Monday, August 15, 2016

Belize and the Bucaneers

I first heard of the nation of Belize while reading the introduction to Colin Woodard’s excellent book, The Republic of Pirates. In it, Woodard states that he decided to write the book while vacationing in Belize. He also notes that the tiny nation is one of the few places on earth where the original accent of 18th century pirates lingers on.

The accent of the region sounds like the Caribbean to me…. Which makes sense, because the area was inhabited by Mayans, Spanish, English, and Africans. To me, the sound of Belezian words is one of the most beautiful in the world.

Belize history starts with the Maya. Maya civilization emerged at least three millennia ago in the lowland area of the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands to the south. A wide variety of languages and subcultures developed within the Maya core culture. The peak of this civilization occurred during the classic period, which began about 250 AD.

The Maya civilization flourished in the area of Belize until about 900 AD. In the late Classic Era of Maya civilization (600–1000 AD), as many as 1 million people may have lived in the area that is now Belize. Many aspects of this culture persist in the area despite nearly 500 years of European domination.

 Photo by Ian Mackenzie from Ottawa, Canada Xunantunich, Belize

It is believed that the region takes its name from the Belize River. Though many legends surround the name, ranging from the names of discoverers to corruption of colorful Spanish words, most authorities today think that the river’s name is simply the Mayan word for “muddy.”

Though Belize had several Mayan city-centers, and may have been home to over a million people in classic Mayan times, it was not attractive to the conquering Spanish. Local farmers raised crops of squash, beans, peppers and corn, but did not have reserves of gold or jewels.

When the conquistadors “pacified” what is now Mexico, the region of Belize was largely overlooked. This led to the are becoming a haven for natives trying ot escape Spanish enslavement and forced religious conversion. Unfortunately, refugees fleeing from the conquerors had already been exposed to European diseases such as smallpox.  By the mid 1500’s the population was decimated.

But the native people still held to their traditions. The region of Tipu, today only and archaeological site, was continuously repopulated by incoming refugees. Though technically conquered by the Spanish, the area was too far from the main population centers to be closely controlled.  In 1638 the natives began to resist the Spanish, and by 1642 the area was in all out rebellion. Over 300 native families, from 8 towns, relocated to Belize.

Aiding the natives in their fight for freedom were the local pirates. In 1642 and again in 1648, pirates sacked Salamanca de Bacalar, the seat of Spanish government in southern Yucatán. After the second devastating attack, the Spanish withdrew from the region.

Local people remained free until 1696. But then the Spanish came back in force. The transported the people and razed Tipu in 1707. From that time on, the area was a haven only for pirates, buccaneers, escaped slaves, and the few natives who still strove to escape their Spanish masters.

The English were becoming interested in the area, but early English settlers were, to put it mildly, wild men. These were some of the original “buccaneers.”  Groups of independent individuals created rough seaside settlements, where they hunted wild game, mostly pigs, and cured the meat by smoking it on wooden frames. These frames went by the French world “boucan” which in turn gave their name to the product produced on them – “bacon” and “barbecue” – and to the men who used them – boucaneers or buccaneers.

Buccaneers in a canoe attacking a Spanish galleon 

When not producing delicious smoked meats, some settlements of buccaneers used native canoes to attack shipping that wandered too close to their shores. They also cut local timber. A native tree known as “logwood” produced a valuable dye. Logwood cutters lived independently ruing themselves by the equivalent of town meetings.

A 1667 treaty, in which the European powers agreed to suppress piracy, encouraged the shift from buccaneering to cutting logwood and led to more permanent settlement. The 1670 Godolphin Treaty between Spain and England confirmed English possession of countries and islands that England already occupied. Unfortunately, those colonies were not named and ownership of the coastal area remained unclear. In 1717 Spain expelled British logwood cutters from the Bay of Campeche west of the Yucatán. This action had the unintended effect of enhancing the significance of the growing British settlement near the Belize River.

A boucan

The first British settlers lived a rough and disorderly life. According to Captain Nathaniel Uring, who was shipwrecked and forced to live with the logwood cutters for several months in 1720, the buccaneers were "generally a rude drunken Crew, some of which have been Pirates." He said he had "but little Comfort living among these Crew of ungovernable Wretches, where was little else to be heard but Blasphemy, Cursing and Swearing."

A twenty-first century archaeological dig in the area produced an enormous number of broken clay pipes. Archaeologists claimed to have never seen anything like it. So apparently, smoking went right along with drinking and swearing. 

