Four Reflections on The Republic of Pirates - The Part-Time Critic

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Four Reflections on The Republic of Pirates


I've been able to get back to my hobby of history reading with the most recent school semester completed. If you've never read any of my other history book reflections you can check out my reflection on a multi-volume World History or my reflection on early American History. This summer I was excited to dive into an area the history of piracy, an area I've always wanted to get more truth behind, feeling like my film hobby has likely given me several wrong impressions of. My favorite film about sailing is Master and Commander and although it's a fairly accurate glimpse into the British Navy, it didn't really touch on piracy. Let's be honest - our most powerful understanding and images of pirates now come from and are summed up in the huge Disney ride and franchise The Pirates of the Caribbean, which is largely based on how pop culture has portrayed pirates for decades now. So how well do those films capture the truth of what historically happened? That drive led me to find Colin Woodard's book The Republic of Pirates.

Woodard's book focuses on what is known as the Golden Age of Piracy (about 1690-1730) and more particularly between the War of Spanish Succession (1704-14) and the hangings/deaths of most of the period's notorious pirates around 1722 or so. The book tells the story of the first major pirate legend, Henry Avery, and how his story became a template/inspiration to the pirates who went on to fill the Golden Age with terror: Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, "Black Sam" Bellamy, and Charles Vane being chief among them. These pirates were tremendously successful, "At their zenith they succeeded in severing Britain, France, and Spain from their New World empires, cutting off trade routes, stifling the supply of slaves to the sugar plantations of America and the West Indes, and disrupting the flow of information between the continents.” Woodard also gives plenty of time to Woodes Rogers, the man who would ultimately be most responsible for hunting down the pirates and bringing the golden age to an end. It's a compelling read filled with first-rate historical work.

Rather than recount the stories of these pirates (you can read the book if you want that) I thought I would share four general reflections that struck me as I read and reflected on the historical data presented. These are developing thoughts (thinking out loud), so feel free to interact with them and help me develop them. I hope they are helpful to you as you think about this time period and how the same forces can be seen in our own. 

*Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay
1. People Became Pirates for a Few Major Reasons: If a pirate was seen as the scourge of society, was tracked down by governments, and hung as punishment - why would anyone want to become one? Woodard's book gives several reasons. One reason you might be surprised to hear is because politics. When Britain went to war with the Spanish and the French during the War of Spanish Succession (1704-1714) it meant that all of the major non-British trading ships in the vast Caribbean became enemy ships. Many patriotic sailors (and those looking for more profit) signed up with the British to become privateers taking down enemy shipping, giving a cut back to the government, and keeping the rest for themselves. This proved a lucrative business for many sailors in a world where upward mobility was not a common thing. When the war ended and Queen Anne died in 1714, political machinations put a Protestant Hanoverian King, George I, on the throne in place of the Catholic James Stuart. Many former British privateers wanted the restoration of the Stuart dynasty and turned to piracy as a way to possibly support it. 

Another major reason is habit. Once many of the sailors tasted the good life of privateering, they didn't want to stop when the war stopped, "As the months passed, the streets, taverns and boarding houses of Port Royal grew crowded with angry, destitute mariners…By the summer of 1713, they had had enough of poverty and the Spanish coast guard. Hornigold suggested to a number of former shipmates and drinking buddies that they put their skills together to solve both problems. They should go back to attacking Spanish shipping, avenging and enriching themselves at the same time. All they needed was a small vessel, a few good men, and a secure nest from which to launch their raids. Hornigold knew just the place. The Bahamas, every Jamaican knew, was a perfect buccaneering base.”

The many sailors who had honed their ship sacking skills in their privateering days saw great opportunities to continue preying on enemy shipping. One of the biggest opportunities arose on July 13, 1715 when a Spanish treasure fleet, carrying an unusually large hold, was sunk off the coast of Florida due to a hurricane. Would you let something silly like peace with Spain get in the way of you taking advantage of their unfortunate situation?

