kw: book reviews, nonfiction, pirates, diving, salvage, discoveries
Prior to 2009 only one sunken pirate ship of the "Golden age of (Atlantic) Piracy" (1650-1720) had been found and positively identified, the Whydah, found in 1984 off Cape Cod. Barry Clifford and the others who found the Whydah had a map to go by, though it had been misinterpreted before his discovery. When John Chatterton and John Mattera, ably assisted by Heiko Kreschmer and Howard Ehrenberg, and partly bankrolled by Tracy Bowden, went out to find the Golden Fleece twenty years later, they didn't even have that. They had a smattering of resources including diary entries, old ships' logs, and letters between the Governors of Hispaniola and the English Crown.
They started with what they had, including a strong hunch by Bowden, based on some written speculations, that the wreck would be found near Cayo Levantado in Samana Bay on the north side of the Dominican Republic, which now occupies the eastern 2/3 of the island Hispaniola. "Levantado" means "raised up" or even "levered up", and refers to the island's suitability for careening a ship. Careening is partly beaching a ship and heeling it over so the sailors can scrape barnacles from the hull and do other maintenance a sailing ship periodically needs . Contemporary accounts of a battle between two British frigates and the pirates aboard the Golden Fleece, captained by Joseph Bannister, state that the frigates came while the ship was careened, and that she was partly re-floated but then sunk in 4 fathoms (24 feet) of water.
Chatterton and Mattera, extremely experienced divers and treasure hunters, were enticed and employed by Bowden to search for the Golden Fleece, and once it had been found, they told their story to Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers, about the salvage of a WW2 German submarine near New Jersey in 1991. His new book is Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsessions, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship.
Chatterton's and Mattera's search has as many twists and turns as the life of any pirate of the Golden Age. Their quarry was not really the ship so much as her captain, Joseph Bannister, who began as a very successful merchant captain. But one day he sailed his ship off without lading cargo and went pirate. In the two years that followed, he and his crew robbed many ships and foiled attempts to corral him again and again. But it was the battle with the two frigates that made his name. He won. It appears that, knowing he had to careen the ship to reduce drag and keep her speed up, he careened in a place that he could defend adequately. He had the ship's cannons, including it seems quite a number taken from other ships and kept in the hold, brought ashore in two batteries, where he also stationed a large number of men with muskets. They held off the British until the frigates were out of shot and powder and had to retreat.
The book tells, not just the story of the search and salvage work, but the stories of Chatterton and Mattera, of Bannister as it was gradually unearthed by Mattera's research, and of the work of the deep divers who test the limits of endurance of humans and the equipment to which they entrust their lives. It tells of the relationships, by turns collegial and fractious, among the men who reach the top of their obsessive profession.
It has been said, "An expert is someone who has gotten away with risking his life a few more times than you have." This is most true of salvage diving. The work requires an unusual combination of intelligence and perseverance and patience. Those usually don't go together, and they very seldom go together well. The divers searched every possible area around Cayo Levantado, dived every magnetometer "hit" (and this magnetometer cost the same as a Cadillac, or more), and came up dry. They found lots of "modern trash". No lost ship. Library work, and learning to think more like Bannister, led both Chatterton and Mattera to believe that the island was not well suited to planning a battle against the British navy. They became sure it must have been a different island, and found one nearby that seemed ideal. They couldn't get their backer Bowden to agree, however, and to dive the new area could be considered a kind of mutiny.
Eventually, Mattera decided to look for evidence of the battle on land, and found it. About that time, they obtained a "map" of their own, a drawing of the battle by an eyewitness in 1686, in the "Taylor manuscript", republished in 2008. The layout shown in the drawing matched the new location, and the finding of British cannonballs of the right vintage, deep in the island's soil, clinched the deal. Bowden agreed to a spell of diving and the Golden Fleece was found.
I'll leave it to you to learn the aftermath in the Epilogue. Big egos seldom get the kind of happy ending they are looking for. But we also learn fascinating tidbits about the lives of the "pirates of the Caribbean". For one thing, they were amazingly democratic in their own "government". Ship after ship had drawn up articles of their polity, in which the captain could not have the kind of absolute mastery of a vessel that was the rule in the British Navy. These men had had enough of the evils absolute power can engender! The captain's word was law only during pitched battle. Otherwise, he had one vote like all the crew. It is likely that these democratic ideals, and the chance to make a famous name, attracted Bannister more than the prospect of riches; he was well-to-do already.
Also, the notion that pirates amassed great wealth and stashed it on lonely islands all over the place is a Hollywood myth. Knowing that their life expectancy was likely a matter of months (Bannister lasted about 30 months in the pirate life until he was caught and hanged), they spent their takings, almost to the last piece-of-eight, in carousing ashore between voyages of plunder. Only a captain with considerable foresight could keep back enough plunder to buy provisions for the next voyage. Many with less foresight went into debt to provision a ship, and had to pay the debt upon return, or forfeit the ship.
They were tolerated in Port Royal, Jamaica, a center of their operations, because they at first mainly plundered the Spanish, and the British liked that. They also enriched the merchants there with their carousing. But later they became more eclectic in their takings, so when merchant trade had increased a great deal, by 1680 or so they were discouraged, then forbidden, then outlawed and hunted by the navy. By 1720 the "Golden Age" was over. And now, a golden age for salvagers may be over. Maritime countries around the world are passing laws to reclaim their "heritage" from treasure finders and salvagers, and archaeology is being favored in place of the derring-do of men like Chatterton and Mattera.