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Monday, August 03, 2015

Pirates and Capitalists: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Charles Vane from the Stars! TV series "Black Sails"
The unrepentant pirate, Charles Vane was said to, “on all occasions show no small hatred to government.” Pirates generally did hate rules or to be told what to do, like Charles Vane from the Stars! TV series "Black Sails." So did the owners of proprietary or privately-owned colonies, concerned more with their own desires than the needs of the nation - in this case, the British Empire. This was not progress, but regress. Sound like a Koch maybe? We progressives have always had the best bad example in our history… there perhaps to inform us into a better, more enlightened future – pirates or capitalists. 

Permit me to wax philosophical for a moment... or you can read it in my book, Pirates & Slaves: Making America...

There is no essential unity without government - without rules. The United States partially embraced this idea by establishing the first democratic government “of the people,” E Pluribus Unum, “from the many, one.” But, it wasn't perfect. We have improved on this system over the years to include absolutely everyone in the franchise (thanks this year to "Marriage Equality," or now, just "Marriage!"), though we still handicapped that democracy by allowing the piratical forces of old to continue to rule the seas of governance. These aristocratic conservative pirates pander to corporate forces, still gerrymander districts, and pass unconstitutional Voter ID laws - I did mention the Tea Party, ALEC, or the Kochs, right?

In "Piracy is just a part of a capitalist system" by financial columnist and senior editor at The Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell, he says that "Piracy falls into a black hole between criminal law and the law of war." War fuels capitalism as it does piracy. We can't deny that the Iraq War fueled Halliburton's profits to the tune of billions and killed many of us - still, of course, capitalists beg for another war. 

Another book recently published in France (you rarely find anti-capitalists here!) – L’Organisation Pirate by Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Philippe Vergne, both social scientists at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales – describes piracy as a recurrent feature of capitalism.
When laws and technologies change, piracy – broadly understood as the rejection of authorities’ claim to control private property in any realm – tends to arise. This was true when the age of navigation led sailors into waters where no one was ruler, and it is true on the frontiers of the information age today.
Caldwell compares the early British wars against piracy as wars against slavery - while Eric Williams in Capitalism & Slavery compares the development of capitalism as wholly relying on slavery to fuel the Industrial Revolution. Britain may have fought us in the American Revolution partly to end our intense slave practices - we were the last industrialized nation to end it and, unlike others, it cost us more than half a million lives! All the wars we fought since that time, until Vietnam did not equal the casualties that we suffered in that single war. Not hard to see the piracy-capitalism progression, right? Williams book tells how:
Slavery helped finance the Industrial Revolution in England. Plantation owners, shipbuilders, and merchants connected with the slave trade accumulated vast fortunes that established banks and heavy industry in Europe and expanded the reach of capitalism worldwide.
England may have started it, but they sought to end the horrifying practices in America - we held fast to our pirate traditions and, as a consequence, developed a harsh version of capitalism at first based on slave labor, as in the West Indies. Huge plantations became the basis for that wealth, often compared with large corporations today. If labor was cheap, profit increased. The goal of every business is to reduce labor costs and increase profit. Problem is - we are the labor - you and I and our families. A corporation's primary goal is to reduce your paycheck. Their "Trickle Down," championed by conservatives, is simply a mean trick played on the poor. 

It's not as though we hadn't been warned...
"There is an evil which ought to be guarded against in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by…corporations. The power of all corporations ought to be limited in this respect. The growing wealth acquired by them never fails to be a source of abuses."
- James Madison

"I again recommend a law prohibiting all corporations from contributing to the campaign expenses of any party.… Let individuals contribute as they desire; but let us prohibit in effective fashion all corporations from making contributions for any political purpose, directly or indirectly." Teddy Roosevelt added, "The fortunes amassed through corporate organization are now so large, and vest such power in those that wield them, as to make it a matter of necessity to give to the sovereign -- that is, to the Government, which represents the people as a whole -- some effective power of supervision over their corporate use. In order to insure a healthy social and industrial life, every big corporation should be held responsible by, and be accountable to, some sovereign strong enough to control its conduct."
- Theodore Roosevelt

"It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. ...And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man...."
- Franklin Roosevelt
Baylus C. Brooks
Today, we still fight against piratical forces of privatization and corporatization who would continue their deprivations upon us - certain "enemies of all mankind." Why? We don't study history. Pretty simple, but reading some books would have fixed it!

