Democracy on Deck

So the Treasure Was Divided by Howard Pyle, 1905Just because major finds like Whydah and the Queen Anne’s Revenge have been uncovered doesn’t mean there aren’t any more famous ships from the Golden Age of Piracy to track down. Case in point: Joseph Bannister’s Golden Fleece, the search for which is detailed in Robert Kurson’s new book, Pirate Hunters:

Bannister’s story was the catalyst for Messrs. Bowden, Chatterton, and Mattera’s determination to find the Golden Fleece, a quest smoothly described in “Pirate Hunters.” It would be churlish of me to disclose the result, but I can say that the three men become furious with one another, pore over time-worn archives in the U.S. and Europe, and confront armed robbers, money worries, rival divers, a mean barracuda and, perhaps most ominously, changing attitudes toward underwater treasure seekers.

Alas, WSJ reviewer Howard Schneider apparently felt a little dirty enjoying a summer read about high-seas criminality, scolding one of the wreck hunters for glamorizing the Long John Silver lifestyle:

Also problematic are Mr. Mattera’s belief that pirate ships operated on democratic principles. “The captain would exercise absolute authority only in battle,” Mr. Kurson summarizes. “At other times, he would guide the ship according to the pleasure of the crew.” For Mr. Mattera, Bannister “was a man enthralled by democracy,” and his metamorphosis into a pirate was occasioned by egalitarian idealism.

“[L]et’s not romanticize Joseph Bannister,” Schneider concludes, “Or pirates in general.” Full review here, behind the paywall.

Setting aside Bannister’s precise motivations, Schneider needn’t be so skeptical about Mattera’s claims; the fact that many buccaneer vessels were floating republics has been well documented. The command structure was exactly as Mattera described, and pirate constitutions included workers’ compensation and equitable sharing of prizes, with officers and skilled craftsmen earning more than common sailors but not enough to incite jealousy. The system was so successful it was still used among privateers during the Revolution. From Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer (pp. 91-92):

It is remarkable what little difference stands between Smedley’s covenant with his sailors and those from the golden age of piracy. Loss of an arm or leg, “or be otherwise so disabled as not to earn his Bread,” was compensated with £1,000 onboard Hibernia. Under his English letter of marque, Henry Morgan granted “six hundred pieces of eight or six slaves” for a lost leg or hand. With Smedley, “[W]hoever shall first enter an Enemy’s Ship, after orders for boarding is issued, he shall receive three hundred pounds as a Recompense for his Valour.” Morgan rewarded the same with 50 pieces of eight. And, as captain, Smedley was entitled to eight shares of the half-prize awarded to officers and crew — the exact same portion given to captains sailing under Morgan’s flag a century prior.

Recognition that 17th- and early 18th-century pirate vessels were islands of democracy in a sea of autocratic empire explains why pirates had such an easy time recruiting sailors. A poor young man standing on the docks of London or another European port didn’t have many options. He could toil in the fields or streets living hand to mouth; or sell himself into indentured servitude in the colonies. Either way he had almost no chance of ever accruing enough capital to buy land or start a business, which were the only real paths to bettering himself. Many opted for the relative security of three hots and a berth onboard a ship but then had to suffer the sadistic discipline of the navy or, worse, the sadistic discipline and starvation rations of the merchant marine. Admiralty archives burst with transcripts of those who leapt to join pirate crews when overtaken, and pirates devised cunning ways to disguise this volunteerism in case they should later be apprehended and tried in court. As Peter Leeson observes in The Invisible Hook (pp. 154-155):

Contrary to popular perception, most pirates were volunteers, not conscripts. Pirates sought willing companions instead of forced men because of simple cost-benefit considerations, not because of a principled objection to using force to get what they wanted. On the one hand, in many cases pirates simply didn’t have to resort to coercion to increase their numbers. The better treatment and opportunity for vastly superior pay on pirate ships was plenty incentive for many sailors to sign on under the black flag when given the opportunity. The benefit of conscripting ordinary sailors was therefore quite low. On the other hand, the costs of pressing sailors could be very large. … They could escape, informing authorities, or leaving the remaining crew too small to take advantage of the ship. Even if conscripts didn’t manage to escape, a crew with a sizable portion of forced men was less likely to succeed since conscripts didn’t have the same incentive to participate as volunteers.

