Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard

Engaging as their legends are--particularly as enhanced by Robert Louis Stevenson and Walt Disney--the true story of the pirates of the Caribbean is even more captivating; a long-lost tale of tyranny and resistance, a maritime revolt that shook the very foundations of the newly formed British Empire, bringing transatlantic commerce to a standstill and fueling the democratic sentiments that would later drive the American revolution.  At its center was a pirate republic, a zone of freedom in the midst of an authoritarian age.

Psychologists say you're more willing to accomplish something if you commit to it by sharing your goal with others, so: I'm trying to write a book.  It involves, for some reason, pirates.  But like most people, I think, what I know about pirates is filtered through the lens of Hollywood movies, bad cartoons, and my childhood abridged copy Treasure Island: yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, etc., etc.  So I picked up Colin Woodard's book about the history of the pirates of the Caribbean and their short-lived haven at Nassau in the Bahamas.

Woodard's book is antiprogrammatic; there's no real historical argument here except perhaps an emphasis on the surprisingly humane and democratic sentiments of the pirates involved.  Mostly it's a straightforward history about a surprisingly brief period of time.  Among the interesting things I learned are:

  • The whole pirate thing was really very brief.  The Golden Age of Piracy starts at the turn of the century, around 1700, and extends only to about the 1730's.  By that time the bigwig pirates like Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, and Charles Vane, are dead, and the pirate hunter and Bahamian governor Woodes Rogers--those are the four focal points of Woodard's book, Rogers and the three pirates--has reestablished peace at Nassau.
  • Blackbeard was more bark than bite.  In all of the recorded stories about him, there's not a single instance of Blackbeard killing another human being.  Instead, he relied on a sense of theatricality, including placing lit fuses under this hat to look like a scary smoke monster, to intimidate those whose ships he wanted to plunder into submission.  This was in contrast to the raping and pillaging ways of the ruthless Charles Vane.
  • Pirates were political.  Many of them started out as privateers during Queen Anne's Wars, attacking French ships with commissions from the British government.  When the war ended, they found themselves without government support, and turned to piracy as sort of a way of keeping their careers going.  But beyond that, many pirates were Jacobites, meaning they supported the right of James Stuart of Scotland to the throne over George I, a German imported in order to avoid having a Catholic King.  Some of them even plotted aiding James in an attack on British soil, though that was never carried out.

Similarly, pirate ships could be highly democratic.  They tended to elect their captains, and the captains took a far smaller share of the plunder than commissioned privateers.  Most decisions were made by voting.  They often returned to the owners of the ships they plundered what they could not used, and even paid for what they took, though forcibly.  And pirate ships were one of the only places in Americas where black Africans shared in the freedom of whites--it's possibly that a quarter of Blackbeard's men were, at one time, escaped slaves from the Middle Passage.

The stories of piracy which captivated the world in the 1710's and 20's are engaging enough, but for me the most interesting part of Woodard's account comes at the end, when George I, operating under the advice of Woodes Rogers, offers a pardon to any pirate willing to take it.  This tears the pirates, who thought they'd never be able to live on the right side of the law again, into warring pro-pardon and anti-pardon factions.  Blackbeard's mentor Benjamin Hornigold even takes up pirate hunting after receiving his pardon, helping to chase down the staunchly anti-pardon Vane.

All in all, The Republic of Pirates was a fun look at a period of history that's often clouded by popular myth.  One thing the movies do get right is the rum: those pirates couldn't get enough rum.

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