The lessons from history show that capitalistic forces would reinvent the oligarchic days of proprietary corruption and corporate or private/pirate (see the likeness here?) rule. They reemerged once before - plantationist Confederate pirates were almost successful in the Civil War. They were stopped then, but again only at the cost of over 600,000 lives! Then followed capitalist super-pirates like Robber Barons - Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, and others - who nearly destroyed us with overcapitalization (i.e. excessive greed) resulting in the Great Depression in 1929. Still, we persevered - we survived these pirates and the gathering of their spoils, but how many attacks can our worm-ridden hulls and torn sails endure?

Comedy writer Terry Gilliam’s “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” uses humor to demonstrate the value of this idea; arguably, humor is quickest to the truth. In this example, we can see how mistreatment of labor results in dire consequences. In the financially bleak days of 1983, the Crimson Permanent Assurance (or CPA – intentional?) is portrayed as 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 and refined from Crimson, yet with much greater capital - or loot – and the arrogance gained by the purposeful inequality. When the corporate authorities indifferently sack an employee (feed a sick slave to the sharks), a class uprising occurs and builds due to pent-up frustrations at Crimson. A minor revolution occurs, a la France in 1789. The previously-believed immobile old Victorian building unleashes its chain moorings, like breaking the shackles of 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 sought after sortie begins with an all-out attack on the towering and shiny 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. It is a humorous tale, but it also carries a message that should be all too obvious (although Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette also missed the point) – the needs of humanity are being ignored in favor of profit. Then again, we’re just “greedy” little bastards anyway, right? Gilliam's story assures that American capitalism is simply nothing more than redefined piracy. It is highly efficient and attractive to a minute few, but causing harm to the less fortunate masses, albeit without blowing them to tiny bits.    

Piracy still lives - inequality continues to tear us apart, and conflict has become wholly American. It’s in our televisions, in our movies, in the books we read, and in our daily general lives. We love to shoot guns, rob banks, drive fast cars, and blow things sky high. How are we not like pirates? We still love them - like our 18th-century ancestors did.

Perhaps mentally deranged, we also love the heroes who save us from these marauding types, thieves, zombies and other evil spawns from hell. I avoid those movies whenever possible... lol.

If you have noticed, most of our histories are written about wars, the events during battles and other major struggles. In truth, America has spent a great deal of its history shooting, undermining, and taking what it wants. There’s profit in that sort of thing – ask Edward Thache and Dick Cheney. Our war with ourselves, the Civil War receives a great deal of that attention. And, it’s telling that the one war that involved the defense of Southern conservative ideology gets all the historical “air time.” Best break out that eyepatch, fellow knaves and ne'er-do-wells!

Like I said, we love war. Seldom do we regard the time between conflicts, the subtle struggles that people endured to feed their families, the loves, failures, and aspirations of real people. These struggles occurred between the more rare but illegal events like counterfeiting that caused the Panic of 1789, involvement in French Revolutionary wars that created the Panic of 1797, the Barbary Wars that 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 depressions before the Great Depression of 1929, averaging about fourteen a century since the beginning of the United States, all caused by speculative capitalism, cut-throat economic tactics, and/or the expense of outright conflicts, including with our own populations (re: Native Americans, Irish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, African Americans, etc.). By comparison, there were a mere four recessions in England in the nineteenth century, and eight in the twentieth century, many of those arguably because they were American allies; yes, we infected them. At least they, like Gillam, still had a sense of humor about it.

Violence and piracy still live 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.” 

This is fun, but illuminates a serious problem... how did capitalists do this to us? How are they still doing this to us? Why have we not evicted them, yet?

Big Oil, Big Pharma, and almost every major corporation in America are slowly regaining control over our lives again. In this context, pirates in Congress and on Wall Street truly are the treasonous, back-stabbing “enemies of all mankind,” with no allegiance to any nation, but only to themselves. They might bark about "states'-rights," but they won't give those smaller governments any more rights than they do the Union - they give NO ONE ELSE rights but themselves. They hold our nation hostage at every turn, attempting to eliminate the hard-fought-for advances of the "New Deal" Age of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Social Security, Medicare, affordable healthcare, etc. Bottom line is they want their low-income labor - us - to remain desperate and easily exploitable. The question is: will we survive another pirate assault that is surely coming?

Again, reading would help...