The biggest reason for sailors to turn to piracy simply has to be that it offered an opportunity at a better life to the men who went into it. The better life here is subjective, but let me give you a brief overview of some of the basics in the life of a common merchant sailor:
  • Press Gangs: Many were part of the sailing life against their will - “The Royal Navy had a reputation for offering poorer pay and harsher discipline than merchant service and resorted to a more sweeping and violent approach: the press gang. Led by a naval officer, press gangs stalked the streets, rounding up any seamen they came across with the aid of clubs.”
  • Sailing Experience: “Merchant seamen were crammed into a communal cabin in the bow, where the movement of the vessel was most violent. They slept in densely packed rows of hammocks in this dark and poorly ventilated space, which reeked of bilge water and unwashed flesh. Lice, rates, and cockroaches swarmed the vessel, spreading diseases like typhus, typhoid, and the plague. The food they were fed was literally sickening. The salted beef and pork that were the staples of the seaman’s diet came out of barrels dry and hard at best, putrid and maggoty at worst. Sailors closed their eyes before eating the ‘mouldy and stinking’ ship’s biscuits to avoid seeing the maggots and weevils wiggling through them. After a few weeks at sea, the fresh-water supply turned green and reeking and fueled deadly outbreaks of dysentery and bloody influx. Sailors drunk huge quantities of alcohol instead; Royal Navy rations gave each man a half pint of rum and a gallon of beer every day, meaning the crew was drunk most of the time.”
  • Heavy Discipline: “The Admiralty’s trial records are filled with accounts of sailors being flogged or clubbed for minor mistakes: losing an oar, forgetting a chore, or unsteady helmsmanship. More than a few lost teeth, eyes, arms, and fingers during beatings. Others lost their lives…Then there were the truly sadistic captains.” “Legally speaking, merchant captains were only supposed to employ ‘moderate’ discipline on their crews. Not so in the Royal Navy, where captains were under standing orders to mete out brutal punishments.”
  • Mortality Rates: “It’s a wonder any sailors survived. Mortality rates among the crews of vessels employed in the African slave trade were comparable to those of the sales themselves. It was not unusual for 40 percent of the crew to perish during a single voyage, most from the tropical diseases against which they had no resistance. About half the sailors pressed into the Royal Navy died at sea. Captains of both types of vessels had to carry extra men as insurance against the inevitable loss of hands. Even sailors who managed to survive their terms of service rarely received the wages they were due.”
  • Poor Pay: “The navy had a semiofficial policy summed up in the maxim ‘Keep the pay, keep the man.’ On arrival in port, sailors were often not paid until just before the vessel sailed again, and any who left before that moment automatically sacrificed all of their back wages…"
  • General Dissatisfaction: “Dissatisfaction was so great aboard merchant vessels that typically when the pirates captured one, a portion of its crew enthusiastically joined their ranks…Indeed, the pirates’ expansion was fueled in large part by the defections of sailors, in direct proportion to the brutal treatment in both the navy and merchant marine.” “Sailors stood below even farm laborers in England’s pecking order."
Imagine then you are one of these miserable sailors and you hear the story of Henry Avery who rose the ranks of a basic sailor to become a pirate captain of a fleet of ships who sacked ships in the Indian ocean loaded with gold and retreated to a pirates paradise of equality. Now these legends were often embellished, but the truth of the pirate life is that it was more democratic and offered much higher upward mobility: “They ran their ships democratically, electing and deposing their captains by popular vote, sharing plunder equally, and making important decisions in an open council – all in sharp contrast to the dictatorial regimes in place aboard other ships.” The romantic myth of piracy that swelled up from the somewhat true stories of Henry Avery (who was able to disappear into history, no one knowing his ultimate fate) "didn't follow the Golden Age of piracy, it helped create it." “To abused young sailors and cabin boys, Avery had become a hero. He was one of their own, a man who stuck up for his fellow sailors and led them to a promised land, a sailors heaven on earth. A champion of the ordinary man, the Avery of legend was a symbol of hope for a new generation of oppressed mariners, as well as a role model for the men who would one day become the most famous and fearsome pirates in history.”

*Image from the 1990 film Goodfellas
2. Pirate Groups are Similar in Key Ways to Contemporary Organized Crime: As I was reading about the miserable cabin boys and sailors I could hear in the back of my mind the opening monologue of the iconic gangster film Goodfellas. Ray Liotta narrates as Henry Hill and describes why he turned to a life with the Mafia, "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an afterschool job I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in the neighborhood that was full of nobodies. They weren’t like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever game them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops." Piracy offered a way for those who got no respect to gain it. The historian David Ogg described the treatment of merchant sailors as being "barely distinguishable from the criminal," while the eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnson wrote that "their lot was very much the same as that of a prisoner, only with the added possibility of drowning." Piracy offered the prospects of respect, upward mobility, riches, and a lifestyle where they chose how they lived. In fact, as was common from pirates to the first infamous bank robbers like John Dillinger and notorious mafia dons - they get a lot of power from admiring crowds. In one instance large groups of citizens in Charleston, South Carolina almost rioted if a notorious pirate was going to be hanged, despite the fact that the city had at least twice been held hostage by pirate bandits!

Like many gangsters, some of the pirates like Sam Bellamy saw the act of piracy as a Robin Hood activity, "Bellamy had little sympathy for the shipowners and captains who had made his life so miserable. He argued that the band should act as Robin Hood’s men, taking from the wealthy merchants and enriching the poor sailors.” That sentiment would be coupled with a disdain for corrupt officials who held their power because too many suckers weren't willing to cross the line. Again, I think of a NSFW line from Henry Hill in the film Goodfellas, "For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean, they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again." 

