Monday, April 25, 2016

The Difference between Pirates and Privateers

When I give presentations, I am often asked the difference between pirates and privateers. In fact, pirates and privateers, though not legally alike at all, were very closely linked in actual practice.

First – the definition.
Pirates – people who commit robberies at sea.
Privateers – ships or ship’s companies with a license – called a letter of marque – issued by their government to attack enemy shipping during wartime.

Not much in common, right?

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know a lot about pirates, but let’s look a little more closely at the practice of privateering.

Why did privateering start? The need to license privately owned ships into Navy vessels may be caused by many things. Ships might be needed quickly – such as due to a sudden outbreak of war. It can take years to build a warship, so acquiring the services of existing vessels is a quick way to get warships.

Another pressure that drove the need for privateers was a lack of funds. If a country was under-funded, it would be cheaper to license privateers than to fund navy ships. Privateers paid for the right to carry a Letter of Marque, and they brought income into their nation’s treasure through captured goods.

At the time when privateering was common, it was lawful for nations to capture civilian merchant ships during war. Normally, a percentage of the value of the captured ship and cargo was divided among the officers and crew of the capturer, and the rest went to the nation. The owner of the captured ship was simply out of luck unless he had insurance.

Once a ship had been captured, it became a “prize.” The capturing ship put a small crew aboard the prize, which sailed it to one of many designated “prize ports” where the ship would be examined by specialists hired by the navy.

In this cartoon, the officer asks if the sailor is frightened. The sailor replies that he prays that the casualties will be distributed the same as the rewards (meaning that almost all will go to the officers.)

The value of the ship and cargo was determined, and the ship and goods would be auctioned off, or else purchased by the navy (if, for instance, the ship could be used as a war ship, or the cargo was some sort of material valuable to the military.) Funds made their way back to the capturing ship in a few months. Oftentimes, however, banks would issue loans to the sailors, holding their share of the captured ship as collateral.

Many, many ships began as war ships for one nation, and ended up serving another after being captured. And many, many navy captains made fortunes by capturing valuable goods from their enemies.

Privateering ships did much the same job. They were intended to disrupt enemy shipping. But if they succeeded in capturing prizes, the money was split between the ship’s owner and its captain and crew. The owner of a successful privateering ship might become immensely wealthy.  

Of course, he might also lose his own vessel, sunk of captured, during the first battle. It was simply a gamble, one in which only the licensing nation was sure to win. Only the license and the fee were a sure thing.

So what has this got to do with pirates? For one thing, if a privateering ship did not have its paperwork in order, it could be condemned as a pirate, even by its own country. The ship was forfeit, its captain and crew jailed for piracy. The owner could counter-sue, and sometimes these cases were in court for years.

But this depended on getting caught, or even who caught you. There was the issue of probable cause. Navy ships were supposed to keep privateers in line. But why bother to inspect the paperwork of a ship fighting on the same side as yourself?

It was more likely to happen to someone who annoyed navy captains or the officials of a port. If paperwork was not correct, a privateer captain might lose everything. Or his transgression might be overlooked because of friendship between captain, a dislike of bureaucracy, or simple bribery. Like privateering itself, this was a gamble.

Captain Morgan - of rum fame - often raided Spanish towns when he did not have authority to do so. But the huge amounts of money he shared with government authorities kept him out of trouble. And during the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin wrote and sold many Letters of Marque to patriots and opportunists. His motivation was to increase the power of his nation, but he did not have the right to issue these documents. Everyone carrying a Letter of Marque signed by Franklin was, technically, a pirate.

Privateers also deliberately became pirates. The captain and crew of a privateering ship were not paid a salary. Instead they worked on a “No prey, no pay” policy. So if a privateering ship had not captured any enemy vessels for while it might start to “fudge” the rules, attacking ships that were neutral or even allies.

In this case, the privateer’s men were counting on not being caught. This happed more frequently when a ship was far from home – The Indian Ocean and the Caribbean were both prime territory for a ship to practice a little piracy, with the hopes than no one back home in Europe would find out.

