Schemes of the Blackest Dye

Next Thursday I’ll be a panelist at the Fairfield Museum for a discussion of espionage in Connecticut during the Rev War. I’ll be joined by UConn’s Rachel Smith, who dissects the show TURN at her blog, TURN to a Historian, and Black Rock historian Robert Foley.

From Nathan Hale to the Culper spy ring to conspiracies big and small, Connecticut and the coast of Long Island seethed with skulduggery in large part because only about two-thirds of the population felt the red, white, and blue — the rest still pledged fidelity to the House of Hanover. Smedley and friends once caught some Loyalists on the Sound who, upon interrogation, confessed a “Scheme of the blackest dye”:

John McKey of Norwalk later testified that on April 15, a Charles McNeill of Redding approached him saying that a colonel in the British army had in his possession lieutenant’s commissions for each of them. The British were galvanizing the loyalists into a fifth column to be called the Royal Americans. Their first job was to construct an intelligence network that would relay information about Continental troops to the British.

Plots! Treachery! Whaleboat battles! Next Thursday, April 7, at the museum. It’s free! modestly priced!

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.

Samuel Smedley: Man of Fairfield!

Samuel Smedley, Connecticut PrivateerSaturday I’ll be at the downtown Fairfield University Bookstore to present about Fairfield’s Revolutionary past. Along with Rita Papazian — two for the price of free! — I’ll be discussing Samuel Smedley, Caleb Brewster, and the 1779 burning of Fairfield. The talk runs from 1-3pm on the second floor.

And if you’re a fan of Caleb Brewster, the first episode of Turn debuts this Sunday night on AMC. The five-part series dramatizes the events of the Culper spy ring, the famous Patriot intelligence network that developed in New York and Long Island after the city’s fall to British troops and Loyalists. Brewster, a native of Setauket before decamping across the Sound to Fairfield, was a crucial link in the ring, ferrying information about British goings-on from Long Island to Connecticut and thence to General Washington. And as if he wasn’t enough of a bad-ass already, Brewster was also handy in a fight. The Journal of the American Revolution has seen early episodes and given it eight Huzzahs.

Samuel Smedley and Prize Division

Over at the Journal of the American Revolution, I have an article on how the division of captured prizes undermined the Connecticut state navy:

All the sailors did the math and realized going on a privateer was the better option. That’s why Congress abandoned the two-thirds/one-third model and adopted a half-and-half system for merchant ships — they had to be competitive with privateers for recruitment.

Connecticut did not follow Congress’s example. They stubbornly stuck to the original two-thirds/one-third model. They wanted that extra sliver, that extra sixteen percent.

This greatly inhibited Smedley’s ability to recruit sailors for Defence. On his very first voyage, Smedley had trouble finding enough men. Just as they were prepared to sail from New London, the man Smedley thought was going to be his first lieutenant — a man by the name of Henry Billings — suddenly refused the job. Billings returned the commission in a letter to Trumbull in February 1777, writing, “I am offered the Command of a Burmudian Built Sloop fixing out as a Privateer — And I think to do Justice to myself & family I must except of the offer.”

If you haven’t read my book or attended one of my presentations, here’s a chance to grok the gist of it in 2,500 words.

Samuel Smedley Talk

Samuel Smedley, Connecticut PrivateerTomorrow night — Thursday, February 21 — I’ll be speaking about Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer at the Black Rock Yacht Club, 80 Grovers Avenue in Bridgeport, right on the shores of Smedley’s very own port o’ call.

I’ll talk about Smedley, Defence, and how the division of prizes — that is, the proceeds from captured ships and their cargoes — impacted the Connecticut state navy during the American Revolution.

You don’t have to be a member of the club to attend! The presentation begins at 7pm.

 

 

 

 

 

Samuel Smedley Commemoration

Hey sailor! Do you live in or around Fairfield, Connecticut? If so, on Saturday, October 27, I’ll be at the Old Burying Ground on Beach Road to speechify at the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Samuel Smedley’s death. Come on out.

The fun starts at 10am at the intersection of Beach Road and Fairfield Beach Road — we’ll meet there, then walk up the street to the Burying Ground. You can park at Jennings Beach.

Update: Here’s a write-up of the event.