During the 18th century, the Spanish attacked the British settlers repeatedly. In 1717, 1730, 1754, and 1779 the Spanish forced the British to leave the area. The Spanish never settled in the region, however, and the British always returned to expand their trade and settlement. The conflict remained until the logwood trade faded, and the locals began to cut mahogany instead.

On their own initiative and without recognition by the British government, the settlers had begun annual elections of magistrates to establish common law for the settlement as early as 1738. In 1765 Rear Admiral Sir William Burnaby, commander-in-chief of Jamaica, arrived in the settlement and codified their regulations into a document known as Burnaby's Code. When the settlers began returning to the area in 1784, the governor of Jamaica named Colonel Edward Marcus Despard as superintendent to oversee the Settlement of Belize.

England held the area, calling in British Honduras for a time, and larger landowners began to import African slaves from Jamaica. The usual horrible stories of inhumanity and mistreatment ensued, but slavery was abolished in 1838. The African-Belizian people had profound effect on the areas food, customs and language.

Belize gained its independence in 1981. Today tourism is a major part of the economy, providing 25% of jobs. The country is still a rough-and-tumble place, however, with a national murder rate similar to downtown Detroit. Still the government is continually working to increase safety for travelers. Vacations here are budget-friendly, and a careful tourist can enjoy tropical weather, wonderful food, and a piratical history.  

tourists in belize

Monday, August 8, 2016

Pieces of Eight

One of the most famous phrases in pirate lore, the term “pieces of eight” is the phrase uttered by Long John Silver’s parrot, the first real proof that Silver is really a pirate. But the coin is not only piratical, it is the basis of the American dollar, the Canadian dollar, the Japanese yen and the Chinese yuan. It was the first “world currency” starting in the late 18th century. It’s definitely the most famous Spanish coin.

Although Spanish gold is a byword for the riches of the Caribbean, Spain was also looting the Americas of vast quantities of silver. While much gold was found already refined and in use by the natives, silver was mined by the conquerors. In 1554 a Spanish merchant named Bartolomé de Medina developed a method of refining low-quality silver ore using mercury and sea brine.

An 8 Reales piece minted in Mexico in 1650

The concept of a large silver coin with high purity (sometimes known as "specie" coinage) had become popular throughout Europe. In the 16th century, Count Hieronymus Schlick of Bohemia had begun minting coins known as Joachimsthalers (from German thal, or valley), named for the areas where the silver was produced. Joachimstaler was later shortened to taler.

The first thaler from 1525

So successful were these coins that similar thalers were minted in Burgundy and France. After 1575, the Dutch used currency with a daalder depicting a lion, hence its Dutch name leeuwendaalder. (Many traders did not think the picture of the lion was very good, and traders, especially in the Caribbean, gave the coin the name “dog dollar.”)

Specifically to facilitate export trade, the leeuwendaalder was lighter than the large denomination coins then in circulation. Thus, it became the coin of choice for foreign trade. Dutch traders were traveling all over the world, and the coin became popular in the Middle East, and colonies in the east and west.

Money in Spain was based on a system of reales (pronounced re-al-es’).  Spain was commonly using an 8-real coin of very high quality in 1497. In 1537 the Spanish escudo gold coin was introduced, which was worth 16 reales. The later Gold Doubloon was worth 32 reales or 2 escudos. It is this divisibility into 8 which caused the silver coins to be named "pieces of eight".

Since the leeuwendaalder and the 8-reales piece were of very similar size, purity and value, they began to be commonly referred to by the same name. “Dallder” was easier to say than “8 reales piece” so it became the more common term. English voices quickly slurred “dallder” into “dollar”

Legend has it that the Spanish coin’s markings made it easy to cut into 8 pieces in order to make change during a purchase. The coin wasn’t planned like this, but coinage in the New World was in a state of chaos for a long time. Coinage was scarce, people were poor, and defacing money wasn’t a crime. It’s likely that coins were cut up in some establishments and by some individuals.

This leads us to the common breakdowns of the dollar value – half dollar (coin cut in half), ¼ or one quarter dollar, usually called just a quarter (half a dollar cut in half again, or four pieces), and the “bit” which was half of a quarter.

The word “bit” is no longer used in used in the US, but it survives in the old song, “Shave and a haircut, two bits.”  One programmer friend of mine wonders of the “bit” coinage was the inspiration of the term “bit” in computer programming, since it was the smallest piece into which a coin would be cut.

