When Pirates Come Home: Thesis Captures Another Side of the Sea’s Romantic Outlaws

Old sailing ship on the seas

Fate must have smiled on Captain Paulsgrave Williams the night the pirate ship Whydah was dashed on the shoals of Cape Cod. His compatriot, Captain Samuel Bellamy, was aboard the Whydah that night in April 1717 and perished along with all but two of his 145-member crew.

It would have been an uncanny sight—if anyone could have seen through the dense fog and blackness—as the three-masted ship split apart, spilling its ungainly cargo of elephant tusks, gold and silver coins, and other 18th century treasures into the sea. But Williams wasn’t there to witness it. Ten days earlier, he had arranged to take his ship, the Mary Anne, to Block Island, Rhode Island, intending to reconnect with Bellamy later off the Maine coast.

Why the detour? It seems Williams wanted to visit his three sisters—and his mom.

“A son going home to see his mother in his pirate ship seems like a very un-pirate thing to do,” writes Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos in her recent thesis for Georgetown University’s Doctor of Liberal Studies (DLS) degree.

As Geanacopoulos documents throughout the 227-page thesis in the Doctor of Liberal Studies program, being close to one’s mother and sisters, having a wife and children, or even being a respected—if somewhat elusive—member of the community was not all that uncommon for what the colonial authorities labeled “enemies of the human race.”

“Pirates are not the monsters that history has made them out to be,” Geanacopoulos says.

A More Balanced View of Pirates

Daphne Palmer GeanacopoulosDaphne Palmer Geanacopoulos transcribed more than 250 original documents for her thesis on pirates.

During the Golden Age of Piracy (1650–1730), thousands of pirates plundered merchant shipping along the coasts of Africa and the Americas. In her thesis, Geanacopoulos says she is “not trying to whitewash the pirates or present their profession as an honorable one.” And yet, she adds, “the cultural image of pirates that has come down to us is one-dimensional.”

It is this perception of pirates as uniformly uncouth, “social isolates” that Geanacopoulos seeks to refute, relying not simply on historical accounts—which could be grossly biased in favor of the colonial authorities—but also on primary sources such as letters, wills, depositions, land transactions, and court petitions.

“When she came to me, she had done an enormous amount of primary research,” says Dennis Todd, Ph.D. As a part of the Doctor of Liberal Studies program, Geanacopoulos was able to take independent studies courses and work with Todd, a Georgetown University English professor with vast knowledge in 18th century language and culture. Todd became Geanacopoulos’s thesis advisor and guided her research.

“She was absolutely tenacious in digging up information,” added Todd. During their meetings, Geanacopoulos would show him her latest archival research, and, together, they would try to place it within a larger narrative. What resulted was a clearer understanding of the lives of pirates and their most unusual maritime society.

A Seagoing Democracy

Aboard a typical merchant ship, conditions were dictatorial and often barbaric; but pirate vessels operated as a kind of rudimentary democracy, with sailors electing their own captains and following a code of conduct. Bellamy’s code specified that prisoners were to be given “Good Quarters … when called for” and that sailors were not to “strike or abuse” one another.

Geanacopoulos traces her fascination with pirates to 2006 when she was working on a story for the New York Times on the Whydah Pirate Museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Later, when examining records from two trials of New England pirates, she kept running across the names of women connected to the sailors in various ways, but the museum had little information about them.

Through her subsequent research, Geanacopoulos documented 80 pirates who were married. She discusses three of these pirates—Williams, Samuel Burgess, and William Kidd—in depth, along with Bellamy, who was believed to be returning to Cape Cod to marry his beloved, Maria Hallett.

She even found an unsuccessful petition, signed by 48 pirate wives and relatives, to England’s Queen Anne, requesting pardons for the men on trial for piracy and assurances that the fruits of their plunder be returned so they could support their families.

“One may think this petition absurd—a community of wives and kin asking the Queen to pardon sea-roving thieves and allow them to keep their stolen goods,” writes Geanacopoulos. But it makes clear that for some men, piracy was a way to provide for their families “when other legitimate means of employment were limited or nonexistent.”

Geanacopoulos is turning her Georgetown University Doctor of Liberal Studies thesis on 18th century pirates into a book.