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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Pirates vs Priests

The Impact of the Inquisition on Modern Perceptions of Piracy

by Tefel Hall (December 10 2003)

Here is a paper I wrote for my Historical Analysis class.

In 1995, Disney refurbished its popular attraction Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. The most visible changes were done to the "chase" scene, sometimes referred to as the "rape" scene. Prior to the changes, the scene featured pirates chasing maidens through a burning town, while down near the boats, a drunken pirate clutches a woman's shoe and babbles about how "she was a feisty one, she was". In the current scene, the pirates still chase maidens, but the women hold plates of food in their hands, and the pirate near the waterfront is holding a map and muttering about hidden treasure. Apparently, someone at Disney felt that it was unseemly that so many visitors were getting a kick out of seeing pirates terrorizing women.

Women's groups applauded the changes, while history buffs mostly lamented them. After all, pirates did rape women, and Disney's decision smacked of an attempt to whitewash history. Yet in all the media coverage that followed, nobody seems to have raised a deeper question: Why is it that Anglo-Americans are so kindly disposed toward pirates? The answer provides yet another example of unintended consequences: Many visitors to Disneyland think that pirates are kind of cool - because some 450 years ago, King Philip II of Spain decided to use the Inquisition as a tool to stamp out piracy.

King Philip "The Prudent"

King Philip had a "formal, slow-moving mind", and therefore he must have deliberated long on the problem of Lutheran pirates. Lately, they had grown increasingly bold, and just last month (June 1563), a band of these dogs had stolen "3000 pieces of money" from a Spanish ship returning from the New World. Elizabeth, The Virgin Queen, refused to do anything about such attacks, despite the fact that many of these sea robbers were British. Something must be done.

At last, Philip came to a decision. Boycotts and embargoes might be useless, "but in the Inquisition he possessed a weapon of defense as characteristically Spanish as the piracies of the sea-rovers were English". And so, Philip, in various subtle ways, let it be known that he would be pleased if the Inquisition were especially vigilant in guarding his realm against heresies that might creep in onboard foreign ships.

Soon, a "goodly number" of Englishmen were languishing in the dungeons of the Inquisition. For example, in 1563, the Inquisition arrested 240 British sailors in the port of Gibralter, and the following year, Philip ordered the arrest of every English ship in Spanish harbors, together with their crews. Other foreign sailors were accused of heresy after being shipwrecked on the Spanish Main.

Not surprisingly, some of these sailors were actually guilty of piracy. In 1570, for example, thirty-eight pirates from John Hawkins' crew were tried for heresy by the Inquisition in Mexico. Another famous case involved the pirate captain John Oxenham, who was hanged with some of his crew after appearing in an auto-da-fe in Lima. (As a heretic, Oxenham's body was "probably burned rather than buried, giving rise to the legend that he was burned at the stake".) Another pirate captain, Richard Hawkins, was also "claimed" by the Inquisition, but in his case the civil authorities refused to turn him over, presumably so that they could hold him for ransom. Of course, many more pirates, when caught, were summarily hanged, without the benefit of a lengthy and usually painful interrogation.

At other times, pirates were dealt with in a manner that suggests that a formal trial by the Inquisition was not always necessary in order to convict a man of heresy. For example, when some French pirates started harassing ships off the coast of Florida in 1564, Philip dispatched Pedro Menendez, a religious fanatic who was "in a very real sense a fighting arm of the Inquisition". Having sailed to Florida, Menendez found the Frenchmen's fort, and after ascertaining that they were Protestants, he hanged the lot of them, some 130, from trees on the beach. Beside them he placed a sign which read, "I do this not as to Frenchmen but as to Lutherans". A week later, Menendez massacred another group of 140, this time by slashing their throats. In a letter to Philip, Menendez wrote:

"They came to deliver up their arms. I had their hands tied behind them and had them stabbed to death ... deeming that to punish them in this manner would be serving God, our Lord, and your Majesty. Hereafter they will leave us free to plant the Gospel and enlighten the natives."