Thanks to the vast silver deposits that were found in Mexico (for example, at Taxco and Zacatecas) and Potosí in modern-day Bolivia, and to silver from Spain's possessions throughout the Americas, mints in Mexico and Peru also began to strike the coin. The main New World mints for Spanish dollars were at Potosí, Lima, and Mexico City.

By far the leading specie coin circulating in North America was the Spanish silver dollar, defined as consisting of 387 grains of pure silver. Spanish dollars came into the North American colonies through lucrative trade with the West Indies. The Spanish silver dollar had been the world's outstanding coin since the early 16th century, and was spread partially because of the vast silver output of the Spanish colonies in Latin America. More important, however, was that the Spanish dollar, from the 16th to the 19th century, was relatively the most stable and least debased coin in the Western world.

Before the American Revolution (and possibly one contributing factor to the Revolution) there was a chronic shortage of British currency in Britain's colonies. Trade was often conducted with Spanish dollars that had been obtained by dealing with Caribbean pirates. Spanish coinage was legal tender in the United States until the Coinage Act of 1857 discontinued the practice.

But some traditional characteristics of the old pieces of eight lingered in America’s monetary system until very recently. The pricing of equities on U.S. stock exchanges in 1⁄8-dollar denominations persisted until the New York Stock Exchange converted first to pricing in sixteenths of a dollar on 24 June 1997, and shortly after that, to decimal pricing.

8 Reales from 1739. 
 One last thing – Look closely at the back of a Spanish eight-reales piece. See the two pillars on the back? They are supposed to represent the Pillar of Hercules – the two chunks of land that frame the Straights of Gibraltar, gateway to the Mediterranean Sea. But the pillar on the right also looks a bit like this - $. In fact, it is believed to be the inspiration for the sign for American currency.

Monday, August 1, 2016

What Did a Pirate Keep in His Chest?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that pirates didn’t bury their treasure (the exception being Captain William Kidd.) But there are still those chests…. Everyone knows that pirates had chests. What was in them?

Well to begin with, chests were more likely than not to contain the possession of richer people that pirates had robbed. Rich people traveled with nice things that needed to be protected from water, from mold, the ship’s rats. Most pirates, like most sailors, didn’t have much. Their meager personal possessions needed to be easy to pack up and transport at a moment’s notice, whenever a sailor changed jobs (and therefore ships.)

Most sailors carried their things in canvas bags, and a few even did without the bag, bundling everything they owned -  A change of clothes, a knife, some small memento of loved ones, spare socks – into their sleeping hammock. The hammock was formed into a makeshift carry-all, and away the sailor went, transporting not only his personal possession, but his bed as well.

But pirates had opportunity to acquire more physical possessions . They had money to spend, and in the course of robbing a ship, there was little to keep them from picking up whatever small items caught their fancy. Let’s pretend that we have discovered a pirate chest, preserved from piracy’s Golden Age, and look inside.

The first items I think we’d see in a plate and spoon. This seems odd, but pewter plates and silver spoons were things that working class people would scarcely see, let alone own. Merchant sailors might receive their food on a wooden plank, or several of them might share a large bowl of food, But a metal plate and spoon? That was the possession of a pirate. Examples of plates on the Whydah included the owner’s initials scratched on the back… probably pride of ownership.

Sure beats eating with your hands. 

Next would be other items used for work on the ship – a knife, and a marlinspike – an iron tool like a small spike, used for working with rope. If, like some new pirates, our friend was a landsman, just learning to sail, his chest might hold scraps of rope with examples of knots he was learning to tie.

  A sailor’s palm (in effect, a huge leather thimble) might be present if the pirate was a sailmaker or his apprentice. This was a leather wrapping for the hand, with a metal piece – often a flattened coin – attached near the base of the thumb. This allowed the strength of the whole arm to be used in driving a needle through several layers of tough canvas.

Picture of Sailmakers Palm, how to make one.
Sail Maker's Palm

Our pirate might have items to entertain himself when he was not working. He would probably own a pipe and some tobacco. Tobacco was one of the treasures that pirates frequently stole, and all accounts say that they smoked almost constantly. In sites known to be inhabited by pirates, archaeologists have found hundreds – maybe thousands – of broken clay pipes.

