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Pirate Corner: The kilted buccaneer

The swashbuckling story of "Red Legs" Greaves fascinated me as a child. Here, I look into the evidence to see if it actually happened.

Content note: slavery; racism.

A white slave, born to Scottish (or Irish) parents in seventeenth century Barbados, escapes from a cruel master only to be captured by a notorious pirate. He joins the crew to save his life, but is revolted by the captain’s barbarism, and eventually defies him and kills him in a duel. He is unanimously elected to succeed him, and becomes one of the most successful pirates in the Caribbean while strictly maintaining a moral policy, forbidding torture and the maltreatment of women, and never harming the poor.

In an astonishingly daring assault on the Spanish-ruled island of Margarita, Venezuela, he captures both fleet and fortress, winning a great treasure which allows him to retire respectably: but he is later denounced and jailed, only to escape once again when he miraculously survives an earthquake and tidal wave that destroy his prison. For his subsequent assistance in capturing another, more antisocial pirate gang, he is pardoned, and proceeds to live happily ever after.

This sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie (and more or less has been, but we’ll come to that later). It is, however, ostensibly fact. This is the story of Captain “Red Legs” Greaves, as related alongside the biographies of many indubitably historical pirates in Philip Gosse’s remarkable work The Pirates’ Who’s Who (1924). Added verisimilitude is provided by the fact that Gosse also includes a one-line entry for Captain Hawkins, the villainous master whom Greaves allegedly slew – although he has nothing to say about Hawkins’ career before the capture of Greaves. Any number of books since have repeated and embellished Gosse’s story. I vividly remember, in the Ladybird Book of Pirates which I read to pieces as a child, the image of the dashing Greaves in his kilt (which supposedly accounted for the sunburn that gave him his nickname: Gosse refers only to the “bare knees” of “natives of Scotland and Ireland”, intimating that the epithet was a general one before becoming specific to Greaves). Why a man born and bred in the Caribbean would have imagined a woollen kilt to be practical wear for its climate – and, indeed, where an escaped slave would even have obtained one – I never thought to question. “Redlegs” as a general epithet for Irish transportees and their poor white descendants is authentic: although it probably has little to do with the effects of the Caribbean sun, as they were called that before leaving Ireland. One derivation that has been suggested is from the ferocious reputation of Irish and Highland mercenaries, who were supposed to wade through the blood of their enemies, and sometimes referred to as "Redshanks".

Gosse, unfortunately, does not cite any sources, and nobody has yet been able to turn up any evidence that Greaves actually existed. It is hard to imagine that an event as significant as the capture of Margarita would leave no records, but it apparently has not. Gosse does tie him in to two historical events: the sale of Scottish and Irish prisoners, allegedly including Greaves’ parents, into servitude during the English Republic and Protectorate (1649-58), and the Nevis tidal wave of 1680 (confused in some later retellings with the more famous earthquake which destroyed Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1692): but this has apparently not helped researchers. (It is also worth noting that a child of white transportees would have been considered free, even if his parents' term of servitude was lifelong.)

There are, it is true, many Greaveses in the Anglophone Caribbean, some no doubt descended from just such seventeenth century transportees as the captain’s parents, but none seems to be aware of Red Legs as an ancestor. Since his first name is unknown, he would be very difficult to find in any record not directly connected to his piratical activities.

There are also less authentic-sounding elements to the story. Both Hawkins and Greaves seem to command single ships and to operate entirely as outlaws, hence Greaves’ denunciation and arrest years after his retirement. This sounds much more like eighteenth century piracy than the situation in the 1660s and ’70s, when great buccaneer fleets operated with the tacit backing of colonial governments – although the supposed sack of Margarita is a very seventeenth century touch, calling to mind Henry Morgan’s celebrated capture of Panama in 1671. (Morgan would later be arrested for this – he had violated a peace treaty and flagrantly overstepped the bounds of his commission – but nobody else was; and he was subsequently pardoned, knighted, and appointed Deputy Governor of Jamaica.) The sack of Panama was the work of a substantial force: it is hard to see how a comparable feat could have been achieved by one ship alone.

More suspicious yet, however, is the fact that The Pirates’ Who’s Who came out only two years after Rafael Sabatini’s best-selling novel Captain Blood, and in the same year as the first film version. (The sound remake in 1935 would launch the career of Errol Flynn, and remains a classic.) Loosely based on the exploits of various historical figures including Morgan, Captain Blood is set in the late 1680s, and tells the story of an enslaved Anglo-Irish gentleman who escapes, turns pirate, and robs humanely, killing a crueller captain in a duel early in his career, takes part in the capture of a Spanish port in Venezuela, and is ultimately pardoned. The similarities are undeniable.

Oddly enough, a slightly different version of Greaves’ story surfaced not long ago, in the journalist Sean O’Callaghan’s book To Hell or Barbados: The ethnic cleansing of Ireland (2000). In O’Callaghan’s story, it is Greaves himself, not his parents, who was transported, after serving as a soldier of the Irish Confederation in the Civil Wars. (This rings truer than Gosse's version.) He mentions details not present in Gosse, such as Greaves’ fluent command of French, his red hair, and his hatred for the English; states that it was his first master, not his second as Gosse has it, who mistreated him; and that he was picked up not by the unattested Hawkins, but by the very real and vicious François l’Olonnais. He also provides specific dates, putting this encounter shortly before l’Olonnais’ death in 1668 and claiming that Greaves’ pirate career lasted two years before retirement. He says nothing about his later denunciation, escape, and pardon. He cites only one source other than Gosse: The Bridge Barbados (1976) by Patrick Kelman Roach. Roach’s book is obscure and I have been unable to locate a copy. An amateur genealogist, he certainly appears to have done some archival research: but nowhere does O’Callaghan indicate that Roach himself made new discoveries about Greaves – instead, he treats his version of the story as uncontroversial.

(Edit: Since originally publishing this blog post I have discovered that O'Callaghan has a known reputation for treating the facts cavalierly, and is a proponent of the "Irish slave myth". The latter is a dishonest conflation of Civil War era transportation and use of prisoner labour with the broader experience of Irish indentured servants in the New World, designed to create the false impression that indentured servitude was comparable to African chattel slavery, and often used to promote claims which are not only ahistorical but openly racist.)

This is not the only dubious account in The Pirates’ Who’s Who, a work which will appear again on these pages. Until and unless new evidence emerges, Greaves must sadly be regarded as a mischievous fiction on the part of Gosse, inspired by the popularity of Captain Blood.

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