The same year as the Florida massacres (1565), twenty-six English subjects were burnt at the stake in Spain, a further sign that Spanish authorities "found it convenient to turn over to the Inquisition any of the hated British who fell foul of them in Spain, and have them dealt with as heretics rather than as pirates or vagrants".

On the face of it, Philip's decision to unleash the Holy Office made good sense. Pirates were certainly put on notice that their crimes might get them stretched on a rack, garrotted, or burned at the stake. And Queen Elizabeth was likewise apprised that if she persisted in willfully ignoring the actions of English pirates, then England would suffer reprisals. But was this new policy really as sound as it seemed?

Unfortunately for Philip, his new "get tough" policy had some unintended consequences. For one thing, Elizabeth drew the opposite lesson, at least according to historian Arthur Innes:

"Moreover it must be borne in mind that as concerned the raiding of Spanish ships [by English pirates], the [English] Government balanced the injury done against the grievances of the British sailors and ships seized in Spanish ports by the Inquisition. So long as the Spanish King refused to interfere with the jurisdiction of the Holy Office, the English Queen in effect refused to interfere with acts of reprisal."

A second, perhaps predictable, consequence was that pirates now took a special interest in Catholic priests who fell into their hands. Marck de Lumey, Le Vasseur, Jacques de Sores, Montbars - all these pirates gained frightful reputations for the way they subjected Catholic priests to Inquisitional-like tortures. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, any Catholic priest traveling in the West Indies must have been very aware that he would be shown not a shred of mercy, should he be captured by pirates.

But the third and most important consequence of Philip's use of the Inquisition was the huge propaganda victory it handed to Protestant Europe. Relations between Spaniards and other Europeans would never be the same. In the New World, what had been until now a low-level war was now a "war to the death", and for the next several centuries, the enmity between pirates and priests was "less an enmity between Catholics and Protestants than between the nation that upheld the Inquisition and the nations that loathed it".

Can you recite the Paternoster ... in Latin?

The fate of a sailor charged with heresy was almost invariably grim. For example, of the 240 Englishmen arrested in Gibralter, only one third of them survived the subsequent "investigation". Trials were long, torture was common, and punishments, often fatal. A typical tale of woe is provided by Miles Philips, a ship's boy who was twelve when he was captured near Mexico City:

"We were taken, and all our goods seized, and were committed to prison in dark dungeons, never more than two of us together ... We remained close imprisoned for a year and a half, and during this time we were often called before the Inquisitors one at a time. We were severely examined about our faith. We were commanded to say the Paternoster and Ave Maria and the Creed in Latin, which God knows many of us could not say except in English ... Within three months we were all put upon the rack, where some were forced to utter things against themselves that afterwards cost them their lives.

Because of his youth, Philips received an unusually mild sentence - five years as a laborer in a monastery. His piratical shipmates fared far worse. Most of them received hundreds of lashes and sentences of six to ten years in the galleys. At least three of them were "condemned to be burnt to ashes".

Needless to say, Miles Philips survived his brush with the Inquisition - at least long enough to write about it. Others did too. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, personal accounts and impassioned essays about the Inquisition proliferated. And the impact of these pamphlets was tremendous. Before the start of Philip's reign, most Englishmen were scarcely aware of the Spanish Inquisition. Now, due to a steady stream of horrific sailors' tales, the British public was roused to the brink of war.

For British propagandists and opponents of Spain, the Inquisition could now be used as "a major weapon in the anti-Spanish armory". For example, pamphleteers in 1588 envisioned Inquisitors on every ship of the Spanish Armada, each Inquisitor "armed with suitable instruments of torture". Even mothers used the Inquisition as a bugbear with which to frighten disobedient children.

In response to England's newfound curiosity about the Inquisition, John Foxe, the renowned martyrologist, added a chapter on the Inquisition to his 1570 edition of The Book of Martyrs. This chapter contains graphic descriptions of various ghastly tortures, as well as dramatic stories about Protestants martyred for their faith. The Book of Martyrs was staple reading in Protestant England, and it has gone through "literally innumerable" editions, influencing readers right up to the present day.