Amidst this dire political state, a new technological age has dawned for the historian and for "we the people," desperate to halt the pirate attacks upon our democracy. Slow to begin at first, the digitization craze has taken hold and threatens to expose all of history’s treasures - including secrets that some would rather remained a secret. 

We have made new discoveries: for instance, Blackbeard’s aristocratic family indeed existed on Jamaica. They are not who we expected - surprisingly, they associated with doctors, lawyers, and politicians. They and their lives in Spanish Town, St. Catherine’s Parish, Jamaica, appear quite explicit, aristocratic, and unique.  

Thanks go to Admiral Edward Vernon and his friend Charles Leslie for recording his letters that bound the fragmented details together. As Vernon wrote "Blackbeard was born in Jamaica of very creditable parents...."  Edward Thache, son of Capt. Edward Thache of Gloucestershire, possibly born in Bristol, grandson of Anglican minister Thomas Thache of Sapperton, family residing in the capital city of Jamaica, and Royal Navy veteran on board the HMS Windsor was most certainly Blackbeard the pirate.  How enlightening it is to discover that the "notorious" formerly-desperate pirate was not so much like us, but a well-dressed and not-so-desperate aristocrat like a Wall Street Robber Baron! He was even a Royal Navy veteran!

Vice-Admiral Edward "Old Grog" Vernon

Not often talked about (except maybe in France), many early pirates between 1715-1718, especially the known leaders, often came from substantial and wealthy families, like Henry Jennings, with estates on Bermuda and Jamaica or Capt. Edward Thache of Kingston, whose father Capt. Edward Thache established himself as a probable sugar planter in Spanish Town and whose grandfather, Rev. Thomas Thache of Sapperton matriculated at Oxford. 

But, the pirates that we usually read about are framed as the lowly, desperate, often hungry and unscrupulous criminals of society. This blanket coverage of pirates as desperate rogues and villains only distracts us from the real pirates who steal our livelihoods. Capt. Charles Johnson certainly lied, especially about Blackbeard.

Piracy became the foundation for later American conservative thought. But, in order to be effective in modern times, pirates and capitalists alike had to hide their true intentions from the common man - to rhetorisize pirates of old as foul, brutish, desperate criminals. We now know that some pirates were not really like that - we also now suspect that some wealthy capitalists today reflect the pirates of yesterday. Their pants are down, now...

We have seen that the poor, the common people or consumers, will give more of which they have less - than will the wealthy.  Even other animals express these emotions. Our true nature shines best when we recognize the value of need. To completely be rid of piracy, we would have to cease using capitalism, sacrificing others as a means to a financial end, to reduce this artificially-generated and unnatural selfish behavior.     

Capitalists lied and told us that we were not like this...

Under capitalism, “human nature” devolved into something less than warm, natural and friendly; rhetorically, it became seen as “logically” greedy and self-serving to support merchants’ needs for capitalization of slaves and other resources. “Inherently lazy, listless” people, especially slaves, deserved to be frightened into productivity.  Capitalists say we must “pull themselves up by our bootstraps” to succeed or die trying. Indeed, wealthy American merchants became cynical of their own species by way of tautological and religious justification for their immoral methods - and they wanted all of us to believe it, too.

St. Catherine's Parish Cathedral, Spanish Town, Jamaica - the church of the Thache family.

As the sometimes-progressive Johnson warned, either governments “find employment for the great Numbers of Seamen turn’d adrift at the Conclusion of a War, or to guard sufficiently” all of their possessions. Necessity, not necessarily greed as with wealthy privateers like Blackbeard, makes for the truly poor pirate crewman, the nameless robber of the sea. 

Capt. Charles Johnson, owing perchance to his “utopian” theories, cautioned future governments upon their past regulation failures that gave so much freedom to these pirates, “so much peril to themselves, and so destructive to the Navigation of the trading World.”   If Johnson had lived for just another half century, he might have seen one of his premonitions come to pass.  He admired pirates, even if also fearing them. To him, they were, as Claire Jowitt said, “Braver than merchants, more financially astute than gentlemen.”  He offered that they could form their own government if they so choose, for:
 … if the Progress of our Pyrates had been equal to their Beginning; had they all united, and settled in some of those Islands, they might, by this Time, have been honoured with the Name of a Commonwealth, and no Power in those Parts of the World could have been able to dispute it with them.
Did Johnson, in 1724, prophesize the future United States of America? Colin Woodard’s use of the word “Republic” in his Republic of Pirates intuitively agrees with Johnson and Jowitt.  The same economic system used by pirates, one that developed the use of chattel slavery and rule by the financially elite is still alive and well in America today.  Did you know that our "dollar" is based on the pirate-coveted Spanish Real, piece-of-eight, or "Spanish dollar"? "Two bits" is a quarter, right? Do the math.