The chest might also contain cards or dice. Printed cards were available, printed from woodblocks. The cards were much the same as those today, with the same four suits, and the same numbers, 1-10, with the jack, queen and king. These cards were blank on the back, and were not protected by coatings to keep them clean. A canny card player probably knew more than he should by the stains on his deck.

The pirate might also carry dice. Today, you may hear someone say, “Roll those bones!” when rolling dice. In the 18the century, dice were actually make of bone. There was no standard size, and the dice were usually only as square as the human eye and hand could make them. No precision measuring!

Of course, pirates ships did not encourage gambling. If one pirate won too much, or another lost too much, it would create bad feeling among the crew. So crew members might have crafts – wood carvings, small musical instruments such as an ocarina, or even embroidery.

Every sailor did carry the equipment for repairing his own clothes. In fact, sailors were known to be very good with needle and thread. Supplies were often made into a small kit called a “housewife.” Needles, thread, spare buttons, scraps of cloth suitable for patching clothes were wrapped in a bit of cloth and string. The kit would also contain bee’s wax. This was an important way to preserve the thread.

Natural materials are prone to rot when warm and damp (exactly the conditions on a Caribbean ship.) Wax would b rubbed onto the tread just before using it, to fend off water. This made the stitches last much longer.

The pirate’s weapons needed to be handy, but a secure place on the bottom of the chest would do. Pirate law said that all weapons must be ready at a moment’s notice, so a pistol would be clean and loaded, but not cocked. This way, the gun would not go off by accident.

But pirates didn’t use their weapons every day. Even a successful ship rarely encountered more than one potential victim every ten days or so.

And what about the money? Well, if the pirate had that, he would be in port, spending it. A pirate didn’t need cash until he left the ship, so all the ship’s plunder was kept by the Quartermaster. This individual had as part of his job the measurement, recording and distribution of plunder. For ease of accounting, pirates usually left the money with him, and he held it for them until they needed it. Kind of like a pirate Credit Union.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Yellow Fever and Piracy

One of the great hardships for all Europeans in the Caribbean area during the Golden Age of Piracy was the threat of disease. Europe’s cooler climate meant that the colonists had no inherited immunity to tropical diseases.

They did have immunity to an impressive list of European diseases – some of which decimated the native population of the New World. But that is a story for another time. Today we are looking at the dreaded Yellow Fever.

Yellow Fever was a disease that was brought to the Caribbean. It’s an African disease, carried by African mosquitoes. But Europeans brought African slaves to the region, and along with them came Yellow Fever.

Nowadays, when someone gets severely sick, one of the first questions we ask is “What do they have?”  In the 17th and 18th centuries, this was impossible. Germs and viruses were completely unknown. Disease was blamed on “bad air,” “bad water,” or occasionally on the constitution of the patient himself. Today we know that the disease called Yellow Fever is a blood-borne virus, carried in the saliva of infected female mosquitoes, and transferred to the host during a bite. The virus grows for 3-6 days in the lymph glands, and later attacks the liver. Back in the 17th century, people only knew that the victim was sick. 


The first symptoms are sudden onset of fever, chills, severe headache, back pain, general body aches, nausea, and vomiting, fatigue, and weakness.  Unfortunately, these are also the symptoms of many other diseases. For most people, these symptoms are all they experience. However, for a small percentage, the symptoms become much worse.

In these people, the virus goes on to cause internal bleeding, kidney failure, and liver damage. The first two gave rise to the most common names used by pirates and their contemporaries… Black vomit. The more polite term of Yellow Fever came in 1744, when it was noticed that many victims turned yellow. (This was the result of liver damage, something that was not understood at the time.)

If this seems overly horrible, remember that there were no real official names for diseases at the time. Sickness was known only by its symptoms. And the symptoms of Yellow Fever, with its two varieties, was more confusing than most.

Worse still was the fact that the victim, having passed the flue-like early stage, felt that he was getting better. Such people got up and began to go about their daily activities – often to suddenly collapse and die of horrible symptoms while outside the home, perhaps even in the middle of the street.

Because Yellow Fever in the Caribbean and South America was directly caused by the importation of slaves, it almost seems like a punishment for inhumane treatment of one’s fellow man. While I don’t actually belie in divine retribution, it is ironic that the forced importation of Africans first caused the disease, and then the disease cause the importation of yet more African slaves, in a cycle of death.