After a privateer had made one illegal attack, it might give up on lawful practice and simply go turn to piracy. Or, once might be enough, and the ship would follow the straight-and-narrow ever afterwards.

Sometimes these wayward privateersmen were discovered years later, and lawsuits would be issued. At this time, the captain of the privateering ship would claim that he believed that he had a legal right do whatever he was in trouble for. The ship’s former owner would demand satisfaction. Court cases, once again, dragged on for years.

And, just as privateers became pirates, pirates sought to cover their activities be claiming to be lawful privateers. Some may have even thought of themselves as acting legally. Ben Hornigold refused to attack English ships for just this reason. Captain Morgan never considered himself a pirate. Men like Francis Drake and John Hawkins were considered heroes by their own nation, and pirates by the Spanish whom they robbed.

Lastly, pirates did not want to advertise that they were pirates while in port. While on land, they wanted to have a good time, not clash with the authorities. So the word “privateer” would be used, often with a wink, a nod, and a maybe gold coin to whoever was asking. And if the man in question was buying drinks, who cared?

Every sailor's dream returning home safe to a loving family -
And with enough money to impress the mother-in-law!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum

An analysis of The Derelict - the most famous pirate poem of all time. 

The words “you ho ho and a bottle of rum” may be the most piratical, and the most famous, in all of literature. Many people. Including some folks who perform the song regularly, believe that it’s a real pirate song, sung by real pirates 300 years ago.

Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest

This isn’t quite true. But the song and its origins IS tied up with the legends of piracy.

The words “Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” appear first in Robert Lewis Stevenson’s 1883 novel, Treasure Island. In this famous tome, the words are the refrain of an old drinking song sung by members of Flint’s crew on his ship, the Walrus.

The words supply some early atmosphere, as the renegade pirate Billy Bones sings them to himself while he wanders the shore, keeping a wary lookout for this former shipmates, bound on revenge.

Later, it reveals the bond between Billy and his former shipmates. The words themselves are ominous, touching on death, treasure, the brotherhood of pirates (now breached by Billy) and the pirate’s favorite source of celebration and mayhem, rum.

Stevenson never wrote more than these few tantalizing tidbits. It fell to a newspaper man and sometime songwriter to Young Ewing Allison to complete the work. He wrote the entire lyric, and it was performed in the play Treasure Island, which debuted in 1901.

Young Ewing Allison

The Derelict

Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest—
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
The mate was fixed by the bos'n's pike,
The bos'n brained with a marlin spike,
And Cookey's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped
By fingers ten;
And there they lay,
All good dead men
Like break-o'-day in a boozing-ken—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of the whole ship's list—
Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist!—
The skipper lay with his nob in gore
Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore—
And the scullion he was stabbed times four.
And there they lay,
And the soggy skies
Dripped all day long
In upstaring eyes—
In murk sunset and at foul sunrise—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark—
Ten of the crew had the Murder mark—
'Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead,
Or a yawing hole in a battered head—
And the scuppers glut with a rotting red
And there they lay—
Aye, damn my eyes—
All lookouts clapped
On paradise—
All souls bound just contrariwise—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

Fifteen men of 'em good and true—
Every man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew—
There was chest on chest full of Spanish gold,
With a ton of plate in the middle hold,
And the cabins riot of stuff untold,
And they lay there,
That had took the plum,
With sightless glare
And their lips struck dumb,
While we shared all by the rule of thumb—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

More was seen through the stern light screen—
Chartings no doubt where a woman had been!—
A flimsy shift on a bunker cot,
With a thin dirk slot through the bosom spot
And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot.
Oh was she wench…
Or some shuddering maid…?
That dared the knife—
And took the blade!
By God! she was stuff for a plucky jade—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest—
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight
With twice ten turns of a hawser's bight
And we heaved 'em over and out of sight—
With a Yo-Heave-Ho!
And a fare-you-well!
And a sullen plunge
In the sullen swell,
Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell!
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

The song describes a bloody scene on a derelict ship. In the first verse, we see that the first mate has been murdered by the bosun, using one of the bosun’s classic tool. In turn, the bosun has been killed by one of his own subordinates.  We know this, once again, from the tool used for the murder. It is a marlin-spike, the tool of the sailors who work under supervision of the bosun, maintaining the ropes and sails. The ship’s cook has been strangled. Dead men lay all over, like partiers after a long night of drinking, a macabre comparison with these corpses.  