Did you know that our "dollar" is based on the long-coveted Spanish Real, piece-of-eight, or "Spanish dollar"? "Two bits" is a quarter, right? Do the math.

It has been said that the only difference between a rebellion and a revolution is who wins in the end.  Another way to phrase this is “History is written by the winners.”  And yet another comparison may be that the difference between a privateer and a pirate is who profits from the raids, or gathers the most pieces-of-eight.  Of course, this comparison is too simplistic, for English pirates departed from acting against their traditional enemies to seek profit against their fellow Englishmen and later traded their loot secretly with locals, again, mostly Englishmen. Pirates stole from each other - nothing personal, just business! In America, “beyond the line,” profit transcended national loyalty, making piracy an issue of personal freedom. So, what happened in the Golden Age? Why didn't it last? Pirates of the Golden Age simply lost control because of millions of dollars worth of gold and silver spread across the sandy shallows of the Florida coast  - thanks to the "Gold Rush" of 1715, greed turned the earlier revolution into a rebellion. Twentieth-century capitalists didn't intend to create the Great Depression, either - they simply became entirely too greedy.

Books of Colin Woodard

Pirates are wholly American - not British. Historian Marcus Rediker recognized that the English Civil War had created a mass of malcontents that moved to the West Indies after 1660.  “Ranters, Quakers (Lows and Carys), Familists, Anabaptists, radical soldiers (like Axtell), and others” escaped to America.   Many landed in the Caribbean and joined anti-English mass revolts, including Jacobites, in America. The more wealthy became privateers, and the rest, privateer crews or pirates.  One “stout grey-headed” and “merry hearted old Man,” aged eighty-four, “who had served under Oliver in the time of the Irish Rebellion, after which he was at Jamaica, and had followed Privateering ever since.” As we have observed, early residents of the Bahamas, the "pirate nest," as some have termed it, had a decidedly Puritan/dissenter and egalitarian ideology, much like the early American colonies.  

The pirate "Flying Gang" of the Bahamas, too, was a blend of ideologies, nationalities, and even religions. Even their politics were mixed.
Daniel, Thomas, and William Axtell, however, the family of the regicide who helped to behead the former Stuart king, escaped to America and became a Landgrave in South Carolina, a founder of New England, and a doctor in Port Royal, respectively.  Ironically, some of these egalitarians also shared much with rebellious and conservative Jacobites (read: Tea Party), hoping to restore their Stuart “pretender” to the throne.  When Britain forced privateers from their homes and legitimate lives, they worked with the pirates of the Flying Gang in the Bahamas or as independent contractors - until the gold and silver of the wreck ran out.

“Irony” cannot begin to describe this. The island of Eleuthera, as well, was named for the Greek word for “freedom.”  Truly, America had become a “melting pot” of various ideologies and influences, all united by personal interest – by greed - ironically united by a common individualistic ideology.  There can be no better analogy for the early United States than in the Flying Gang of the Bahamas or pirates of the Caribbean!

In a sparsely-populated and tolerant colony like North Carolina of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, American laws have always meant little if they hindered self-interest, as Edward Randolph became all too aware.  The affairs of Charles Eden, Tobias Knight, and Blackbeard brought to light in the North Carolina Colonial and State Records show a level of corruption seen today only on television crime dramas - or in the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Furthermore, they compare easily with the actions of aristocrats like Lord Archibald Hamilton, Daniel Axtell, Jasper Ashworth and the privateers of Jamaica, Blackbeard included.  

