In Black Sails, he’s a man in a blue coat, who calls the Fort Nassau “my fort” and talks of “being a soldier again.” The real Ben Hornigold had every right to claim the fort in his own name. In fact, he was one of the major players in the Golden Age of Piracy.
Like many pirates, Ben Hornigold’s early life is unclear. He appears to have been a privateer in the many wars between France, Spain and England in the early 1700’s. Like many other sailors, he was dumped without a job when the wars ended, and turned to piracy to support himself
In Black Sails, the historical Hornigold seems to be melded with another pirate (one that the historical Hornigold did not like at all) named Henry Jennings. Jennings had political aspirations.
The English throne was under dispute. With the death of Queen Ann in 1714, the succession could have gone one of two ways – either to a Scottish-born Catholic, James, or to a distant, German-speaking branch of the family, George. The rules of succession said that a Catholic could not become king, but looking so far afield, to a man who had never been to England, did not speak the language, and did not even especially want to be king, stuck in the craws of many Englishmen.
The fighting that ensued was called the Jacobite Rebellion. It had failed by 1715, but James was still living in exile. Many pirates sympathized with him, and some made overtures to offer him support. If the Pirate Republic in Nassau had managed to forge an alliance with a faction that succeeded in overthrowing the British government, they might have become a real nation, the first democracy in the world.
If that had happened, we might be celebrating the birthdays of Hornigold and Jennings, instead of Washington and Lincoln.
Like many pirates, Hornigold started out with a native dugout as his only vessel, but calling these craft “canoes” is under-rating them. These canoes could hold 25 men, and could be rigged with a sail. Hornigold had items to fence almost at once.
While Hornigold was still using the canoe Jonathan Duvell, the merchant who was buying his stolen goods, actually paid Hornigold to train his son how to be a pirate. The pirate was happy to agree, and received use of a small sailing ship in the bargain.
Of all the pirates of the Caribbean, Benjamin Hornigold was the most influential. He taught many young men to be pirates. In fact, between men he trained and men who sailed with him in convoy or under his command in pirate fleets, he may have guided the careers of over 3,200 pirates. Among his pupils were Charles Vane, Black Sam Bellamy, called the “Prince of Pirates” by his contemporaries, and a man named Edward Teach, later known as Blackbeard.
Hornigold became so infamous that news of his exploits spread to Boston and England. The authorities complained about how much money he was stealing, but news that Hornigold’s crew was raking in so much gold may have motivated some fortune seekers to travel to the Caribbean and take up the pirating life.
He was one of the first to see Nassau as a self-contained pirate country. The place still had a nominal governor, but Hornigold publically called the man, “A troublesome old fart” and commanded him to get out of town, or the pirates would kill him and whip the whole family senseless. The English governor remained, but kept quiet.
Hornigold continued to raid Spanish shipping, and by December of 1715, he had captured a sloop-of-war, able to carry even more pirates, and as powerful as any in the Caribbean. He named it the Benjamin, after himself.
Hornigold had been leading a flotilla of converted sloops and fishing vessels, and stealing cannons and other arms from his prizes. Now he re-armed the town’s abandoned fort. He supplied the materials, and raised the manpower necessary to drag the heavy guns up the hill, install them, and repair the fort’s stonework by the simple method of providing his workers with all the free liquor they could drink.
The rightful governor fled, leaving Hornigold in charge.
Merchants crowded to the real Nassau, eager to make a fortune by trading with the pirates. But they were not always safe. There was little to prevent the pirates from robbing the very men they had traded with. Only a few men, such as John Cockram, a former associate of Hornigold’s had enough connections to keep them safe.
Hornigold traded the Benjamin for another sloop when her bottom began to rot, then traded ships again. It was a small matter for a pirate to do this, and many of them changed ships every few months. For one thing, it made them harder to identify by the authorities.
Because he sailed some of the largest ships in the Caribbean, Hornigold was sometimes mistaken for a British warship.
He enjoyed a good prank. He once attacked a ship and took only the sailor’s hats. When the captain of the captured vessel questioned him about this, Hornigold explained that the night before, he and his men had been so drunk that they had thrown their own hats into the sea. A gentleman of fortune couldn’t very well be without a hat, so he had stopped the first ship he saw to get more. Then, headgear acquired, the pirates sailed away.
This was one of the few times that Hornigold attacked an English ship. Whether because he considered himself a loyal Englishman or was trying to keep an option to retire without being hanged, he did his best to avoid attacking the British. And given that he traveled in the company of French pirate Olivier la Buse, as well as Blackbeard and Sam Bellamy (who may or may not have coined the phrase, “at war with the world”) Hornigold maintained good relations with his fellow pirates, in spite of convincing them to spare ships from his home country.
The English government was not able to defeat the pirates in battle. Instead, they sent an emissary, Woods Rogers, with a promise to pardon all the pirates, if only they would stop their piratical ways. Rogers bribed his way into Nassau in 1718, with a war ship and papers pardoning any pirate who was willing to promise to rob no more.
Men like Charles vane were determined to fight, but Hornigold advised caution, and managed to convince many of his fellows to accept the pardon. Some, like Jack Rackham, were pardoned and then went back to their old ways. Some, like Vane, fought.
But Hornigold accepted the King’s pardon and went back to what he had done before, acting as a privateer on the side of England in the War of the Quadruple Alliance. Many other pirates did the same. His ship was captured by the Spanish, and he was either killed in the engagement or died in a Spanish prison. In any event, his pirate friends never saw him again.