In the second verse, we note that anyone besides the corpses has fled the scene. “whist” being a turn-of-the-century contraction for “I know not where” The carnage has killed the captain – the most powerful man on the ship – and also the scullion, a position of unskilled kitchen help, probably the lowest person on board.

Once again, the observer describes the mayhem – death by strike of a cutlass (sword) or an ounce of lead (the bullet from a pistol of the time.) The scuppers – devices that drain water from the surface of the deck, are clogged with rotting blood. The dead lay with their eyes open, staring into a raining sky, as if looking toward heaven. But the observer know that anyone who has done these deeds will certainly go the other way.

Blind Pew

A quick remark to the pirate Pew, a character in Treasure Island. But what did the men fight over? Chests full of Spanish gold, and a ton of plate – from the Spanish word plata meaning sliver. When pirates refer to “plate” they mean bars of cast silver. The “stuff” referred to would be cloth – probably bolts of silk. The men who captured all this treasure (the plum) are dead, but the observer and his friends are happy to share it among themselves.

One more source of conflict can be found – a woman was in the stern cabin, usually the home of a ship’s captain. Her remains show her death, a stab wound through the breast of her nightgown. Was she a prostitute? Or a terrified virgin? The speaker does not know, but admits that she must have died with courage (pluck.)

The observer and his friends wrap the corpses in sailcloth, tie them with sturdy rope (the hawser) and give them the traditional burial at sea. The dead are going to hell, and the living may follow. But for now our observer and his friends have a huge amount of treasure, and probably plan on celebrating.

As an addition to the story of Treasure Island the song suggests how Flint and company may have found their enormous treasure. The story of murder, gold, and drink sets a perfect tone. But I’d like to add another note.

I believe that the scene described tells the story of a privateer’s crew, not a pirate vessel. Privateers divided their treasure unequally, with the captain and officers getting a much larger share. A privateer would also be much more likely to supply the captain with a private cabin (pirates did not allow the captain private use of the large stern cabin) A privateer captain was also more likely to keep a mistress on board.

This concept lends one more element of grim humor to the scene. If the original holders of the treasure were “honest” privateers, who broke out in rebellion over the uneven distribution of such a huge treasure, they had broken their own laws, died by murder and damned their souls to hell.

In the meantime, the pirates – honest thieves – divided the treasure evenly and sail away happy.

Monday, April 11, 2016

You Scurvy Dog!

Scurvy and pirates go together. Either as an insult or a disease, scurvy figured prominently in the lives of pirates and other sailors during the 18th century. Let’s take a look at this disease, and see what it meant to the pirate lifestyle.

As I learned all the way back in grade school, scurvy is a result of not having enough vitamin C in a person’s diet. At the time I learned that this caused teeth to loosen and fall out – something that didn’t seem all that horrible to a kid who was receiving regular visits from the Tooth Fairy. But scurvy is a much more insidious disease.

Like many diseases, scurvy was first described by then ancient Greek physician Hippocrates at about 300 BCE. The symptoms include depression, spots on the skin, especially the legs, exhaustion, sore gums, tooth loss, yellow skin, fever and eventually death. The full course of scurvy takes months, so the exact cause and effect were difficult to pin down.

Also, vitamin C is available from many sources. We think of it as coming from citrus fruit, including lemons, limes and oranges, but it is also abundant in green peppers, kale, spinach, and many other green vegetables. But such substances as whale skin, and liver can supply the necessary vitamins in places where no vegetable matter at all is available.

And to make the matter more confusing, Vitamin C is destroyed by cooking, or exposure to air, iron or copper. So a vitamin-rich substance, overcooked in an iron or copper pot and then left in the open air might lose nearly all of its life-giving properties.

