Piraturday: Black Sam Bellamy

An epic pirate!

We’d been kicking around a few ideas for something fun to do with the blog to break up the business talk. Some sort of regular feature. The top candidates were a bit less than satisfying:

  • Pictures of our mascot/unpaid intern/indentured servant, Coco. As photogenic as Coco is, though, the web may be a bit saturated with adorable dogs.
  • Puzzles. Puzzles are fun, but coming up with one a week, and then a puzzle that sort of matches the company? We’d run out of time to do actual work. And then if we grind creativity out regularly, there’s the problem that some of the puzzles would turn out pretty uninspired. We have a few planned, but we’re thinking that a regular feature might not be right.
  • Fun hacks. As above.
  • Frivolous web services. Who doesn’t love that? Once again, though, it’s a bit much for a regular feature.

And then we landed on something. It works, it fits, and it’s something we can manage regularly without phoning it in. An oblique announcement followed shortly after the unanimous decision by the team:


That’s right. It’s exactly what it looks like. I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but pirates had very interesting lives. What makes this a remotely good idea or relevant to Reverso Labs, though?

  • They had the spirit of entrepreneurship, and also literal ships.
  • They worked in small, independent teams.
  • They thought creatively and got the job done.
  • They thrived in the face of stiff competition.
  • They knew how to throw a serious wrap party.
  • They were pirates.

Editorial notes

Pirates were poorly documented, so the concept of “factual errors” is more abstract in this case. Half of the stories of what went down on these ships comes from stories told by drunken pirates on their time at port, anyway. When we encounter unreliable or contradictory sources, we’ll be going with whatever version of events makes things the most awesome. You’re welcome.

Speaking of unreliable sources, if you’ve read any material from way back, you may have noticed that “spelling” was not so formalized as it is now. In fact, it seems to have been largely invented on the spot. True to the pirate spirit, we’re going to damn the language police and go with whatever spelling looks right.

And so, without further ado…

Put on some music and let’s get on with Piraturday. Our first pick is highly appropriate for reasons that will become clear.

Black Sam Bellamy

In Brief

  • Born: Some time before February 23, 1689 in Devonshire, England.
  • Previous affiliation: Royal Navy.
  • Pirate career started: 1715.
  • Plundered: The Atlantic coast of North America and the Caribbean.
  • Booty: £20,000 in gold and silver, about $120 million by current reckoning according to Forbes.
  • Died: April 26, 1717.
  • Cause of death: Shipwreck.

Achievements Unlocked

  • Pirate democracy
  • Fabulous style
  • All for love
  • Freeing the slaves before it was cool
  • Epic Speech
  • Going down with the ship

Black Sam’s Flag

He flew what is now the iconic style for the Jolly Roger: a skull and crossbones.

Incidentally, this is the same version of the Jolly Roger that is flying at the Reverso Labs office.

Black Bellamy’s mother died in childbirth; times were tough, and he was the sixth child born to his parents in the pre-sanitation era of baby roulette. He took to the high seas early, or maybe he was crazy: he joined the Royal Navy in his teens in the middle of the War of Spanish Succession.

He married and had a child, but Queen Anne didn’t pay her sailors much at the time: £2 per month. Needing a bit more walking around money and a little more adrenaline in his life, he bailed on family life and headed out to the New World, specifically Cape Cod. (Pirates: not exactly role models.)

While in Cape Cod, he happened to meet a girl named Maria Hallett, and fell in love. Maria’s parents thought he was a great kid, but were concerned that a poor sailor would never amount to anything and refused to let them marry. This was the second time Bellamy’s cashflow problems got in the way of his dreams.

Bellamy announced that he’d solve this problem: he’d just go get rich. He swore to her that he’d go off and come back with a ship full of money. Mirrors were crazy expensive, so how he perfected his elevator pitch is a mystery lost to time, but he happened to be friends with an investor named Palgraves Williams and secured venture capital in the form of a ship and a crew.

All the promises of wealth must have given Maria a case of the vapors because she had his child not long after he set sail, and was promptly found guilty of adultery or something and kicked out of town. Times were tough, remember? (It is left to historians to debate whether he conveniently omitted his track record with ladies or if Maria decided to ignore it.)

Unfortunately, the child didn’t make it. Again, times were tough: Richard Connell hadn’t been born yet, so in the 18th century, babies were still the most dangerous game.

In the mean time, Bellamy and Williams scoured the Florida coast looking for sunken Spanish ships, with the intention of relieving some skeletons of their gold. Their plan hit a critical snag: they couldn’t find any. Undeterred, they decided to pivot their business model.

Why go looking for ships at the under the ocean when it was much easier to find the ones that were still on top of it? Of course, skeletons give up their gold less of a fight than Spaniards, but the risk was roughly equivalent, and way less creepy. So Sam and Palgraves decided to see if they could find a little more lucre in piracy than they had in dredging.

