Monday, March 30, 2015

Pirates and the Law

We all know that pirates were law-breakers. That’s kind of a definition of the job. But what were the laws, anyway? What was the British legal system like in 1715?

The beginning of this answer is: A lot different than it is today.

British law was undergoing a rather radical change at the time, from a medieval system primarily designed to punish people who stepped outside the system, to a system designed to deter crimes against property.

This change was driven by the rise in what we would call the upper middle class. Unlike previous people with money, their wealth was not tied up in land, but in property such as homes, carriages, artwork and fine clothing. These people wanted to protect their possessions, and also their business dealings.

Because of this, England set out on a course of new laws designed to deter undesirable behavior. Crimes like shoplifting, robbing a house or rioting were punishable by death. The list of crimes that fell under this category grew by leaps and bounds, from about 26 during the Golden Age or Piracy to well over two hundred by the mid 1700’s.

The laws of the time are today referred to as “The Bloody Code” though they were never called this while they were in force.

The goal – to paraphrase a quote from the time – was not to punish the stealing of horses but to prevent the stealing of horses.

Today we wouldn’t understand many of the distinctions in these laws. For instance, it was legal for a nobleman to rape a common woman, on the theory that she would necessarily be so flattered at the possibility of bearing a noble child that she was not capable of resisting.

A commoner raping a noblewoman, however, was a crime against the woman’s family.

It was perfectly legal to beat a person nearly to death, so long as they were not permanently disabled or killed. But it was illegal to damage their clothing by cutting it, as this was property damage. Women were not legally allowed to own property. Counterfeiting was illegal for both men and women, but men were hanged for the crime, while women were burned alive.  These are only a few examples, but you get the drift.

Similarly, the court proceedings would not be recognized by modern folks, especially Americans. The job that Americans refer to as “lawyer” was divided between a solicitor (who represented the client in court) and a barrister (who was hired by the client and researched the law).

People who were arrested did not get out on bail. They were kept in chains and locked up in prison, where they were kept pending trial. If they did not have much money, or friends outside to help them, they did not receive food or drink above the bare necessities for survival. They slept on the floor in piles of straw, and were not provided a change of clothing, or even wash water. Trial could be expected to come within a few weeks, but the accused would be filthy, bedraggled and much thinner when standing before the judge. It would be easy to convict such a person.

Nor were the accused given any information about the case or their legal rights, unless they or some friend could afford to hire legal representation. This put the poor at a severe disadvantage. But the laws were written specifically for the rich, anyway. God, it was believed, had already decided that the rich were better and more important people than the poor. That was why they were rich. God had blessed them.  

Bringing a court case was more difficult for a poor person as well. The burden of proving the case was entirely on them. There were no police departments yet. Instead, men similar to private detectives could be hired – for a price – to investigate, gather evidence and bring the accused to be locked up. These men were called thief-takers. Though their fees were not prohibitive to the well-to-do, they could destroy a poor family.

Thief-takers were also very prone to corruption. Since they were paid to gather evidence, they could accuse an innocent person and be believed. This in turn could lead to blackmail, protection rackets and perjury. The system was ripe for abuse.

Even bringing a case to court was expensive. The person bringing the case needed to pay the court costs up front, and this kind of money was out of the reach of the poor. If a rich person cheated on a contract or took the property of a poor person, it would be almost impossible for the poor person to raise enough money to hire legal help, have papers served, and pay the necessary court costs. The rich were safe.

Punishments, besides hanging, were also not what modern people would expect. Instead, the system looked more like something one could imagine in a radical Islamist state. People could be burned at the stake, hanged, or skinned and cut into pieces. For less severe crimes, the punishment might be lashes with a whip, strokes with a rod, or even being tied to the back side of a cart and dragged through town while being beaten by a gang of men with various instruments. Simply being locked up was not an option.

