Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Why Pirates of the Golden Age?

In the early 1700s, pirates posed an existential threat to the "Triangle Trade," by which European royals and merchant elites used the labor of African slaves and poor Europeans, and the land and resources of Indigenous Americans, to create massive wealth for European empires. This international economic system involved thousands of ships and hundreds of thousands of maritime laborers. It also factored in the many wars between the European powers, when navies swelled and sovereigns granted "Letters of marque" to private naval forces, or privateers, to attack the shipping of their enemies.

One such conflict, the War of Spanish Succession, brought all of the major powers of Europe into a war over the next king of Spain. After thirteen years, the war ended in September of 1714, putting thousands of sailors out of work.

In the years following the War of Spanish Succession, over two thousand of these sailors turned pirate. They did so for a range of reasons. Most ship captains were cruel tyrants, making sailors' lives miserable on long voyages lasting months or years on end. The disparity of pay between crew and captain was staggering, when the men got paid at all. For many a weary seaman, the opportunity to exact revenge on their masters and to earn money worth their effort drew them to mutiny or join existing pirate crews.

Pirates preyed on merchant and slave ships, building their own fleets, and threatening the economic basis of the empires. As the pirates became more organized, the monarchs and merchants struggled to regain control of the shipping lanes that kept the empires afloat. According to a display at the Whydah Pirate Museum, the navies of the world managed to catch not one single pirate ship in the years 1715 and 1716, at the height of the Golden Age of Piracy. A pirate ship was finally captured in 1717 "off St. Croix, but the men managed to escape. Some were picked up by Bellamy and joined his crew."

The Caribbean Islands, close to the major shipping routes and with thousands of coves and bays to hide out in, proved to be an especially advantageous region for pirates to hunt for prize ships. Pirates set up their own ports and hideouts, and gained influence in certain larger colonial ports. Port Royal, Jamaica, was one such pirate haven until it was destroyed in an earth quake on June 7, 1692. Soon thereafter, Henry Avery established a trading relationship with the Royal British Governor of Nassau, Bahamas, in 1696, unlocking a new base of operations that would prove essential to the Golden Age of Piracy. In the ensuing years, pirates gained influence in Nassau. During the War of Spanish Succession, Spanish ships attacked the port in 1703 and again in 1706, leading to its abandonment by the British government and many of its settlers.

When the War of Spanish Succession ended, Nassau was already home to a growing network of small pirate fleets and crews. In November of 1715, Benjamin Hornigold sailed a heavily-armed ship into Nassau harbor, claiming what remained of the town and the fort there for the pirates. He helped organize the pirate crews into a loose confederacy, calling itself the Flying Gang. Two of the most powerful captains, Hornigold and the privateer Henry Jennings, figured heavily in the early self-governance of what would later be referred to as the Republic of Pirates. That Hornigold refused to attack English ships, and that Jennings was technically a privateer employed by the British crown may have bought the fledgling pirate society time to strengthen itself. Hornigold and Jennings, however, would become bitter rivals, and the society they founded would soon cast off any pretenses of loyalty to the crown, welcome pirates of all nationalities, and declare war on all governments.

The pirates of Nassau represented an alternative of the imperial order that governed a growing portion of the earth. While many pirates joined up for personal freedom or gain, they developed their own political conceptions and presented themselves as warriors against the tyrants. These pirates used direct democracy to govern themselves, their ships, and their island. They elected captains to lead them during battle, when there wasn't enough time to debate and vote. In other times, Captains were the equals of their crews.

The pirate captain with perhaps the most developed and best articulated political position was Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy. Often called the Prince of Pirates for his charisma, kindness, and merciful treatment of captives, Sam Bellamy conceived of his crusade as a war against the crowned heads of Europe. His crew called themselves "Robin Hood's Merry Men," and they spoke of their captain as "Robin Hood of the Seas."

The Cape Cod museum for the wreck of Bellamy's flag ship, the Whydah Galley, explains how Bellamy's group,

were not only among the most successful sea rovers of the “Golden Age of Piracy,” they were also among the most egalitarian, diverse, and democratic.

The Whydah pirates were a brotherhood of poor sailors, former slaves, and political exiles who struggled against an era of institutionalized oppression, exorbitant economic disparity, and limited individual rights. Their daily lives were directly impacted by the effects of constant warfare between monarchs, colonialism, globalism, and the transatlantic slave trade. And yet, this motley crew of different cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds banded together to achieve a degree of freedom, fortune, and equality that society would have otherwise denied them. 1

Sam Bellamy, in the one speech attributed to him, also displays an understanding of the global political-economic system of which sailors like he were but a cog. Bellamy recognized his position within that system, and believed that making piratical war against the benefactors of that system was in his interests and that of his crew, other seamen and maritime laborers of the world, as well as Africans and Indigenous Americans, who were present in high numbers among his crew. According to the quote, reported in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson, when Bellamy's crew voted to burn one of the ships they had captured, Bellamy told Captain Beer, the ship's captain,

I am sorry they won't let you have your sloop again, for I scorn to do any one a mischief, when it is not to my advantage; damn the sloop, we must sink her, and she might be of use to you. Though you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security; for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by knavery; but damn ye altogether: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?