Often only surgeons and skilled craftsmen were pressed into pirate service and that was because their incomes were already secure; they had more to lose than gain by going on the account. But the exact opposite was true for common sailors.

So Mr. Schneider, the next time you pull up your skirts and stand on a chair at the sight of someone extolling the benefits of fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, imagine this scenario:

You are at your bullpen desk, tapping away at your latest review, when a group of Rikers Island inmates bursts in, clad in orange jumpsuits, tattooed and pierced and armed six ways to Wednesday. Some are murderers and rapists but all are thieves as they proceed to loot the Journal offices. This done, they then ask for volunteers — and to your marveling eyes, interns and receptionists and copy boys and Starbucks runners scramble to join. And why? Because the lives of these people you’ve ignored and mistreated are so awful that running off with a gang of thugs is an improvement for them.

That’s the Golden Age of Piracy in a nutshell. To acknowledge good things about Bellamy and Blackbeard isn’t to praise pirates — it’s to condemn the world that fashioned them.

Top image: So the Treasure Was Divided by the inimitable Howard Pyle, 1905.

Kelo @ 10

The Grasping Hand by Ilya SominA few years ago, George Mason law professor Ilya Somin asked me if he could use photos I had taken in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, the disputed site in the infamous Kelo v. City of New London legal battle, for a book he was writing on the decision. Of course I said yes. His book, The Grasping Hand: “Kelo v. City of New London” and the Limits of Eminent Domain, is out now.

Has it been a decade already? In a series of posts for the WaPo to promote the book, Ilya has been analyzing the decision — he believes it runs counter to both originalist and living-document interpretations of the Constitution — while reminding us of the details in danger of fading from common recollection. One thing that particularly irritated me at the time was Pfizer’s hand-washing press releases claiming they had nothing to do with the condemnations. Don’t you believe it:

The NLDC produced a development plan that would revitalize Fort Trumbull by building housing, office space, and other facilities that would support a new headquarters that Pfizer, Inc. – a major pharmaceutical firm – had agreed to build nearby. The development plan produced by the NLDC was in large part based on Pfizer’s requirements, which NLDC leaders (some of whom had close ties to Pfizer) were eager to meet. Pfizer would not be the new owner of the redeveloped land, but did expect to benefit from it. I believe that NLDC leaders genuinely thought the plan would serve the public interest, as did the city and state officials who supported it. But it is also true, as one of those who worked on the plan put it, that Pfizer was the “10,000 pound gorilla” behind the project.

Pfizer’s fecklessness was revealed when it left New London as soon as a ten-year tax break expired which the city had used to lure the company there in the first place. It was the shiny red cherry on top of the kleptocrat sundae spilled into our laps by our elected soda jerks.

In his book Ilya also discusses the ramifications of Kelo, which he believes will eventually be overturned. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

Space Invaders

Garlic mustard.Our little castle finds itself under siege once again:

Alliaria petiolata is an aggressive invader of wooded areas throughout the eastern and middle United States. A high shade tolerance allows this plant to invade high quality, mature woodlands, where it can form dense stands. These stands not only shade out native understory flora but also produce allelopathic compounds that inhibit seed germination of other species. Alliaria petiolata is native to Europe and was first introduced during the 1800s for medicinal and culinary purposes.

Though a member of the mustard family, when crushed or rubbed the leaves of A. petiolata generate a garlic scent — hence its more common name, garlic mustard. Apparently its leaves make a tasty pesto, a recipe I’m willing to try since I have so much of it growing on the edge of our woods.