Yellow Fever was epidemic in Africa, and because of this, Africans almost always suffered the milder form of the disease. Those prone to the more lethal form had died early, and did not have a good chance to pass on their genes. By the time the slave trade to the Caribbean began, some Africans even had inherited immunity from mothers or other close family.

But Europeans had no immunity, and because of this tended to get the more deadly form of the disease, which kills 50% of those affected. The New World was home to many “bond servants” of European ancestry, but work in sugar cane fields exposed them to mosquitoes that carried the virus, and they died (along with their owners) in droves. Because of this, African slaves became the preferred form of forced labor. And each new shipment from West Africa had the potential to bring along a slightly new strain of the disease.

The first confirmed outbreak of the disease was on the island of Barbados in 1647. Another outbreak occurred on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1648, and Brazil suffered from the disease in 1685. And it was not confined to the tropics for long. As early as 1688 an outbreak occurred in New York. How many other outbreaks occurred we may never know. The disease may have gone untreated countless times, or have been treated by local midwives or barber-surgeons who did not write about what happened.

Early treatment was whatever the locals thought might work, and ranged from herbs, to bleeding to drinking the urine of someone who had survived the disease. The latter was the only one which might have had some effect. Even today, there is no cure for the disease. Only the symptoms can be treated.

Of course, today we have vaccinations. Since Yellow Fever had such a high mortality rate, it was studied extensively by scientists.  But the fact that the source of infection was mosquitoes, not infected humans, was not discovered until 1900. Vaccines were developed in the 1930’s. But even today, eradication of and protection from mosquitoes remains the primary protection against Yellow Fever.

So what has this to do with pirates? Yellow Fever was the number-one cause of death for British military personnel in the Caribbean for over a hundred years. In 1704, a soldier stationed in Jamaica was 7 times more likely to die during his tour of duty than a similar soldier in New York. Such losses cut the strength of garrisons and reduced the effectiveness of Royal Navy ships.

So when enemies were near, Caribbean settlements sought protection from anyone who carried weapons, and sometimes this meant pirates. Pirates protected Jamaica from the Spanish during the 1600's, and this relationship led to years of under-the-table dealings between Gentlemen of Fortune and a string of shady Royal Governors.

And with less military keeping law and order, piracy had a better chance to bloom. And a populace that faced shorter life-spans was more likely to decide to live for the moment – and that’s the motto of pirates: A short life, but a happy one.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Strange Animals in the Caribbean

The region of the Caribbean – the islands in the Caribbean Sea, and the coastland of South America, and Mexico – must have seemed like another world to European sailors. Covered in lush, tropical jungle and dotted with volcanic outcroppings and what the Europeans called “smoking mountains” (active volcanoes) the region was also home to many exotic species of animals.

In addition, the newcomers brought their own pets and livestock with them. Escaped or released animals quickly became a further fixture of the area. Some, such as pigs and goats, fed the pirates, and their associates, the communities of escaped slaves. Others were amusing or frightening.

Early settlers to South America found that an old European monster had taken physical form in the jungle. The legend of blood-sucking vampires long pre-dated the discovery of a certain tiny South American bats. But when the Spanish encountered small flying mammals that landed near sleeping humans, then carefully crawled to the victim’s throat and began to drink blood, it was no stretch of the imagination to call the creature a Vampire Bat.

Of course, unlike Dracula, these 3-inch-long animals pose little danger to humans. The local Aztecs called the creatures “butterfly mice” which isn’t scary at all.

A far more troublesome rodent (and yes, I know that bats aren’t rodents) was the rat. It was inevitable that the rats that infested European ships came ashore. Once there, the rats made themselves at home. There were no naturalists observing the first introduction of rats to the region, but it’s safe to imagine that they decimated native populations of birds and small reptiles. The European planters didn’t mind this at all. But they did mind when the rats began to eat valuable sugar crops.

On the island of St Johns, someone had the bright idea to import mongooses from India to eat the rats. The only problem? Rats come out at night, and mongooses (mongeese?) hunt during the day. So the mongeese (that doesn’t look right either) finished off many local birds and animals, while doing nothing to control rats. Today St Johns has a serious mongoose problem… The critters now hang out around trash dumpsters. There seems to be only one up side. The locals had decided on a plural for the animals. “Mongoose dem.”

