Those arriving here hoping of a review of the latest pirate movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest starring Johnny Depp will be sadly disappointed. I have not seen the movie and am in no hurry to see it either. I did see the first movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. While I understand its appeal to that age group craved by advertisers, and found parts of it amusing, I mostly found it to be just another forgettable bubblegum movie. It confirmed to me once again that Orlando Bloom is only in movies for his looks, for he cannot act.
No, in this entry I talk about the real pirates of the Caribbean. Their story is frankly a much more amazing, gritty and appalling story than anything yet conjured up by Hollywood. My daughter gave me a book on pirates as a Christmas present. It nicely complemented my desire to know everything about the 19th century British Royal Navy that I principally gleaned from C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels and, more recently, the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. This latest book, A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas by Nigel Cawthorne is a logical complement to the book my wife bought me a few years back, To Rule the Waves, which I reviewed last year.
A History of Pirates as a book is uneven. While meticulously researched, it often drags. It needed more editing than it received, and its typesetting is embarrassingly poor, with paragraphs occasionally begun without indenting. It made me wonder if it was one of these books where the author acted as his own editor and proofreader. Whoever did edit this book either worked at a discount rate or ripped off the author. These defects aside, it is a book worth reading if you want the straight dope on pirates. It focuses on pirates in the Caribbean, principally during the 16th and 17th centuries.
What emerges is a portrait of The New World (which at that time was largely the Caribbean area) in chaos. The major powers at the time (Spain, France, Great Britain, and to lesser extents, the Dutch and the Portuguese) were all engaged in its exploration and, much more importantly, its exploitation. During this time, what we call the United States was virtually unknown. Jamestown, the first English settlement in North America, was not founded until 1607. (As I noted though, we owe our nation in part to our high comfort level with certain forms of piracy.) Much of the action in this book occurs before Jamestown was colonized.
The New World back then was, frankly, a big crazy mess. It attracted the adventurous, the desperate, the mentally ill and those who could not deal with the rule of law. Settlements went up willy-nilly. Settlements were often overrun willy-nilly too. It seemed like Great Britain, France and Spain were constantly switching allegiances, depending on how the usual wars were going back home. Your enemy today was likely to be your ally tomorrow. You would pledge your new ally eternal fraternity until, of course, politics dictated otherwise, which could be months, but was more often a matter of years. Sometimes it was not politics that changed allegiances. Often it was simple greed. More than one English captain, when England was officially aligned with Spain, found it convenient to pretend he had not heard, would violate orders and plunder a Spanish galleon. Who could resist the allure of all that gold bullion and the chance to live life on a grand scale?
You would think the Spanish navy would be full of Spaniards and the English navy full of English. However, that was often not the case. Sailing was a high-risk profession. It attracted the desperate, the miscreants, and people from all ethnicities. Considering the brutish way people were raised back then, and the barbarism routinely witnessed on the high seas and on land, few sailors had expectations that they would live into their old age. It is not surprising then that many opted for piracy.
Not only was The New World a big chaotic mess back then, but humanity had only begun to take on a civilized veneer. The number of true gentlemen out there were very few. Many, like Sir Francis Drake, could assume the role of gentleman at home and become a crazed and barbaric captains at sea. In short, the ranks of the mentally ill were numerous on the high seas. Merely living on the high seas would likely make you more mentally ill. The numbers of people with heads on their shoulders were few. The barbarians were often crashing the gates. Those who chose to settle in The New World did so at their peril. These combinations of factors inculcated a climate that bred piracy and lawlessness. It bears more than a passing resemblance to modern day Iraq.
Of those who counted themselves among polite society, pirates were the lowest of the low. Alley cats had better morals than pirates and likely smelled better too. Once caught, pirates usually received trials. Occasionally they could buy themselves the justice they wanted. More likely, they were quickly tried, hung on the wharf, and then tarred. Their bodies were prominently display facing the harbor so passing pirates would understand what was in store for them. There was no burial for these hooligans; their bodies were allowed to fall away and rot. Mercy was in short supply in those days. The idea of mercy toward pirates who seemingly lacked any compassion seemed absurd.
Of course, pirates were just greedy plunderers and opportunists, eager to exploit an area of the world that was virtually lawless. While projecting an aura of fearless, they were not stupid. They did not necessarily attempt to board every passing ship and were smart enough to develop tactics that minimized their own casualties. While the humans on board were dispensable, the cargo of the looted ship and the ship itself (the “prizes”) were not. Before Madison Avenue existed, they learned that image was the key to successful plundering. Hoisting the Jolly Roger was alone sufficient for a captain to surrender without firing a shot. Their lives were usually spared, but not any article of value on their persons. Often the captured crew would find themselves simply marooned on an island. With few resources, death was delayed. However, sometimes the crew of the captured ship would happily join in the plunder and the ranks of the pirates.
There were however, some almost civilized things about pirates. In a time when monarchies reigned, their small societies were obsessively democratic. Crews were also scrupulously egalitarian. The crew elected its captains. If the captain failed to live up to the crew’s expectations, he was easily replaced and relegated back to common seaman. Plunder was equally shared among the crew, with generally slightly larger shares going to the captain, the ship’s master and the first pirate to board a ship. When a pirate tired of acquiring treasure, he often did try to settle down. Either he cleared some jungle and made a place to live or set up residence in one of the many town that were essentially pirate havens, such as Port Royal in Jamaica. As hunted fugitives, it is unlikely that his retirement would last long.
Pirates learned to live in the moment because, with a few exceptions, once they became a pirate they became marked men. Their lifespan decreased to a couple of years. Those who did not die from piracy’s many hazards were eventually captured and hung. Many others died from generally poor food, dehydration, sicknesses and the effects of poor hygiene. If these were not enough, there was also alcoholism, scurvy and the many tropical and sexually transmitted diseases that were rife in the Caribbean.
The women were no more enlightened. The book documents the cases of a few well-known female pirates. Many of the women of the Caribbean were whores. With their settlements frequently under attack from foreign powers or pirates, women too learned to live by their wits. Unfortunately, conditions were not necessarily better back on the continent. There too most people lived sad and miserable lives punctuated by war, poverty and cruelty that by modern standards seems unbelievable.
Such was the colonizing of the New World. It was not an enlightening experience at all. Often it became a desperate quest for survival from forces both natural and unnatural. Only a very few got both filthy rich and lived to enjoy it. I sometimes wonder why today’s homicide rate in the United States is so much higher than in most of Europe. After reading this book, I think I know the answer. Many of us came from this stock. We carried over from generation to generation their angst, hostility and brutality. The Pirates of the Caribbean simply were the worst of the lot. We have come a long way.
There is much more to learn from A History of Pirates. If you are at all curious about real pirates, then this is the book for you. Although the writing is occasionally uneven and the best parts of the book are in the last half, it is nonetheless an eye opening book. It provides valuable insights into times and places that understandably we might want to forget. Like our crazy grandmother living in the attic, the story of pirates is also part of our human story. We need histories like these to remind us of where our species has been, how far we have come and why we never want to devolve back into those crazy days.