Even “the stocks”, that cute little punishment that we today associate with the Puritans, was much more harsh than it seems. Yes, the punishment was to be confined by having the head and hands, or maybe the head hands and feet, immobilized by a wooden device. What we don’t think of was that, while confined, the person could have rocks thrown at them, or rotten fruit, or dead animals. Hot oil could be poured on them. In fact, any abuse that an angry or bored populace could dish out was okay.

Once again, the rich got off easier. Their families could afford to hire body guards for the event.

Oh, and piracy? The date when piracy became illegal is not clear, but was a death-penalty crime since long before the Golden Age. Piracy broke both the old laws (being outside the social structure) and the new ones (stealing and destroying property, and committing murder). Hanging was the penalty, but further rituals grew up around the ritual of punishing pirates. In England, it was traditional to hang a pirate at low tide, then bind the dead body to a pole and let 3 tides wash over it. After this, the body would either be given to a medical school for dissection or covered in tar, bound with iron bands and hung up as a warning to others.

Piracy was one of the last death penalties still on England’s law books. The death penalty for piracy, along with high treason, was reduced to life imprisonment in 1998.   

Monday, March 23, 2015

Pixie Pirate

Grownup pirates like us aren’t supposed to enjoy movies aimed at five year old girls, but since Black Sails isn’t on again until Saturday, and Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales isn’t due out until 2017, I found myself sitting in front of Pirate Fairy, Disney’s 2014 movie short in which Zarina, a pixie from Pixie Hollow in Neverland takes up work as a pirate.

The movie is the fifth of the straight-to-video Pixie Hollow series, and pre-supposes a certain knowledge of the Pixie Hollow universe. It’s a series aimed primarily at pre-school girls, so I didn’t expect much, especially in the pirate department.

The first movie in the series apparently fixed the most enormous problem, which was that Tinkerbell was REALLY mean. Then there’s a cast of pixie characters, all pretty much stereotypes and color-coded, in case you can’t tell them apart. The pixies seem to have their own little community in Neverland, and the series seems to pre-date the introduction of Peter Pan to the island.

The plot of this video involves Zarina, who has a pretty boring job packaging pixie dust at the pixie-dust factory. In her spare time she performs chemical experiments, trying to find out the possibility of formulating different types of dust.

Now, it may seem odd that movies about fairies are meant to encourage little girls to take up chemistry and engineering, but this is the case. “Tinker” bell likes to build things, and Zarina does a lot of things right in performing her chemical experiments. For instance, she carefully records her experiments in a book, and the thickness of the book, along with other clues, indicate that she’s been at this quite a while.

She’s also made some personal sacrifices in order to perform these experiments. She uses her personal share of pixie dust in her lab, and is therefore forced to walk everywhere, instead of flying like her friends.

What we see, of course, is her big breakthrough. She makes all kinds of dust that do all kinds of things (also color-coded). But if she continued her research and development with careful product safety and dosage testing there wouldn’t be much of a story. So she goes crazy with the new dust, does a lot of damage and gets in trouble.

Her answer to all this is to use her new products to put all the fairies to sleep and steal the dust-producing element for her own use. She then takes up with a pirate crew who offer to further her research in exchange for her giving their ship flying powers, enabling them to rob people far inland and get away with the goods.

Image result for Pirate crew Pirate Pixie

I wasn’t expecting much from the pirates. The entire ship’s crew consists of six guys, but I put this down to the requirements of low-budget CG, and keeping everything clear for the kids. They show a variety of nationalities, including an Asian, an Italian and an Irishman, but no African pirates, which kind of disappointed me.

The ship looks good – surprisingly good, although work on the ship was an investment – a CG good ship can have a lot of uses. It’s referred to as a “frigate” though it’s clearly a galleon. But hey, any time the word “frigate” gets used in a kids movie, I’m all for it.

The pirate fairy is, of course, the captain. She gets a headband, a sword and a pair of really cool boots to go with the title. After all, it’s aimed at little girls, so we have to include some cute clothes.

Weird little things were good. The pirate’s shoes are perfect straight-last buckle shoes. The one-eyed pirate is the cook. The cannons actually look like real cannons. The use of the term “offering you quarter” is properly defined, and almost properly used. 

