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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pirates and Democracy

There are many popular images and beliefs about pirates that are incorrect. For example, unlike traditional Western societies of the time, many pirate crews operated as limited democracies.

Here are just a few of the popular images and beliefs about pirates that are incorrect.

Pirates were barbaric at times, and even quite cutthroat. And certainly above all, they were thieves. But, despite this ugly business, they did have strict rules of order, and by the seventeenth century, there even existed a pirate government.

Unlike traditional Western societies of the time, many pirate crews operated as limited democracies. Both the captain and the quartermaster were elected by the crew. Captains were elected for their leadership and naval knowledge (not for their dueling skills), although they were typically fierce fighters. Someone the crew could trust.

Quartermasters provided for equal disposition of the booty, and pirate courts settled disputes. When not in battle, the quartermaster usually had the real authority on the ship. Pirates injured in battle might be afforded special compensation similar to medical or disability insurance. Prisoners were usually allowed to either join the pirates or sail off on their own ships.

There is little evidence to support the notion of buried treasure. Even though pirates raided many ships, few, if any, buried their treasure. Often, the "treasure" that was stolen was food, water, alcohol, weapons, or clothing. Other things they stole were household items like bits of soap and gear like rope and anchors, or sometimes they would keep the ship they captured (either to sell off or because it was better than their ship). Such items were likely to be needed immediately, rather than saved for future trade. For this reason, there was no reason for the pirates to bury these goods.

Pirates tended to kill few people aboard the ships they captured, oftentimes they would kill no one if the ship surrendered, because if it became known that pirates took no prisoners, their victims would fight to the last and make victory very difficult. Contrary to popular opinion, pirates did not force captives to walk the plank. The standard technique for getting rid of unwanted passengers was simply to heave them overboard.

In reality, many pirates ate poorly, and often lived on bananas and limes; few became fabulously wealthy; and many died young.

In the "golden age of piracy" (1650-1730), the idea of the pirate as the senseless, savage thief that lingers today was created by the British government as propaganda. Many ordinary people believed it was false: pirates were often rescued from the gallows by supportive crowds.

If you became a merchant or Navy sailor then—plucked from the docks of London's East End, young and hungry—you ended up in a floating wooden Hell. You worked all hours on a cramped, half-starved ship, and if you slacked off for a second, the all-powerful captain would whip you with the Cat O' Nine Tails. If you slacked consistently, you could be thrown overboard. And at the end of months or years of this, you were often cheated of your wages.

Pirates rebelled against this world. They mutinied against their tyrannical captains, and created a different way of working on the seas. The pirates showed clearly and subversively that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal Navy. This is why they were popular, despite being unproductive thieves.

In the 1700s, a legitimate life on the high seas—on either a merchant ship or in the British Navy—was about as bad as that of most lower-class citizens. Life was tough. While the gentry in England enjoyed their fine goods, ample property, and lives of luxury, the poor spent most of their time in the mines and mills, chained to a life of crushing labor, sadistic beatings, and marginal subsistence.

Many seamen turned to piracy to escape the harsh and unjust discipline on the merchant ships, where they were subject to the whims and ways of sadistic and psychopathic officers who enjoyed using an array of punishments. Naval and merchant seamen were frequently flogged, keel-hauled, hanged from the yardarms, forced to eat cockroaches, towed from the ship’s stern, and more. What’s worse, many of these men were pressed into service against their will.

Some of this information was originally published in Myth Information by J. Allen Varasdi, Ballantine Books, 1989.