August 11, 2003

A defense of pirates

Last month the usually sensible Geitner Simmons of Regions of Mind posted a bit of nonsense on the theme of the cruelty of pirates (I am referring, as does the article he cites, primarily to the great age of piracy, which lasted roughly from the 1650s to 1727, when the commissions granted to Colonial governors by King George I to try pirates expired, and renewal was not deemed necessary). At the same time, legally constituted governments and their merchants were shipping "black ivory" -- that is, African slaves -- to the New World; the Inquisition was still torturing, trying and burning heretics; and even English law stipulated that the punishment for treason (a crime whose definition included both counterfeiting and forgery) as hanging, cutting the still living man down and then disembowelling him while still alive, then drawing and quartering him. The penalty for theft, by the way, was the branding of the letter "T" in a prominent position on a man's left cheek. The cruelty of pirates was not sui generis; rather, it was timid by the standards of the times.

This is not to suggest that by modern standards pirates were humane, however, the average buccaneer was a professional thief first and foremost. It was far better to take a ship without fighting than to have to risk combat. Considering that merchant sailors were poorly paid, subject to floggings, dunkings and kealhaulings, that their captains had the power of life and death over them, few were eager to take up arms against pirates. It is instructive to note that pirates recruited from the crewmen of captured merchant vessels. It seems it was the cruelty of their own captains, rather than that of the pirates, that persuaded them to fly under the Jolly Roger.

In contrast to merchant ships and naval vessels, pirate ships were democratic paradises; the crew elected the captain, who had absolute command during battle, and a quartermaster, who was in charge of the crew and acted as a check on the captain's authority. Pirate captains could not rely on the lash for their authority, and records of various pirate voyages show that captains were often deposed.

Pirates and Britain seem inseparable; and not merely because the greatest pirate tale (in my humble estimation) is Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island. Sir Francis Drake was a pirate extraordinaire, attacking the hated Spanish in the Golden Hind and bringing home enough loot to fund a refurbishment of the Royal Navy (which, along with pirates and the weather, defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588); throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, English pirates patrolling the channel acted as a de facto coast guard for the English crown (and several nobles were enriched by running pirate syndicates). In the humble beginnings of the American nation, pirates played a grand role as well. In 1494, Spain and Portugal divided the "undiscovered" world between themselves (Spain got the New World, Portugal the non-European portions of the old; the Pope blessed the treaty). Spain rather jealously protected its "rights," and in the 1660s, planned to drive the British from their recently occupied possession of Jamaica. The governor of Jamaica, one Sir Thomas Modyford, with the approval of his ruling council of local worthies, gave letters of marque to the buccaneers to plunder as they wished, to attack the Spanish in their bases, and to prevent the enemy from mustering sufficient forces to attack Jamaica. Harry Morgan, the buccaneers' democratically elected leader, accepted the mission, and led a brilliant (and profitable) campaign against the Spanish. Despite being outnumbered, his tactical brilliance and the fighting spirit of his free men overcame the Spanish time and again, at sea and on land, making an attack on Jamaica impossible. Morgan and his pirates saved the New World for the English. Imagine how differently history might have turned out were it not for the pirates.

Later, the colonial governors of North America, chafing under restrictions on trade imposed by the crown, commissioned pirates (the notorious Blackbeard most likely had a letter of marque from the governor of North Carolina), to break the crown's monoploy. The pirates brought much needed goods and currency to the colonies.

In the history of the late 17th and early 18th century, pirates, who were in business for themselves, by and large, checked Spanish power and aided the colonies economically. Before judging them as being little more than criminals, it is important to remember the circumstances under which they plied their trade. I'll give the last word to the author of my favorite book on the subject, Patrick Pringle, whose 1953 work Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy, is highly recommended:

...pirates have been credited with exceptional virtues and vices that few of them possessed. Usually they have been admired or condemned, according to the inclinations of the beholder, as bold, bad men. Generally speaking, I think they were not very bold, and not very bad.

Among the pirates there were a few men of exceptional courage and daring, like Bartholomew Roberts; but Roberts, as much as any other captain, avoided fighting whenever possible. Pirates did not like fighting, although when they were attacked, they defended themselves valiantly.

...Honest service in the Navy or on merchant ships had made them loathe and dread authority, and if they gloried in anything it was their freedom from the fear of being flogged. They had no discipline, and therefore much self-discipline.

...Pirates were not abominable brutes. Although the legal penalty for murder and was no greater than that for piracy, very few of them killed wantonly. Mostly they treated their captives humanely, and advertised their clemency in order to deter others from making them fight for their loot. For the same reason they showed little mercy when they did have to fight. Their cruelties were not exceptional in the age in which they lived.

Posted by Ideofact at August 11, 2003 11:36 PM