The other friendly fairies set out, first to rescue their friend, and once it’s clear she’s become a pirate of her own free will, to get back the dust-generator. Along the way, there are hijinks in which the fairies’ powers get changed around, and also assorted fairy-dust generated special effects. One of the fairies “imprints” a newly hatched baby crocodile.

More to my interest was the gradual revelation of the identity of one long-faced pirate. First we learn his name is James. Then that he went to school at Eaton. (There’s only one pirate who’s been to Eaton.)  About the time the pirates reveal they were only joshing Zarina along until she could make the ship fly, James opens a closet and whips out a long red pirate coat and an enormous hat.

By this point most kids will have figured out who James is, but the movie never actually says it. Instead, the baby crocodile swallows an alarm clock, a pretty funny scene, as objects are being thrown at the crocodile, and I’m waiting for the alarm clock. Then James picks up a hook as a tool. Finally, at the end, after the crocodile has bitten him on the butt. James is washed out to sea, and is picked up by none other than Mr. Smee. I’m imagining the delight of a child who figures out, all on her own, who James is.

Of course the fairy dust generator is recovered and the fairies have a happy ending. We knew that would happen. I’m just thrilled with such a great little biography of the early days of Captain Hook.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Why We Owe St Patrick's Day to Pirates

St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, wasn’t Irish, but English. He owes his life on the Emerald isle, and ultimately his sainthood, to pirates.

Piracy and slavery had been practiced in Ireland back into pre-history. Icelandic Viking raiders attacked the island, carrying off women. (Modern DNA studies show that 60% of the maternal gene line comes from captured Celts.) In return, sea-going Irish chieftains captured slaves in the Nordic countries (giving rise to a gene strain of blond Celts), the rest of the British Isles, and even France.

Patrick, or Patricius, was the son of a well-to-do Roman living in Britain, then Britannia. He had been born some time between 390 and 400. (Yes, that’s a three-digit year number.) His parents, while nominally Christian, were not devout by any means, and Patrick was an atheist.

When he was 15, Irish pirates raided near his home, and he was captured, taken back to Ireland and sold as a slave.

For the next six years, Patrick herded sheep, lived in a stone hovel, and enjoyed no rights at all. He was, understandably, miserable. To make his life more bearable, he turned to prayer, and came to believe that it was because of his previous disbelief that God had chosen for him to become a slave. His devotion to Christianity earned him the mocking name “Holy Boy” among the other slaves.

Finally Patrick was visited with a dream. He dreamed that he should leave his master and find his way home. He walked through 185 miles of wilderness, found passage on a ship, and made it back home to his parents in Britain.

Once there, he had another dream. This time, he dreamed that the people of Ireland were calling for him to bring them Christianity. Patrick used his family’s resources to get schooling to become a priest. When this was finished, he went back to Ireland.

His task was daunting, and some say, has never really been completed. He faced a network of warring Irish kings, each controlling their own territory, often financed by piracy. The religion of Ireland was a form of Celtic paganism, presided over by Druidic priests and heavily ingrained into the culture. Though Patrick made inroads, it could not be truly said that he converted the Irish to Christianity. He merely started the process.

Patrick died in about 460, and faded into obscurity. But years later, when Christianity was more popular on the island, he was recalled as the originator of the religion. In the Irish tradition of heroes, it was expected that Patrick should have some adventures or accomplishments.

The story of chasing the snakes out of Ireland is a metaphor for overcoming paganism, since the snake was a symbol of re-birth for pagans. Followers also invented epic magic battles between Patrick and the Druids. Even the date of Patrick’s death, March 17th, was nothing more than a guess.

For centuries, St Patrick’s Day was merely a church holiday, and was not celebrated any differently than any other saint’s day. But Irish immigrants to America, missing their homeland, began to celebrate more and more extravagantly. Parades, dances and parties were not in Patrick’s style, as he was a quiet man, much more given to quiet contemplation and prayer.

