Monday, June 23, 2014

How to Know a Pirate When You Meet Him

Imagine that you are back in the Golden Age of Piracy, in or about the Caribbean. Everyone is wearing funny old clothes, like they did 300 years ago, and they all speak using old fashioned words. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that pirates didn’t walk around with eye-patches, peg-legs and parrots. So if you ran into a pirate, how would you recognize him?

To begin with, all pirates were sailors, so first you would notice if he was one of those. This would be pretty easy to tell. Sailors walked with a wide-legged stance, and a sort of swagger to their steps. Both were caused by spending so much time on the deck of a moving ship. Learning to walk this way was part of “getting your sea legs.” When sailors first came on shore, they staggered around as if on a moving platform. It took a while to get used to walking on something (the ground) that didn’t move.

Second, sailors had their own vocabulary. Every item on the ship had a name, from directions like “port” and “starboard” to the “puddening” on a mast, or the orlop deck below. If the fellow you’ve just met tells you to “Heave off, you lubber, or you’ll be splicing your teeth in the bilge,” you know he probably sails boats for a living.

Lastly, sailors wore very particular work clothes. I go into the details here: pirate clothes but basically they were loose, pale colored pants, colorful shirts and coats that were almost always blue. Pirates wore the same clothes, but with a bit of a twist.

Pirates clothes were made the same way - the cut of the clothing was practical - but with the addition of much richer material. The eighteenth century was not a time to be subtle. If you had money, you wore it. A pirate, who needed work clothes, would still have them made out of the richest material around… stolen Chinese silks, brocades from England, spangled cottons form India.

To the people of the time, it would have been like one of us seeing a construction worker wearing Carhartt overalls made out of expensive suit material. You’d notice a thing like that.

Pirates were also noted for having very nice coats, but horrible, raggedy looking pants. The coats they stole from rich men. But the cut of a rich man’s tight breeches wouldn’t do for people who worked for a living. And face it, pirating a blue-collar work. So they wore the grand coats and their own pants.

In a tavern, pirates were loud. Ordinary sailors drank their drinks, sang and danced a little, and tried to stay out of trouble. Pirate banged on the tables, complained (loudly) if the service wasn’t to their liking, and had opinions about what the music should be like. This noisy, assertive behavior was unusual enough that they often frightened tavern-keepers who weren’t used to pirates.

Tavern keepers who were used to pirates were happy to see the pirates and to take the money. All sailors were noted for “spending money like rainwater.” Pirates outdid them in spades. In six weeks of pirating, a man could earn as much as a regular sailor could earn in two years, and they tended to spend it just as quickly.

Because of this, pirates on land had followers who admired them so much, they could be called fans. They were richly and exotically dressed. They wanted to have a good time. And they were willing to pay for it. People crowded around them to drink the drinks the pirates bought, hear the stories they told, and sell them things that they might need.

In what might otherwise be a quiet, backwater town, this was the only excitement available.

And lastly, pirates hung out with people far above their “station in life.” Their ships brought in tons of stolen goods and they needed to sell them. To do this, they needed to deal with rich men, and the rich men were happy to oblige. This kind of under-the-table business dealing was almost respectable in the New World. Major families built empires off the profits they made dealing with pirates.

And as the pirating went on… And on… And on… The pirates and the merchant became quite close. Blackbeard was good friends with the Governor of North Carolina, and supposedly married into one of the First Families of the region. Ben Hornigold was hired to teach pirating methods to the heir of a trading family.

The family of the famous Scottish nationalist and preacher James Guthrie ended up on Black Island, near the pirate haven of New Providence. There they made of fortune trading in stolen goods. James’ granddaughter Mary married a friend of Captain Kidd, and the two of them helped to hide some of Kidd’s ill-gotten gains.
In short, pirates and rich merchants went together like peanut butter and chocolate.

So if you were back in the early 1700’s and met a man wearing a very fine coat and hat, and ragged old sailor’s pants, who spent money like water and attracted star-struck admirers, and who was keeping company with the finest families in the area, while drinking in the ordinary taverns during the day, you could be pretty sure he was a pirate.

And if you wanted to make sure, you could always ask, “Are you member of the sweet trade?”

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