the act of committing robbery on the sea.[11]  Philip Gosse notes Cotton Mather’s view that privateering “stroke so easily degenerates into the piratical.”[12]  For instance, the majority of sailors on privateer ships left in the midst of an expedition to become pirates.[13]  Burg also mentions that from 1650 to 1730, “privateer” and “pirate” became interchangeable terms, and after 1730 it was difficult to differentiate the two.[14] 

Ritchie is one of few scholars who comments on the second type of piracy, commercial buccaneering.  He argues that in the case of commercial buccaneering the act of piracy is completely profit driven.  Commercial buccaneers were not bound by national or international allegiances.  Such pillaging crews where sponsored by merchants or individuals, rather than by governments. [15] Marauding is the third classification of piracy, as Ritchie defines.  Marauding, or freebooting, evolved by the end of the sixteenth century and was brought to the Caribbean by 1650.  It was in the Caribbean that marauders found a true home.  Peter Galvin defines marauders as pirates who did not hold marquees or allegiance to a specific country.[16]  Thus, both buccaneers and pirates fit in to the classification of marauders. In the seventeenth century these terms were also synonymous.[17]  Thus, by the Caribbean’s Golden Age of Piracy, all three types and terms for pirates were officially identified and synonymous.

Another aspect of piracy that historians have debated over the past twenty years has been the social causes that drove men to sign pirate articles and become pirates in the New World.  Scholars like B.R. Burg found that numerous men joined due to the “imbalance of wealth,” which caused many commoners to live in extreme poverty.[18]  Men signed onto pirate vessels for the potential for a quick profit.  Pirates could make four thousand pounds on one expedition, while a common seaman made little more than one pound a month.[19] Like Burg, Marcus Rediker also notes poverty as a cause for Anglo-American men to join company with buccaneers.  Rediker argues that men would not have turned to piracy if their “masters of merchant men” had not abused them.[20]  Rediker contends that pirates detested the traditional norms of European society.

Moreover, Burg speculates that English sailors turned to piracy for freedom from the grasp of religious intolerance throughout Europe during the Thirty Years War.[21]  The religious battles of the Thirty Years War were over Protestant Netherlands fighting for its independence from Catholic Spain.  Although Britain, France, and Germany frequently became involved with alliances of one the two nations, most of the battles took place in the Caribbean. Timothy Walton cites both the Thirty Years War and the Eighty Years Wars as causes for increased attacks upon the Spanish Main.  Yet after the 1630’s, Walton makes no mention of religious motives.[22]

Therefore, it is the role of religion in Caribbean piracy that has been overlooked by many historians. Even though pirates like William Kidd, Henry Morgan, and Edward Teach, fascinate historians like Ritchie, the aspects of their religious lives have been overlooked.  Thus, causing the popular perception of pirates as godless rogues to continue to be perpetuated by centuries of religious and political propaganda.

Kris Lane, author of Pillaging the Empire, argues that pirates played an important role in the religious battles and desecration seen throughout the West Indies during the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries.  Protestant Dutch privateers, like Piet Heyn, used piracy as a way to fight Catholic Spanish control.[23]  Lane states that the freebooters of 1680’s-1720’s were different from other ages of piracy due to “their almost universal rejection of national and religious authorities.” He also claims that the enemy of the Golden Age pirates was not Catholic Spain.[24]  Furthermore, Lane concludes that when alcohol and treasure were present, buccaneers “knew no gods but Mammon and Bacchus—and no laws but their own.”[25]  Yet, the research that Lane conducts on pirates who roamed the Caribbean Sea between 1680-1726 is all based on secondary research.[26]  Thus, without research from primary sources Lane has a hole in his claim that pirates of the Golden Age were against religion.  In fact, many pirates of the Golden Age still held religious convictions and raided Caribbean ports in the name of their country and religion, like the pirates of eras prior.

            During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century clergy as well political officials and newspaper correspondents played a role in helping suppress piracy. Clergy actively tried to suppress piracy through their sermons by denouncing “pirates as played sea monsters, vicious beasts, and a many-headed hydra all creatures that[…]lived beyond the bounds of human society.”[27]   Public sermons were used both in the colonies and European nations as a way to shift public opinion and were a tool for criticism of public domain.[28]  During the seventeenth and eighteenth century clergy customarily visited prisoners before trials and executions to allow them to confess their sins. These confessions and sermons were used as “a massive naval and judicial campaign” against freebooters.[29]  This campaign caused hundreds of trials against buccaneers between 1704-1726 and resulted in a half dozen volumes of pirate execution sermons.[30]  They were read to citizens and even published as governmental propaganda and entertainment for Anglo-American citizens. Due to their popularity, piracy trials were printed into the fist half of the nineteenth century.[31]