I’m skeptical of the whole concept of invasive species; what some may see as imperialism by the exotic, I see as natural selection. A species using what it’s got to get what it wants is the engine of evolution. The first mudskipper who crawled onto land was an invader; so too are the first seeds to germinate in the black sands of a new volcanic island. Concern about invasive species here in the U.S. is less about conservationism and more about restoring it to an imagined pre-Columbian ideal. We know that American Indians altered the environment to suit them, drastically changing the Western Hemisphere as they found it, and yet we fantasize about furbishing the land to how it appeared in 1491.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we buy an old house, we may admire aspects or details from an older period (like, say, the original hardwood floors) and strip away modern additions that obscure them (wall-to-wall carpeting). But we’re conscious of making those choices and acknowledging those preferences. When we label a species as invasive, we intend it pejoratively. We mean that we simply don’t like them. The Earth is a garden, a place where we discriminate between species: we water the elephants and weed the smallpox. What’s so wrong with admitting that to ourselves?

For a few short hours in this lifetime, our acre is my garden — and I don’t like garlic mustard. The stuff spreads like a brush fire and seems headed straight for our lawn; thus I’ve started the four-to-five year process of eliminating it from our yard. It’s notable that some studies showed that outbreaks of garlic mustard didn’t damage species diversity, so the stuff is hardly kudzu. But it’s easily recognizable with its serrated heart-shaped leaves and white cruciform flowers and pulls easily, especially after a rainstorm. I think Connecticut has already lost the battle — or at least is in the process of evolving — because I see it everywhere I go, and who’s going to yank it from public land or along the roadsides and in the abandoned lots? No one. But I mutter a prayer to Saint Jude and pull it anyway.

Short News, Literary Pretensions Edition

The Enlightenment or GTFO. At Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitz comments on the PEN American Center shenanigans but might as well be talking about certain parties angry at this year’s Hugo nominations or those advocating avoidance of straight white male writers:

Can you imagine Balzac arguing that a novelist mustn’t scrutinize the poor and the rich alike, as the poor—poor souls—are too underprivileged to pass through literature’s relentless magnifying glass? Or the Bard abandoning Othello lest someone walk away convinced that all Moorish generals were murderous thugs? That would be—to borrow a phrase associated with Wallace Shawn, another of the letter’s signatories—inconceivable. Writers, real ones, grasp for as much of humanity as they can hold in their embrace. Their motto is the one forged by the Roman playwright Terrence millennia ago: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

To the dolts who declined to partake in the PEN gala, Terrence’s words are as much a lifeless relic as the language in which he wrote. They, and the hordes of others in their circles, ask of a work of fiction not whether it is a thing of truth and beauty but where it might fall on a spectrum of insensitivities, real or imagined, and just how ill-at-ease it might make some readers feel. In Whitman they seek only affirmation of his homosexuality, in Woolf something to say about gender and power. They see no splendor in the leaves of grass, nor the beauty of the pale footfall of the light emanating from the Lighthouse. They seek nothing but confirmation of their preconceived notions, narrow and hard.

It’s bad enough the PEN refuseniks seem so intent in slandering the dead for being what they were not or rationalize some speech as more equal than others with greater contortionism than Cirque du Soleil acrobats. What’s worse is their relativist hand-wringing tacitly justifying the Charlie Hebdo massacre. As Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker said, “The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.” But I’m sure these days advocating the superiority of Enlightenment principles is punching down.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There’s a lot to love in this WSJ interview with the Nigerian author, from her criticism of American grocery stores to her observation that “When we talk about the developing world, there’s this idea that everybody should be fighting for the poor” (why is it we so often imagine Africans as existing solely in two groups — either impoverished shack dwellers or jungle rebels — and never consider the possibility of an African middle class?). But what struck me most was this:

She does, however, experience bouts of depression, “the crazy writer illness” that she thinks is common in her field. “There’s something comforting about that, because you feel you’re not alone,” she says.

