Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, a worldwide celebration of pirate cliches, memes and stereotypes. Real pirates, of course, were less predictable and much more dangerous than cinematic representations. Pirates of the 17th and 18th century had a well-justified reputation for brutality. They reserved their worst tortures for captured sea captains, particularly if evidence suggested they had mistreated their own crews. A 1669 report from a British colonial official described one form of pirate violence:
“It is a common thing among privateers… to cut a man in pieces, first some flesh, then a hand, an arm, a leg… sometimes tying a cord about his head and twisting it with a stick until the eyes shoot out, which is called ‘woolding’.”
Worse treatment was given to a woman in Porto Bello:
“A woman there was set bare upon a baking stone and roasted, because she did not confess of money which she had only in their conceit.”
In 1724 a mariner named Richard Hawkins, who spent several weeks captive aboard a pirate vessel, described a ritual dubbed the Sweat. It was usually employed to extract information from prisoners:
“Between decks, they stick candles round the mizen mast and about 25 men surround it with points of swords, penknives, compasses, forks, etc., in each of their hands. The culprit enters the circle [and] the violin plays a merry jig… and he must run for about ten minutes, while each man runs his instrument into [the culprit’s] posteriors.”
Hugh Greene, also known as Ferdinand Brooks, was a victim of anti-Catholic persecution during the English Civil War. Greene was born in London to Anglican parents but converted to Catholicism after his graduation from Cambridge. After studying in France, Greene became a parish priest in Dorset. In 1642, Charles I banished all Catholic priests from England. Greene complied with the king’s order but was held up and missed the deadline by several days; he was arrested trying to board a ship in Lyme Regis. Greene was imprisoned for several months, committed to trial on charges of high treason and sent for execution. The sentence was carried out in Dorchester in August 1642. According to the written testimony of an eyewitness, Elizabeth Willoughby, Greene was hanged to the point of unconsciousness, then messily quartered:
“The man that was to quarter him was a timorous, unskilful man, by trade a barber, and his name was Barefoot… he was so long dismembering him that [Greene] came to his perfect senses and sat upright and took Barefoot by the hand… then did this butcher cut his belly on both sides… Whilst [Greene] was calling upon Jesus, the butcher did pull a piece of his liver out instead of his heart, tumbling his guts out every way to see if his heart were not amongst them…”
This barbarous ordeal went on for more than a half-hour, with Greene either praying devoutly or screaming in agony. According to Willoughby, Greene only expired after his throat was cut and his head was hacked off with a cleaver. His heart was eventually removed and thrown into a fire before it was snatched up and stolen by a local woman. As for the priest’s severed head:
“An ungodly multitude, from ten o’clock in the morning till four in the afternoon, stayed on the hill and sported themselves at football with his head [then] put sticks in his eyes, ears, nose and mouth and buried it near to the body.”
The Copleys were a wealthy Yorkshire family boasting military officers, Members of Parliament and a lineage dating back to the Norman invasion. Lionel Copley (1607-75) served as a colonel with the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. Evidence suggests that Copley was an erratic, autocratic and often brutal figure who was both feared and despised by his neighbours. In 1664 Copley was accused of cruelly mistreating a local artisan who failed to show him due respect:
“At Rotherham on the 25th of September 1664 [he] beat Richard Firth, put a bridle into his mouth, got on his back and rode him about for half an hour, kicking him to make him move.”
Copley’s son, also named Lionel, seems to have inherited his violent streak. The junior Lionel Copley was commissioned in the Foot Guards and in 1681 was appointed lieutenant-governor of Hull. Copley ruled Hull with an iron fist, dispensing corporal punishment, confiscating private property and seizing and opening personal mail. When the deputy-postmaster of Hull complained, Hull had him arrested and hog-tied:
“…neck and heels, with extreme violence that the blood gushed out of his nose and mouth, and kept him in that intolerable posture for two hours and a half, till [he] was utterly deprived of sense and put in extreme hazard of his life, and remains to this day miserably crippled, disabled in his limbs and impaired in his sight.”
Copley’s behaviour in Hull triggered so much protest that he was shipped off to the American colonies, where he served as the royal governor of Maryland (1692-93).
In 1735, John Weekes of Fittleworth, Sussex was arrested for highway robbery and murder. According to court records, Weekes had been caught red-handed with “several spots of blood and part of the [stolen] goods… found upon him.” Weekes appeared at the county assizes in Lewes, where he attempted to avoid justice by feigning stupidity and an inability to speak. Unfortunately for Weekes, the Lewes court’s method for dealing with persons who refused to plead or testify was peine forte et dure (‘hard and coercive punishment’). The judge ordered that Weekes:
“…be taken back to the prison whence you came… that you be laid upon your back on the bare floor with a cloth around your loins but elsewhere naked; that there be set upon your body a weight or iron as great as you can bear – even greater. That you have no sustenance save on the first day three morsels of the coarsest barley [bread]; on the second day three draughts of stagnant water; on the third day bread as before; next water as before – until you die.”
Most pressings were conducted in dungeons, however, Weekes was tortured and executed in public, in the marketplace in Horsham. According to contemporary reports he was laid on his back and stone weights were piled on top of him in 100-hundred point increments, one added every few minutes. Within an hour Weekes lay under 400 pounds of boulders:
“…He was [almost] dead, having all the agonies of death upon him. Then the executioner, who weighs 16 or 17 stone, lay down upon the board which was over him, and adding to the weight, killed him in an instant.”
Other reports suggest that Weekes was finished off when several onlookers sat or stood on his weights. Whether they did this to despatch him out of sympathy, or simply for jest, is not recorded.
William, Prince of Orange and Francis, Duke of Anjou, visited Bruges in July 1582. According to contemporary reports, cited in later texts, William and Francis were officially welcomed to the city with a “grand display” of banners, bunting and displays. The highlight of the royal reception was a giant structure in the city square, built in the form of a ship and packed with fireworks. And strapped to poles beneath or alongside these fireworks were more than three dozen cats:
“The screams of the hapless creatures on the ignition of each firework produced further cheers and merriment among the happy throng.”
When all the fireworks had been detonated, the entire ship – with the cats still inside – was set alight.