             Although the image portrayed of pirates was not that of pious and religious church-goers, some did have a religious background and held onto much of it even in their adventures throughout the Caribbean.   Reverend Paul Lorrain, the clergy member for Newgate prison in London, and Cotton Mather of Massachusetts both published their personal encounters with and confessions of the pirates they counseled.  Lorrian’s accounts of men convicted of piracy, like Captain Alexander Dolzell and William Kidd, note some of the difficult behaviors and confessions of men who were frustrated with their circumstances.  Lorrain notes that, “While they were under this Condemnation I constantly visited them, sometimes in their Dungeons, often in the Chapel of Newgate, where I read Prayers and the Word of God to them, and endeavour’d to instruct them in the Christian Religion, which they little knew, and less practis’d.”[32]  Although Lorrain noted that the men sentenced to death for piracy knew little of the Christian faith, many pirates had actually practiced some form of Christianity during their lives.  With death upon them, some like Dolzell and Kidd chose to disregard their religious nature until the tight grip of the noose encompassed their necks. Lorrain also was the chaplain who gave religious guidance to Captain William Kidd in 1701.[33]   According to David Cordingly, Kidd, like Captain Dolzell, refused to confess and repent for crimes he was convicted of since he believed he was innocent.[34]  Lorrain found this shocking, since Kidd was well educated and held no grudges towards the Church.  Even on his execution day Kidd refused to repent, but he promised Lorrain that he would confess his sins at the gallows.  Lorrain hoped that Kidd would be ready to repent at his execution, but to his disappointment he, “found when [Kidd] was brought thither, that he was inflamed with Drink; which had so discomposed his Mind, that it was in a very ill frame.”[35]  Once at the gallows, Kidd rambled on about his innocence and warned fellow sailors to learn from his experience.[36]  Kidd was then hanged, but the rope broke and Kidd, still conscious, fell to the ground.  Lorrain convinced Kidd that his was God’s mercy and successfully persuaded Kidd to announce his faith and repent.[37]  After this occurrence Lorrain, “found [Kidd] in much better temper than before…now indeed he did so fully and freely…declaring openly that he repented with all his Heart, and Dy’d in Christian Love and Charity with all the world.”[38]  Even though Kidd’s repentance was moment before his death his change in behavior still illustrates the pious nature. 

                Dolzell, unlike Kidd, refused to repent and was rude to Father Lorrain.  When Lorrain went to visit Dolzell before his execution, Dolzell refused to set his eye upon the Holy Bible and threatened to rip it apart. Lorrain also noted that Dolzell threatened the Reverend bodily harm and, “‘He would do [Lorrain] some mischief before he died, or haunt [him] afterwards.’” [39] According to Lorrain, Dolzell “would answer not questions, nor receive no advise from [Lorrain], who was the Cause of his death.”[40]  Dolzell, Scottish by birth and French by way of piracy, was assigned Lorrain as an interpreter for his trial and blamed Lorrain for his sentence of death. The fact that Dolzell blamed Lorrain for the loss of his trial is a probable reason for why he would refuse to pray and repent for his sins even though he was religious.  Lorrain noted in the Newgate log that Dolzell claimed himself to be a Papist, of Catholic faith, while in Newgate prison.[41]  Moments before he was hanged, Dolzell did repent his sin of robbery on the high seas, yet Lorrain, like other clergy, often wondered if last minute repentance was sincere.  After Dolzell’s death, Lorrain wondered, “whether that repentance was sincere, and not too late, is much to be doubted.”[42]  This idea that a pirates’ repentance was too little too late was quite common.  In fact, in Newport, Rhode Island, where Mather gave a sermon he also noted he was wary and mistrustful of buccaneers’ last minute confessions.  He wrote, “Though true Repentance be never too late, if it be true and real Repentance, yet late Repentance is so seldom true, and commonly to be suspected unless there be remarkable Evidence of Sincerity of it.”[43] Although this confession did come late it is important to note that it did in fact come. 

                  Fly’s situation reveals that even though pirates were often unwilling to repent or confess to sins they still held these religious believes.  William Fly convicted of piracy in Newport, Rhode Island, was still executed for refusing to confess to being a freebooter.  Yet his refusal did not make him irreligious.  In fact, prior to his execution, Cotton Mather encouraged Fly to forgive the man who turned him into the authorities.   Fly responded, “If I should say, that I forgive that Man, and that I wish him well, I should ly against my Conscious, and add Sin to Sin.”[44]  A common language of moral reference was shared between Fly and Mather since Mather notes that “wishing malice against your Neighbour[…] is as great a Sin as a Lye.”[45]  Moreover, Fly’s religious background is also revealed through counsel with Mather.  When Mather inquired of Fly if he remembered that in order to be forgiven he must forgive and if he prayed according to the Lord’s Prayer, Fly replied, “Yes, I do!—But for all that, I cannot Forgive that Man.  God Almighty Revenge me on him!—‘Tis a Vain thing—I won’t dy with a Lye in my Mouth.”[46]  Fly continued to illustrate his piety when he stated that he read The Converted Sinners book, about piety, before he was brought in and convicted of piracy.  At the same time he stated this, Fly was holding the Bible in his hands.[47]   Even though Fly never confessed to being a pirate or repented his sins before his final hour, it is quite apparent through his dialogue that he was a man who did have knowledge and respect of religion.  Fly’s unwillingness to “dy with a Lye in [his] mouth” in order to appease the Reverend clearly illustrates his respect toward religion.  Furthermore, his strength not to perjure himself in order to appease Mather actually shows his respect more than if he had broken down in front of Mather and confessed.

