Monday, August 29, 2011

Comments on Ye Pyrats

Pirate flags are a bone of contention in a popular cruising-oriented website. Some people think the Jolly Roger is harmless fun; other think it quite offensive.

The discussion about the flag naturally leads to the nature of piracy and pirates themselves, and whether their romanticization by Hollywood and modern pop culture is appropriate or truthful, harmless or harmful.

It's complicated... and depends on context. Flying a pirate flag in place of a national courtesy flag when entering a country that potentially has real crime issues would be really stupid. Modern piracy is ugly, brutal, and nasty.

Historical piracy was mostly that way, too, but with exceptions and complexities. Some of the historical pirates were at times sanctioned by their crown as privateers. Some were disgruntled supporters of the Stuart cause who rebelled at the institution of the House of Hanover and attacked colonial commerce for partially political reasons. Some of the Bahamian pirates later accepted the King's pardon and subsequently became respected citizens. Some used terror as a bluff and actually committed little violence. But others were needlessly cruel and bloodthirsty (for example, Charles Vane).

One other slight reprieve for the historical Caribbean pirates' reputation is that they practiced a crude form of democracy and relative egalitarianism. Captains were generally elected and generally only got to keep slightly more loot than their crews. In an era of widespread autocracy and despotism (before the USA's revolution), they were among the most free of people ... until they got caught and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead, may God have mercy on their souls.

ALL pirates were thieves.
SOME pirates were murdering, torturing, barbarously cruel thieves.

All pirates used the threat of force to rob people. Beyond that point, the real life historical pirates of the Caribbean were diverse in their motivations and methods.

Some approached piracy purely as an economic transaction and used a minimum of violence. Others enjoyed being bloodthirsty. The most ethical pirates might merely rob their victims of choice cargo and useful supplies, but leave the victims with their ship and supplies. Other pirates would torture some of their victims, either to locate hidden plunder or for the beastly, bloodthirsty enjoyment of it. No doubt you could draw a continuum, from the relatively "civilized" Jennings and Hornigold (not to mention Drake or Morgan) to the more violent Vane or l'Olonnais.

Surprisingly, Blackbeard (Ed Teach/Thatch) was one of the less violent pirates; he used a terrifying appearance to overawe victims into surrendering without fighting. And, strangely, his death occurred as a result of a sort of quasi-illegal "rogue police" action.

Besides greed, motivations included the political (some pirates were former victims of the Bloody Assizes of 1685 [the back story to the movie Captain Blood]) or, a generation later, failed Jacobite supporters of the Stuarts; whereas others continued to prey upon their country's traditional enemies even after peace treaties invalidated their privateering commissions.) And, politics in the islands were quite tortuous, with some English and British officials setting up privateers who later turned pirate, and others colluding with pirates and fencing their ill-gotten goods.

Other pirates may have rebelled against injustice, poor treatment, bad food, crowding, tyranny, years at sea without reprieve, and harsh treatment in the Royal Navy, which all too often was governed by "Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash". The pirates were happy to keep the first of these.

One of the more interesting pirates was the inept, landlubberly, weak, and outlandishly dressed Stede Bonnet, who appears to have been a touch mentally ill and who made a spectacularly unlucky pirate, being hanged after a short career.

Politics had a lot to do with how some pirates survived or thrived from their careers. It could work out pretty well for a Charles Morgan or a Sir Francis Drake but not nearly so well for a Captain Kidd.

To make it all more complicated, the real pirates of the Caribbean practiced a crude form of racial equality in a time of racial intolerance and cruelty. Although the pirates tended to treat African slaves as cargo, West Indian Blacks who spoke English (or European languages) often were recruited by the pirates for their crew and became full partners on board. They took the same risks as European, Asian, or Native American pirates and received equal shares of the booty.

No, this doesn't make most pirates nice people. But it is part of a complicated picture that isn't the black-and-white (intended!) picture that some would demand.

One topic of related discussion was the rebellion by British sailors in 1797. What does this have to do with Pirates?

Okay, let's draw it out for you:


Pirates -- rebelled from bad pay and harsh treatment in conventional navies, took over ships, sometimes flew Death Head or other pirate flags, for a time created a "Pirate Republic" in the Bahamas, elected their own captains, used force on those opposed to them, might make enemies walk the plank

Rebellion at the Nore -- rebelled against bad conditions, mutinied and took over ships, flew flags of rebellion, put officers ashore forcibly, threatened to take their ships over to the French enemy or maybe even turn pirate, blockaded the Thames, for a time created Parker's "floating republic", elected their own captains and delegates, used force on anyone opposed to the mutiny, hung rope ends from the yard arms to threaten to hang anyone opposed to them

People who might try to argue that pirates were some depraved criminal class would be stymied by the fact that the mutineers had been regular Royal Navy crews -- and that most pirates had been honest Royal Navy sailors and merchantmen.

Here is an important lesson for modern times: If there's enough temptation (booty), motivation (harsh conditions at home), and few enough consequences (lack of strong international response), then regular people will turn pirate and piracy will re-ignite. Just the way it is off Somalia today. Why can't the world learn from history?

It's like the "fire triangle" -- take away either the temptation, motivation, or lack of consequences and the pirates will be extinguished. And then cruisers can sail in relative safety and not get hassled about wearing black eye patches.

Pirates and mutineers could all be seen in the friendly view as being like cruisers in escaping from harsh, land-based authority and seeking more liberty and democracy. Not to mention the rum. And those who deplore modern piracy might do well to know the history of crime at sea so as to know how to predict the behavior of pirates and know what it will take to stop them.


Post a Comment

<< Home