One such reader was Francis Drake, who used it to conduct shipboard services. On one occasion, a Spanish prisoner expressed some curiosity about the book, and Drake responded by pointing out the woodcut illustrations of Protestants burning at the stake. During this episode, Drake seems unusually defensive, admitting that he is a man "who robs by day and prays at night in public". The context of this odd confession suggests that Drake dealt with this apparent contradiction by reminding himself of "those who had been martyred and burnt" and "the astounding [arrogance] of the Supreme Pontiff".

Like Drake, the British public could also rationalize acts of piracy by reminding itself that Popery was an even greater evil. For example, the poet Thomas Greepe thought Drake's sack of Santiago was justified on the grounds that he used the occasion to tear down some Catholic icons:

Fourteen days they kept this town,
With honor, fame and victory;
Their idol gods each were pulled down,
With all their fond idolatry.

This same sort of reasoning can also be seen in many other instances: For example, in 1567, a French Captain called Dominique de Gourges roused his men for a slaughter with a stirring speech about "the treachery and cruelty of those who had massacred" the Protestant Frenchmen in Florida. Similarly, Richard Hawkins once rallied his crew by reminding them of how Oxenham had been executed by the Inquisition in Lima. And when Cromwell decided, some seventy years later, to seize some West Indian islands, he did so on the grounds that doing so would liberate the inhabitants from the "bondage" of the "cruel Inquisition".

The long-term effects of the propaganda war

The propaganda war against Spain spurred the creation of a huge body of literature which denigrates Spain and stereotypes Spaniards as "lecherous, deceitful, and cruel". This massive distortion of history has been dubbed the Black Legend. A thorough cataloguing of the Black Legend is of course beyond the scope of this paper, but several books of this type deserve a special mention here, because of their influence on our perception of piracy.

The first is Richard Hakluyt's Principal Voyages (1589), an epic collection of firsthand accounts written by English travelers. Hakluyt was a historian and propagandist who deeply believed in British expansion, and it is thanks to him that today we enjoy such a complete record of the many expeditions undertaken by Elizabethan seaman. Principal Voyages also contains many firsthand accounts of English sailors tried by the Inquisition. First published in 1589, this book has been reissued regularly ever since.

Another book which has had a lasting impact on the Anglo-American image of pirates is Westward ho! (1855) by Charles Kingsley. This book was required reading for generations of British schoolchildren, who thereby learned that pirating was an exciting and honorable profession. Take, for example, the chapter which purports to tell the true tale of John Oxenham, the captain who was hanged for heresy in Lima. True or not, this tale is unabashedly jingoistic, and Oxenham is portrayed as "a noble and valiant gentleman; true of his word, stout of his sword, skillful by sea and land, and worthy to have been Lord High Admiral of England". This assessment may surprise at least one modern scholar, who claims that Oxenham "set a new standard for [bad] pirate behavior".

A third important book about pirates is Under Drake's Flag (1890) by G A Henty. This historical novel tells the story of two British youths who sail with Drake to the Spanish Main, where among their many adventures is a daring escape from a dungeon of the Inquisition. Like Westward ho!, this book is still in print, and both books are still surprisingly popular, judging from the number of "recommended reading" lists on which they both appear.

A salient feature of all these books is their vilification of the Inquisition. It can be argued - indeed, I am arguing - that these books would not have been so successful, had their authors not been able to use the Inquisition as a foil. Over and over, in this kind of literature, the Inquisition is used as a symbol of an unmitigated evil - proof that readers need not be concerned with the moral ambiguities presented by piratical heroes.

A perfect example of reader manipulation can be found in Sue Core's dramatic biography, Henry Morgan, Knight and Knave (1943). Morgan, of course, is best remembered for the sack of Panama (a crime of horrendous proportions) but he is also remembered for lesser atrocities, like the time he used nuns and priests as human shields. The only firsthand account of this incident was written by John Esquemeling, a ship's surgeon who tells us that Morgan, when attacking the fort at Porto Bello, "commanded all the religious men and women whom he had taken prisoners to fix [some scaling ladders] against the walls of the castle". Morgan was convinced that the commander of the fort would hold his fire when he saw these "ecclesiastical persons, exposed in the front of the soldiers to the greatest dangers". Thus, Morgan put the ladders "into the hands of religious persons of both sexes; and these were forced, at the head of the companies, to raise and apply them to the walls". (Morgan was mistaken, and the commander of the fort opened fire on them anyway).

