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Sunday, January 04, 2015

Changes in Pirate Paradigm

1699 marriages of St. Catherine's, Jamaica
Legends do not, a history, tell. They are fun, but they should not be treated as actual fact. This is never more apparent in the case of the popular legends associated with Edward Thache, the alleged “notorious,” “demonic,” even “evil,” and “wicked rogue” known as Blackbeard. His popular impressions delight the storyteller and his/her audience. The gruesome pictures and caricatures provide shock and awe for the Saturday afternoon family outing. This book is not about these legends, but about distilling the truth hidden beneath them. This is not a popular narrative about pirates, but a scholarly attempt at truth. It is not an easy task to accomplish because these legends have been popularized and modified over 300 years of Saturday afternoons. Many people also have tried to grasp a bit of the legend for themselves, altering whatever possible historical elements may actually have existed in the primary records. They create genealogies that include famous and infamous people, including pirates. We still have these records, however, and can disseminate them from any original biases that they may contain to create a precipitated semblance of reality. We can still perform professional history upon them, without the obstacles of legend.

One of those biases involves a forced historical paradigm, partly North Carolinian, but also even more broad. Few have grasped the comparison between piracy and capitalism, but it is there. By the time you get to the end of this book, even after completing the first chapter, it should become quite evident. All nations condoned piracy in the Americas and the “Wild West” Indies atmosphere set the standard for American behavior, particularly in the Deep South region. It is not easy for us to see because the current system of economics in our country has engrained itself in society so deeply as to seem almost natural. Because of piracy’s ideological development in the West Indies and after its transfer to the mainland and the young United States, it was also inevitable that a unique American capitalism would develop with its focus of profit over any other consideration. Certainly, piracy had the same goals and was also a business. Ideologically, we remained pirates, refined as capitalists, even as we debased and reviled the pirates of the “Golden Age,” like Blackbeard. The undoubted comparison with American capitalism embarrassed us and had to be subconsciously and rhetorically suppressed. Edward Thache, the educated man, had to die while the notorious Blackbeard remained, cast in a smoking cloak of perpetual evil simply to support a new economic narrative: “Thou shalt not steal… without a proper license.”

Comedy writer Terry Gilliam’s “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” uses humor to demonstrate this relationship. In the financially bleak days of 1983, the Crimson Permanent Assurance is an accountancy staffed by elderly workers resembling slaves on a slave ship. They are being taken over by efficiency-minded corporate types, recognizably only slightly removed from Crimson. When the corporate authorities sack an employee, an uprising occurs. The building unleashes its chain moorings, like breaking the shackles of their servitude to their corporate masters. They sail across the “financial ocean” and take on the commercial centers of the world, leaving devastation in their wake. The sortie begins with an all-out attack on the large skyscraper owned by “The Very Big Corporation of America.” The former employees of Crimson, dressed like pirates, armed with filing-cabinet cannons, ceiling-fan broadswords, and paper-spindle short-swords, swing through the windows on grappling hooks and capture the corporation. The Very Big Corporation of America uses pirate tactics, but operates from a position of strength over other businesses that they endeavor to absorb. Gilliam's story assuredly reveals that capitalism has refined piracy and made it highly efficient, causing harm to others less fortunate. The irony of the Crimson story makes it quite humorous, which is an irony unto itself. 

Perhaps we avoid the comparison because we depend on this system so heavily. We have biased the study of our history to include capitalism as a natural element, as though it were simply a natural extension of greedy human nature. Still, we cannot avoid the truth. Piracy, as the early basis for capitalism had to be reinterpreted to avoid detection of that truth. In the resulting rhetoric, “Piracy” necessarily became a wholly criminal affair, full of uncontrollable bloodthirsty pirates, foaming at the mouth, with dirty shabby clothes, slashing with broadswords and shooting pistols and cannon.

Conflict is wholly American. If you have noticed, most of our histories are written about wars and the events during conflicts.  The Civil War receives a great deal of that attention. Seldom do we regard the time between these conflicts, the struggles that people endured to feed their families after counterfeiting caused the Panic of 1789, involvement in French Revolutionary wars created the Panic of 1797, the Barbary Wars created the Recession of 1802-1804, the Panic of 1812 before the second war with England, and another one that lasted for six years at the conclusion of that conflict. There have been depressions in 1822, 1825, 1828, 1833, 1836, 1839, 1845, 1847, 1853, 1860, and a two-year depression after the Civil War.  There were fourteen more depressions before the Great Depression of 1929, all caused by speculative capitalism, cut-throat economic tactics, or outright war. By comparison, there were a mere four in England in the nineteenth century, and eight in the twentieth century.  Yes, piracy still lives in America. Furthermore, we have infected the rest of the world with the same ideology. Piracy still lives on the high seas of finance upon which the Crimson Permanent Assurance met its final comedic end at the hands of the Very Big Corporation of America.

