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.

This Week in Dinosaurs

A zoologist believes birds didn’t evolve from dinosaurs but rather both had a shared ancestor:

Almost 20 years of research at OSU on the morphology of birds and dinosaurs, along with other studies and the newest PNAS research, Ruben said, are actually much more consistent with a different premise – that birds may have had an ancient common ancestor with dinosaurs, but they evolved separately on their own path, and after millions of years of separate evolution birds also gave rise to the raptors. Small animals such as velociraptor that have generally been thought to be dinosaurs are more likely flightless birds, he said.

Granted, that’s from the Oregon State University press release, but I’m surprised this hasn’t received more widespread attention. Via Palaeoblog.

From Romania comes evidence that island dwarfism affected dinosaurs too:

Benton, who directs the Palaeobiology and Biodiversity Research Group at the University of Bristol, and his colleagues conducted one of the most extensive studies yet on the Hateg Island dinosaur remains. They analyzed the dinosaurs’ limb proportions and bone growth patterns, comparing them with those of mainland dinos.

The analysis determined that at least four of the Hateg dinosaurs were dwarves.

The diminutive dinosaurs included the titanosaurian sauropod Magyarosaurus, which had a body length of about 16 to 19 feet. That’s impressive by human standards, but is miniature compared to a sauropod such as Argentinosaurus, which grew to be at least 82 feet long.

Finally, isotopic analysis suggests spinosaurus and its kin spent much of its time lurking and hunting in shallow water just like modern alligators and crocodiles. This allowed them to exist alongside other large Cretaceous theropods since spinosaurids weren’t in competition with terrestrial meat-eaters.

Photo of T-rex taken at the AMNH.

Lights Go Out on Killer Comet Theory

Remember that comet that struck Canada 12,900 years ago and killed the woolly mammoths? Yeah, the thing is, about that:

The proponents of the theory said that they had found evidence of a comet impact, including magnetic microspherules, in the earth overlying 10 Clovis-age archaeological sites across North America.

University of Wyoming archaeologist Ted Surovell and several colleagues attempted to repeat the study and came up with startlingly different results.

Using the same methods, Surovell and his co-researchers were “unable to find high concentrations of magnetic particles and spherules” – even at the two sites previously studied by the original researchers

As noted previously, the comet hypothesis, while generating hubbub on the Googletubes, never explained how the strike caused megafauna extinctions. We’re left where we’ve always been: at the end of the Pleistocene, when some large animals died off, others lived on, and we have little explanation why any of it happened.

Photo courtesy of Noel Munford of the Palmerston North Astronomical Society, New Zealand (via NASA).

Cost World

An international expedition has discovered giant monitor lizards and 40 unidentified species of rats, bats, frogs, and fish tucked inside the crater of an extinct volcano in Papua New Guinea. Photo essay of some of the critters here.

Just as interesting is the story of the expedition’s logistics. With the volcano situated deep in the rainforest 15 miles from the closest village, the explorers first had to drop some Adam Smith on the residents:

They also had to explain to local hunter-gatherers the concept of paying them to help establish a base camp near the village. Elders, trackers and boatmen were among 25 local people employed by the international team of 25 scientists and filmmakers, who also required a cook, a medic and a climbing expert to help them scale trees.

Concerned not to eat the village out of food, the scientists employed local people to plant sweet potatoes and a spinach-like crop in preparation for their expedition in January, reducing the amount of corned beef and rice flown in via helicopters, the only means of transport to the village.

I once heard an archaeologist say the reason more work wasn’t done at Meroë — the land of the Black Pharaohs — was racism. The real answer is cost and logistics. One of my frustrations with the portrayal of Egyptian archaeology on television is that camera crews only show the pyramids at Giza or the Valley of the Kings, never venturing into the oases or past the First Cataract of the Nile. To do so would involve leaving behind the convenience of Cairo and Luxor, which is another way of saying they’d have to spend more money. Now imagine scraping together the funds to delve into the deep deserts of Sudan without the profit motive of prime time behind you.

It’s telling that BBC camerafolks accompanied the Papua New Guinea expedition. Not that I begrudge them; if anything, universities should do away with their grant-writing seminars and instead school their field scientists in how to pitch TV execs. Maybe then we’d see more Meroë in the news.

Froggy photo by Ulla Lohmann for the BBC.

More Death From Above

A new study says a comet did to the mammoth what an asteroid did to the T-rex:

Space rocks that slammed into the glaciers of eastern Canada some 12,900 years ago likely helped wipe out mega-animals like woolly mammoths and possibly the continent’s first human inhabitants called the Clovis people, according to a new study that adds to evidence that a trio of factors were involved.

The new evidence comes from recently discovered nano-sized diamonds, which researchers say are the strongest clues to date for an argument that could explain the region’s die-off during the late Pleistocene epoch.

This still isn’t a silver bullet. Like the overkill hypothesis, it doesn’t explain why some American megafauna went extinct while others — bison, moose, bighorn sheep — live on to this day.

I interviewed John Harris, the chief curator at the Page Museum in Los Angeles, a few years ago for a story. He told me that Pleistocene juniper twigs pulled from the brea showed distinct evidence of carbon starvation. This suggested that plant resources were diminished, which in turn affected herbivores and their predators. “When you review the herbivores that survived you’ll note they comprise ruminants (bison, deer) and omnivores (peccaries). Horses, ground sloths and proboscideans are hind-gut fermenters that failed to survive,” Harris said. If you’ve ever walked behind a horse, you know it leaves a lot of undigested plant matter in its path. Cud-chewers digest plants more efficiently; omnivores have a greater variety of food on which they can live.

Did the atmospheric results of the comet cause carbon starvation? So far so good, but it still doesn’t explain megafauna extinctions in other parts of the world. What I really want to know is why horses went extinct in North America but survived in Eurasia. Was the comet felt here more than there?

Eyes in the Sky Find Hidden Forest, Dope

A conservationist tinkering with Google Earth discovered a 27-square-mile forest chock full of new species:

The mountainous area of northern Mozambique in southern Africa had been overlooked by science due to inhospitable terrain and decades of civil war in the country.

However, while scrolling around on Google Earth, an internet map that allows the viewer to look at satellite images of anywhere on the globe, scientists discovered an unexpected patch of green.

A British-led expedition was sent to see what was on the ground and found 7,000 hectares of forest, rich in biodiversity, known as Mount Mabu.

Full story here. The best kind of Eye in the Sky here.

Meanwhile, police in Switzerland recently used Google Earth to harsh the mellow of a couple of local pot farmers. Dude! So not cool.