               By looking at the trials and experiences of pirates once sentenced to death, it is obvious that religion had a vital impact on their lives—and their final hours.  Reverend Mather visited the prisons quite frequently to provide guidance and sermons when pirates were convicted.[48]  He visited the prisons in hope that he would be able to show them their wrongs in piracy and to bring them back to God.[49]  In most cases, the pirates Mather worked with were willing to repent and pray for forgiveness from God.  The two other men captured with Fly, Cole and Greenville, confessed and noted to have much “greater sings of repentance.”[50]  At their execution, Cole and Greenville requested not only that Mather pray, but two other local ministers as well.[51]  In 1724, one of the execution sermons that was published was The Converted Sinner in which Acher and White, two confessed pirates, stated that they spent their time imprisoned in prayer and reading books of piety, psalms, as well as the Bible.[52]  In Mather’s Faithful Warnings to Prevent Fearful Judgment he cites a young man hanged for piracy.  This young man’s father was a Reverend, “who Dyed for his religion.”  After his father’s death the convicted pirate stated he would never “be Hanged for religion, as his father was.”[53]  He was not hanged for religion, rather piracy and murder.  This man obviously had religion in his life at one point seeing that his father had been a Reverend. 

                Lorrian had similar experiences to Mather and also notes the repentance and religious nature of Kidd’s crew.  He recorded that Darby Mullins, John du Bouis, and another French crewman as Christians who traveled amongst Kidd.  Both du Bouis and the other French men were Roman Catholics, while Mullins is only recorded as a Christian from Ireland.  These three members of Kidd’s crew prayed with Lorrain throughout their stay at Newgate and on their execution day called upon God shouting, “Lord have Mercy upon me! Father have Mercy upon me! Sweet Savior of the World have Mercy upon me! which they repeated several times.”[54]  The religion and repenting of these crew hands illustrates that some pirates actually held religious convictions.

             Despite pirates, like Fly’s, unwillingness to repent, the lack of repentance should not be misinterpreted as a lack of religion.  As noted earlier during this time period the political officials and law were mercilessly aggressive on trying and convicting seamen of piracy.  It was common for a group, even as large as thirty, to be granted a trial of a single day since defendants usually did not speak on their own behalf.  When sailors did defend themselves, they usually claimed that abusive treatment on merchant ships drove them to piracy or that they signed the pirate articles while drunk.[55] 

            These men usually had little or no education, and even their repentance of sins in front of a judge was usually to no avail.  The punishment for piracy was well known throughout Europe and the American colonies at that time: any seaman caught aboard a buccaneer ship and who had signed the pirate articles was destined for the gallows.[56]  The Ordinary of Newgate Accounts of Confessions, Behavior and Dying Words and other such journals were often bound and one of the most popular reads of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

            With the punishment of death facing captured freebooters, some, like Dolzell, felt that God had turned his back on them.  In turn, they would turn their back on God.  One man who hanged in Newport, referring to pirates in general, noted in his confession, “the most of them could acknowledge, that they lived some part of their Time under the Means of Grace,” meaning that they had all spent a portion of their lives practicing religion conventionally.[57]  This further illustrates that buccaneers traveling in the seas of the West Indies did live peacefully with God and religion, yet when they felt God had turned on them, they did the same.

        It is also clear from the broader historical context that pirates were motivated to action because of religious convictions.  During the Eighty Years War, English and French buccaneers worked together in raiding their mutual enemy—the Spanish.  Alliances did not always work because of tensions continually present due to the countries’ very different religious doctrines.  When Captain Harris, Captain Swan, and Captain Davis raided Pueblo Nuevo, the English Protestants offended their French Catholic cohorts by cutting off the arms of a religious statue.[58] 

        By 1660, Britain began to implement laws that restricted only those with Episcopalian ordination to officiate churches.  While King Charles II implemented the Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, an act protecting Protestant worship in public and Roman Catholic masses in private, it was repealed by Parliament a year later.  In 1685, France angered England by repealing the Edict of Nantes, slowly starving Protestants of their liberties and repressing their citizenship.[59]  Prior to the complete repeal, conversion to Catholicism was highly encouraged.  With the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Huguenots ministers were exiled, yet it was difficult for their followers to leave France and many were harshly penalized for trying.[60]  Throughout this period, it became clear that religious divisions could overshadow even national interest.

         Even after the Eighty Year’s War, European and colonial pirates targeted Spanish villages to inflict damage to the Catholic Church—an institution deeply rooted in the Spanish Empire.  For instance, Captain Van Horn, a Dutch pirate, preyed upon the Spanish towns of the West Indies.  When he came upon a town with a church or cathedral, he used it as a prison while his crew raided the town.  If the town’s people refused to surrender their money or pay a ransom, Van Horn would threaten to burn the entire church building with the townspeople inside.[61]  Captain Francis Lolonois, a Frenchman, used similar tactics.  He used churches as a prison while raiding towns, yet Lolonois was much more violent and brutal against Catholic towns he pillaged.  He would place villagers on the rack until they revealed where they had hidden their possessions.[62]  Lolonios was also well known for stealing church bells and relics, as well as burning churches and monasteries.[63]  Henry Morgan, an Englishman, also stalked the ports of Spanish colonies and pillaged their religious havens.  When Morgan attacked Panama, the President of Panama went to the church, where having received Holy Communion before our blessed Lady of Immaculate Conception, with great Devotion. I went to the principle guard, and to all that were present, I expressed myself to this effect, ‘that all those who were True Catholicks, Defenders of the Faith, and Devoto’d of our Lady of Pure Immaculate Conception, should follow my person, being that same day at four a clock in the afternoon, resolved to march to seek the Enemy and with this caution, that he that should refuse to do it, should be held infamous and a Coward, basely slighting so precise an obligation.’[64]

          Morgan also led a raid on Panama in which some of his tactics further showed his sentiment towards the Catholic religion.  During the raid on Panama, Morgan used nuns and priests to block the bullets from killing his men.[65]  Morgan’s travels through the West Indies was certainly religiously oriented since he was commissioned by the Governor of Jamaica “to fight with, take and destroy, all Shippes I could meet withall belongings to the Subjects of his Catholic Majestie in the American Seas.”[66]  Due to his commission to attack and pillage all Spanish ships and land, Morgan definitely played a role in the struggles between nations and their religions.

