Monday, January 2, 2017

Honest Pirates, Deceitful Landsmen

One of the things that people who play at being pirates tend to forget is that pirates considered themselves to be the Good Guys. Not only did most of them take up piracy in a fight for justice, but the words of historic pirates frequently repeat the mantra that pirates themselves were the only honest men in the world. Merchant captains, business owners, and even dockside women were aligned against them.

Let’s take a look at some of the facts that bolster this belief.

First, pirates came almost exclusively from the ranks of sailors, and sailors lived a simple life. Food was monotonous but nourishing. Duties on board ship were clear and repetitive. Decks needed to be cleaned, sails trimmed and tended, the wheel manned, brass polished and wood painted.
Independent thought was not only largely unnecessary, but actively discouraged.  Captains did not want crew input on improved navigation or ship’s operations. These were the sphere of gentlemen, a rank to which no common sailor could ever rise.

On shore was holiday. No work, exotic foods and sights, alcohol and gambling. On board ship, money was earned bout could not be spent. On land, spending money was the prime occupation. With no training in budgeting and no way to transport any valuable item that was larger than a sea-chest, sailors devoted their money to fun.

Most pirates experienced a similar life, with the addition of a little excitement attacking ships at sea.

But uneducated as sailors, and most pirates, were, it did not escape their attention that the odds were stacked against them.

On board ship, the captain did his best to reduce costs. Sometimes this meant cheating the crew out of earned wages, and sometimes this meant under-staffing a ship. With no government oversight regarding wages, a sailor had no recourse if his captain simply refused to pay him. With no regulation on how many men it took to run a ship, understaffing meant overwork, sometimes to the extent of causing death.

Even on ships with honest and well-meaning captains crews could be cheated by suppliers. On land one’s customers were likely local and able to sue in court. But selling to ships – there were only the most basic precursors to shipping companies, and almost all ships bought their own supplies – enabled merchants to sell sub-standard goods at standard prices.

So, food that was represented as well-preserved might be rotten. Items – such as cheese or eggs - represented as fresh might be far from that. Out at sea, there was no choice but to eat whatever was provided. And when the journey ended in some far off land, there was no chance to go back and bring the dishonest merchant to justice.

Still, the sailors knew that they’d been cheated. In fact, their perception of ship’s supply yards where that they were staffed by people willing to sentence honest sailors to a diet of deadly food simply to line their own pockets with gold. And far too often they were right.

On shore, sailors totally untrained in how to handle money were easy prey for those looking to make a quick fortune. Taverns, sleeping-rooms, even clothing sellers had “special” prices for sailors. It wouldn’t necessarily occur to a man on shore for a few days that he could get better prices by traveling a few blocks inland.

The docks made themselves welcome in other ways. They had the things that sailors needed, and didn’t mind that their customers were rough men with no known history. Dockside taverns also expected their customers to become very, very drunk. After all, that was the goal of a sailor on shore.

This very state of drunkenness left sailors, even pirates, open to further on-shore scams. They were open to being cheated at cards or dice. They might be openly robbed. But the most impressive scam was the investment counselor.

This man approached a sailor who appeared to be flush and was drinking. The investment counselor sat with this individual, bought a few rounds of drinks, and remarked on how well the sailor had done for himself.

So very much money – perhaps years of wages – should not just be spent on fun. It should be invested to provide lasting income in the future. The counselor appeared well-informed and well-intentioned. Soon he had the sailor or pirate agreeing that a wise investment was the way to go. In the morning, the pirate would wake up alone, having given his money to a man who had not even provided a name or address in return. So much for investing.

But the most perfidious landsmen were women. Some hard-hearted girls met boys coming off ships, pretended to be smitten, and persuaded the young man to take them dancing. With dancing came liquor, and then a room needed to be rented to sleep it off. Often the young woman offered to consummate their budding relationship.

In the morning, of course, the young man woke up without any of his cash. In fact, some of these women even stole his clothes and shoes. Being “taken” in such a way was almost an initiation for young sailors –  as common as being whipped for the first time. It was celebrated in song and story, usually with a humorous twist.

Also the source of mocking songs were cases where women with contagious sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, which was often fatal, sold themselves to men, promising that they were “clean.” While these women, sick and without resources, had few choices and fewer opportunities, the men they infected felt that they had fallen victim to a scam. “She said she was a virgin” repeated many a man as he cried into his beer.

But the most often repeated cry against woman was the untrue lover. Men were often virtual prisoners on board the ships where they served. Merchant captains took ships on longer voyages than promised, and the Royal Navy literally kidnapped sailors. These men kept themselves going with memories of promises made by sweethearts back home. How sad they were when they returned years later to find that their old sweethearts had moved on.

These wandering men, cut off from family, often liked to pretend that they were romancing the dockside prostitutes they met on land. The women enjoyed the money, the company, and the respect that the men gave them, and may have even felt affection for some clients. But in preserving the illusion of a relationship with a man they would only know for a few days at most, these women were known to make promises.

The women probably saw this as a professional ploy to make more money, but the men seem to have fallen for it time and again. Song after song tells of the woman who was untrue. In fact, one of the oldest of sailor’s songs, dating back to the era of Buccaneering Pirates, and in constant uses since the 1500’s. The Fair Maid of Amsterdam places a woman in the worst possible place upon the return of her eager sailor…. She’s sitting on the knee of a soldier, having betrayed no only her sailor beau, but his profession as well.

Injustices, large, small, and imaginary gave potential pirates a firm belief in the dishonesty of those around them. Pirates had no such tricks. They robbed you out in the open, and made no bones about it.

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