I grew up with pirates. Or rather, I grew up in very piratical places.
Blackbeard died in the state where I was born. As an elementary school student in North Carolina, I took particular pride in this fact. Not that the most infamous of pirates was killed off our coast (not by us, but by Virginians, it should be said), but that the labrynthine Outer Banks served as his base, his refuge. His home. It’s said that the locals welcomed and protected him, as did the colonial governor in New Bern. In Virginia, he was a villain, but in North Carolina, he was a folk hero. He still is, in a way.
Every summer when I was young, my family would drive the three hours to the Outer Banks for a week or long weekend. Out there you can bask in Blackbeard’s legacy as easily as you can the sun or the ocean. It’s hard to go half a mile without bumping into a restaurant or mini-golf course bearing his name or frightening visage. It’s not enough to say that Blackbeard’s ghost haunts North Carolina’s Outer Banks. His ghost presides over the islands, welcoming tourists with open arms and coupons for the surf-and-turf happy hour specials.
When we moved to Charleston, South Carolina, we found Blackbeard’s ghost there, too. But he has a blacker reputation in the Palmetto State. The same year the Virginians hunted him down, Blackbeard sailed into Charleston Harbor on the Queen Anne’s Revenge and held the old walled city hostage. He kidnapped the governor and his son and threatened to kill them and bombard the city unless he got medicine for his crew. The city gave in to his demands. Blackbeard got his medicine, and then sailed back to the Outer Banks to regroup. There, the Virginians found him.
Charleston didn’t take kindly to Blackbeard, but it was a pirate haven in its own right. The second oldest building in the city is a crumbling stucco house called the “Pirate House,” due to a persistent legend about buried treasure in the garden. The oldest building in town is a crooked little house on a cobblestone back street called the Pink House. It is called this because it is pink. It was built in the 1690’s and, according to legend, was originally a brothel that catered to pirates. Today it is an art gallery that caters to tourists (tourist tip: while admiring the quaint art on display, it’s best not to think about the fact that hundreds of filthy, diseased pirates had orgasms in the space where you’re currently standing).
Some of history’s most famed pirates came through the city. Anne Bonny, the most famous woman pirate of all time (along with her friend Mary Read), was a Charlestonian, and began her pirate career when she fled her father’s plantation and set sail for the Caribbean. The “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet ended his pirate career, and his life, on a gallows on Charleston’s Battery, along with dozens of other buccaneers and brigands. Rumors of buried pirate treasure on the islands surrounding the city were so prevelant that they inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug.” If you’re interested in finding the X that marks the spot, any of the city’s numerous tour guides will be happy to tell you where they think you might find it.
Even after I left the Carolinas, I was still in pirate territory. I went to college in Williamsburg, Virginia, the very town where Blackbeard’s crew was tried and executed for piracy after the death of their captain. In fact, William & Mary’s main building was designed by Alexander Spotswood, the royal governor who signed the deed of Blackbeard’s death. Like Charleston, though, the college’s piratical history is complicated. Part of its initial endowment from the Crown came from recovered pirate booty (sadly, my petition to change the school’s motto to “Built by Booty” was repeatedly rejected by the administration).
I thought I’d left the buccaneer ghosts behind me when I moved to Chicago, and then the Japanese island of Tsushima to teach English. The pirates of the Caribbean had traveled far, but not that far.
But then on a muggy summer night, I sat on a hillside gazebo talking with my boss and a few other teachers and PTA members. We’d been supervising a camp for our students during the day, and after they’d been safely tucked into their tents, we unwound with the customary beer and grilled meat. We sat there drinking and sweating and talking over the incessant buzz of the cicadas. My boss, Mr. Abiru, asked me in the simple Japanese I could understand what sort of people my family had been in the past. I replied, in broken Japanese, that they were mostly farmers, with a few cowboys thrown in for good measure. Maybe a knight or two, long ago.
Mr. Abiru’s ancestors had been kaizoku, he said. Kaizoku? I asked. I didn’t know that word and he didn’t know the English translation, so he said, “sea samurai.” It took a few more beers and a lot more miming and explaining around the term before I got what he meant. The Abirus had been pirates.
Later, I learned that Tsushima had been the pirate capital of Asia for centuries. During the Middle Ages, the Wako pirates of the island pillaged and terrorized the coasts of Korea, China, and Taiwan. They were the Vikings of the Far East. The biggest pirate-clan on the island was the Ahiru Clan. Their descendents, now pronounced Abiru, are still so prevelant on the island that something like a third of my students, co-workers, and neighbors had the last name Abiru. The Board of Education where I worked consisted of six employees, three of whom were named Abiru, including my boss. At Kashishi Jr. High, I had a class of seven students, four of whom were Abirus. The island is overrun with the grandsons and granddaughters of the Wako.
I laughed that night when my boss told me the Abirus were a pirate clan. Then I finally understood why I’d felt so at home on that far-flung island, living and working with all those Abirus. I was among pirates again.