          Another brutal example of such inter-religious hatred is Le Vasseur, a French Huguenot who created a holding on Tortuga around 1640 and was well established as a pirate by 1650.  He “proved to be Vehemently anti-Catholic, as any Englishman, and captured Spaniards were likely to find themselves subjected to an Inquisition-like torture in one of his dungeons or cages (one of which he called ‘Purgatory’).”[67]  Such religiously motivated actions reveal a significant level of religious conviction on the part of the pirate.  Guided by religious rivalries, rather than strict national rivalries, these buccaneers clearly aligned themselves with very specific religious factions.  Although during the War of Spanish Succession, 1701-1714, the French and the Spanish were pitted against the Dutch and the English over the heir of the Spanish throne—two Catholic nations fought against two Protestant nations out of fear of French domination in Europe and the Americas.[68]  These pirates were acting as religious crusaders. Their brutal attacks betray a much deeper motivation than gold or land.

          Such religious motivation was especially important considering the social atmosphere of the period.  Throughout Europe and its colonies, religious participation declined significantly from the mid-seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century.  In the New England colonies alone, attendance dropped to ten to fifteen percent of the adults on average.[69]  Competition from Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians increased, as many potential churchgoers continued to drift away from churches altogether.[70]  In the Caribbean, English and French religions did not flourish much either.  Regional instability and the rivalries within the Catholic orders caused the decline of religion among French colonies.[71]  Although the Dutch colony of New Netherlands did not see a decline in religious activity, they did suffer from the social stresses and conflict of unwanted religious diversity.  These conflicts made it difficult for Christianity to be propagated in the West Indies.  A governor of Surinam noted, “The conversion of the so-called Christians in the colony must be undertaken before there is any hope of converting the heathen.”[72]  The social distress also prompted Peter Stuyvesant, son of a clergyman and Director General of the West Indies Company, to be dispatched to New Netherlands.  While there he was shocked by the behavior “wild and loose in their morals…drinking to excess, quarreling, fighting and smiting, even on the Lord’s day.”[73]   Even Catholic Spain’s religious hold in the West Indies was having difficulties.   They had expanded the Catholic church as far as they could and by the middle seventeenth century were looking at conservation of the religion.  They focused on missionary work but ended up being unsuccessful.[74]  Thus, in the context of a general decline of religious faith and practice, religious sentiments or motivations of the pirates can be seen as an indication of religious affiliation.

          Edward Teach, more commonly known as Black Beard, may have been a pirate that many associated as a refugee from religious tradition.  Black Beard not only had fourteen wives, twelve of whom were alive at the same time, but he was married to his last wife not by a priest, but by a magistrate.[75]  Furthermore, Black Beard was well known for his swearing, drunkenness, and random killing of crew members aboard his vessel, which caused his crew to believe he was in cahoots with the Devil.  Before his death, Black Beard was asked if his wife knew where he had buried the money.  To this Black Beard responded “that nobody but himself, and the devil, knew where it was, and the longest liver shall take it all.” [76]  Yet the behavior of Teach may not have been as irreligious as thought.  Why would a man in cahoots with the Devil christen his ship?[77]  As christening is derived from a religious act, it would be extremely odd for an ally of the Devil to perform such an act.  It is more probable that Teach attempted to make his men believe he had befriended the Devil as a scare tactic to keep his men obedient to orders.  It is clear that his men were religiously aware, as they were more fearful of the Devil than even death.  However, it is impossible to say whether or not Teach himself was religious.

          At first examination of The History of Pirates by Charles Johnson, it may also appear from accounts of infamous pirate Captain Mission’s voyages that his second in command, Signor Caraccibli, was a man without morals or Christ.  Yet, Signor Caraccibli was actually a Jesuit priest from Rome who took to the sea with Mission.[78]  Controversially he believed that religion was human policy for the weak.  Caraccibli, “was as ambitious as he was irreligious,” and his ideology was “dangerous,” since it considered the abuse that religion did to the common man. [79]  However, despite this ideology, Caraccibli actually held religious beliefs and it was through religious arguments that men under his command came to respect his ideas.[80]  Moreover, Caraccibli thought that it was God’s right and will to take away the life of a man.  This can be looked at as a distinctly Christian view, especially when considering the decline of religion around the colonies during that time.  Caraccibli illustrated his religious ideology by suggesting they sail under the color white with the motto: “‘a Deo a libertate’ or ‘for God and liberty,’” since “‘they were no pirates, but men who were resolved to assert that liberty which God and nature gave them.’”[81]  Despite Caraccibli’s claim that he and other men under Captain Mission were not freebooters, they did attack and pillage ships like that of Henry Ramsey.[82]  Thus, Caraccibli was clearly a buccaneer, but a buccaneer who had respect for God and divine faith.