Of course, the gangster/pirate lifestyle sounds nice but there's always a catch. The end of nearly every great mafia/gangster story is that the life is unsustainable - you will be undone from within or from without. The notorious pirate Blackbeard thought he could outsmart the system and settle in North Carolina by cutting the governor in on a percentage of his plunder. The plan might have worked (something similar worked for Henry Avery) if not for the greedy and corrupt governor of neighboring Virginia who would eventually bring him down. The pirate Charles Vane was one of the most violent and feared pirate captains in the Caribbean. After Bellamy and Blackbeard went down and even after King George I commissioned Woodes Rogers to stamp out piracy, Charles Vane continued his pillaging ways. When a particular large ship confronted Vane's group, Charles argued it was too big a prize and would cause too much damage so he forced his group to withdraw from the capture of it. His fellow pirates didn't like the idea of losing potential plunder and in their democratic way, they voted him out of being captain, "After all of his bravado – defying the Royal Navy, blockading cities, putting entire colonies into a state of terror – Vane’s pirating career ended with a whimper.” “On Wednesday, March 29, 1721, Charles Vane was hanged at Gallows Point in Port Royal. Governor Laws had his corpse cut down, carried to Gun Cay at the harbor’s entrance, where it hung in chains from a gibbet for all mariners to see.” The second he stopped being an "earner" the group threw him under the bus. What's more gangster than that?

*"The Slave Trade" by Auguste Fran├žois Biard, 1840
3. Slavery is a Gaping Hole in the Story of Piracy: Could you imagine how different the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and movies would be if slavery took its proper place in the stories? The truth is that you absolutely cannot tell the story of the golden age of piracy without slavery being given a starring role. It would be very different if we learned that Captain Jack Sparrow was a slaver wouldn't it? By the early 1700's, "the [Jamaican] plantation owners had given up on indentured servants altogether, replacing them with armies of enslaved Africans brought to the island. Jamaica had already become more than just a society that allowed slavery, it was the slave society perfected. Every year, dozens of ships arrived from West Africa, disgorging thousands of them. Despite the fact that the Africans mortality rate far exceeded their birth rate, the island’s slave population had doubled since 1689 to 55,000, and by the early 1700s, it had exceeded the English population by a ratio of eight to one." Most of the work being done on the colonies was being done by African slaves. The slaves were a vital part of making the colony system work for their English and French hosts. When pirates raided commerce they gladly took on the slaves (some freed slaves ended up joining the pirates) and saw them as valuable commodities. There isn't a single major pirate covered in the book that didn't consider slaves as essential plunder. They had no qualms about making their money from slavery.

What about the inspirational pirate legend Henry Avery - wasn't he just about gold and taking from the rich? Nope. “The true story is less romantic. Trial documents and accounts of Indian witnesses and English officials make it clear that Avery presided over an orgy of violence. For several days, the pirates raped female passengers of all ages. Among the victims was one of the Moghul emperor’s relatives – not a young princess, but the elderly wife of one of his couriers…Fact and legend only agree on the scale of the treasure the pirates loaded about the Fancy: a trove of gold, silver, ivory, and jewels worth 150,000 pounds or more.” One of his other key plunders was in African slaves. Even the governor Woodes Rogers who was commissioned to end piracy had made his family fortune from slaving. 

The Spanish Empire was no less dependent on slaves than the English and French, "The Spanish Empire was fueled by the gold and silver mines of Mexico and Peru, where armies of enslaved Indians were worked to death. The Peruvian ‘silver mountain’ at Potosi alone produced two million pesos worth of that precious metal each year, and the other gold and silver mines of Mexico and Peru added another 8.7 million. There was little to buy in the new world, so all those riches had to be shipped to Spain. Thus the need for the great treasure fleets. By the time of the War of Spanish Succession, Spain had three treasure fleets in all. The first two sailed across the Atlantic every year or so from Cadiz, Spain. Their holds filled with the soldiers, weapons, whines, mining equipment, and manufactured goods needed in their American colonies.” Slavery was a brutal and commonly accepted practice. As wonderful the pirate life sounded with its democracy and freedom, it was not typically so for the enslaved. If it was true to history, the lyrics "a pirates life for me" would include being a complicit partner in the slave trade.

*"The Slave Ship" by J.M.W. Turner
4. Chance Fuels History: For our next quote lets head to the Holy Bible, "I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all." (Ecclesiastes 9:11) What the writer is getting at here is that being the strongest, the smartest, or the fastest does not guarantee any outcome. History is littered with chance historical and weather events that bring the greatest to their knees and the Golden Age of Piracy has its share as well. 