As far as native animals, North America is the place for Alligators. The Caribbean has crocodiles. Usually calmer than alligators, crocodiles inhabit far southern Florida and the West Indies,, including Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Grand Cayman. Crocodiles are BIG, often 20 feet long, and weighing a ton. They tend to show up wherever there is water and you DON’T want a huge monster that isn’t shy about eating people.

Since most pirates wouldn’t have had a chance to visit regions where similar animals lived, these huge creatures, who can lie motionless for hours, strike with the speed of a snake, and run on land faster than a man, must have come a quite a shock. Pirates often carried large caliber hunting rifles when ashore. Modern Floridians must make do by completely surrounding their swimming pools with wire fence.

Crocodylus acutus mexico 02-edit1.jpg

If a pirate stopped by the island of Montserrat he might be offered a plate of Mountain Chicken. And he’d be right to be suspicious of the name. “Mountain Chicken” is a term for the enormous mountain frogs native to the island. At 8 inched long (from nose to tail) and weighing two pounds each, the frogs provide impressive frogleg-drumsticks to those brave enough to eat them.

On the friendlier side, the Caribbean is also home to a cute little animal that pre-dates the dinosaurs. Called a Solenadons, this little beasties have furry bodies, naked feet and tails, and a long flexible snout. They live by sniffing out and eating worms, bugs and other tiny prey, and also eat fruits and vegetables. The animals are noted for having a ball-and-socket joint (similar to a human hip joint) on their snouts, which gives the long nose the appearance of having a life of its own.

The tiny creatures are venomous (having poisonous saliva) which may be why they’ve survived the rats. And they’re too small for humans to bother hunting. Solenadons are also defended by the fact that they smell like goats. They live mostly on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, and are considered living fossils, which have remained virtually unchanged for 73 million years.

The High-Woods Dog of Trinidad is no more a dog than the mountain chicken is a chicken. It may have been given its colorful name by African slaves. The proper word for the animal is tanra, and it’s a tree-climbing relative of the badger. These animals eat almost anything – honey, meat, vegetables and fruit. They have even been observed to steal unripe fruit, then hide it for several days until it ripens.


Our last animal is an entertaining creature called the green vervet money. These monkeys probably came to island of St Kitts as the pets of sailors who had been to Africa. Though many New World monkeys exist, the green vervet is definitely an immigrant. And the monkeys came with a problem – a drinking problem.

Sailors of the time were notorious for giving alcohol to their pets. And when the monkeys escaped, they sought out free booze anywhere they could find it. In the early days, this meant fermented run-off from the island’s sugar cane industry.  But as time passed, St Kitts' sugar production dropped. The monkeys began to come into towns, swiping any alcoholic drink they could.

Today the moneys are a nuisance to locals and tourists. They hang around bars, swimming pools and outdoor eateries, and steal any cocktails or cans of beer left unguarded. Then, just like in pirate days, the animals get into drunken fights and generally act like jerks. I guess if you can’t have drunken pirates, drunken monkeys will do.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Myth of Race

When I was a child in grade school (this was a long time ago, but not that long ago, because, you know, I’m still here) I was taught that there were seven races – white, yellow, red, black, and brown were the main ones, with kind of sub-races of Arabs and Australian aborigines. As a child I thought this was funny, and hypothesized that green and blue people would be a lot more fun to have around to form the seven.

Like I said, this was a while ago. 

But I thought about race, and I’ve continued to do so. Most of my musings were internal. I lived in the American South, and the relations between the White Race and the Black Race were not good. My mother supported Civil Rights. My father supported the “rights” of business owners to only serve people they wanted to. Any talk about race in our household ended up with shouting.

Then I grew up and started reading about Pirates.

When you read original documents from the 17th and 18th century, race is treated as something quite different. “Race” was simply “them”… People who are different from “us.”  So, we find references to the “Irish Race,” the “English Race,” the “Spanish Race,” the “Jewish Race.” All written by people who don’t want to associate with “those people.”

“Race” has no real meaning. At best it’s a legal fiction. For instance, when I was a child, living in Florida, the group of people now called Latinos were simply part of the White race, even though they were often brown-skinned. I later learned that this was because certain politicians were trying to recruit support from incoming immigrants against the “Negro Problem.” In other places, where there were not so many Spanish-speaking newcomers, the Spanish-speakers were considered “Black.”

In the 1930 US Census, there was an option for a “Mexican” Race. In later years, the term was changed to “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish.” By 1990, it had morphed into “Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?” Yet the people themselves identify as a mixture, primarily of White (going back to the Spanish Conquistadors) and Native American (the people conquered by the incoming European Spanish.)

