Saturday, May 10, 2014

Pirates and Freedom


We're talking pirates today, me hearties, and not the software variety. A while back, a commenter pointed out that pirates were the original anarchist revolutionaries, and this interview of author Colin Woodard on On Point with Tom Ashbrook bears that out. It's a fascinating account of what piracy really meant beyond parrots and rum. It was actually about freedom as much as plunder. It reminds me of the stories about early settlers running away to join the Indians when ever they could in early America.

The pirates grew out of privateers that raided ships during the War of Spanish Succession. After the war, many privateers went rogue and formed the basis of pirate culture. They used the "failed state" of Nassau in the Bahamas as their base of operations, which functioned as a neutral ground for the various pirate factions. And all of this took place during a remarkable seven-year period:


Tom Ashbrook (host): There were social and political motivations running through the straight-up brigandry.

Colin Woodard (guest):
Right. Unlike the pirates who had come before, and remember pirates have been with us for thousands of years, and unlike the pirates who've come since, these particular pirates considered themselves to be up to more than simple banditry. Many of them cast themselves explicitly as 'Robin Hood's men.' That they were leading a sort of social revolt against the powerful ship owners and aristocrats and ship captains who were making ordinary people's lives miserable, and this is also at a time in English history in which the lot of the poor was getting far worse. This is the time period when many landed aristocrats were going through the process of getting rid of their serfs, or eliminating the long-term leases that had existed for generations; the peasants having leases to their land, and instead converting to big old sheep fields to provide commercial scale wool to the new textile mills that were forming.

And that meant that were huge numbers of people with no form of work streaming into the cities, and life was getting more precarious for many people. There were a lot of grievances out there, and the pirates were seizing on some of them. You can see it in what they did as soon as they take over a ship. Remember on a Royal Navy vessel or a merchant ship, it was a rigid top-down heirarchy enforced by brutal discipline...

TA: Obey or be whipped.

CW: Exactly. And the pirates, they elected their captains by a majority show of hands. They could depose their captain at any time outside of combat in a similar way. They appointed another figure, the Quartermaster, whose job was essentially to act as a prime minister to the captain's president, to keep an eye on what the captain was doing on behalf of the crew. The captain on most vessels wasn't allowed to have his own cabin, he had to share it with many crewmembers. And most critically, they shared their plunder surprisingly evenly. On a privateering vessel, the owners of the vessel, the investors, would get half of the plunder you get. Of the other half, the captain would get, say, fourteen shares, and each ordinary crewman would get one. On a pirate vessel, of course, there were no investors to deal with because they had stolen the vessel. But they would divide, maybe the captain might get one and a half shares, and everyone else would get one. So it was a remarkable democratic turning around in turning of the tables in the way things normally operated.

TA: You quote one of this generation, Sam Bellamy, explicitly defining them a Robin Hood style, talking about 'They rob the poor under the cover of law and we plunder the rich under the cover of our own courage.'

CW: Right. That's getting at the theme of what they projected their purpose was. And the interesting thing is that the authorities in the letters, if you back into the archives of people like Cotton Mather in Massachusetts or the Governor of Virginia Alexander Spottswood, or the attorney general of South Carolina, they're all writing back to their superiors in London that these are the devils of the sea, the villains of all nations, the most terrible people imaginable, we must expunge them from the earth, but at the same time in their letters they're also complaining that ordinary people throughout their respective colonies are cheering for the pirates, are seeing them as heroes, are trading with them or rooting for them to win, all the way to the point that at one point in South Carolina when they captured some of these pirates when they were going to bring them to trial, there was a mass uprising of some sort that nearly deposed the government in an unsuccessful effort to release the pirates. So you can see that a lot of ordinary people were actually taking the pirates' side of things.

TA: Yes, in a movie theater they might get cheered, and they were actually being cheered at the time by their own contemporaries in many ways, but certainly not all. And they could be and were brutal. They would...it was take and plunder. And yet this piece as well you say, decades before Lexington and Yorktown and the democratic revolutions of the United States, France for that matter.

CW: Yes, that's one of the more interesting things. We rarely in history get to see what ordinary people were thinking because most of them were illiterate and not writing down what they had to say or what their thoughts were, so this is one of those rare glimpses, and you realize that large numbers of people were upset with the existing order, with the sort of tightening of aristocratic control and reduction of the options people had and had sort of these radical, dangerous democratic ideas of rising up against that. And this is happening sixty years before the American revolution. So it's a window into how long these kinds of things had been seething prior to when we kind of  think of those things coming to fruition.

In addition, the pirate culture was an oasis of equality, having Africans serving alongside whites, and rather than raping women, women were actually often pirates themselves such as Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And the pirate life was a lot more appealing than the brutal top-down authoritarian and hierarchical society that they came from.

CW: The number of pirates kept expanding during this time period very dramatically up until 1718, and most of the crew were volunteers from the vessels that the pirates captured. Because the crewmen on these vessels who were often being underpaid and cheated out of their wages, and being fed terrible food, and being beaten up by sadistic captains, they would take one look at these pirates dressed in their Mad Max style finery and you know, breaking open the Madeira and saying 'hey, that looks pretty good, I'm coming with you.'