None of my poor tobacco-farming ancestors ever counterfeited money, caused a company with dependent employees to go under, or started a war. Someone else was always responsible for those events. 

A professor of mine once told me that he believed that our true history is perhaps best told from within the missing gaps between those conflicts.  I took a step in this direction because the space in between these wars and panics is the space in which you and I live and struggle for our livelihoods. As you may have noticed, very little is written about us. There are many histories, however, involving people that you have at least heard of before, the “notables.” These were generally the people involved in the conflicts and wars, those that counterfeited the money or caused the wars. They were the wealthy or extravagant people who accomplished great achievements or committed the most egregious crimes. Surprisingly, many notable pirates fit both categories, but we rarely would.

Studying piracy offers a unique opportunity to examine historical methods as well as traditional sources, to put history itself on trial. Perhaps we can have a glimpse of ourselves along the way.  We can see that many early pirates began as wealthy individuals and not necessarily as proletarians seeking justice and bread crumbs for their tables.  We can witness the lives of the common town merchants, seamen, and tenant farmers. We can see the elite in their occasional betrothals to doctors and wealthy planter's daughters. We can see the births of mulatto children, born of slaves, and perhaps the death of their “free negro” grandmother, like Jane Teach of Kingston in 1787. We can use studies of this nature to dispel certain myths about pirate leaders as the common people, the 99%, us. Exceedingly likely, you are a part of the 99%, but most notable pirates most likely were not. We waited in port towns for the merchandise to arrive on their ships.

After reading this book, you may find that you would never have been included in these traditional histories.  They are generally written about extraordinary people, merchants and wealthy factors, the 1%, or people who left traditional historical records. They were not the common consumers who actually support the bulk of our economy, the people with power in a true democracy.  According to these older “Great Man” histories, if you did not have your gentlemanly name associated with an unusual event or commit some sort of treason, you simply did not have your name carved into the smooth finished stone of important buildings.  Those histories were written about someone else merely to entertain us, maybe teach us about our betters.  You may not appear, for instance, in many official records, legislative or parliamentary writings of statesmen, diplomats, high churchmen, or other important works often used by the historian. Perhaps your grandfather fed hogs, cut wood, made rope, planted corn and wheat, distilled rum to drink and trade for manufactured rarities – nothing really to write about to your congressman.  Your ancestors probably never plundered a Spanish galleon or fished a wreck for gold and silver cobs and plate, either. 

Still, you know who your ancestors were.  There are sources outside of your family to tell you that: church records, including births, marriages, and deaths.  You probably have seen wills and deeds that name your great grandmother or grandfather and even their ancestors.  There are even court records from land disputes, civil suits, estate settlements, and many others that might illuminate your history. These sources rarely, if ever, made it into traditional historical writing. Rather, they are the traditional sources for the genealogist. 

Genealogy has been relegated to trivial status, the purview of the antiquarian, the twilight-year amateur untrained historian.  Still, if you view a genealogy website or reference book, you will find them full of such primary source material, the essence of which is all people, memorable or not. Genealogists strive to capture the essence of them, to perhaps find a connection to those “Great Men” that older historians most revered. The problem is that few were ever interested in us, the majority of humanity. Yes, there are numerous “family charts” performed by the well-meaning, yet untrained amateur genealogist, a strained attempt to capture meaning for ourselves amidst volumes of “Great Man” histories and great heroes.  Still, the presence of those charts do not detract from the value of primary sources lying amongst them. It is these sources that can inform us not only about the “notables,” but about ourselves as well. They are the great “leveling” sources of social history. Furthermore, it is an avoidance of such records that have hidden the true Blackbeard from our sight for nearly three hundred years. Still, wealthy capitalists, polluting oil barons and frackers, or profiteering war-mongers never minded that; they would rather not share their embarrassing and quite telling family history with us. 

A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most Notorious Pyrates by Capt. Charles Johnson has been the only substantial traditional historical source that we have known about for the history of pirates.  It is a secondary source, written after the fact, but written only six years after Blackbeard’s death at Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina.  For three hundred years, we have struggled to answer the great mysteries of pirates like Edward Theach, or Blackbeard, speculating on where he was from, even what his name truly was… primarily using this book.  

Still, we have been handicapped by such material. We have assumed that he was poor, destitute, and turned to a life of piracy out of great need.  Johnson assures us that Blackbeard was extraordinarily successful and notorious, evil in fact.  Johnson intended to sell books and elaborated greatly on Blackbeard’s evils, essentially creating the demon image resurrected on today’s NBC television series Crossbones. “Resurrection,” is a term that was used literally. Somehow, on the television show, the notorious beheaded pirate was able to reattach his skull and move back to the Caribbean to restart his life of ultimate crime – and shaved his famous beard. Here, Blackbeard becomes a criminal mastermind, plotting evil deeds from his tropical island stronghold. Were we influenced by Johnson’s literary extravagances?  Most certainly, we were. Still, Johnson’s book, like many television and movie portrayals, have done a grave disservice to Blackbeard and history in general.

