Researchers examine what retirement means for pirates

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In examining the connections between 18th century pirates and land communities, Claire Bents ’16 uncovered a New York City ring devoted to making money from the pirate trade — a discovery that Professor of History Steven Hahn calls a “game changer” for his research.

What exactly does a pirate do after he ‘retires’?

That’s the question Claire Bents ‘16 investigated with Professor of History Steven Hahn as part of a project through St. Olaf College’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.

The question grew out of Hahn’s research on pirates of the Caribbean. In 1718, pirates were offered a pardon for piracy crimes if they promised never to return to the life of a pirate. Hahn is working on writing a social history of ‘retired’ pirates.

Bents looked over records from the British Customs Offices and compared names, cargo, ship names, and dates to the names listed on the Pardoned Lists from Nassau, Bahamas. She found that pirates only took the pardon if they thought they had something to lose, but many returned to their pirate ways shortly thereafter.

Connections
Using existing information of the New York Harbor, who was there and who was related to whom, she started to see connections between the pirates.

“I started writing names on the whiteboard and drawing connections, and the whiteboard became quite a mess,” she says.

Claire Bents ‘16 created a chart to demonstrate the close connections that seafarers had with the land community in New York City.
Claire Bents ‘16 created a chart to demonstrate the close connections that seafarers had with the land community in New York City.

Scholars have typically thought that pirates were not well integrated into land communities because of the distinct pirate culture and nationless identity that pirates had. But in drawing the connections, Bents was able to show that the pirates were quite important to land communities.

“At least two very prominent New York City merchants provided the capital that enabled ship captains to trade with pirates. In other words, Claire discovered a New York City ‘ring’ devoted to making money from the pirate trade, and uncovered a subplot to my story that had been hitherto unnoticed,” Hahn says. “Claire’s discoveries were a game changer for my research.”

Additional family history work brought to light that United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth great-grandfather William Walton was well-connected to a few pardoned pirates, including William Pinfold and John Mutlow.

Bents turned her whiteboard mess into a chart to demonstrate the close connections that seafarers had with the land community in New York City. She used this chart as part of a poster presentation for CURI and also presented her work to fellow history majors at the annual History Majors Meeting.

Land and sea
Bents continues to investigate the dichotomy between land and sea communities as part of an independent research course under Hahn’s supervision this semester. Her current research focuses on logwood trade in the Caribbean during the 18th century. Logwood is a tree that was used as a dye. Logwood was prized for the deep colors it produced. The culture surrounding the logwood trade was vital to the success of traders. If traders did not treat the captain and crew to an elaborate feast, the captain and crew would hollow out the logs and fill them with rocks and tar.

“I am a much stronger researcher than I was before I came to St. Olaf,” says Bents. “It has been an incredible opportunity to get to participate in individual research guided by a faculty member who is an experienced researcher. I believe you learn best by working with experienced people, and these research opportunities have certainly taught me a ton.”