Monday, April 14, 2014

A Pirate's Life... In the Pirate's Own Words

Many things have been written about pirates, but the problem is that much of it is suspect. Pirates were called “lazy” by former employers who believed that a 14-hour workday should be perfectly normal for working class men. They were called “bloodthirsty” despite lack of evidence that they caused more than a very few deaths.

But some pirate words have been preserved thought the centuries. What better way to find out what it was that pirates thought of themselves and their way of life?

We will begin with a quote by Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most successful pirates who ever lived. Roberts did not set out to be a pirate. In fact, he was kidnapped by a pirate crew who needed his navigational skills. But within months he had changed his mind. The following statement was made to a captain whose ship Roberts was robbing at the time:

In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto." -Bartholomew Roberts

(Or, in more modern language, “In honest work there is little food or drink, low wages and hard work. In pirating, there is plenty and a feeling of satisfaction, pleasure and rest, freedom and power. Who would not call this life more valuable, when all the risk is run? At worst, a pirate receives only an angry look as he is choking to death. No, I will have a short life, and a happy one.”)

Later, Roberts explained why his victims should be grateful for his merciful treatment of them.

 "There is none of you but will hang me, I know, whenever you can clinch me within your power." -Bartholomew Roberts, explaining to his victims that he was under no obligation to treat them kindly or fairly.

(In modern words: “Any one of you would hang me, I know, if only you could catch me.”)

Pirates regarded themselves as members of a brotherhood, and seemed to have strong feelings that they were on the same side in a larger struggle. This is illustrated in the words of pirate captain Howell Davis, as he formally left an alliance with Thomas Cocklyn and Oliver la Bouche

"Hark ye, you Cocklyn and la Bouche, I find by strengthening you, I have put a rod into your hands to whip myself, but I am still able to deal with you both; but since we met in love, let us part in love, for I find that three of a trade can never agree." -Howell Davis

The sentiment here is that the other two have ganged up on Davis and treated him unfairly. But, rather than fight, Davis chooses to sail away, for the sake of peace between pirates.

According to “Black Sam” Bellamy, captain of the pirate ship Whydah at least some pirates followed a version of the Golden Rule:

"Damn my blood... I scorn to do anyone a mischief, when it is not for my advantage." – Black Sam Bellamy to a captured merchant captain.

The phrase “give no quarter” shows up occasionally when dealing with pirates. In battle, this was signified by a red flag. What the phase meant in practice was that surrender would not be offered or accepted. The party calling for “no quarter” intended to fight to the last man. This was a reasonable threat for pirates to use. It discouraged the other party from fighting, a being killed was a real outcome (you couldn’t surrender and expect to be spared) and the pirates had little to lose, as they would be hanged if caught.

"Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarters, or take any from you." -Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, before his final battle

Many pirates strongly believed that all regular sailors should rise to their cause and force merchant captains to give them better working conditions and fairer pay.

"Damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security." – Sam Bellamy speaking to a sailor who refused to join the pirates.

Sam also had a great deal to say about the role of pirates in society. His views on the subject of armed robbery versus robbery by trickery or use of the legal system still rings true today, and his statements about his own place in the world was a radical prequel to the phrase “All men are created equal.”

“Damn ye altogether: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under protection of our own courage; had you not better make one of us, than sneak after the asses of those villains for employment?

"I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men in the field; and this my conscience tells me; but there is no arguing with such sniveling puppies, who allow superiors to kick them about deck at pleasure; and pin their faith upon a pimp of a parson; a squab, who neither practices nor believes what he puts upon the chuckle-headed fools he preaches to." – Bellamy to a captured merchant captain

Although pirates believed that they were in the right in their battle against the governments of the world, they also seem to have accepted that they were also fighting against “God’s will” (which was frequently cited as a reason why poor people should not try to better themselves.)

"Heaven, you fool? Did you ever year of any pirates going thither? Give me hell, it's a merrier place: I'll give Roberts a salute of 13 guns at entrance." -Thomas Sutton, a captured member of Bartholomew Roberts' crew, when told by a fellow pirate that he hoped to make it into Heaven.

Hanging loomed over a pirate’s life as an ever-present threat. The bravest ones laughed off the fear of death with very real bravado, as in this quote from a female pirate:

"As to hanging, it is no great hardship. For were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would turn pirate and so unfit the sea, that men of courage must starve." - Mary Read

When a pirate finally was captured, many of them continued to assert that it was better to live in freedom and die early than to submit to tyrannical masters in order to live a few more years.

"Yes, I do heartily repent. I repent I had not done more mischief; and that we did not cut the throats of them that took us, and I am extremely sorry that you aren't hanged as well as we." -Anonymous Pirate, asked on the gallows if he repented.

A man named William Fly was perhaps the most hard-core in his resistance. Caught and led to the gallows, Fly is famous for taking apart the hangman’s noose and re-tying it properly, showing his contempt for a “landsman” who couldn’t do anything right. He also addressed the crow who had come to see him die. He wished that:

“All Masters of Vessels might take Warning by the Fate of the Captain (that he had murder’d), and to pay Sailors their Wages when due, and to treat them better. It is the Master’s Barbarity to them made so many turn Pyrates.”

Fly thus used his last breath to protest the conditions of work at sea, what he called “Bad Usage.” He was launched into eternity with the brash threat of mutiny and piracy on his lips.

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