Stranded In The Southland

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Three Pirate Books In Three Weeks

Somehow piracy came up a few weeks back, and both M. and Rod insisted that pirates preyed on the slave trade, rescued the slaves, and then the slaves took up piracy. I had no idea, and realized that I hadn't read much at all about piracy, and given my enthusiasm for most things naval, I might as well remedy this.

So, naturally, I headed down to the library, loaded up on pirate books, and dug in. Piracy seems like it'd be really exciting to read about. I mean, walkin' the plank, pieces o' eight, drinkin' and carousin' and all the rest. Maybe I made poor choices, but, yawn -- there wasn't much evidence for enlisting slaves, walking the plank, or most of the rest. And piracy started to sound kind of like bank robbing -- low return, high risk, and possibly not that much fun.

I started out with John Burnett's Dangerous Waters, which discussed modern piracy. Burnett became interested in the issue after his sailboat was boarded in southeast Asia. He then went on to do a bunch of research, and relates trips on a 300,000 ton Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) and a rather smaller tanker.

This was written before the Somalian pirates got cranked up, shortly after 9/11 (in fact, it sounds like he took his rides pre-9/11, then everything changed up and he had to modify the book a bit). Most of the piracy involved poor folks with fast boats managing to clamber onto the poop decks of big ships, ransack the captain's safe for whatever petty cash they could get, and then bail, all in 10 or 15 minutes.

As Burnett points out, though, all it takes is a few minutes of chaos for a giant oil tanker to wind up on a reef, creating a multi-billion dollar disaster. It sounds like the shipping companies are not nearly serious enough about preventing piracy, and things may get worse before they get better.

I wish that Burnett had talked a little bit more about the people who are getting by at or below the poverty level, watching these rich ships head by, and just wanting a piece of the action. 'Course, he relates a little of this, and he does point out that the crews of these ships are not exactly living the life of riley, as the owners are continuously trying to pinch pennies to get the cargos delivered as cheaply as humanly possible.

I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. In Under the Black Flag, David Cordingly provides a wide-ranging history of the golden age of piracy. Cordingly was one of the organizers of what sounds like an amazingly popular exhibition on piracy at the UK's National Maritime Museum, and seems to have just gone on from there.

While it seems terribly well researched, and chock full of a minutia, it never really manages to sing. The organization is haphazard, which a chapter about women pirates, and another about piracy as it appears in film, and a vaguely historical narrative that sort of climaxes with the defeat of Blackbeard. Alas, though, there didn't seem to be a unifying idea.

Cordingly does explain that there just wasn't any walking the plank, and that, actually, there were a few beatings but remarkably few pirate killings. While the pirates may have recruited freed blacks (or escaped slaves who spoke English), it sounds like they generally treated cargoes of slaves as commodities to be sold. Or put to work doing the crap work on the ship.

And he relates that there was indeed a whole lot of crap work to be done on ships (mostly without slaves), and that the sailors of the day were poorly paid and extremely poorly treated. Even if they escaped the press gangs ready to drag them off to service in the Royal Navy, it sounds like they were often cheated of their pay and beaten for tiny infractions. The pirate life, which sounded far from perfect, was probably a wonderful improvement.

I finally turned to The Republic of Pirates with some relief. Here we had a book by a journalist, Colin Woodard with some knowledge of the sea, but who might put together a gripping narrative. Alas, it was not to be.

Woodard aims to tell the story of the period in the early 1700s when pirates pretty much took over the Bahamas, and were then disbanded by a clever combination of pardons on the one hand, and reasonable force against those who wouldn't take the pardons. It goes into a great deal more detail than Under the Black Flag, but repeats a great deal of that earlier book.

I'm not sure if everybody uses the same sources (there is obviously much love for A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates written by the pseudonymous Captain Charles Johnson in 1724), but there are long quotes that are just the same. Woodard throws in a few more maps (what good is history without maps!?), and some random pages detailing the economics of the time and the rigging of various ships. These were just random slapped into the book though, and were never referenced in the text.

All in all, it sounded like the pirate life involved a pleasant diversion from the hard work of the merchant sailor, but it rarely enough resulted in a particularly big payoff, and seems to have often resulted in folks swinging by the neck until dead. While plenty of pirates took advantage of the King's Pardon and went on to other careers, it doesn't sound like they had much to show for their efforts. Bummer.