TA: It would look especially good if you were an African who had been on a slaving ship and many of those ended up on pirate ships as pirates.

CW: That's one of the other remarkable thing is that there were substantial numbers of people of African descent serving in the pirates crews apparently as equals. And some people of African descent actually rose up to be pirate captains themselves during this period.

Now its intriguing because Blackbeard had at certain points, a majority of people being of African descent and fighting alongside him and some of the people he kept closest to him until the very end. However he also when he captured a slave ship, he sold many of the people he found below decks as cargo. So it's a perplexing thing what made the different pirates decide who was a fellow man and an equal aboard their ships and who was to be cargo remains one of the big mysteries. But it was in fact possible on many pirate ships, and remember this is at a time when they are  operating in the Caribbean among all these horrific slave plantations. And the word had gotten out about the possibility of free life with the pirates to the point where many of the governors of some of these slave islands were writing back to the imperial authorities saying that there were rumors that the pirates were going to invade and that the slaves were going to rise up in support of their invasion. So there was a lot of hope out there and that in-and-of-itself was highly destabilizing to these imperial economies that were based at the time on slave produced commodities.
Someone inevitably calls in talking about the brutal murders and rapes these pirates allegedly  committed, and that seeing them as heroes is immoral. The author points out that this was mainly propaganda rather than the truth. The truth was, it was the privateers, who were functionaries of the various governments during wartime, who were committing the worst atrocities; there's no record of Blackbeard killing or even hurting a single person before his final battle to the death when he was captured and killed (and then displayed on a pike by the government):
Colin Woodard: Yeah, that's an excellent question. And the thing is, much of the mayhem and murder you hear about--the most shocking stuff is not about this group of pirates. It's about the buccaneers and privateers who preceded them. People like Sir Henry Morgan who'd think nothing of wiping out an entire Spanish city, women and children and all. These pirates, there are a few psychopaths among them, but by and large most of what we know about them is from the accounts of their victims and there are very few instances where they hurt or killed anybody. As I said with Blackbeard, with his effort to terrorize and not attack vessels, that was generally what most pirates tried to do to some degree, and they ended up killing very few people.

The most interesting thing when you look into the pirate era is when you start reading about what normal, established society was doing, you know, about orphaned children in London being taken from the orphanages by chimney cleaners and forced to climb inside the chimneys to clean them out until they died from falling, and other children for stealing loaves of bread being given capital punishment. And the more you start reading about the actual world these pirates lived in they start looking relatively benign by comparison.
Similarly, David Cordingly writes in Under the Black Flag:
The most significant difference between pirate and other ships was the manner in which the pirate company was organized, and the code by which pirates operated. Unlike the Royal Navy, the merchant navy, or indeed any other institutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the pirate communities were, as already noted, democracies. A hundred years before the French Revolution, the pirate companies were run on lines in which liberty, equality, and brotherhood were the rule rather than the exception. In a pirate ship, the captain was elected by the votes of the majority of the crew and he could be disposed of the crew were not happy with his performance. The crew, and not he captain, decided the destination of each voyage and whether to attack a particular ship or to raid a coastal village. At the start of a voyage, or on the election of a new captain, a set of written articles was drawn up which every member of the ship's company was expected to sign. These articles regulated the distribution of plunder, the scale of compensation for injuries received in battle, and set out the basic rules for shipboard life and the punishments for those who broke the rules. The articles differed from ship to shi[p, but they all followed similar lines.
Under the Black Flag. David Cordingly p. 96

Here's the full story in Smithsonian Magazine by Woodard: The Last Days of Blackbeard. Well worth reading in full. Despite the high chances of death, who wouldn't want to live a life of adventure in the paradise of the Caribbean rather than be a dirt farmer in England? My favorite is the story of Stede Bonnet, a wealthy landowner in England who decided he wanted to be a pirate to get away from his wife's nagging, despite the fact he had never even been on a ship!

Of course, pirates existed long before our romantic Caribbean version of them. One time where they were prominent in history was when they were powerful enough to threaten the Roman Empire itself, and the empire went to war against them. Pirates kidnapped Julius Caesar and held him for ransom.

Ancient Rome and the Pirates (History Magazine)

Here from TIME are the top 10 most audacious acts of piracy:

▪ Kidnapping Julius Caesar: 75 B.C.
▪ Jean Fleury Hijacks Aztec Gold: 1523
▪ Barbarossa Captures Capri: 1535
▪ Francis Drake Raids Cadiz: 1584
▪ Koxinga Conquers Taiwan: 1662
▪ Henry Morgan Seizes Panama: 1671
▪ Captain Kidd Takes the Cara Merchant: 1698
▪ Blackbeard Blockades Charleston: 1718
▪ Mistress Ching Retires Rich: 1810
▪ The Taking of the MV Sirius Star: 2008

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