We think of scurvy as being a sailor’s disease, and it most certainly was. Men on board ship, eating a diet that consisted mostly of preserved meat and bread, soon suffered from the results of scurvy. But the disease was also surprisingly common among city-dwellers, especially the poor.

During the late 1600’s and early 1700’s the populations of cities grew, but the means of preserving and transporting food did not improve. With no way to keep vegetables cold, or to quickly transport them, these foods often spoiled long before they could be transported to city markets. The poor lived primarily on meat and bread, a very limiting diet that deprived them of many necessary vitamins.

Surprisingly, the reason why city people did not often die of scurvy may have been beer – the heavy, black, bread-like beers common at the time carried some vitamin C. Also popular was a drink called bitters – essentially bitter herbs used to flavor beer. Alcohol does not destroy the vitamin. So bitters were a decent way to preserve the nutritional properties of plants.

The potato also saved countless lives. A single potato can contain up to 70% of the daily vitamin C needed by an average adult. Potatoes have always been cheap food, but during the Golden Age of Piracy, about 1715, they were not yet fully integrated into the European diet.

But neither beer nor potatoes hold up well on a damp, variable-temperature, constantly moving ship. The folklore of the sea said that greens were the answer to scurvy – though why this worked was not yet understood. Some of the best efforts to preserve the crew’s health involved cabbages – which hold up better than other greens.

Still, many, many sailors died or were permanently crippled by the disease. In its final stages, scurvy is truly horrible. Vitamin C is necessary for the human body to maintain connective tissue. Connective tissue might not seem particularly important, but it is literally what holds the human body together. In the latter stages of scurvy, old wounds re-open, once broken bones re-break, and the entire body begins to fall apart.

How horrible this must have been to people who did not understand that it was the result of the body not having crucial building materials at hand can only be imagined. Yet men continued to go to sea, in the hopes of riches and adventure.

It was not until 1753 when a Scottish surgeon in the Royal Navy, James Lind, first proved the disease could be treated with citrus fruit. He described his experiments in his 1753 book A Treatise of the Scurvy. Interestingly enough, Lind’s efforts to define and cure scurvy were the first “clinical trial” in medicine.

But his books was poorly written, and the medical establishment had already decided what it believed to be the cause of scurvy - notable hard work, bad water and the consumption of salt meat in a damp atmosphere. This certainly described life on board a ship, but it did not reveal the actual cause. Lind’s efforts to provide vitamin C to his subjects also were not successful – he boiled lemon juice to a concentrated state. Unfortunately the action of boiling also destroyed the vitamins.

During Royal Navy expeditions, it was not uncommon for 2/3 of the crew to die from scurvy. Canny captains come up with their own remedies including British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, known as “Old Grog” who added lime juice to his crew’s rum ration to control the disease.

The first long-range expedition free from scurvy was Captain Cook’s trip to the Pacific. Cook not only provided his men with preserved cabbage, in the form of sauerkraut, but as many fresh vegetables and fruit as he was able, but also insisted in scrupulous cleaning of the ship’s copper cooking pots, minimizing their vitamin-C leaching properties on other foods.

And the "scurvy dog" part? Well, diseases were a popular insult at the time. It wasn't uncommon to insult someone by saying that they were "poxy" meaning riddled with smallpox or marked by the disease. Such insults were used the way we might today refer to someone as an idiot. 

And what has this to do with pirates? Well, as we have seen so often before, pirates operated from the bottom up – the opinions of the crew mattered as much or more than the leadership of the officers. For this reason, pirates often stopped on tropical islands to clean their ships, to party, and to consume native fruits and vegetables. Rum and fruit juice was an especial favorite. Pirates, you see, were much less likely to suffer from the disease. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

To Hell or Barbados

No one knows which European nation first claimed the island of Barbados, though the name of the island is probably either Portuguese (Barbados) or Spanish (los Barbados) both meaning “bearded.” This may refer to the hanging, bearlike roots of the native fig-trees, or to way the sea-foam sprays out over the island’s surrounding reefs. Stories of bearded natives are also told, but there is no evidence of any such people.

