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.

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