          Caraccibli was not the only man on Mission’s ship who carried religious convictions.  Mission, himself, thought of religion as a tool for the weak in mind, until he became closely acquainted with a French Ecclesiastic priest who became his confessor and traveling companion throughout the South Sea.[83]  While traveling through the West Indies, Mission came upon a ship with fourteen French Huguenots.  Rather than imprisoning these Huguenots with the Dutch buccaneers they had been traveling among, he told them that they would be allowed to stay with his company or he could drop them at an inhabited island.  Mission hoped that these men would accompany his ship since they too were religious.  During this endeavor to obtain the Huguenot pirates for his crew, Mission announced to his men that anyone who repented becoming a freebooter should tell him and he would set them free near Havana.[84]  The importance religion held to Mission is further noted by his disgust that his men picked up the habit of using “the name of the great creator” in vain.  When commenting on the cursing aboard his ship, Mission wrote that “if they had a just idea of that great being, they would never mention him, but they would immediately reflect on his purity and their own vileness.”[85] 

          Captain John Halsey, a pious man who sailed through the West Indies and eventually to the East Indies in search of wealth, was God-fearing too.  In fact, Halsey made sure his men gave him a proper burial.  It was rare at this time for men who died at sea, pirates and sailors alike, to be buried in the ground since it took weeks or months for a vessel at sea to come across land.  Typically, if a man died at sea he was simply tossed overboard.  It was even unusual if words or a prayer were said before the body was thrown into the ocean.  Yet, Halsey, requested he be placed in the ground and have a Bible passage read when he passed away.  Seeing he had been a “brave” and “courteous” captain, his men made a grave in a garden of watermelons so that animals could not uproot his body.  Plus, “the prayers of the church of England were read over him, colors were flying, and his sword and pistol laid on his coffin,” and guns were fired into the air to salute him.[86]  His burial illustrates how strong his religious reverence must have been to insure that his men granted him such an elaborate burial.

          Sieur Raveneau de Lussan of France was granted the right by the Governor of Tortuga to record the accounts of freebooters he was with and to attack “the Spanish, His Majesty’s Enemies.”[87]  Throughout his travels, Lussan continually wrote about the “Mercy of God” and “God’s will” throughout the pages of his journal.  He also noted in his journal the concern of himself and other buccaneers that seafaring men were not granted proper burials.  Lussan also repeatedly mentioned whether or not a town had a church and, if so, how many churches the town had and of what faith each church is a part.  Lussan’s sea companions were shocked when they meet a group of natives and discovered,

There is no sign of Religion, or of the Knowledge of God amongst them; they holding that they have Communion with the Devil [sic], and in short, when they would know any thing, they spend the Night in the Woods in order to consult him.[88]

Because Lussan and the rest of the crew did not understand native customs and Christianity was not practiced, they concluded that the natives were consorting with the Devil.  The importance of religion to pirates is further expressed as Lussan explains that they parted ways with a group of Englishmen they had met.  They decided to part ways from the Englishmen, because they did not respect the religion of Lussan and his cohorts.  Plus, these Englishmen cut off the arms of a crucifix and shot at the images of angels and saints, which decorated the church walls.[89]  Respect for others churches was extremely important among this particular groups of buccaneers, thus when someone defaced a church of their own religion it was a significant sign of disrespect.[90]  

          Current scholars postulate that Captain William Dampier was actually a pirate. In A New Voyage Around the World, Dampier notes that when any misfortune came to the buccaneers, it “is attributed to this Lady’s [The Virgin Mary] doing.” In Wood Rogers’ journal entry he noted Dampier to be the Captain of the ship.  Rogers also mentioned that while stranded by his ship, Dampier read the Bible, sang psalms, and prayed.  Dampier was afraid that he was a better Christian while in solitude than he was before or would be after.  Although this statement illustrates that he was more religious while in solitude, it still notes his background in religion and that he did travel with a Bible, noting his pious nature.[91]  In response to Dampier’s story of abandonment on some unnamed piece of land, Rogers stated, “nothing but the Divine Providence could have supported any man.”  Rogers statement shows his belief in God and thus reveals this pirate’s faith.[92]  Rogers also cites a time when he and his men were invited to Angre de Reye for the Catholic feast of Conception.  Even though their religion was different from the Catholics they maintained a good-humored religious rivalry.  When toasting, the Catholics toasted to the Pope’s health and in turn, the English toasted to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s health.[93]   Rogers was also always tolerant of Catholic worship among Spanish prisoners, but was scornful of what he regarded as their superstitious beliefs, especially in the miraculous qualities of the Virgin.  Furthermore, Rogers’ piety is shown through his introduction of daily morning and evening prayer.  Since the responsibilities of a ship were so demanding, it was a true sign of devotion to be able to set aside a given time while at sea for worship, let alone two times daily.[94]

          Despite being at sea, both Captain Low and Bartholomew Roberts practiced Christianity.  Philip Ashton recorded in his travels with Low that the captain “would never suffer his men to work on the Sabbath.”[95]  Bartholomew Roberts, like Low, also reserved Sundays for rest and ordered music to be played on board the ship. To further openly show his faith, Roberts also wore a large diamond cross.[96]  Roberts, specifically, was an interesting captain, because he did not allow drinking or gambling since they were sins.[97]  It is interesting to look at the action of these pious pirates and note how they observed certain religious guidelines while continuing to pillage and steal from others.

          Furthermore, the importance of religion to freebooters is especially apparent considering that it was not uncommon for priests to travel aboard pirate ships. As mentioned, Captain Mission brought along a French Ecclesiastic priest and, at the same time, other priests were also traveling through the West Indies interacting with pirate vessels.  Dampier also mentions that Spanish priests traded with buccaneers at Portobello. 

