An alliance of pirates preyed on ships laden with treasure, outmatched Britain's Royal Navy, elected their own admiral and, ultimately, were destroyed in a cataclysmic battle against a Dutch fleet in 1614.
They were a pirate alliance which operated on the southwest coast of Munster, Ireland, in the early 17th century, and now new archaeological and historical research reveals new details about their adventures.
Among the recent archaeological discoveries that may be connected to the alliance are two remote sites, each with a set of stairs reaching almost to the sea. One of them, located at modern-day "Dutchman's Cove," east of Baltimore, Ireland, held niches where candles or lanterns were used to signal pirates and smugglers who came in the dead of night. Another staircase at modern-day "Gokane Point" (also called "Streek Head"), located on the edge of a headland into Crookhaven Harbor, leads to a subterranean cavern with a waterway by which boats could enter. [See Photos of the 'Pirate Alliance' Sites in Ireland]
Both archaeological sites are unexcavated. Connie Kelleher, the underwater archaeologist who explored them, said she is not sure if they date back to the early 17th century. However, they would have been used by pirates and smugglers at some point, said Kelleher, a state underwater archaeologist with the Ireland National Monuments Service's underwater archaeology unit.
"Sites like that would have been used over a very long period by pirates, smugglers and others who wanted to do secret things,"Kelleher told Live Science in an email. Kelleher made Munster's early-17th-century pirates the focus of her doctoral thesis at Trinity College, Dublin, and her results are now detailed in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology. In addition to doing archaeological research, she analyzed historical records.
"One pirate haul is said to have been worth, in today's money, some $7 million," Kelleher said. "This was an amazingly lucrative commercial venture, and this is why it was so successful."
In the early 17th century, many of the pirates in Munster were Englishmen, but there were also Irish, Flemish and "renegade" Dutchmen. The records list one of the pirates as being black. "A pirate named Arthur Drake, who was lieutenant to pirate Capt. Robert Stephenson, is one of the only known black men to have held a position of command in a pirate crew," said Kelleher.
Searching for a lost pirate fleet
Kelleher plans to search Crookhaven Harbor for the pirate-alliance fleet destroyed by the Dutch in 1614. While some of the cargo and sails from these ships were salvaged after the battle — Kelleher found a list of loot from one ship — there could still be more for archaeologists to find. [Arrgh! Photos Reveal 'Pirates of the Caribbean']
"Certainly part of the lower hulls and its cargoes could be there — things that were in the hold of the ships," Kelleher said. "Similarly, if a ship exploded, then material could be scattered, and we could be dealing with a wider archaeological site."
It would be difficult for the researchers to determine if any ships they find belonged to the pirates, Kelleher said, though any intact cargo onboard could be matched up with historical records. "It would be amazing to find such a ship, she said. "Apart from the contribution it would make to our knowledge of ships from that period, it would be the first definitive pirate-associated wreck found in Irish waters discovered to date and one associated with such a tragic event."
Birth of the pirate alliance
Although pirates existed in Munster before the 17th century, a series of events led to the formation of an alliance in the area dominated by English pirates. In 1603, a new king — James I of England (VI of Scotland) — assumed the throne, uniting England and Scotland. He made peace with the Spanish, outlawed the practice of privateering (in which private sailors would be given consent by Britain to attack enemy ships) and cracked down on pirates in southern England.
As a result, the former privateers became pirates and moved their families to Munster, which, at the time, was the site of a British colonization program. With some distance between themselves and the king, the pirates thrived — their booty was smuggled ashore (often with the implicit consent of local officials), fueling the local economy.
In return for the locals allowing the booty to be brought ashore, the pirates bought local goods at three times the normal price. It was a lucrative scheme that attracted not just pirates, but also businessmen, and helped pay for colonial projects in the New World. During this time, individuals invested in colonization projects in the Americas, such as Jamestown and Bermuda. [Gallery: Lost in the Bermuda Triangle]
"Legitimate businessmen and merchant venturers were deeply involved, as it was assured access to venture capital, that was, in turn, invested in colonial ventures elsewhere in the New World, which was opening up to the maritime empires globally at this point in time," Kelleher said in the email.