Some days she writes for 12 hours straight; other days she can’t bring herself to write at all.

“I wish I could write every day, but I don’t,” she says. “When it goes well, I ignore things like family and hygiene, but other days, when it’s not going well, I read the books I love to remind myself of how beautiful and essential and nurturing words can be, and I hope that doing that will bring my own words back.”

Adichie seems like such a — well, like such a real writer.

A Shout-out Over Innsmouth

Innsmouth Olde AleNarragansett Beer has released the second offering in their Lovecraft Series of craft beers, Innsmouth Olde Ale.

When I first read it, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was not among my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories; I was drawn to more cosmic works like “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” But “Innsmouth” has grown on me over the years, in part because I can better appreciate its sophistication and in part because technology has evolved to the point where the story is as much prescience as fantasy horror. Ken Hite’s discussion of Robert M. Price’s essay prefacing The Innsmouth Cycle made me realize the story is more than just a guy being chased by a bunch of inbred townies:

Among other things, Price makes the point that Obed Marsh is the prophet of a Cargo Cult, one which implicitly casts Lovecraft’s New England as a primitive backwater. … Lovecraft’s story brilliantly inverts the colonialist understanding of the Cargo Cult by demonstrating that the Other (the non-white, the “Kanak,” the foreign) is the far more sophisticated myth, one with a better claim both on the past and the future than white Massachusetts Protestant Christianity.

If you haven’t read the story, then spoilers crawlin’ an’ bleatin’ an’ barkin’ an’ hoppin’ after the jump.

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SCOTUS to Cops: Time to Face the Music

On Monday, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal (pdf) filed by police officers who participated in the 2008 raid on the Easton, Connecticut home of Ronald Terebesi, Jr.

If you recall, the SWERT tactical team composed of officers from six neighboring towns raided Terebesi’s house in response to a tip from an exotic dancer who said two men were smoking crack cocaine in Terebesi’s living room. The raid — which involved all the usual hallmarks: flashbangs, battering down the front door, setting the house on fire — ended with cops shooting and killing Terebesi’s unarmed friend Gonzalo Guizan. Paraphernalia and less than a tenth of an ounce of a suspicious substance was recovered from the house. Terebesi completed a brief drug program and was never charged with any crimes.

Both Terebesi and Guizan’s estate filed civil suits against five of the towns (Westport being the outlier) and the individual officers involved. The Guizan family settled with the towns for $3.5 million. In Terebesi’s case, the cops argued that their acting in their official capacities as town employees granted them qualified immunity and requested summary judgment. Both the District Court and the US Court of the Appeals for the Second District disagreed, and now SCOTUS has tacitly done so too.

The case is headed to trial in New Haven and currently assigned to Judge Janet Bond Arterton, the same District Court judge who wrote the scathing decision denying the officers’ qualified immunity in the first place:

[Monroe police sergeant Jay] Torreso maintains that he is entitled to qualified immunity because his personal conduct was objectively reasonable. However, Torreso is alleged to have been personally involved in what is plausibly described as an objectively unreasonable raid, given the minimal threat posed, the extreme force used, and the circumstances surrounding his no-knock entry. … Therefore, he has not shown that he is entitled to qualified immunity at this stage.

Arterton, who has a reputation for dropping the hammer, has presided over a number of high-profile cases; she recently sentenced former governor John Rowland to 30 months for campaign fraud and conspiracy. And I’m sure the judge will turn a fond eye upon the testimony of William Ruscoe, one of the SWERT cops named in the suit, who’s currently serving time for raping a teenager.

Terebesi’s lawyer, Gary Mastronardi, believes the case will go to court this year. “Because of the age of the case, the judge will be riding roughshod over the lawyers to move this quickly,” he said.

As for his client’s chances, Mastronardi said, “Both rulings in the Second Circuit and the Supreme Court were expected. Evidence is the evidence and they can’t make the evidence disappear.”