The better portrayal is perhaps on the Stars! series Black Sails in 1715, that demonstrates pirates as an organized group on the Bahamas, similar to the "Flying Gang," with usually educated leaders, and daily insurrections just like any other proprietary colony of the period... especially North Carolina. These pirates organized trade with other colonies and dealt with the daily administrative and economic details. It is filled with actual historical characters from Johnson's book. The coming 2015 season even introduces Col. William Rhett of South Carolina! More than likely, this is truer to life, regardless of traditional revisionist history. [NOTE 1-31-2016: The recent STARS! season three version of Blackbeard specifically is rather disappointing and almost straight out of Johnson's book.]

It may surprise us that, in no record, by the way, is Blackbeard ever recorded as killing anyone until Gov. Alexander Spotswood of Virginia had him hunted down and murdered. Yes, murdered. Evidence suggests that Spotswood took the actions that he did despite the king’s repeated efforts to pardon and reform these pirates, his citizens. Hunting and murdering his well-born subjects without trial was most uncivilized, you see. Blackbeard was forced to defend himself against Spotswood's private mercenaries… and ultimately killed. Still, thanks primarily to Johnson, his literary legacy, and the paucity of records, we had the luxury of abusing Blackbeard and pirates like him – and we took it. In reality, pirates, at least their leaders, were businessmen, educated, often religious, and they were owners of great estates. They were never forced into a pirate’s life through necessity. Piracy was just another business, usually sanctioned by government authority.

We were content to read and believe Johnson and others like him. We were especially content to revel in the bloody deeds and virtual evil of these bloody pirates. Still, the real Blackbeard and his brethren have been stored away in church records, deeds, and wills just waiting to answer those centuries-old questions and reveal them to us. There is more. Mundane records that reveal our ancestors also reveal social truths about the traditional subjects of history, the rogues, villains, politicians, and governors... pirates.  The temptation to quote Mark Twain is enormous. Believe it or not, pirates were born, grew into children, they got married, and were buried, leaving wills showing their great wealth.  They surprisingly ate and used the lavatory, same as us. As a matter of fact, archaeologists found their “seats of ease” on the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. They were simply men.

It shocks us to find that early pirates or privateers do not politically represent the common man, the 99%, as we ironically hoped or have been led to believe. Some of us have, indeed, descended from these men, as this book also reveals, but the great majority of our ancestors were never identified as “pirates” in any record. We read about only their leaders, the most extravagant ones, the often wealthy ones. Our ancestors rarely made such history. They rarely built a skyscraper to house their magnificent corporate offices or started a war for a few million dollars in profit, either.

Ultimately, though, our ancestors benefited from pirates. They found rare merchandize landing on their local docks because of pirates. Prices of goods, better than average, were dictated by the local middleman or fence. To our ancestors, pirates were a valuable link to a world that we would never reach. Indeed, pirates like Blackbeard were Robin Hoods, heroes, icons of their day. They were much more accessible than the average corporate CEO. Blackbeard was most certainly not Johnson’s literary demonic creation. Moreover, pirates rarely if ever worked their men at minimum wage, or fired someone before their pension matured. When Blackbeard’s quartermaster William Howard was picked up in Virginia by Gov. Spotswood’s men, he had a substantial amount of gold and two slaves with him. Not a bad retirement for a penniless rogue!

True, Blackbeard was a threat to politicians like Spotswood. Pirates were often the “treasonous” banes of their social equals, like wealthy factors in England, heads of corporations, royal governors, Anglican clergyman, and others of financial import who usually lost financially from their competitive business and theft. The true benefit for the 99% was a cheaper total at the checkout. In many ways, pirates shone in a better light compared with their cold corporate cousins. Our traditional histories rhetorically murdered our own heroes. The quest for Blackbeard is truly a search for us. Even if he existed in a class above us, at least he recognized us as human and traded with us on better terms.

In our busy, routine daily lives, we tend generally to ignore the fun, our past… our history.  Still, we can sometimes read a book, watch a film, or play a game, and relive it… as long as the air conditioner is working, the refrigerator is cold, and a bottle of Nyquil is available in the medicine cabinet. In books and film, we can escape to fantasy.  We can join a pirate crew, fire cannon, say “Argh!,” board ships, swinging across the open seas like Errol Flynn, Long John Silver, or Captain Edward “Blackbeard” Theach. Of course, truly living the past would not be as comfortable or historically accurate, as much of the information in this book will hopefully reveal.  Still, studying pirates is never dull!  “Yo, ho!”

The book: Pirates & Slaves: Making America