     [Beer replied that his conscience would not let him break the laws of God and man, and Bellamy continued]

You are a devilish conscience rascal! I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men in the field; and this my conscience tells me! But there is no arguing with such snivelling puppies, who allow superiors to kick them about deck at pleasure. 2

In the quote above, Bellamy laments having been outvoted, demonstrating first-off how pirate captains only had authority during battle. Next, he scorns Captain Beer and others for living beneath the rich and following the "laws which rich men have made for their own security," illuminating a class consciousness which would have been prevalent amongst sailors and other laborers of the day.  Bellamy then juxtaposes his pirate society against the rulers of Europe, whom rob the people on a massive scale under "the cover of law," and "make war on the whole world" with their large armies and navies. That Bellamy robs and makes war he states plainly, declaring that the only difference between a "free prince" like himself and the crowned heads of Europe is that the pirate "plunders the rich under the the protection of our own courage," without covering his deeds by unjust laws or the so-called divine rights of monarchs.

Pirates like Bellamy envisioned, and fought for, a different world, where all had a voice in the decisions that effected them; all were equal, free, and expected to scorn the orders and hierarchies of would-be masters; and all took an equal share of resources won by collective labor (often but not exclusively piracy). Pirate ships were a microcosm of this world, as were free harbors such as Nassau.

Pirates of the Golden Age represented the cutting edge of the radical and egalitarian response to the creeping authoritarianism of maritime slave empires, who greedily conquered territories across the earth. The Golden Age pirates themselves drew upon a utopian vision expressed by earlier generations of pirates. Ed Simon, in the article Return to Pirate Island, discusses the impact of a mythical pirate paradise on an island just north of Madagasscar, called Liberatlia. Drawing again from Captain Charles Johnson's book, Simon describes how a Captain James Mission with his comrades established the pirate utopia and drew up their own constitution, "(i)n language that echoes John Locke and prefigures Thomas Jefferson, but far more radical than either." Captain Mission, Simon continues, "dreamt of a sea-faring polity based on a 'brotherly Love of each other' where 'none would follow the Example of Tyrants, and turn his Back upon Justice." 3 If Captain Johnson is to be believed, Mission and his followers established their new Utopia, fortifying the island with cannons and defenses, establishing farms and other means of sustaining themselves, and populating their revolutionary society by attacking slave ships and freeing and recruiting the captives. They welcomed all to live free and equal, regardless of race, nationality, or religion.

Upon disembarking, those liberated people would discover that in Libertatia “an equal Division was made of their Treasure and Cattle” so that private property was administered under a “Democratical form, where the People were themselves the Makers and Judges” so that the earth was shared as common treasury. A democracy before America, a republic before France, socialist before the Soviet Union, Libertatia was more revolutionary than all of them, her radical promises a counter-melody to colonialism and capitalism. Eventually, Libertatia collapsed because of Portuguese assault....The real impediment, however, for this democratic, anarchistic, socialistic utopia is that it probably never actually existed. Libertatia and Mission’s existence can’t be corroborated in earlier sources, even though most of Johnson’s book is an accurate account. 3

It is not fiction that pirates founded communal societies on Madagascar during this time that lasted at least until the 1730s. Libertalia, however, is considered mythical, as researchers have found no evidence for its specific existence outside of Johnson's book. 

Black Sam Bellamy, however, was also but a myth, known mostly through Johnson's book. That is, until 1984, when divers pulled a ships bell up from a wreck of the coast of Cape Cod which had written plainly upon it the words "The Whydah Gally." Whether or not Libertalia was real, the legend was well-known to many in the early 1700s, and fired the imaginations of the pirates as they set out to build a new Libertalia at Nassau.

Pirates' ideology, derived as it was from the freedom-loving and communal traditions of both European peasant and seafarers', as well as those of Indigenous Americans, was extremely popular amongst the struggling masses. This can be seen in the many sailors and runaways who joined their cause; in the countless others who traded with, aided, and abetted the pirates; and those who spread their stories and myths in Europe and across the colonies. Some historians have argued that pirate culture prefigured the Revolutionary War. 45. (Pirates even fought against the British in the War for Independence. 6) Furthermore, millions of people have remained interested in Golden Age pirates and their ideology, even after their cause was lost to the new world order of European (and later US) hegemonic control. The interest and excitement called up by the memory of the dastardly sea dogs has, if anything, only grown in the last three hundred years.