          Pere Labat, a Dominican priest from France, who traveled to the West Indies as a missionary, also interacted with pirate ships.[98]  In fact, while traveling to various islands to preach he was captured by buccaneers and ended up sailing with them throughout the South Sea.  Although he stayed with the pirates, he continued his practice as a priest and actually preached from pirate ships and gave communion to freebooters.[99]  Scholars often refer to Labat as “the pirate priest.”  Labat’s memoirs illustrate a clear image of pirates’ respect for religion.  Labat mentions that when attacked off the coast of Martinique by a Spanish ship, whose crew was shouting, “Kill! Kill!”, he used the little Spanish he knew to explain he was a priest.  “These rogues were horror-stricken when they found that they had nearly killed a priest of St. Dominic, and begged my pardon, kissed my hands,” he wrote.  After this realization, the freebooters ceased their plundering.[100]

          Labat’s records are particularly important to the understanding the role of religion in Caribbean piracy.  He has been noted as one of the most valuable resources of information on pirates.[101]  Labat’s memoirs and notes on freebooters are also significant to historians since he recorded the sentiments on Christianity of Captain Daniels and other pirates. Before traveling with Daniels, Labat notes buccaneers being given Mass by his Superior.  While in Barbados Labat met Captain M. Pinel who gave the priest gifts of wine, crystal, and cheese for his parish.  Before Labat could leave, “his Superior asked him to stay for the high Mass for the buccaneers to be sung the next day.”[102]  Since he decided to stay, Labat listened to confessions of the Catholic, French freebooters and helped with the service.[103]  It was this first encounter with pirates that set the positive tone for Labat’s relations with buccaneers during his time in the Caribbean.

           Labat’s memoirs describe an instance when Captain Daniels and his crew kidnapped and ransomed a group of settlers, including Pere Lucien, a cure of Saints (i.e. a person of spiritual faith).  Daniels did not wish harm to his captives.  He only ransomed them in order to obtain food for him and his men.  Once he obtained food and drink for his vessel, Daniels requested the cure to say Mass for them.  The request of Mass alone illustrates Daniels’ religious nature, yet what happened after Mass continues to confirm the importance of Christ to the captain.  When one of his men became offensive during the Elevation and swore, Daniels shot this crew member through the head and made an oath that to any other, “who showed disrespect to the ‘Sainte Sacrifice,’ he would do the same too.”  Daniels and his men showed their gratitude for the service by rewarding the cure with presents and a slave for his willingness to set up an altar on the ship to say Mass for these buccaneers.[104]  Another account of religious observance on Captain Daniels’ ship was when he shot a crew member dead for using the Lord’s name in vain during a Mass service given by Labat.  Daniels then threatened the crew that if any other member did such a thing he too would kill them.  Although Labat was shaken by this violence during a service, this drastic response by Daniels illustrates how he serious he felt matters of religion should be taken.[105]  Daniels and his men would even ask Labat to lead prayers before they would engage in a raid.[106]  Labat and Daniels’ men developed a close bond during their time spent together.  When it was time for Labat to return to France, he wrote that Daniels, “looked concerned. ‘We will miss you, you are really one of us. Who will pray for us and understand us now that you are leaving?’”[107] 

          Through Labat’s memoirs and the books written about pirates, such as Daniel, Mission, Halsey, and even Dolzell, the respect and importance of Christianity during the Golden Age of Piracy among Caribbean buccaneers becomes apparent.  Despite the common misperception of pirates as immoral, irreligious seafarers based on the stories of a few infamous individuals, many pirates were in fact religiously motivated individuals.  Regardless of where pirates came from or how they arrived at a life of piracy, many Caribbean freebooters of the Golden Age of Piracy exhibited many Christian ideas and practices throughout their raiding, pillaging, and plundering.  Overall, many buccaneers viewed religion as an important part of their lives and held great respect for their respective religious figures.  It was circumstances, not irreverence, which forced them to forgo proper religious ceremonies and repentance.  Thus, when people dress-up as pirates, rather than having a gold tooth in their mouth, they should wear a gold cross around their neck.  For these seafaring men continued to keep their eyes on God as they searched the South Sea for pieces of Gold.


[1] An Account of the Pirates, with Divers of Their Speeches, Letters, & c. and a Poem Made by One of them: Who were Executed at Newport, on Rhodes-Island, July 19th, 1723, (Newport: LOC, 1769), 13.

[2] David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of the Life Among Pirates, (London: Harvest Books, 1995), xvi. Cordingly notes “great age of piracy” as 1650 to about 1725

[3] Thomas Astley, A General Collection of Voyages and Travels. Vol 1. (London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968), 6.

[4] C.M. Senior, A Nation of Pirates: English Piracy in its Heyday, (New York: David Charles, Crane, and Russak, 1976), 44 and Nigel Cawthorne, A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas. (Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, Inc., 2004), 30.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kris Lane, Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas 1500-1750, (London: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1998), 6.

[8] Ritchie, 10.

[9] Ibid., 11-14.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Alfred P. Rubin, The Law of Piracy, (Newport: Naval War College Press, 1988), 85.

[12] Philip Gosse, History of Piracy, (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1932), 212.

[13] Carse, 6.

[14] Burg, xii.

[15] Ritchie, 17.

[16] Peter R. Galvin, Patterns of Pillage: a Geography of Caribbean-Based Piracy in Spanish America, 1536-1718, (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 66.

[17] Ritchie, 19.

[18] B.R. Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean, (New York: New York University Press, 1995), .

[19] Douglas Botting, 20 and 31.

