Pride and Piracy: Bartholomew Sharpe

The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives
January 21 through May 22, 2011
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Title page of an illustrated manuscript of Bartholomew Sharpe's diaryPride and Piracy: Bartholomew Sharpe (ca. 1650–1690). As he terrorized Spanish towns and ships in the Americas, English pirate Bartholomew Sharpe kept a diary of his voyage and his exploits.

About the Diary

In 1680 a band of English pirates sailed along the west coast of South America in what was then known as the South Sea, wreaking terror and destruction on Spanish ships and villages. Bartholomew Sharpe, the expert navigator who served as their captain, kept a diary of the voyage and his exploits. When he returned to England in 1682, he stood trial for piracy and murder, but was acquitted on a technicality after handing over a document that was of great value to King Charles II: a hand-drawn chart book—or derrotero—seized from the Spanish ship Rosario. The Spaniards "were a-goeing to throw [it] overboard," Sharpe's diary reads, "but my men prevented it, which made the Spanish Captain cry out, 'fare well South Sea.'" This chart book was truly pirate's treasure: it provided the English with invaluable intelligence (and an edge over the dominant Spanish) in an era when various European powers vied for supremacy in the Americas.

The volume pictured here, bound in fine red leather, is one of several beautiful manuscript copies of Sharpe's diary that were made for presentation to members of the royal court after Sharpe turned over the valuable derrotero. The copy was made by chartmaker William Hacke, whose artistry turned Sharpe's humble diary into an object of luxe and his experience into a tale of glory. Sharpe's shipboard diary does not survive, so it is impossible to know for certain how closely this recopied version adheres to the original text. But we can be sure that this copy, with its many florid passages, was heavily enhanced to highlight Sharpe's bravery and patriotism.

Sharpe's voyage began in April 1680, when he gathered a band of buccaneers to cross the isthmus of Darien (in present-day Panama) on foot, tracing the path that the notorious Henry Morgan had blazed several years before. Sharpe enlisted the help of the local natives to guide his band overland. "The people for the most part are very handsom," this copy of his diary reads, "especially the female sex, and as they are very beutifull so they are allso very free to dispose of themselves to Englishmen answering them in all respects according to their desire." After several days with "nothing but the cold earth for our Lodgings, and for our covering the green trees," Sharpe's men sacked a Spanish town and finally "beheld the faire South Sea."

Sailing in ships they had commandeered from the Spanish, Sharpe and his band proceeded south along the west coast of Central and South America, seeking their fortune with violent abandon. After attacking a Chilean town ironically named La Serena, Sharpe boasted of the prowess of his vastly outnumbered band. "I agreed with the Spaniards for the redemption of this city," the diary reads. "They were to pay me the sum of 80,000 Pieces of Eight—but insteed of that they rallied 4 or 500 hors[es] to take us all prisoners. But I marched out with my men & fought them & beat them to their hearts content, after which I set the city on fire & burnt it & came away by the light of it."

If Sharpe was a ruthless thief and murderer, he was also an accomplished navigator. He was the first English sailor to make the treacherous voyage around Cape Horn from the west, guiding his fleet through horrendous weather conditions and his men through severe privation—"nothing but dowboys & tallow for dinner & supper." They had saved a hog to kill for Christmas dinner, but after many difficult months the crew was ready to mutiny if they didn't reach the Caribbean islands soon. Sharpe promised to eat the ship's dog if they didn't see land within three days—and he made it, finally arriving in Barbados and giving the ship to those pirates who had already gambled away their booty. Sharpe returned to England, ready to face trial if need be, secure in the knowledge that he had a valuable chart book in hand with which he might buy his freedom.

Sharpe was not the only buccaneer to keep a diary of the voyage. Several accounts survive, the best-known of which is that of Basil Ringrose, which was published as the second volume of the English edition of Alexandre Exquemelin's bestselling History of the Bucaniers of America. Over three centuries later, the image of swashbuckling pirate—as portrayed in Exquemelin's work and in this version of Sharpe's journal—endures in film, fantasy, and the popular imagination.

Image Caption: 

Title page of an illustrated manuscript of Bartholomew Sharpe's diary, made by William Hacke, 1680s. Gift of H.P. Kraus, 1979.