So, if one “race” can change its definition so profoundly, why do we care about race at all?

The answer is surprisingly specific. It begins in 1676, with a man named Nathaniel Bacon. He was cousin to the Governor of Virginia, a relative of Sir Francis Bacon, the King’s Lord Chancellor. In the new colony, he soon owned two plantations and was a member of the ruling elite.

The former ruler of England, Oliver Cromwell, had tried to turn Virginia into a virtual penal colony. He had sent hundreds of thousands of “undesirables” – Irish citizens, prisoners of war, prostitutes, debtors – to the colony as “indentured servants.”  Terms of indenture often exceeded life expectancy. And at the same time, merchants were bringing captured Africans to Virginia, also to be sold as “indentured servants.” People so indentured could be bought and sold, whipped, and otherwise treated unfairly. They were all slaves in fact if not in law.

Grayscale image of a man in allonge wig, waiscoat and coat standing with hand on hip
William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia

If such a person did survive past their term, they were supposed to be given land, cash, and other materials suitable for starting a small farm. But this rarely happened. And on the few occasion when a small-holder was able to start a farm, he found that the colony taxed not on land holdings, or on income, but used a “head” tax, meaning that a man who owned 50 acres paid the same tax as a man who owned 10,000.

In 1675, war with the Native Americans broke out. Bacon favored slaughtering the Natives, men women and children. This won the approval of the poorer citizens, who had suffered the most in raids. The Governor – who had profitable fur-trading deals with the tribes, counseled caution. Bacon and the Governor argued for a year, until fresh elections put men favored by Bacon in charge.

Bacon made war on the Natives, repealed the unfair tax laws, wrote a “Declaration of the People” and offered freedom to any servant or slave who would join him. The result, when the men who had been in power fought back, was called Bacon’s Rebellion.

Howard Pyle - The Burning of Jamestown.jpg
The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle

It ended abruptly in 1676, when Bacon died of an intestinal disorder. When the authorities looked into what had started the fighting (which had resulted in many casualties and the burning of Jamestown) they found that it was based on a desire among the common people for “levelling.”

“Levelling” meant that the people wanted more equality between the rich and poor. When a similar, smaller rebellion broke out in Maryland, the Powers That Be realized that they need to Do Something.

Of course they had no intention of sharing their own wealth and power. Instead, these men analyzed the society in which they lived. It consisted primarily of the rich and the poor, with no middle class. There was no “buffer” between the lord and his servants. And the servants outnumbered the lords by 100’s to one.

A similar structure was in place in England. But in England, there existed a “yeoman” class – large landholders, who lived with the peasants, but tended to side with the Lords, since (very rarely) a member of the yeoman class was allowed into the aristocracy.

What the American Colonies needed was a similar system – a slightly elevated class of peasant, who would keep the other peasants in line.

Up until this point, race had not entered into class considerations. Indentured servants were one class, and the large landowners were another. But during Bacon's Rebellion, Black and White servants and slaves had worked together seeking more egalitarian terms.

So the large landowners began to separate the pale-skinned and dark skinned servants. They told the Whites that this was because the White servants were “better” than their darker neighbors. It was a novel idea, and made these poor people feel important. Soon laws were passed requiring a judge’s signature before a White servant could be beaten. Then, over the next 20 years, Africans and Native Americans were deprived of judicial rights, property rights, electoral rights, and family rights.

Servants of European ancestry were finally given their dues when their terms of service were over. And the notion of the “White Race” was born. Its purpose was to keep the poor Whites intent on “being better” than their Black neighbors.

*for information on Bacon's Rebellion and its aftermath, see Don Jordan and Michael Walsh's excellent book "White Cargo"

And it worked. I have seen it firsthand. No one is harder on “The Black Race” than poor Whites. Even today, some people who are poor, perhaps drug addicted, perhaps homeless, will comfort themselves by thinking “well, at least I’m not Black.” Yet, by concentrating on keeping others down, people have had little time to better their own lot in life. A look at a map shows that those areas famous for racial division also tend to be the most mired in poverty.

And what has this to do with pirates?