Turns out that they did. They joined up as part of Benjamin Hornigold’s crew which included his first mate Edward Teach (who is nowadays better known by the name Blackbeard). Hornigold, however, had loyalties above the ones he had to his crew: he refused to attack English ships.

Mutiny. Of course. Well, technically, they just voted. So Hornigold was kicked off his boat, and some of the crew left with him. The remaining crew, 90 men, chose Bellamy as their leader.

Captains usually wore powdered wigs, but Bellamy was willing to sacrifice convention for style, and powdered wigs were a little ridiculous to begin with. Bellamy just grew out his long black hair and a black beard, and with a taste for dressing stylishly and wearing a deep-cuffed black velvet coat, he managed to earn the nom de guerre Black Sam Bellamy. Some of his kit had to be functional, of course. He kept four guns tucked into his sash, along with the sword at his side. Carrying multiple guns had less to do with style than with technological limitations of the time: these were all flint-lock pistols, and reloading was a bit of a chore. (But don’t tell me that didn’t probably look awesome.)

After taking over the Marianne from Hornigold, Black Sam instituted Pirate Democracy on the ship, and handled it a little more strictly than Hornigold, refusing to overrule the crew’s vote. In a time where democracy was somewhat rare and kings roamed wild, pirates very often had a flatter, more egalitarian social structure. According to Defoe, the crew was racially diverse and when a slave ship was overtaken, it was common to give the slaves onboard a choice to join the crew or get sold. Not a hard choice, right?

Not long after becoming captain, Bellamy got to business of fleet-building and took over the Sultana Galley. He chose it as his flagship and nominated his friend Palgraves for captain, who won the election. Within a couple of years, they sacked fifty ships, which is not a bad haul.

The revenue graph went hockey-stick in early 1716 when they took the Whydah, a slave ship out of England that also happened to be packed with silver, gold, elephant tusks, and…eighteen cannons. It was reasonably modern, having been built only a year before, and at a time when ship technology was moving quickly. Black Sam informed the captain that they would be trading ships, and set sail again with the Whydah as his new flagship.

Apparently, as with the rest of his crew, he took a cavalier approach towards death. In the middle of a raging storm, it was their habit to scream jokes and curses at the sky, and Black Sam was an active participant. After a particularly ferocious roar of thunder, he speculated that the gods were drunk and apologized for not emptying his cannons to return their salute.

His eloquence didn’t stop there. Forty leagues east of South Carolina’s coast, he overtook a sloop based in Boston, doubtless to the disappointment of its Captain Beer. After sacking the ship came the question of what to do with the ship and its crew if they would not join up with the pirates. Beer wasn’t willing to join the pirates. Bellamy and Williams proposed letting them go, but their crews voted to burn it and drop the defeated crew off on Block Island. Explaining this to Captain Beer to give him a second chance, Bellamy made a speech so epic that I cannot bear to condense it (and just insert your own [sic]s where appropriate):

“Damn my Blood I am sorry they won’t let you have your Sloop again, for I scorn to do any one a Mischief, when it is not for my Advantage; damn the Sloop, we must sink her, and she might be of Use to you. Tho’, damn ye, you are a sneaking Puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by Laws which rich Men have made for their own Security, for the cowardly Whelps have not the Courage otherwise to defend what they get by their Knavery; but damn ye altogether: Damn them for a Pack of crafty Rascals, and you, who serve them, for a Parcel of hen-hearted Numskuls. They villify us, the Scoundrels do, when there is only this Difference, they rob the Poor under the Cover of Law, forsooth, and we plunder the Rich under the Protection of our own Courage; had you not better make One of us, than sneak after the Asses of these Villains for Employment?”

Capt. Beer told him, that his Conscience would not allow him to break thro’ the Laws of God and Man.

“You are a devilish Conscience Rascal, damn ye. I am a free Prince, and I have as much Authority to make War on the whole World, as he who has a hundred Sail of Ships at Sea, and an Army of 100,000 Men in the Field; and this my Conscience tells me; but there is no arguing with such sniveling Puppies, who allow Superiors to kick them about Deck at Pleasure; and pin their Faith upon a Pimp of a Parson; a Squab, who neither practices nor believes what he puts upon the chuckle-headed Fools he preaches to.”

Now that’s how you tear a guy down while simultaneously dropping your awesome pirate philosophy.

Unfortunately, Black Sam had a short career that ended abruptly when he was 28. Heading back to Cape Cod, allegedly to make good on his alleged oath to his alleged girlfriend, he and his crew ran into a violent storm, and his ship ran into a sandbar, split open, and everyone but a handful survived. That part’s not merely alleged, but actually about as true as any fact you can infer from recovering a ship from the ocean floor.

The shipwreck has got its own museum up there, in fact. You can muse on the irony of people making money off the shipwreck of a guy that abandoned making money off of shipwrecks. The joyless cynic inside me likes that message, but the awesome guy inside me prefers to leave this parting thought: Bellamy couldn’t be killed by anything less than the horrible New England weather.