Historical Research on Piracy Q&A
Answered by Darby McDevitt, Scriptwriter of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag
How much research went into bringing to life the Golden Age of Piracy?
I cracked open my first book about pirates in the summer of 2011, just after finishing my work on AC Revelations, and for the following 6 months I read dozens of primary and secondary sources. I researched as broadly as I could, to get a good sense of the entire period, which meant reading books and articles on the sugar trade, slavery, politics, and sailing, in addition to the best books on Piracy. I also brushed up on some popular pirate fiction – books like Treasure Island and the Pirate King, and various films – to get a general sense of what made up the standard “pirate yarn.” I found these sources less interesting in general, though, as they were typically too narrowly focused for the needs of an assassin’s creed game.
Lastly, we contacted Colin Woodard, author of The Republic of Pirates, and asked him to help steer our ship in the right direction. Colin’s book had provided us with the answer to one crucial question we had worried we might not be able to resolve: How do we get all of the most famous pirates in history together in the same story? It turns out that the Republic of Pirates – AKA Nassau in the Bahamas – was the answer.
All told, it took almost a year of aggressive research and writing to feel like we had arrived at a confident understanding of the time period and its people, and I am confident that it will show. Naturally there are always concessions that must be made when creating a playable video game, but the over-all “feel” of this world is astounding, and far richer than any pirate themed experience ever made.
Why settle for this particular timeframe in the wide era of “Piracy”?
Choosing this era for AC4 came about through a nice series of coincidences… because AC3 was developing a fantastic Naval system for the American Revolution, ideas for expanding this feature were never far from our minds. At the same time, we had been tossing around ideas about doing a game about Haytham’s father, with the idea that we would be telling the full story of the “Kenway family saga” … charting the tale of how a Grandfather, and father, and a son each relate to the Creed in their own unique way.
When we eventually got around to combining the idea of Edward and boats, it turned out that the tail-end of the Golden age of Piracy was perfectly aligned with our tentative timelines. After that, everything fell into place… the only question we argued about for some time was when to start Edward’s story… I think the earliest we were willing to go was 1698, with the rise and fall of William Kidd and the secret success of Henry Avery. But we eventually decided that this would stretch our story too thin, so we confined most of the action to the last decade of this golden age.
Why is the Golden Age of Piracy an important historical era in the history of mankind?
While this era didn’t leave a lasting legacy in the same way that the American Revolution did, the Golden Age is significant for many of the same reasons. It was a time where men were getting comfortable with casting off the influence and protection of their “divinely mandated” Kings, and forging new lives for themselves. It was also a time were men succeeded by merit alone, and not birth right, something that the American revolution would sanctify. So here at last, we had a world where men and women could rise to the top of society through sheer ability and force of will – a notion that almost everyone in the modern world now takes for granted.
Can you tell us about myths that you came across as false during your research?
There are truths, falsehoods, and a few facts that have been stretched to a breaking point.
Eye patches and peg-legs were real, but not ubiquitous; most men who lost a limb simply lived with its absence or left the ship entirely. Parrots were also common, but mainly sold as pets to colonists in the northern colonies, not carried about as chattering companions…
There were no instances of anyone walking the plank in the Golden age of Piracy, as the first recorded instance happens around 1750, and most pirates would have preferred marooning anyone they had a quarrel with… that is to say, they’d leave them alone on a deserted island, with a loaded pistol and a small quantity of Rum. This was a keen method pirates had of absolving themselves of blame for any death or mischief that occurred later.
The familiar way of “Talking Like a Pirate” is overblown, through there is certainly a real precedent for it. But the truth is, pirates came from a wide variety of backgrounds, so their ways of talking would have been just as diverse. Sailing aboard a pirate Schooner in 1716, you’d have heard a collage of voices from Bristol, York, Cardiff, Glasgow, Cork, London, Portsmouth… just to name the British sailors. Still others were French, Dutch, and Afro-Caribbean.
How will AC4’s portrayal of pirates differentiate itself from typical pirate fare in movies and pop culture?
The biggest difference will be in the scope of our portrayal. When we wanted to make a game set in this era, we didn’t say “We want to make a Pirate game”… we challenged ourselves further with “We want to make a game about the early 18th century, of which pirates were a large part.” And I think we have succeeded.
We wouldn’t have been content to simply paint everything in this world with a pirate theme – this would have been dull and easy. Instead, we focused on bringing the entire era to life… and this means paying attention to as many details as possible. What songs were the people singing, what crops were they growing, what sort of people were roaming these oceans, what was life as a sailor like, etc. Assassin’s Creed has always put a huge emphasis on historical immersion and AC4BF is no exception.
What sparked the Golden Age of Piracy?
Technically there was no beginning or end to this age of piracy… it has always existed and continued to do so, even after the so called “golden age” was over. Additionally, there is no clear agreement on the limiting dates of this golden age… some put it as early as 1650 with the rise of captain Morgan and the buccaneers, and others push it later to the 1680s when Port Royal and Tortuga were at their height as pirate Havens. Most agree however that the golden age ended sometime around the mid-1720s.
But of course there were definite events that sparked this particular surge, and in the case of AC4BF, it is the Treaty of Utrecht that pushes our characters into a life of maritime crime. This treaty, which effectively ended all hostile engagements between the major European empires, led to a massive purge of active British soldiers from the royal navy. The British just didn’t have enough land in the West Indies to warrant a massive standing army. So it’s not difficult to understand why so many sailors now idle and out of work, would turn to plundering Spanish ships for a quick score of rum, food, tobacco, sugar and gold. And once they got used to the idea of plundering Spaniards, why stop there?
Who was the typical pirate, back then? His background, skills, temperament, etc.
About 75 percent of all pirates in the latter half of the Golden Age would have been of British extraction – English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or from the American Colonies. This, as we’ve seen, was due to a historical precedent. There would have been quite a few former slaves aboard these ships too, though they likely wouldn’t have been considered truly equal, as most European sailors would have retained their prejudices. But on the whole, life aboard a ship would have been far superior to life on a plantation. And of course there would have been a smattering of Spanish, French, and Dutch pirates too.
As for age, the bulk of your average pirates would have been former sailors, typically unmarried, and most in their 20s. Most of the infamous captains however fell somewhere in their mid-30s. Very few pirates made it beyond 40… and very few had careers spanning more than a few years. Once the jump was made from sailing with the Navy to sailing among pirates, the clock began ticking… marking the few short years they’d see until they reached the gallows.
Can you tell us a bit more about a pirate’s daily life back then?
It was likely quite a bit less exciting than one sees in films, at least on an hourly or daily basis. Sailing is a very dangerous business, and these men would have had to focus much of their attention on navigating, simply to see themselves safely from one destination to the other. But, without a sadistic Navy Captain to keep them in line and constantly busy, they would also have had much more leisure time… time spent drinking or gambling or scanning the horizon for quick prizes.
On land, a pirate would have taken his modest gains and spent it as any rebellious young man might – on drink, on gambling, on women… in a word, leisure. Very few pirates were smart with their money and almost none made off with what could be called a fortune. The large majority would have blown their small savings in a matter of weeks or months, thus inspiring them back to sea for more plunder, beginning a vicious cycle that often ended in death or exhaustion. Only the legendary Henry Avery was reported to have made off with a fortune of any significance, though even his eventual fate is unknown. Still, the legend was enough to make most other pirates believe they were made of the same, stern stuff.