The pirates, firm promoters of “levelling” by the most expedient method (i.e. taking rich people’s stuff) occasionally had their own race problems. Such a disagreement come up before Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate captain. Faced with a Black pirate who had one version of events, and a White pirate who had a different opinion of how things should be, Bonnet was told by his White crewman that a White man’s word was worth more than an African’s

Bonnet (who by birth, breeding and education should have sided with his European crew member), informed his crew that “Pirate” was a race unto itself, and anyone who became a Pirate gave up any other racial identifiers.

One more reason I want to be a pirate. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Pirates of America

When I studied the War of Independence in grade school, I had some questions for my teachers. This wasn’t unusual. On this particular subject, my question was, “When the colonists were fighting the British army, where did they get the muskets and the gunpowder and the cannon balls and the cannons from?

My reasoning was as follows – the colonies were British. They traded mostly with the British, and certainly British merchants would not sell us any of these things. Other countries weren’t allowed to sell them to us. And we were not yet able to make them for ourselves. So, where did they come from?

My poor teachers struggled. People on the frontier had their own long rifles, and probably held some powder, they offered. Local militias started out with supplies. And, perhaps, more had been captured from conquered British forts and soldiers?

This seemed like a long stretch to me. Our history book pointed out that many Colonial soldiers did not come from the frontier, but from Eastern cities, where people were not as likely to own guns. I observed that the book also said that we didn’t capture British forts for years. And not one of these theories explained how the Colonial Army ever got its hands on any cannons.

My poor teachers. They tried. But I was too much for them. Throughout my school career, and for many years afterward, my questions remained unanswered. Finally, however, I have learned the answer.

It was pirates. Specifically pirates in the Caribbean.

As readers of this blog already know, pirates were in the habit of taking anything they could get away with, and selling it anyone who would pay, so they could get started drinking as soon as possible.

As soon as demand in the American colonies rose, profit-loving pirates set out to fill an obvious and profitable need. The British Crown regularly shipped supplies to its Caribbean colonies and amongst the many islands robbers found opportunities to capture British military supplies and send them to the American rebellion. Not only shot, muskets and powder made their way north in pirate-owned ships, but also rope, canvas, wool for uniforms, and many other goods.

Cannons at the time were simple instruments. Their use on land or sea was determined by the wooden carriage that supported the gun. It was a simple matter for the pirates to steal guns off navy vessels and armed merchants and re-purposed them for use on battle fields.

And how did the pirates learn of the colonies’ needs? How did they transfer the goods to the American military? Many prominent Americans had ties to pirates and smugglers. John Hancock had been called “The Prince of Smugglers” by his contemporaries, having made a great deal of money in that trade. New York had long been a known pirate haven, as had Charleston. Many, many of the most prominent families had ties to pirates or smugglers.

John Hancock, Founding Father and Smuggler

The American Revolution provided something the pirates had never known before: A buyer, or group of buyers, who were willing to pay market value for stolen goods. Most buyers were cheap – after all, if they were caught dealing with pirates, they might get into a great deal of trouble. The leaders of the American Revolution were already guilty of high treason. They desperately needed munitions. Prices for pirated goods were high.    

Benjamin Franklin, while serving as ambassador to France, also contributed to pirate adventures in the New World. In fact, Franklin created many pirates himself.

Benjamin Franklin

One of the ways a nation created a navy was to commission privateers. These licenses permitted merchant ships to arm themselves and fight against the merchant ships of an enemy nation. This was a money-maker for the nation, which sold the licenses and took part of the captured goods. The licenses enriched merchants successfully captured enemy ships.

Privateers had been licensed by European nations for hundreds of years. If the new nation of the United States wanted to join the society of established nations, writing out privateering licenses and selling them to those who wanted to make war on England would have been the most logical step for the Continental Congress.

Coat of arms or logo

But, for some reason, Congress did not issue the licenses. Franklin, working as ambassador in France, was besieged by prospective privateers. But he had no licenses to give them. Finally, being a revolutionary, Franklin took matters into his own hands and began handing out licenses.

In spirit, Franklin was correct. But by the letter of the law, he was handing out useless scraps of paper. An ambassador did not have the authority to authorize privateers. This required the authority of a ruling body, be it a king or a congress. Franklin did not have it.

Yet the French captains who took these licenses used them as an excuse to attack British merchant ships. These attacks were illegal. The men using them were pirates, and they had been put up to it by Franklin. The money from the licenses fueled the revolution, and the “privateers” provided much needed goods – tea, china, furniture – to the American people. They also helped stir up support for the Americans’ cause.

So that’s how pirates helped the American colonies to become the United States.