[20] Marcus Rediker, Under the Banner of ‘Death’: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates 1716 to 1726,” William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 38, No. 2 (1981): 218.

[21] Burg, 46.

[22] Timothy R. Walton, The Spanish Treasure Fleets, ( Sarasota: Pinapple Press Inc., 1994), 118.

[23] Lane, 5.

[24] Ibid., 164-165.

[25] Ibid., 200.

[26] Ibid., 211-212.

[27] Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden Meaning of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 173.

[28] Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and The Age of Reason 1649-1789, (Middlesex: Pelican Books Ltd., 1987), 35. 

[29] Daniel Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 14.

[30] Ibid., 66.

[31] Ibid., 15.

[32] Paul Lorrain, The Ordinary of Newgate: His Accounts of the Behaviour, Confession, and Last Speech of Captain Alexander Dolzell. (London,1715), 1.

[33] Cordingly, 235.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Paul Lorrain, Newgate Prison Ordinary and His Accounts of the Behavior, Confessions, and Dying-Words of William Kidd (London, 1701), 2.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 236.

[38] Ibid

[39] The Ordinary of Newgate…Kidd, 4.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.


[43] Account of the Pirates, 14.

[44] Cotton Mather, The Vial Poured Out Upon the Sea, 1663-1728 (Boston: Belknap, 1726), 15-16.

[45] Ibid., 16 and Cohen, 68.

[46] Mather, The Vial, 16.

[47] Ibid., 16-17.

[48] Cohen, 66.

[49] Jeremy Ferrell, “A Study of the Confrontation of Cotton Mather and William Fly as an Example of the Puritan Declension Theory” (BA thesis, University of North Carolina Asheville, 2000), 1.

[50] Mather, The Vial, 48.

[51] Ibid., 49.

[52] Mather, The Converted Sinner: The Nature of a Conversion to Real and Vital Piety (Boston: Belknap, 1724), 33.

[53] Mather, Faithful Warnings to Prevent Fearful Judgment (Boston: Belknap, 1704), 40-41.

[54] Ibid.

[55] “London and the Pirates,” 1 and  Cordingly, 240.

[56] “London and the Pirates,” 1.

[57] Account of the Pirates, 13.

[58] Lane, 147.

[59] Cragg, 18.

[60] Ibid., 19-21.

[61] Raveneau de Lussan, A Journal of a Voyage made into the South Sea by the Bucaniers or Freebooters of America: from the Year 1684 to 1689 (London: Newborough, 1695), 117-120.  Although threat common by Van Horn these pages explain one particular account at Nevis in detail.

[62] A.O. Exquelming, The Bucaniers of America, (London: William Whitford, 1695), Part 2 Chapter 1, page 12.

[63] Ibid., Part 2, Chapter 1, page 15.

[64] Lussan, 150-151.

[65] Exquelming, A8.

[66] Kjeld Helweg-Larsen and Everlid Young, Caribbean Cocktail,  (London: Andrew Melrose Limited, 1955), 71-72.

[67] Lane, 100.

[68] Ibid., 171-172.

[69] Butler, 170.

[70] Ibid.

[71]Cragg, 188.

[72] C.R. Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800 (London: Penguin Books, 1965), 169.

[73] Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 24-25.

[74] Ibid., 89

[75] Charles Johnson, The History of Blackbeard and Roche, (Salem: MWA, 1802), 3.

[76] Ibid., 17.

[77] Ibid., 2.

[78] Nigel Cawthorne, A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas (London: Chartwell Books, Inc., 2004), 174.

[79] Charles Johnson, The History of Pirates, (Norwich: R. Hubbards, 1814), 8.

[80] Ibid., 9.

[81] Ibid., 12 and 14

[82] Ibid., 18.

[83] Ibid., 4.

[84] Ibid., 22

[85] Ibid., 26.

[86] Ibid., 97.

[87] Lussan, 1.

[88] Ibid., 20.

[89] Ibid., 39.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Charles Neider, ed., Great Shipwrecks and Castaway: Authentic Accounts of Disasters at Sea (New York: Dorset Press, 1952), 79.

[92] Ibid., 82.

[93] Anton, Gill. The Devil’s Mariner: A Life of William Dampier, Pirate and Explorer 1651-1715 (London: Michael Joseph, 1997), 337-338.

[94] Ibid., 336.

[95] Ibid., 106.

[96] Philip Gosse, Who’s Who of Pirates: Giving Particulars of the Lives and Deaths of the Pirates and Buccaneers (New York: Burt Franklin, 1924), 261-262.

[97] Ibid.

[98] Eaden, John, The Memiors of John Labat: 1693-1705, (London: Frank Cass & Company Limited, 1970), vii.

[99] Ibid., 11.

[100] Ibid., 182.

[101] Gosse, History of Piracy, viii.

[102] Kjeld Helweg-Larsen and Everlid Young, The Pirates’ Priest: The Life of Pere Labat in the West Indies 1693-1705 (London: Jarrolds Publishers Limited, 1965), 96-97.

[103] Ibid., 96-97.

[104] Ibid., 221 and 222.

[105] Wilfred H. Munro, Tales of an Old Sea Port, “A Letter to Father Fauque,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1917), 57.written by Pere Labat from Martinique

[106] Kjeld Helweg-Larsen and Everlid Young, The Pirates’ Priest, 197-198

[107] Ibid., 200.