In fact, Patrick would probably be horrified by all the drunkenness that now accompanies the supposed anniversary of his death.

So, if you don’t want to drink to St. Patrick, drink to the pirates who captured him. Without them Ireland wouldn’t have its patron saint, and we wouldn’t have green beer.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Reviewing Black Sails

As some of you may know, I’ve been reviewing the Starz TV show, Black Sails. I have not written about the show here, partially because I had a hard time making up my mind about the show.

The premise worried me from the start. It involves a “realistic” world of pirates… But one where Long John Silver and Captain Flint are two of the main players. For those who don’t recognize the names (can that be possible?) these are characters from Treasure Island. The other really big problem was the executive producer, Michael Bay, the man responsible for the loudest summer movies of all time. It just didn’t look good.

But then I received a phone call. It was Mike Cecchini from DenofGeek. They wanted a pirate expert to review the show for their site. I jumped at the chance. And since then I’ve been posting every week, letting people know what’s good and what’s bad about the show.

The first episode introduced the characters and did most of the things I expected of a competent series on a cable network – including hyper violence and lesbian sex. But they had some honest-to-god pirate scholars on the payroll, and some stuff looked good coin out of the gate. For instance, when the pirates robbed their first ship, they didn’t kill anybody. Instead, they did what real pirates did, and started recruiting.

Some weird stuff cropped up, too. Eleanor Guthrie, the one requisite blond/pretty female character was just as shrill, caustic and unstable as any woman concocted by men who are afraid of feminists. And the smart, thoughtful woman (Max) was always betting beaten up, gang-raped, etc. I had my doubts.

Probably the lowest point in the show was when the pirate Jack Rackham showed up wearing a pair of sunglasses. I was already annoyed because the Jack from the show bore so little resemblance to the tough-guy historical pirate. (That’s my personal problem by the way… the character in the show is interesting enough and serves the plot very well. We all have our little issues.)

The sunglasses issue was enough to cause me to complain – and I actually got a reply from the show! It turned out that they had actually done research on this, and it was just BARELY possible for the sunglasses to be real.

More problematic were the tactics used by Captain Flint it was pretty obvious that the scripts just kind of said “we need to make this take several hours” and so Flint would mysteriously forget how to use an axe, or steal stuff.

But overall, it was good. Charles Vane, the character who seemed obviously a one-dimensional bad-guy developed some real personality. John Silver had some great nods to his later self in Treasure Island. He learned to cook. He also started a relationship with the mixed race girl, Max, possibly as a foreshadowing of Silver’s mulatto wife in the book.

And it was the most accurate representation of pirates I’d ever seen.

Over the summer, I watched the NBC series, Crossbones, and learned something else. When a network isn’t really behind a series, things can fall apart fast. I watched NBC mutilate what could have been a really good pirate show, and became a lot more affectionate toward Black Sails.

This year the show has been fantastic. The pirates have never once forgotten how to pirate. The cinematography is beautiful. This was true before, but in its second season the show has a little more time to linger over a vine twining up the stairway of a ruined house, the play of light on water, or the glare of sunlight.

The characters are no longer rushed. They are no longer forced by plot points to do stupid stuff just to keep the plot moving. The plot has become organic, flowing. Even Eleanor has almost completely stopped being a bitch.

The last episode took place over a single evening. Shot entirely by firelight, each character confronts personal crisis, forced to decide how much they will give up in order to have the thing they want most in the world. And just like real pirates, what most of them want is freedom.

Black Sails has been picked up for a third season.

Monday, March 2, 2015

10 Terrible Misconceptions About Pirates

1.      Pirates were very bad guys.

Many movies and books portray pirates as really, really bad guys. Not only do they take things that don’t belong to them (kind of a requisite for the job) but they murdered whole crews of merchant ships, burned towns, raped and tortured.

In fact: While few pirates were ever Sunday-school teachers, most of them were no worse than any other blue-collar workers of the time. They were rough, but they rarely hurt people, and the number of murders committed by Golden-Age pirates was much smaller than might be imagined.

