1680-1730: Pirates and Anglo-American piracy in the Atlantic

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A short history of the Golden Age of Piracy and the origins and role of the pirates in the class struggle on the high seas at the time.

On the afternoon of the 26 July 1726, William Fly walked the steps of the Boston gallows. Unlike his fellow condemned, Fly had shown no fear at his fate. The great and the good who had gathered to see the pirate die were uncomfortable: he was not playing his agreed part in the moral drama. But, as Fly neared the rope, their fears it seemed were unfounded. Fly became upset and animated, pointing to the noose and shouting at the executioner. This was more like it. Fly inspected the rope and the noose that would soon be around his neck, and with distress on his face he turned on the hangman and reproached him for "not understanding his trade". Luckily for the amateur, Fly was a sailor and knew his knots, and he offered to teach the officer of the court how to tie the noose properly. Then Fly, to the astonishment of the crowd, retied it to his own satisfaction and informed the crowd that he was not afraid to die, as he had wronged no man and was a brave fellow.

When the time arrived for the prisoners to address the crowd with their final words, Fly's three colleagues played their part: the condemned were expected to act as morality plays for the education of the unwashed. The unwritten agreement was that if the prisoners condemned alcohol and depravity, confessed their crimes, praised the church, and the courts, and the king, then there was always the slight possibility of a last minute reprieve. Fly's turn came and he didn't play along: no plea for forgiveness for him, no praise for court, or god, or king. Instead, the waterside crowd, packed with sailors and ships officers, was treated to a warning, that "all masters of vessels take warning at the fate of the captain he had murdered and to pay sailors their wages when due and to treat them better, saying that their barbarity turned so many pyrates."

I grew up fascinated by pirates. Wet Saturday and Sunday afternoons were saved by the promise of a Basil Rathbone or Errol Flynn swashbuckler. Westerns left me cold (at least until I discovered Sergio Leone far later on). But pirates just hit the spot. Not simply on film - Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe were books that first spurred me to enjoy reading. As I grew up, though, reading and watching about my childhood heroes became increasingly difficult, as historians insisted on telling me that the pirates themselves were little more than brutes, and their commanders psychopathic blood-soaked loonies, guilty of all and every violent crime and fully deserving of their fate.

Marcus Rediker is a fan of pirates too, but he is also a historian of the18th century Atlantic. His book villains of all nations shows that this 'history', as it is peddled, is nothing more than the repetition of the propaganda of the 18th century ruling class in its war of extermination against the last and greatest of the pirate brotherhoods, of what he describes as the "Golden Age Of Piracy". Marcus reclaims the reputation of my pirate heroes: Calico Jack Rackam, Blackbeard, black Bart Roberts, Mary Read and Anne Bonny - who, in a brief ten years from 1716 to 1726, shook the new British Empire to its blood-soaked core - and shows a real history that puts all the stories of Hollywood in the shade.

As long as maritime trade routes have existed, there have been pirates; the ancient Greeks considered piracy as a valid option for merchants down on their luck and did not place any moral weight to the term. The Romans, however, used 'piracy' at sea in much the same way as they employed the term 'barbarian' on land. A pirate was anyone on the 'Roman' sea who wasn't Roman. In their determination to dominate and control their world, they created a policy, describing the pirates as hostes humani generis, the common enemies of mankind, that the rulers of the later emerging British Empire would employ to justify its campaign of extermination of the Atlantic pirates.

The British experience of piracy began as a wing of semi-official government policy. In perpetual war against the mighty catholic empires of Spain and Portugal, protestant England granted letters of mark to private adventurers to explore, trade and prey upon the treasure ships of the enemy as they sailed back to Europe packed with silver and gold from the Spanish and Portuguese American territories. Drake, Grenville, Raleigh and Morgan cut themselves a page in history and folklore as they carved England a slice of the New World out of the control of the 'Dons'.

The end of the War of Spanish Succession saw the end of the need for these 'privateers'. Britain gained the assiento, the right to import slaves to the Spanish colonies and so began the trade that would provide the spur and capital for the industrial revolution. As Karl Marx would later note, capitalism was born in blood and filth: the middle passage, from the African coast to the slave markets of Havana and Virginia, saw the bloody birth of a brutal age.

The end of the war created two conditions that provided a bonanza for the London and Bristol merchants. The opening up of the slave trade and the demobilisation of tens of thousands of sailors meant that even the massive expansion of trade failed to exhaust the surplus of labour. This meant that the employers could force down wages, and worsen onboard conditions to unbearable levels, in the drive for greater profits. Life aboard was never easy and a navy ship was no place for the weak, but the sailors could remember that life had never been as bad as it was now. The brutality of the slave ships was not only visited on the 'cargo' - with the crew facing mortality rates of 30% or higher in a voyage. The master's treatment of the crew reflected that every slave lost was a loss of potential profit, whilst every sailor lost was a saving in wages. As well as the constant threat of drowning, sailors faced disease, made worse by malnutrition and non-existent sanitation, and the constant threat of violence at the whim of the ships' masters, who ruled their ships as god, judge, jury and often executioner. A sailor's life was nasty, brutal, short and miserable.