Primary Sources:


An Account of the Pirates, with Divers of Their Speeches, Letters, & c. and a Poem Made by One of them: Who were Executed at Newport, on Rhodes-Island, July 19th, 1723. Newport: LOC, 1769.

This document is reprinted but the text from it contains all of the confessions made in 1723.


Eaden, John. The Memoirs of John Labat: 1693-1705. London: Frank Cass & Company Limited, 1970.


Labat’s memoirs have been compiled into this recent version.


Exquelming, A.O. The Bucaniers of America. London: William Whitford, 1695.


Ferrell, Jeremy. “A Study of the Confrontation of Cotton Mather and William Fly as an Example of the Puritan Declension Theory.” BA thesis, University of North Carolina Asheville, 2000.

The first page of this paper contains an excerpt from the Diary of Cotton Mather.  This quote is the only part of Ferrell’s paper used.


Johnson, Charles. The History of Blackbeard and Roche. Salem: MWA, 1802.

This document has been reprint numerous time.  Scholars believe the original copy was printed around 1700.


---. The History of Pirates. Norwich: R. Hubbards, 1814.

As with all of Johnson’s texts this document has been reprint numerous time.  Scholars believe the original copy was printed around 1700.


Helweg-Larsen, Kjeld and Everlid Young. Caribbean Cocktail. London: Andrew Melrose Limited, 1955.

Pages 71-72 contain primary information on the report Henry Morgan wrote to Sir Thomas Modiford, Governor of Jamaica, after Morgan’s raid of Panama.


---. The Pirates’ Priest: The Life of Pere Labat in the West Indies 1693-1705. London: Jarrolds Publishers Limited, 1965.

This is a translation of Pere Labat’s Nouveau Voyage aux Isles de l’ Amerique which was published in Paris in 1724.


“London and the Pirates.” n.d. <> (3 September 2004).

This website is from the National Maritime Museum in London and contains direct quotes from trial and confessions of pirates.


Lorrain, Paul. The Ordinary of Newgate: His Accounts of the Behaviour, Confession, and Last Speech of Captain Alexander Dolzell. London, 1715.


---. Newgate Prison Ordinary and his Accounts of the Behavior, Confessions, and Dying-Words of William Kidd. London, 1701.


Lussan, Raveneau de. A Journal of a Voyage made into the South Sea by the Bucaniers or Freebooters of America: from the Year 1684 to 1689. London: Newborough, 1695.


Mather, Cotton. Faithful Warnings to Prevent Fearful Judgment. Boston: Belknap,1704.


---. The Converted Sinner: The Nature of a Conversion to Real and Vital Piety. Boston: Belknap, 1724.


---. The Vial Poured Out Upon the Sea, 1663-1728. Boston: Belknap, 1726.


Munro, Wilfred H. Tales of an Old Sea Port. “A Letter to Father Fauque.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1917.

This book is a collection of letters written by travelers.  It includes Pere Labat’s letter from Martinique to Father Fauque a missionary of the Society of Jesus.


Neider, Charles., ed. Great Shipwrecks and Castaway: Authentic Accounts of Disasters at Sea. New York: Dorset Press, 1952.

This is a collection of travel logs and journals including Woodes Rogers. Rogers’ journal notes William Dampier’s and his own sentiments on religion. 


Secondary Sources:


Astley, Thomas. A General Collection of Voyages and Travels. Vol 1. London: Frabk Cass and Company Limited, 1976


Black, Clinton V. The Story of Jamaica: from Prehistory to the Present. London: Collins, 1965.


Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, society, and Politics in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.


Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1978.


Boxer, C.R. The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800. London: Penguin Books, 1965.


Burg, B. R. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean. New York: New York University Press, 1995.


Carse, Robert. The Age of Piracy: A History. New York: Rhinehart, 1957.


Cawthorne, Nigel. A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas. London: Chartwell Books, Inc., 2004.


Cohen, Daniel. Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.


Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of the Life Among Pirates. London: Harvest Books, 1995.


Cragg, Gerald R. The Church and The Age of Reason 1649-1789. Middlesex: Pelican Books Ltd., 1987.


Galvin, Peter R. Patterns of Pillage: A Geography of Caribbean-Based Piracy in Spanish America, 1536-1718. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.


Gerhard, Peter. Pirates on the West Coast of New Spain, 1575-1742. Glendale: A.H. Clark Co., 1960.


Gill, Anton. The Devil’s Mariner: A Life of William Dampier, Pirate and Explorer 1651-1715. London: Michael Joseph, 1997.


Gosse, Philip. History of Piracy. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1932.


---. Who’s Who of Pirates: Giving Particulars of the Lives and Deaths of the Pirates and Buccaneers. New York: Burt Franklin, 1924.


Grey, Charles. Pirates of the Eastern Seas: 1618-1723. London: Kennikat Press, 1933.


Lane, Kris. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas 1500-1750. London: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1998.


Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker, Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden Meaning of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Marx, Jenifer. Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean. Malabar, Krieger Pub. Co., 1992.


Rediker, Marcus B. “Under the Banner of ‘Death’: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates1716 to 1726.” William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 38, No. 2 (1981): 203-227.


Ritchie, Robert C. Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.


Rubin, Alfred P. The Law of Piracy. Newport: Naval War College Press, 1988.


Senior, C.M. A Nation of Pirates: English Piracy in its Heyday. New York: David Charles, Crane, and Russak, 1976.


Walton, Timothy R. The Spanish Treasure Fleets. Sarasota: Pinapple Press Inc., 1994.