2.      Pirate captains ruled with an iron hand

We see images all the time of pirate captains stomping around giving orders, threatening beatings (the floggings will continue until moral improves) even shooting members of their own crews.

In fact: On a pirate ship, the power lay with the crew, not the captain. Captains needed the crew’s approval before attacking a ship, changing course, making an alliance or breaking one. Pirate captains were voted in and voted out regularly.

3.      Pirates spent months and years at sea.

Movies give us strange ideas about life at sea. Sometimes it seems like pirates in films never come to shore – or if they do, it’s just to burn a few buildings, capture a fort, drink and whore for an evening, and then head out on their trusty pirate ship.

In fact: The point of piracy wasn’t to spend all their time crowded onto a boat. Ship time was work time, and time on shore was for having fun. Obviously, the idea was to maximize the fun. On average, the ordinary pirate spent more time whooping it up in town than at sea, and tried to maximize that difference.

4.      Pirates treated women terribly.

We’ve all seen this kind of stuff… Rape, pillage, kidnap, and then during downtime beat up the bar maid. Or maybe pay for a quick frolic between the sheets, but then head back out to sea as quickly as possible. Best not to be a woman when pirates are around.

In fact: Like most men who spend large amounts of time away from the fairer sex, pirates wanted more than just a quick screw when female company was available. They wanted to take a woman out to eat, take her dancing, and maybe even move in together. Some prostitutes, in fact, only catered to pirates and sailors because they received significantly better treatment from these men than from other customers.

5.      Pirates had hook hands, peg legs and eye patches.

The surest way to identify a pirate in a picture is to draw in one or more of these disabilities.

In fact: These tags were popularized by writers eager to create distinctive pirate characters. In fact, pirates were no more likely than other sailors to suffer this kind of injury. And pirates who did lose body parts were compensated by their crews, and were able to buy a business and retire from the sea.

6.      Pirates had a distinctive way of speaking.

We’ve heard this:” Arr! Avast there, matey! I be a pirate, and my mates be pirates as well!”  You can always tell a pirate by the way he speaks.

In fact: The accent that we think of as being “pirate” is the creation of one man – Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver for Walt Disney. It’s a real accent, from a part of England that produced more than its share of pirates and smugglers. But pirates could come from anywhere and their accents might be Irish, French, English, African, and even nationalities like Greek, Spanish, Italian or Native American.

7.      Pirate ships were huge and intimidating.

From Captain Hook’s Jolly Roger to the Black Pearl, pirate ships have a certain look: Tall, with a raised platform in the back, big square sails on three masts, and a huge number of guns.

In fact: Pirate ships were small and nimble, usually with only one or two masts, and most often had triangular sails. Most pirates carried fewer than 10 guns. And some of the most famous pirates started with not much more than a canoe.

8.      Pirates were white guys.

Oh, maybe there were one or two people of color in a pirate crew. But, after all, most pirates were English, and any differences were just anomalies that added variety to a mostly Caucasian crew.

In fact: Pirates often freed African slaves and allowed these people to join their crews, so the percentages of Africans in pirate crews was often very high. For a while, Black Sam Bellamy had more Africans than Europeans in his crew. And there are rumors that Blackbeard himself had African ancestry.

9.      Pirates buried treasure.

When a pirate captain amassed a huge amount of gold, he headed to some secluded island, buried it, killed the crew members who had helped him, and made a map, which he jealously guarded.

In fact: It’s all hogwash. Pirates didn’t live very long (most people didn’t in the 18th century) and hiding gold made no sense at all. The point was to spend it. Even if for some reason, pirates wanted to bury treasure, any captain who tried that kind of shenanigans would immediately lose his job.

10.  Pirates wore striped socks.

In fact: You got me on that one. Striped socks were an expensive item of clothing for a working-class guy, and it was just the kind of hey-look-at-me-I’m-rich kind of accessory that a real pirate might wear when he dressed up to go into town.