Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Successful Pyrate

The Successful Pyrate is a play by Charles Johnson. It was first performed 1712 and published 1713, and dealt with the life of the pirate Henry Avery (Every).

Charles Johnson (1679 – 11 March 1748) was an English playwright and a tavern keeper. He claimed that he had been trained in law, but there is no evidence of this. At the same time, it is possible that he actually was a lawyer, as his first two published works, (Marlborough; on the Late Glorious Victory Near Hochstet in Germany and The Queen; a Pindaric Ode) list him as living in Gray's Inn. This was one of the four “Inns of Court” and in order to practice law in England or Wales a person must belong to one of these inns.   He married a Mary Bradbury in Gray's Inn chapel in 1709, the year of his first play, Love and Liberty.

Drury Lane Theater, still in use today

Around the year 1710, Johnson became friends with Robert Wilks, the actor-manager of Drury Lane Theatre. Wilks was able to see that Johnson's plays received consideration. In 1711, The Wife's Relief, or, The Husband's Cure was a great success.

In 1712, The Successful Pyrate was produced, and complaints were made to Charles Killigrew, Master of the Revels that the play glamorized the pirate Henry Every. However, the play's controversy helped its profitability, and it was a theatrical success.

Artist's conception of Henry Avery

The Successful Pyrate is a glamorized adaptation of two episodes contained in a pamphlet about the career of pirate Henry Avery: his capture of the Mogul ship Gang-i-sawai, allegedly carrying the Mogul's granddaughter, and a plot against Avery by his lieutenant De Sale and other pirates.

In the play, Avery goes under the name Arviragus, and has made himself a King in Madagascar, the legendary east-African pirate island. He captures the Indian princess Zaida and tries to force her to marry him, but she is in love with a young man named Aranes. The two have an offstage fight and Aranes is reportedly killed; meanwhile, De Sale, who has confided to the audience that he is plotting to overthrow Arviragus and become King, ingratiates himself with Zaida.

De Sale's fellow plotters are blundering fools and their plans are easily thwarted. A comic trial scene follows. Then it is revealed that Aranes is Arviragus' long lost son, and that he is still alive, his friend Alvarez having died in his place. The plotters are executed and Aranes and Zaida marry.

Artist's conception of Avery meeting the Mogul's granddaughter

The play is reportedly more comedy than anything else. The pirates are mostly fools, especially Sir Gaudy Tulip, an aged and cowardly London beau. The Gang-i-sawai is, for comic effect, carrying two European ladies, Tulip's ex-mistress and another pirate's ex-wife, who exchange comedic comments with the men. The drunken conspirators and outrageously partial court are played entirely for laughs.

Charles Johnson’s name may very well have inspired the pseudonym of another great pirate author. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates was written, supposedly by Captain Charles Johnson.

The General Histotry

Who was this person? Arne Bialuschewski of the University of Kiel in Germany has recently suggested Nathaniel Mist, a former sailor, journalist, and publisher of the Weekly Journal, as a more likely candidate. Charles Rivington (publisher of the History), had printed books for Mist, who lived near his office. The General History was registered at Her Majesty's Stationery Office in Mist's name. As a former seaman who had sailed the West Indies, Mist, of all London's writer-publishers, was uniquely qualified to have penned the History.

So why use Johnson’s name? Some scholars think that, to someone who knew pirates and respected them, Mist was affronted by Johnson’s treatment of the much-respected Avery.  Is this true? We may never know, but it seems plausible.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Were Pirates Happy?

“A short life and a merry one,” was the call of many pirates. If you’ve read much of my writing, you know that I believe that many pirates joined the ranks of the Gentlemen of Fortune because they were sick of working under horrible conditions for little pay. Pirates simply said, “I’m mad as hell and I won’t take it anymore.” Then they went off to have fun.

I’m coming to this train of thought after reading “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. The book tells about the biological history of the human race and its cultural development. One of the facts recounted in the book is that happiness is ultimately brought about because of chemicals released in the brain.

The book asks some intriguing questions. For instance, is it possible for a medieval peasant who has just put a new roof on his mud hut to be just a happy as a modern-day lawyer who has just paid off a penthouse apartment?

The book says “yes” and I agree, while reserving that a medieval peasant had a lot less stress on his mind to distract him from his happiness. A triumph is a triumph, and if you are doing better than your friends, you will probably feel pretty smug about that.

So, how does this relate to pirates?

Many books portray the lives of pirates as short, miserable and brutish. They are largely right. Sailors of the age did not live long. They ate poor food, were often sick with fevers, and suffered from liver trouble from the liquor they drank, and vitamin deficiencies from a limited diet. Pirates also lived a violent life, with frequent ship battles and occasional on-shore brawls.

 How could people who lived like this be happy?

Because they were relatively much better than other men from similar backgrounds. If pirates did not live long, they lived as long as sailors could expect. Sailors died from sickness, storms and injury. Pirates faced the same risks. But where common sailors also complained that their ships put into ports where sickness was common, or were poorly maintained, pirates were free to leave a rotting or damaged ship behind and did not put into any port that the crew did not agree to.

Pirates may have often eaten the poorly preserved food of their day. But they lived in a society where everyone ate the same food, ship’s officers to the lowest member of the crew. This put everyone on equal footing. If pirates were considered the scum of the earth by the good citizens of the world, they were all scum together, making their relative position higher than their law-abiding brothers.
In addition, pirate food was probably objectively better than the food of regular sailors. When the people who procure the food also have to eat it, you tend to have better food. Thought the diet of salt beef, salt pork, ship’s biscuit and dried peas would be revolting to modern diners, it was better than what the other guy was eating.

Pirates also had more leisure time than their counterparts. In a society that did not value leisure time (see: The Protestant Work Ethic) pirates took extravagant “vacations” on a regular basis, living a life of ease after a few weeks spent plundering.

In short, pirates became pirates in order to attain the things that they believed led to a happy life. And, according to reports, they succeeded. .

The piratical way of life also solved a problem that modern people face when searching for happiness. This is the tendency of human nature to “smooth out” moods. According to this theory, unless strongly acted upon, we tend to return to a certain level of happiness which is our own “normal.”

So, putting a new roof on the old mud hut or paying off the penthouse brings a rush of joy. But in a few days it begins to lesson, and soon we are no more happy than we were.

Change is the answer to maintaining an elevated level of happiness. The medieval peasant had to wait between shots of happiness, but the modern lawyer who pays off a mortgage can continue searching for the “hit” of happiness. He can take a mistress, win a promotion, buy a better car, go on a vacation (or a better vacation.) get a better mistress, party with expensive hookers.

He doesn’t have to do these things, but the pleasures are available and tempting. Of course, most people would say that this is not the way to true contentment, but it is certainly an effective method of feeding an addiction.

Pirates could feed any addiction they had for the happiness jolt by frightening, assaulting and beating up their “betters,” the same people who had formerly looked down on them. They had nearly endless quantities of liquor, which was what they had dreamed of, and enough different kinds to provide variety.    The possibility existed of sailing off to Madagascar, exploring the pirate-friendly ports of New York and Boston, or plundering Spanish cities in Central and South America.

Most of all, pirates had the chance to dream. Poor folk of the time had little or no chance to raise themselves in society. But a pirate could dream his way to the very top, imagining himself even as a Member of Parliament.

“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, pirate captain.