The original inhabitants, members of the Arawak tribe, called it Ichirouganaim, meaning “red land with white teeth.” The island, the easternmost in the string of Caribbean islands called the Lesser Antilles, is one of the earliest to be colonized by Europeans, and most of the indigenous people left the island early on. By 1519, it was named and show in its correct position on European maps.

Another name for this island is Bim or Bimshire. This name is probably derived from the Igbo term meaning “The place where my people (kin) are.” This would be because of the relatively large number of enslaved Igbo people (from what is now south-eastern Nigeria) who were brought to the island.

The island of Barbados is so far east it is actually a part of the Atlantic, but is described as a Caribbean island, mostly because of its place at the end of the Lesser Antilles chain, and also because of it cultural identity as Caribbean. First the Amerindians, and later European colonists treated it as Caribbean.

The English took control of Barbados in 1627. Unlike the Spanish, who were only interested in gold and silver at the time, the English were looking for places to grow tropical crops. Tobacco, cotton, indigo and ginger were all raised on the island.

But the island’s history includes a darker note. In its early years, hundreds of thousands of European poor, criminals (sometimes guilty of extremely minor offenses), Prisoners of War and religious minorities were sold into slavery on the island.

During the English Civil War, Ireland, which had been conquered by England, rebelled, trying to regain its freedom. The rebellion of 1641 was put down. When Oliver Cromwell, general of the Civil War’s winning side, took control of Ireland, he decided on an effort to eradicate the Irish people entirely. To this end, he encouraged transportation of the Irish to slave-labor camps in Barbados.

Estimates of the number of Irish transported range from 50,000 to over 500,000, but records are scarce, since during this time the Irish also faced famine, bubonic plague and cholera. An estimated 1/3 of the population either died or was transported.

Today Barbados is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, and it may be difficult to understand why transportation there from Ireland was such a harsh blow. Certainly it would be an emotionally stress to be cut off from one’s homeland, family, religion and language. But the difference in climate between the two islands is remarkable.

In Ireland today, the temperature rarely goes above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and frequently sits at 85 degrees. Ireland in the 1600’s was just emerging from a “little ice age.” In contrast, the temperature in Barbados rarely dips below 70 degrees. Imagine the hottest temperature you’ve ever experienced, and now imagine that this is the coolest you’ll ever be again. Not a pleasant idea.

Many Europeans died in the harsh climate of the Caribbean, Eventually, slaves from Africa began to be imported. These people were better able to deal with the tropical climate, and as farming moved toward sugar production, African slaves became a near-necessity. Sugar production also brought about a business in the production of rum.

Barbados rum is still a valuable commodity, but during the Golden Age of Piracy, it was of such consistent high quality and value that it became a standard form of commerce, used alongside gold and silver as currency.

Barbados, like many other islands, faced several slave revolts, the largest of which was named “Bussa’s Rebellion” In 1816 a free African named Bussa, who had been kidnapped and sold to the English in Barbados, gathered a group of some 400 freedom fighters, both men and women. They attacked a plantation, and Bussa was killed in the action. His followers fought on until they were overwhelmed by the guns of the colonial militia.

While the rebellion was not successful it was part of a series of rebellions and uprisings which caused the British to reconsider the practice of slavery. When slavery was abolished in 1833, 83,000 people were released. Today the population of the island is over 90% of African descent, though a strong vein of Irish can also be seen in the faces of the people, and heard in its accent. A statue of Bussa stands in the island’s capital of Bridgetown.

Today Barbados has a thriving economy, a population that is nearly 100% literate, and a healthy concern for the protection of its natural beauty. In addition to its other attractions, it is considered to be the only Caribbean island not in the hurricane strike zone. While Irish rebels used to say that they were going to either “Hell or Barbados” when they headed out to battle for their own country’s freedom, Barbados is today a pleasant place to vacation.