Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pirate Economics

In the movies, pirates are all about the gold. We see it all the time, chests full of it, with some necklaces thrown in on top, and maybe a pagan statue or two. Why ships were carrying all this money is rarely, if ever explained. And you won’t get much help from history, because historically this isn't quite the way a pirate economy worked.

In fact, ships of the time were cargo vessels, carrying either raw materials headed for Europe, or European manufactured goods bound for New World markets. Pirates weren't holding out for money. They would take anything of value.

In many ways, a pirate raid on a merchant ship was much like a van full of thieves driving up to rob a convenience store. Unlike modern-day robbers, the pirates don’t have to worry about an alarm going off or the police being called. This is what they do:

First they clean out the cash register, which equates to the ship’s payroll and/or operating fund. Next they may or may not rob the employees and customers, who represent the crew and passengers. Many pirates were dedicated to robbing institutions, not people, and would let individuals keep their own money.

While this is going on, other robbers are spreading out. Some look for things they can re-sell. On the trading ship, this is the cargo. Pirate ships being smaller than the ships they robbed, they would take the most valuable things- watches, silk, china wear, silver plates, pewter kitchen tools, clocks, furniture. Or, alternately, logwood (a fragrant wood used to produce incense) sugar, rum. They’ll fence these items later.

Then for personal use, they clean out the ship’s liquor supply, and take anything they want in the way of food, just like robbers cleaning out the beer cooler, the deli counter, the candy case. And finally, in either case, they grab anything else that looks good.

What did the pirates do with silk and watches?  They fenced them.  The pirates were perfectly willing to sell for pennies on the dollar, and various merchants were willing to buy cheap if they could, to increase their own profit. If questions were asked about the origin of the goods, the official explanation was that “We found a ship in distress, needing to lighten her load to stay afloat, to we took this to save them from throwing it into the sea.”

In modern terminology, it fell off the back of a truck.       

Friday, January 25, 2013

Vicky and the Pirates

So what does Queen Victoria have to do with pirates?

The answer is that Vicky is The Past, with capital letters – her era, the Victorian Era, is everyone’s idea of “long ago”, a sort of very repressed, hoop-shirted “then.”  Most people, not being as insane as this writer, don’t spend huge amounts of time thinking about the past. Queen Vicky’s world is completely different from their own, and that’s good enough for them. The past, after all, is the past.

And Vicky, they think, is a pretty good place to stop, because, after all, the farther back in time you go the more repressed everyone was. The 1950’s were more repressed than the 2000’s, and the 1900’s were so uptight that women couldn't even show their ankles. And before that was the Victorians, who put skirts on pianos so they wouldn't have to see naked legs, ate the “bosom” of the chicken so they wouldn't have to say “breast” in mixed company, and strongly discouraged young women from having any idea whatsoever about how sex worked. Lay back and think of England
People figure, you can’t get any more repressed than that. So that’s how those old-time people were, all the way back.

Now, I’m not here to support or reject the idea of Victorian prudery. What I’m here to say is that, however it was then, it was different before. Before Vicky were the Georges, (including number III, who lost those American colonies) and the Georges were bawdy.

I like the word “bawdy”. To me it means laughing too loud, probably at a dirty joke, shooting beer out your nose, and not making any effort to hide the fact that you’re having a good time. The Georgians were like that. It was a time when a man (even in polite society) could tell a woman, “That’s a fine pair of breasts you have, madame!” and the response would be a hearty “Thank you!” and perhaps an invitation to admire them more closely.

It was a time when the medieval still lurked in corners, and modern life, in the form of paved streets, manufactured goods, and big business was just starting to stretch out.

There was no privacy. One tenth the population of England lived in London. The rich lived in houses that required hoards of servants just to get food cooked and the fires lit. The middle class and poor still lived in medieval squalor, so people carried out their business in the streets and taverns, including the business of sex.
And in the midst of all this was the fact that everyone was drunk, all the time. The idea of purifying water was over a hundred years away, so to be safe, you either had to boil it or mix it with alcohol. The Victorians later solved this problem by making tea, which is proof the water has been boiled long enough. The Georgians had tea only if they were well off. Everyone else drank beer.

Remember that party? The one with all the beer? Remember the courteous way you solved your disagreement with that ugly guy? The wise decisions you made regarding the opposite sex? The safe-and-sane manner in which you drove home? Yes, it was like that.

Of course, sometimes people wanted to actually party. This generally involved quarts of gin, prostitutes, naked dancers, and not going home until you’d set the building on fire. I’m quite serious . “End of party” equating to “building on fire” was kind of a Georgian meme.  Then, if you owned or had rented a carriage, you could run down pedestrians and crash into buildings.

Of course, all this set a pretty high bar as far as partying. The pirates had a lot to live up to.

And Vicky? Well, she and the moralists of her reign tried mighty hard to clean up everybody’s act and cover up the excesses of the past. Too good a job, really, if today we don’t remember what it was really like. That’s part of the appeal of pirates. Finding out things that you're not "supposed" to know.

Vicky would not be amused. 

(images are engravings from the early 18th century  published in  the book Engravings by Hogarth edited by Sean Shesgreen)

Monday, January 21, 2013

18th Century Trade Beads

This is my third strand of 18th century beads. I learned about them at a French and Indian War rendezvous several years ago.

These beads were first produced during the 1600's and 1700's for trade with the Native Americans. European glass makers produced huge numbers of them, which were traded for furs, food or even, sadly, land. The beads had certain characteristics. They tended to come in strands of about 14 inches, and were generally not of good or consistent quality. Most notably, they were usually strung on twisted grass. The type of grass and knots used to secure them are consistent.

How are these things still being traded today? Well, the Natives did not use the beads for decoration. They kept them as an "investment" or traded the strands among themselves, keeping the strands intact. Over the years, the "value" of the beads declined to almost nothing, but families still kept the beads.

Then, in the 1800's and 1900's, trade between the US and Africa became more active. White settlers bought back the Native American trade beads, and sent them to Africa. Once again, the strands of beads were kept intact, and used as money.

Now, with a more sophisticated African population and an American interest in "primitive' style jewelry, the beads have come back home again. I have found them in flea markets and high end bead shops. Depending on the style of beads, they can be had for as little as $12 a strand. Here's my latest find. I'll feel a little guilty cutting the old grass strand and re-stringing the beads to make a pirate necklace, but I'll be thrilled to wear a little piece of history.