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Pirates of London

By London Expert: Gavin, United Kingdom, June 2011

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As cinema goers flock to see the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film and thrill to the latest exploits of Captain Jack Sparrow, I wonder how many will think about London’s connections to pirates!

The film includes some stunning location shots in the magnificent Painted Hall in Greenwich. This was originally built as the Dining Hall for retired sailors, not pirates! It was where Nelson’s body was taken after the Battle of Trafalgar and before his burial in St Paul’s Cathedral. Greenwich is full of fascinating maritime history including an excellent Maritime Museum.

It is said that the origins of the Jolly Roger flag may be the stone skull and cross bones above the entrance to the graveyard at St Nicholas’s Church in Deptford, close to Greenwich. It is certainly a place many sailors and would-be pirates would have known.

One of the most intriguing real life pirate stories is told in a new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. Captain Kidd was originally hired to track down pirates who by 1695 were damaging the profits of the powerful East India Company. His unconventional commission allowed him to keep any pirate plunder without paying the Admiralty or the government their usual share. Wealthy politicians backed him tempted by the potentially huge profits.

Captain Kidd sailed off in 1696 with 150 men on a “no prize, no pay” basis. No success after 6 months so he turned pirate himself. He was not very successful and his crew was turning mutinous. After one fight, Kidd smashed an iron bound bucket over the head of a gunner who died the next day. He attacked a French ship en route to Madagascar. 

Pirate ships were surprisingly democratic with the crew often electing their captain. The pirates were mainly unemployed sailors, a result of naval disarmourment after various wars had finished, or turned pirate as a reaction against cruel practices at sea. 

Captain Kidd was arrested, put on trial and tried to barter for his life with stories of buried treasure, but he was executed at Wapping as an example to other sailors who might be tempted to turn pirate. Today a pub bears his name and stories by Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe mention Kidd’s buried treasure. These inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The exhibition is fun for children with lots of inter-active activities and runs until 30th October.

For more information on London’s pirates, come on my walking tour of the old docks, which passes the Captain Kidd pub and finishes in the new development of Canary Wharf and the museum. You can make a full day of it and see the Painted Hall in Greenwich too!

Gavin, London Tour Guide

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