Just as capitalism in all its brutality was born in this filthy trade, so also were the sailors the first to develop resistance to its effects. Work stoppages, go-slows, sabotage and strikes were all used by sailors in their class war with the masters and ships' captains. In fact, the strike was invented by sailors in 1768 in London, when sailors went from ship to ship cutting down - 'striking' - the sails to prevent the masters setting sail.

These conditions were what led many to find the alternative of rising in mutiny and becoming pirates an attractive option. For men who faced the threat of death and mutilation on a daily basis, the certainty of an eventual date with the hangman's noose was no deterrent. The pirate laughed in the face of Death and proclaimed a short life and a merry one!

The sailors who became pirates did not do so only because of their suffering - of the tens of thousands of sailors employed on the Atlantic trade, only a minority (no more than 4,000) ever became pirates - but also because of the vision of freedom that becoming a pirate provided.

Each mutiny followed a similar pattern: once the ship's officers and any loyalist seamen were overpowered, the rebels organised a meeting involving the entire crew. At this, 'articles', the rules of the ship, were drawn up, and officers elected. The articles followed certain common rules:

* Providing for the care of those injured on board, or in combat (One of the most audacious acts of notorious pirate captain Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, was the blockade of Charleston Harbour: not as one might suppose for grog or gold but to obtain medicine for sick crewmates);
* Limiting the powers of the elected officers: the captain only had control of the ship whilst in storm or combat, at all other times power rested in the hands of the ship's council, made up of all the 'full' pirates on board - new recruits were denied representation until they had proved themselves, usually in combat.

When pirates attacked a merchant ship their first act would be to raise the 'Jolly Roger', the pirates' flag. This would begin the psychological assault, informing the seamen that to oppose them would mean death. So many ships' captains would be prevented from mounting a bloody defence by the rest of the crew simply folding its arms and refusing to fight that Parliament decreed that to refuse to fight pirates was a crime punishable by death. For all their violent reputation, the pirates themselves would rather not to fight at all, and the chance of taking a ship cleanly was much preferred.

Once aboard, the crew of the ship were gathered together and their officers paraded before them. The crew were invited to speak out either in favour or against the captain and his staff: their testimony would decide the fate of the captain and his ship. Good or kind captains would find themselves not only still alive but often still in command of their ships at the end of the pirate attack and with the bulk of the cargo intact, minus any alcohol, fresh food, or gold and silver.

A bad or violent captain would, however, be lucky to escape with his life and what the pirates couldn't take or use would be burned with his ship.

The final act before the pirates departed was to appeal for volunteers. Hardly a ship could be found without one or more potential pirates.

For the pirate the aim was for a short life, but a merry one, and the pirates found what comfort they could when they could. The hunt for alcohol was constant. Although merchant and navy ships were not known for their sobriety – Nelson's ships have been described as asylums of chronic alcoholics - the pirates' appetites sometimes got them into real trouble. More than one ship was wrecked on reefs or captured by the authorities because the crew were too drunk to sail or to fight.

The privateers of the 17th century had followed a practice of matelotage - a relationship of shared property and responsibility between two men - and the pirates carried on this liberated attitude toward homosexuality. When the Royal Navy at the time was described as being run by 'Rum, Sodomy and The Lash', homosexuality was punishable by death on navy ships. On board a pirate vessel love was accepted wherever it could be found.

Women played a very minor part in this extremely masculine world, but Rediker, who tells the stories of the famous female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, challenges the bourgeois historian's view that women were only victims or whores. He shows that, on one ship at least, 'the molestation of unwilling women' was banned by the articles and punishable by death.

Although most pirates had served on the middle passage and thus had been a part of the slave trade, the pirates displayed remarkably little of the racial prejudice that was being developed at that time in order to justify the trade. Whilst pirates were known to take, and sell on, slave cargos, black former slaves made up a considerable portion of pirate crews (over 40% of Blackbeard's crew were black). Pirates would often describe themselves as Maroons, copying the name adopted by the escaped Jamaican slave gangs. On one occasion, Marcus relates, the captain found himself handed back control of his slave ship only after the pirates had released all the chains and provided the slaves with a knife each. That the captain and his 'cargo' would be able to discuss their respective situations on a more equal basis would have appealed to the pirates' sense of justice.

It was the threat that the pirates made upon the profits of the slave trade that determined their fate. The seaboard coasts of both Africa and the Americas were swamped with navy ships; the pirates were hunted down and hanged by the dozen. The pirates themselves responded to state terror with a terror of their own. More merchantmen were burnt; towns that hanged pirates were blockaded. The pirates themselves declared "No surrender" and vowed to blow themselves and their ships to kingdom come rather than be captured. But the writing was on the wall, and the dwindling bands of pirates either dispersed or died fighting, or upon the scaffold.

These pirates who, facing a world full of horror and brutality, rebelled and challenged the conventions of class, race and gender. Laughing in the face of authority as they laughed in the face of death, their rebellion created an alternative to the dour hypocrisy of our 'betters', which has given hope and inspiration for over 300 years.

Edited by libcom from a review of the history of the Atlantic pirates 'Villains of all Nations' by Marcus Rediker, by Darren Williams. It was first published in the Red Star No.2 Oct. 2004