The most obvious and frustrating (to those who want full control) chance events for the sailor is weather. I think of the Spanish treasure ships - their masters pouring so much time, energy, and men into building an armada that would not be threatened so that they could get their treasure from the lands they were exploiting. On July 13, 1715 it was not a pirate attack or the British Navy that took an entire armada down - it was a hurricane. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think of the infamous pirate "Black Sam" Bellamy who had a meteoric rise through the ranks and began frightening the entire east coast of the British colonies when he happened his ship the Whydah into a storm along the coast of Massachusetts, "The Whydah ran aground with shocking force…At dawn the Whydah’s hull broke apart, casting both he living and dead into the surf. As the storm raged on through the morning hours, the ebbing tide left more and more bodies piled on the shore. Amidst the bloated, mangled corpses only two men stirred. One was John Julian, the Mosquito Indian who had served with Bellamy aboard his periaguas. The other as Thomas Davis, one of the carpenters forced from the St. Michael. Samuel Bellamy and some 160 other men – pirates and captives, whites, blacks, and Indians – had perished in the storm.” Thousands of similar stories could be told like it.

Even the very idea of pirates trolling the waters to hopefully come across key ships they can take down relies on chance - will it be an easy ship? Is it friendly? Will it be military? Will they surrender? One of the other major areas of chance/luck not talked about much in films is the constant problem that wood worms and other causes of wood rot caused for shipping. Ships had to be constantly careened and maintained causing a large percentage of pirate, commercial, and military shipping to be unusable for large periods of time. While it is well known that the native populations of the America's suffered greatly from the diseases that colonists brought to their shores, it is somewhat less well known that the colonists suffered greatly from tropical diseases as well. Sicknesses struck the sailors of the colonies greatly. 
All these elements of chance reared their heads in the incredible story of Woodes Rogers (seated to the right in the picture above) who was commissioned by the King George I to become governor of the Bahamas and put an end to the pirate republic. Woodes came from a sailing family and had circumnavigated the globe on privateering and merchant marine missions (yes, including slavery). When he was placed as governor of the Bahamas he was in a tough position, "Facing simultaneous threats from Charles Vane and the king of Spain, Rogers knew he needed to complete his fortifications as quickly as possible. Unfortunately his labor supply began to disappear…Eighty six of Rogers’s party died, as did six crewmen from the Rose and Milford and two of the locals who served on Rogers’s governing council….Most of the island’s cattle also perished, striking a blow to the food supply.” Sickness struck his camp and robbed him of almost every man that came to help colonize the Bahamas. He needed help, he needed supplies, he needed more men. Rogers sent four sloops on a trading mission to Cuba for help. "On November 4, Rogers received word that the crews of all four trading sloops he had sent to Cuba had gone pirate and were intending to join Vane.” What luck! The four ships you send for help turn pirate and join the crew of the very pirate you are gearing up to take down.

Remember though how Charles Vane's crew eventually deposed him? This was another stroke of luck (though in Rogers' favor) as Vane was wiped away as a threat without Rogers having to do a thing. However, the Spanish still threatened to invade the Bahamas and wipe the British off the map. In fact, “A Spanish invasion fleet sailed from Cuba in May 1719 carrying 3,000 to 4,000 troops. Had it attacked New Providence as planned would certainly have rolled over the islands’ paltry defenses. En route, however, the Spanish commodore received word that the French – Britain’s allies this time around – had captured a strategically important fortress at Pensacola. The fleet therefore turned around and sailed for that settlement on Florida’s Gulf Coast, sparing the Bahamas for another nine months.” Events completely out of Rogers' control again saved his skin...for a while. The Spanish would still attack, except the postponement allowed Rogers to fortify and prepare. 

So, "when a Spanish invasion fleet appeared off Nassau on February 24, 1720, Rogers was able to face them with a fifty gun fort, the ten gun eastern battery, the Delicia, 100 soldiers, and 500 armed militia men…Rogers’s defenses dissuaded the Spanish from a direct assault on the harbor. Instead, they landed on the backside of Hog Island and, in the middle of the night, attempted to cross the narrow eastern channel in small boats. A pair of heroic sentries – both free blacks – somehow managed to fire enough musket rounds to frighten the Spaniards into retreat. Ironically, the two men who had probably been slaves themselves had saved Rogers, a professional slave dealer." It was two freed slaves who miraculously saved the skin of Rogers and altered the history of the Caribbean by repulsing a major Spanish attack. What are the odds? Rogers' life would go through even more ups and downs based on chance but I think it's one of the perfect stories to end on. What better embodies how history works than the odds that the two greatest threats to Rogers' putting down the Spanish and Pirate threat would come from the pirate's democratically deposing Vane and two freed slaves scaring off a Spanish invasion? 

"I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all."

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