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.

Latest News From Beaufort Inlet

The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project has posted a summary of their 2010 fall field season:

A total of 122 objects were recovered from the wreck site during the field season. Sixty-five concretions of varying sizes have the potential for containing hundreds of individual artifacts. These concretions will be X-rayed at the conservation lab to help identify what may be contained within. Some artifacts readily apparent on gross external examination include: cannon balls, cask hoops, a pewter plate, and the largest object recovered this season — multiple segments of a deadeye strop with the wood deadeye intact, likely from the port side main mast chain plate.

Drawing of the QAR from the Project’s 1999 management plan.

Blackbeard Artifacts Displayed

Reporters were given a gander at some of the artifacts raised from Blackbeard’s ship:

David Moore, nautical archaeologist with the N.C. Maritime Museum, said all of the artifacts date to the early 18th century, the correct time for the shipwreck, which was in November 1718.  Two artifacts have dates inscribed, a bell from 1705 and a cannon from 1713.  There are four anchors of the correct vintage at the site, and about a quarter million lead shot have been recovered.  He said other ships would not necessarily be so heavily armed, and that this is likely leftover armament from a pirate ship.

The article goes on to speculate that Queen Anne’s Revenge could be to North Carolina tourism what the HL Hunley is to South Carolina tourism. But judging from this year’s field report, that may be some time coming since funding for major recovery is not apparent:

Nearly two feet of sand has been deposited in most places since the lowest point recorded in 2005 and is at levels not seen since the shipwreck’s discovery in 1996. With no funding to continue full recovery operations, this is a good development. When sand covers artifacts it is generally conducive to artifact preservation because it puts them in an anaerobic environment and buffers impacts from currents and critters.

Anchor Update

Back in October, members of The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project raised a grapnel (seen in the foreground to the right) from the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship. I dropped an e-mail to the Project asking if data from an experiment measuring iron corrosion on another anchor influenced the decision to raise the grapnel now.

Wendy Welsh, QAR Conservator, kindly responded:

Actually the data from the in situ monitoring project did not influence our decision to raise the grapnel anchor.  The grapnel anchor was loose from the main ballast pile and to avoid further impacts from strong storm currents the decision was made to recover the anchor. A report about our week long field expedition will be posted on our home page soon.

Remember, kids: — your one-stop source for pirate archaeology news.

Photo from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Rick Allen, Nautilus Productions.

Hoist the Anchor

Marine archaeologists have raised a small anchor from the site believed to be the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship:

Archaeologists and conservators with the state Department of Cultural Resources say the grapnel was at risk of washing away after nearly 300 years in the sea and might not weather possible storms until next year, when a full-scale expedition is planned.

Since last fall, The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project has been using another anchor, still in situ, to measure iron corrosion at the site and thereby draw an overall picture of the stability of the ship’s iron artifacts. Have to wonder if measurements from that experiment influenced the archaeologists’ decision to raise the grapnel now.

I can’t wait to read about what they find next season. Screw Ardi; for my money, this is the biggest thing to hit archaeology since Whydah was found.

Also: If you’re in or around Raleigh, don’t miss the Knights of the Black Flag exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History. Looks terrific.