In Henry Morgan, Knight and Knave, Core embellishes the above account by adding some indirect dialogue:

"Under [Morgan's] direction the carpenters made some heavy scaling ladders wide enough for four men to mount abreast. These the priests and nuns were ordered to carry at the head of the rabble as it started for the fort. Desperately the terrified prisoners begged and pled to be spared this ghastly sentence. They were people of God, they cried, and by every civilized law known to man were exempt from participation in war. On their knees they prayed the brutal captain for mercy.

"Their pleadings were answered by a snarl of angry derision. What knew they or their kind of mercy? What mercy had the Inquisition shown the thousands of innocent men and women who had perished in its torture chambers? What mercy had they themselves shown the helpless Indians here and in Peru in promoting what they called religion? Mercy? They were being shown more mercy than their church had ever shown anyone helpless in its grasp. So get under those ladders! March!"

There are several ways we might appraise this bit of added dialogue. First, the dialogue may accurately reflect Morgan's thoughts, if not his actual words. After all, Morgan grew up during England's civil war, a time of rising anti-Catholic feelings, and surely he had read some pamphlets about the Inquisition. But a second possibility exists: that the author may be purposely drawing attention to the horrors of the Inquisition, as a way of making Morgan appear less despicable. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they reinforce each other. Anti-Catholicism in England has led to a body of pro-pirate literature, and vice versa.

One last example clearly illustrates the process by which a pirate can be rendered more sympathetic. Consider the case of Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk was a Scottish pirate who was marooned on a desolate island after quarreling with his captain. Four years later, he was rescued by another pirate ship. And finally, upon his return to England, he met with essayist Richard Steele, who wrote up the story of Selkirk's adventures for a publication called "The Englishman".

So far, so good. But then Daniel Defoe comes along, and turns the story into Robinson Crusoe (1719). And in the process, he makes some significant changes. Crusoe - unlike Selkirk - is not a pirate but an honest mariner, shipwrecked during a storm. And lest the reader have any doubts about Crusoe's sterling character, he or she is often reminded that Crusoe is a God-fearing Christian, unlike the Papists who live on the Spanish Main. Indeed, Crusoe is terribly grateful that he was not cast up on the Main, "where an English Man was certain to be made a sacrifice". Crusoe's reasoning is simple: "I had rather be delivered up to the savages, and be devoured alive, than fall into the merciless claws of the priests, and be carried away into the Inquisition".

And thus, a common pirate has been shaped into a quintessential hero.


It is impossible to measure the far-reaching effects of a genre of books on a culture, but there seems little doubt that pirate literature is the primary reason that "there must be very few boys in the English-speaking world who have not, at one time or another, imagined themselves upon the pitching decks of a galleon, broadsword in hand, scattering the murderous dagos right and left". What has been forgotten, in our modern age, is how this genre evolved out of those early pamphlets that vilified the Inquisition. My conclusion, in short, is this: Our culture has been shaped by centuries' worth of pro-pirate propaganda, much of it built on the stories of sailors who were prosecuted by the Inquisition at the behest of King Philip II.

That is not to say that culture is a static thing. With the end of Queen Anne's War (1702-1713), thousands of pirates were expected to suddenly lay down their arms and pursue a more peaceful way of life. It did not happen. Unable to buy commissions against the Spanish, many pirates turned to despoiling their own countrymen - and suddenly, it was not so chic to be a pirate. Pirate literature reflects this, and hence most people can name at least a few pirate villains, like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Captain Hook, or Long John Silver. But the myth of the noble, heroic pirate has never gone away. It permeates our culture in a hundred subtle ways, from romance novels to sports team logos to advertising to films and children's books. For 150 years, at least, it was cool to be a pirate. And that is why people enjoy attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean.