Not all pirates viewed their crusades as social revolution against the monarchs and merchants. Many were primarily concerned with a better and more lucrative means of making a living on the sea, and others were driven by their own hate and rage. Pirates like Bellamy were disgusted by the cruelty of other pirates. Observing one of Jennings' men, Charles Vane, torturing captives lead Bellamy to double-cross Jennings and join up with Hornigold. Indeed, Bellamy's hospitality toward captives was probably less common than the barbarity other pirates displayed, using fear as a weapon more powerful than the ships themselves.

Pirates often had a more complicated relationship to slavery than did Bellamy and the founders of Libertalia. Many pirate captains, for instance, would take on Africans slaves or captives headed into slavery more for reasons of convenience than for an abolitionist position, while others were outright slavers themselves.

Blackbeard, thought by many to be an alias for Edward Teach of England, exemplified the attitudes of such pirates toward slavery. According to the History Press, after they moved to Jamaica, the Teach family owned a slave plantation from 1706. Young Edward Teach Junior worked as a sailor and navy man until turning pirate in 1713.

Blackbeard freed a lot of slaves during his piracy career but he was no abolitionist. A number of ships he captured were slave ships, which tended to be larger to account for maximum ‘cargo’. Upon capture, a large proportion of slaves joined the pirates – clearly the better choice rather than life on a plantation. However, reports also account that Blackbeard and his associates also returned slaves to the mainland to be sold at auction. 7

Kevin Duffus, author of The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate, in an opinion article for the Virginia Daily Press, writes that after Blackbeard purposely sank his flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, off North Carolina to deceive "all but his closest allies out of their communal treasure," he took the royal pardon in Bath, North Carolina, a colony that was in desperate need of inexpensive labor. What he did next was even more despicable.

Depositions filed by former members of Blackbeard's crew — the ones he left behind — are very detailed. When Blackbeard sailed to Bath, he had with them 60 African men. Historians have marveled at the apparent diversity of Blackbeard's crew, noting that six out of 10 of Blackbeard's pirates were black. What they don't tell you is that five months later, when Blackbeard was killed at Ocracoke, he had aboard only six Africans. What happened to the other 54?

They were the pirates' secret treasure, a labor force delivered to the impoverished plantation society of the Pamlico region, which was short on manpower and far from the slave markets at Williamsburg and Charleston...The 60 blacks who departed Beaufort Inlet with Blackbeard were most certainly treated as commodities to be bought and sold, and were used as servants.

Over six months, Blackbeard's company acquired, traded and gleaned the healthiest, fittest, strongest African men and delivered them to North Carolina's destitute settlement of Bath — the very place in colonial America that needed them the most — a "treasure" worth millions in today's dollars. 8

Duffus posits new and unique theories about Blackbeard in his book, including that he was actually Edward Beard, AKA "Black Beard," of South Carolina, rather than Edward Teach, AKA "Blackbeard," of England. Other authors support the claim that Blackbeard sold many of his Black crewmen into slavery in North Carolina, such as Colin Woodard in his great book, The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man who Brought them Down. 

Not all of Blackbeards crewmen of color met such a fate. One of the freed slaves who remained at Teach's side until his death was Black Caesar, "who raided ships in the Florida Keys for almost a decade before joining Blackbeard aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge." 9 Black Caesar was a legendary pirate in his own right. We could only wonder what he thought of his captain's treatment of the other Black crewmen.

It is important to remember that sources on pirates come almost exclusively from court records and hostile newspaper articles, except for a few books like A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson, a pen name for an unknown author often suspected to be Daniel Defoe. Most pirates were not literate, and even if they were, they often did not live long enough to write their own accounts. What pirates were actually like, their deeds, and their beliefs are at least as much myth as history. 

Whether or not the Brethren of the Coast considered themselves to be in revolutionary opposition to the imperial system, whatever their motives, their actions of uniting poor seamen of all nations, escaped slaves, and Indigenous people to directly attack the ships of merchants and monarchs were revolutionary actions indeed.

Pirates posed an existential threat to the foundation of the European merchant-monarchy system that prefigured global capitalism. During the Golden Age of Piracy, 2,000 pirates stalked the waters of the Caribbean. They captured and looted merchant ships and slave ships, challenging all legs of the triangle trade from their base in the Caribbean and off the coast of Africa. The Golden Age pirates were defeated, they world they created on their ships and their islands was destroyed, but their example lives on to inspire us today to imagine new possibilities, and struggle for these new ways with daring and creativity.

Further Reading:

-Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates. By David Cordingly.

-The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. By Colin Woodard.

-Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. By Marcus Rediker.

-The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked, and Found. By Martin W. Sandler. 

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