Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Scourge Of The Seas

"I am a free prince, and have as much authority to make war on the whole world as he who has a hundred sail of ships and an army of a hundred thousand men in the field.
" --Captain Edward Low

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates (1997, David Cordingly)

The History of Pirates
(1999, Angus Konstam)

The Pirates' Pact: The Secret Alliances Between History's Most Notorious Pirates and Colonial America
(2009, Douglas R. Burgess Jr.)
SO THERE I WAS, planning this review of the above three pirate histories for a few days now-- mulling it over, making notes, trying to find a good lead-in -- when the top story coming out of my radio this morning is that Somali pirates have struck again, this time blatantly seizing a U.S.-flagged ship in the Indian Ocean. The latest update reports the crew of the Dutch ship, which includes 20 Americans, had retaken control of the vessel, with one Somali pirate in custody, but the American captain apparently has been taken hostage by the pirates in a lifeboat. The Maersk Alabama, a 17,000-ton cargo ship carrying emergency relief supplies to Kenya, was the sixth ship seized by Somali pirates in the last week alone -- indicating a new strategy that targets merchant vessels sailing hundreds of miles away from the now-heavily-guarded waters off the African coast, a presence which now includes patrols by five American warships.

Just as a fractured nation like Afghanistan proved a breeding ground for terrorism in the 1990s, history also teaches that failed states like Somali are exponentially more likely to contribute to illicit activity. The result is that such large-scale disenchantment with the status quo provides a willing supply of candidates with little or nothing to do, with a willingness to take up arms a common thread shared by pirates and terrorists alike.

When Angus Konstam writes about piracy being "an attractive alternative to dying of starvation, becoming a beggar or thief on land, or serving in appalling conditions on a ship with no chance of substantial financial reward," it's clear that for the economically hopeless the lure of striking it rich is not confined to the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1725) but has implications which reverberate today. With life "nasty, brutish and short," it's little wonder that "for many desperate poor, or simply greedy people, piracy provided a slim chance to beat the system."
The plague of piracy goes back almost 4,000 years, with wall paintings depicting raids of ancient Egyptian cities by neighboring seafaring peoples. The Romans went so far as to call pirates hostis humani generi: "enemies of the human race." Julius Caesar was among prominent Romans kidnapped by Cilician corsairs operating out of southern Turkey. True to his word, after his ransom was paid and he was released, Caesar returned with a military force and destroyed the pirate lair where he was captured. These and other attacks on merchant shipping led to the great general Roman Pompey being given a mandate to stamp out the pirate menace once and for all, and with a force of 500 ships, 120,000 men, an almost unlimited budget, and the right to tax neighboring cities and raise additional militia, he did just that. In less than four months, he had cleared the Mediterranean of the threat, killing up to 10,000 pirates and pardoning or granting clemency to thousands more.

The recent hijackings by the Somalis -- not far from where pirates famously made their base on Madagascar during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy -- may yet result in such a large-scale effort to eradicate them once and for all. Back in the 17th century, pirates preyed on the shipping lanes used by the East India Company, where great treasure fleets carried gold, silk and other riches from India and China to the Middle East and Europe. Pirates of this era also engaged in the slave trade, ferrying their captured human cargo from Africa to the West Indies and the American colonies.

In the late 16th century, English privateers not only routinely plundered Spanish fleets carrying gold and silver coins back to Europe, but men like Henry Morgan conducted daring raids of Spanish colonial strongholds like Panama City. These often-brutal attacks enriched the English treasury to the extent where it was captured Spanish treasure that directly built the navy that ushered in the British Empire a century later. That's the thing about piracy, no matter what the age it takes place in: it all depends upon which side of the cutlass you find yourself on, with one man's sea scum another's benighted hero. The Somali pirates undoubtedly are hailed in their home ports as fearless warriors with the hearts of lions, just as four centuries earlier during the Elizabethan Era, the British reading public literally could not get enough of the exploits of a Sir Francis Drake.