Disney's decision to change the rape scene is indeed an attempt to whitewash history. What makes the change a bit ludicrous, however, is that it is a whitewash of a whitewash. Pirates were never the lovable rogues that we like to imagine they were, the kind of rouges who chase women without ever catching them. Pirates were murderers and rapists who have been treated kindly in history books because somehow they never seemed quite so bad as the Spanish Inquisition.


Primary Sources

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Edited by Michael Shinagel. New York: Norton, 1975.

Esquemeling, John. The Buccaneers of America. Introduction by Percy G. Adams. New York: Dover, 1967.

Foxe, John. Book of Martyrs [proper title: Acts and Monuments](1563). Edited by William Byron Forbush. (29 Sept. 2003).

Hakluyt, Richard. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. Vol. 9. Glasgow: James MacLehose & Sons, 1904. 12 vols.

Hakluyt, Richard. Voyages and Documents. Selected with an Introduction and Glossary by Janet Hampden. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Henty, B. A. Under Drake's flag: a tale of the Spanish Main. New York: A.L. Burt Company, 190-?

Kingsley, Charles. Westward Ho! London: Macmillan, 1883.

Markham, Clements R., ed. The Hawkins' Voyages. New York: Burt Franklin, 1970.

Nuttall, Zelia, ed. New Light On Drake, A Collection of Documents Relating To His Voyage Of Circumnavigation 1577-1580. Original edition published by the Hakluyt Society, 1914. Kraus Reprint Limited, Nendeln/Liechtenstein, 1967.

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Barbour, Violet. "Privateers and Pirates of the West Indies". The American Historical Review, Vol. 16, No. 3. (Apr., 1911), pp. 529-566. JSTOR Stable URL:

Burg, B. R. Sodomy And The Pirate Tradition, English Sea Rovers In The Seventeenth-Century Caribbean. New York: NY University press, 1983.

Cadoux, Cecil John. Philip of Spain and the Netherlands, An Essay on Moral Judgements in History. London: Lutterworth, 1947.

Croft, Pauline. "Englishmen and the Spanish Inquisition 1558-1625". The English Historical Review, Vol. 87, No. 343. (Apr., 1972), pp. 249-268. JSTOR Stable URL:

Cummins, John. Francis Drake: The Lives of a Hero. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

British Library. Sir Francis Drake: An Exhibition to Commemorate Francis Drake's Voyage around the World 1577 - 1580. London: British Museum Publications Limited, 1977.

Duke, Alastair. Abstract of "A legend in the making: News of the "Spanish Inquisition" in the Low Countries in German evangelical pamphlets, 1546-1550". Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis [Netherlands] 1997 77(2): 125-144.

Fermina, Alvarez Alonso. "Herejes Ante La Inquisicion de Cartagena de Indias". Revista de la Inquisicion [Spain], numero 6, 1997.

Geyl, Peter. The Revolt of the Netherlands, 1556-1609. London: E. Benn, 1958.
Henty, B. A. Under Drake's flag: a tale of the Spanish Main. New York: A.L. Burt Company, 190-?

Horder, Mervyn. "An Elizabethan Sailor". Blackwood's Magazine [Great Britain] 1975. 318 (1919): 266-270.

Innes, Arthur D. England Under the Tudors (1913). Project Gutenberg. October, 2004 [EBook #6727]. (27 Sep. 2003). Ch. 23.

Knight, Frank. They Told Mr. Hakluyt. London: Macmillan, 1964.

Lane, Kris E. Pillaging Empire, Piracy in the Americas 1500-1750. New York: Sharpe, 1998.

Maltby, William S. The Black Legend In England, The development of anti-Spanish sentiment, 1558-1660. Durham: Duke University Press, 1971.

Means, Philip Ainsworth. The Spanish Main, Focus of Envy, 1492-1700. London: Scribner's Sons, 1935.

Merriman, Roger Bigelow. The Rise of the Spanish Empire in the Old World and in the New. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1962.

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Roberts, W Adolphe. The French in the West Indies. New York: Cooper Square, 1971.

Bill Totten


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