Ironically, the Navigation Acts of 1651, enacted to protect British trade from Dutch competition, made it a criminal act for the American colonies to accept goods from anyone other than British merchants, opening the door for smugglers and pirates being accepted and even encouraged in places like New York and Rhode Island. According to Burgess,
"In England the acts seemed draconian; in the colonies they were ruinous. Merchants watched helplessly as their trade dwindled to nothing, and imports -- which were the lifeblood of every colony -- slowed to a trickle. Ships sat idle in their ports, and more and more disgruntled seamen were discharged onto the streets... At the other side of the equation lay the now-insatiable demand among the colonies for imported goods. Nearly everything that could be brought in -- spices, cloth, indigo, foodstuffs, enamelware, and, of course, specie [coined money] -- brought high prices at dockside auctions ... Piracy became -- and would remain, a staple of colonial commerce long after the acts themselves were revoked."
The following entertaining exchange quoted in The Pirates' Pact occurs around 1696 between Captain Josiah Daniell, a customs agent who has seized a suspected pirate ship, and Governor William Markham of Pennsylvania, an official known for liberally granting questionable privateering commissions and handsomely profiting from the plunder:
Daniell began by demanding that Markham "give (himself) a little trouble on his Majesty's account and cause strict inquiry to be made" and he went on to insult his recipient at great length: "The worst sailors know how ready you are to entertain and protect all deserters ... It is ruin for any ships to lade here so long as they have such encouragement to run in your parts, whence they are allowed to go 'trampuseing' [pirating] where they please. I read in last July's Gazette a proclamation to apprehend Captain Every and his crew, and hear that some of them are in your province ... I wonder that you prefer to gratify them rather than have regard for the King's service ... If you fall my way, I will endeavor to treat you as well as I am capable." Markham, in the face of these threats and imprecations, chose to see the humor in them. "Yours of the 9th inst. is so indecent that it seems rather penned in the cook-room than the Great Cabin ... I know not what you mean by 'trampuseing,' unless you aimed to show your breeding, which you have ill set forth in your mother tongue ... I hope I shall not fall in your way, lest my treatment be such as I find in your letter. I wish you a good voyage and a better temper."
Each of these three pirate histories approaches the subject in a slightly different way. Under the Black Flag's stated mission is contrasting how pirates have been portrayed in popular culture -- movies, plays, novels and paintings -- with what the record left behind tells us about how pirates conducted themselves. Not surprisingly, for instance, there are few instances of captives being forced to walk the plank; it was far more common for pirates to unceremoniously toss anyone offering resistance overboard.

Cordingly also traces the development of pirate flags like the Jolly Roger, where images of skulls, swords and hourglasses ("Time is running out on you") were meant as tangible reminders of their notorious reputation. The sight of a pirate ship hoisting their red or black banners usually inspired such fear in a targeted merchant ship that the crew would surrender immediately rather than risk incurring the wrath of these "hungry, stout and resolute" men hellbent on destruction.

The Pirates' Pact
focuses on primary sources in trying to piece together the historical record, mostly relying on correspondence between colonial administrators and the official governmental bodies charged with implementing crown policy. Burgess makes great use of letters going back and forth between America and England, with governors on the one hand protesting charges of countenancing known pirates and the Board of Trade demanding illegal trade and smuggling be stamped out.

In a chapter titled "The Most Hated Man in America," we learn that toward that end, a surveyor named Edward Randolph was sent by the Crown to the colonies to report on the state of piracy. Described by Burgress as "crusty and tenacious, morally above both politics and bribery, a sixty-four-year-old zealot whose cause is the English state," Randolph's surviving letters confirmed the worst suspicions of the Board, with Randolph bluntly detailing the worst transgressions:
"William Markham the Governor (of Pennsylvania) entertains several pirates who carry on an illicit trade with Curacao and other places ... Rhode Island (is) a free port to pirates and illegal traders from all places; the people are enriched by them ... It cannot therefore be expected that the frauds and other abuses complained of in the Colonies can be prevented unless duly qualified men, of good estates and reputation, be approved by the King as Governors."
The History of Pirates, compared to the relatively narrow missions of the other two books, is a straightforward chronological narrative hitting all the major figures and events. What sets Konstam's book apart is the sheer number of illustrations and maps. In a story so richly visual, it's almost indispensable to have in front of you the renderings of the famous pirates through the ages, along with the kinds of ships used, as well as clear indications of the territory in question.

Let's leave it there for now, because for better or worse, if today's extraordinary events are any indication, obviously the "final" chapter on piracy is still being written.


Anonymous said...

YoHoHO very interesting i love that Pirate Stuff!! Johny Starr

jimithegreek said...

Excellent piece!

Wardens World said...

I knew The Admiral would like this one!

Anonymous said...

Интересно написано....но многое остается непонятнымb

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