America and England had politically diverged from one another for decades, especially on the point of American trade policies and the inherent violence of piracy. Unlike Spain, Americans, determined to control their unique domains, quickly claimed Admiralty jurisdiction in America and the West Indies. Historian Douglas R. Burgess Jr., however, asserts that most English authorities viewed all of America, not just the Bahamas as “pirate nests.” How could such uncivilized persons claim the right to convene courts over themselves? Pirates could not try pirates…
… an English administrator [Edward Randolph] described the colonies as nests of "vice and lawlessness," and an American colonial governor warned his fellow colonists not to fall within the bonds of slavery… an open breach had appeared between Crown and colonies, and some observers predicted incipient rebellion… [the Crown recognized] that its American colonies had developed a system of laws startlingly different, and contradictory, to those communicated by the King, his ministers, and Parliament. More specifically, the colonies had appropriated admiralty jurisdiction—the law of all things related to the sea—and used this prerogative to adopt a definition of piracy that was both eminently suited to their own commercial purposes and anathema to those of the Crown.
In short, American-run courts tended to find pirates innocent - now, Nicholas Trott in Carolina and Col. Robert Quarry in Philadelphia were loyal King's men and attacked pirates, but were met with great resistance all along the way to the gallows. Burgess studied in depth Rhode Island’s attempts to preserve their uniquely American trade practices and how this effort presaged American Independence. “Acting to protect trade practices they had come to regard as essential to their survival,” he wrote, “Rhode Island and other colonies began to erect a legal firewall around piracy and other forms of 'illegal' commerce” to protect their unique traditions of legalized theft and competition - today, we call this capitalism.We dropped the "theft" part, but the "competition" can still often be deadly. As we say, "nothing personal, just business."

As to the depth of the local American hatred for anyone that would take away their beloved freedom to engage in piracy, Col. Robert Quarry, Admiralty judge in Pennsylvania encountered heavy local resistance to his attempts to arrest pirates. Anthony Morris, a local justice issued a writ against Quarry’s court for the return of goods confiscated from a pirate and Quarry reacted harshly. He said that everyone in Pennsylvania fought to protect “their beloved profitable Darling, Illegal Trade," and he, Quarry, "knew them to be a perverse, obstinate and turbulent people that will not submit to any power or Laws but their owne... They have so long encouraged and carried on a most pernicious Illegal trade that no ordinary means can make them part with it.” American historians barely mention Quarry today. I found two theses written in the 1930s, but that's it.

“Piracy” - against British merchants, that is - was eventually punished, pardoned or all but eliminated - at least in plain view. The words of colonial administrators, particularly Edward Randolph, have been made unavoidably clear.  The proprietary colonies or rule by private interest over those of the community, invited social instability, corruption, and inequality.  Lack of central government is truly to blame for pirates of the “Golden Age.”  An anti-government or total "freedom" theme has consistently run in our conservative rhetoric, at least since 1776. 

Not so in British. In a rare progressive moment, if privateers had employment in peacetime, like a National Fishery, said Johnson, they would not become pirates in the first place:
I need not bring any Proofs of what I advance, viz. that there are Multitudes of Seamen at this Day unemploy’d; it is but too evident by their straggling, and begging all over the Kingdom. Nor is it so much their Inclination to Idleness, as their own hard Fate, in being cast off after their Work is done, to starve or steal. I have not known a Man of War commission’d for several Years past, but three times her Compliment of Men have offer’d themselves in 24 Hours; the Merchants take their Advantage of this, lessen their Wages, and those few who are in Business are poorly paid, and but poorly fed; such Usage breeds Discontents amongst them, and makes them eager for any Change.  
Johnson called for a "federal" program not unlike that of the New Deal’s Civil Conservation Corps that put a financially-devastated America back to work after the Great Depression.  Of course, he only referred to common pirates that joined out of desperation and became the crews, not wealthy privateers in the first two years or so who usually captained the ships. The lessons of history are clear.  Ignorance of history in favor of profit is also clear. Johnson warned future generations perhaps that “Pyrates at Sea, have the same Sagacity with Robbers at Land.” He warned us as clearly as did Jefferson, Madison, and the Roosevelts.

Blackbeard, as Johnson ascertained, certainly more memorable than most pirates thanks partly to his book, had simply done what he was encouraged to do.  Still, Blackbeard excelled at the task. He cannot be accurately labeled the proverbial “black sheep” of a good family.  For a man of his time, he simply supported his family in the style of which he had been taught – the style of their iconic heroes or Elizabeth I's “Sea Dogs.” 

Changes in American mores developed in the West Indies over a century and a half before the American Revolution.  This late conflict did not begin a wholly new enterprise, conceived in liberty without the seeds of that individual freedom having been first planted in the Caribbean.  It merely refined and extended the existing paradigm created by early English merchant-pirates.  Their methods had already been shaped by trial and error, throughout the long separation from England. 

Every American has a fascination with demons. We have a secret desire to talk, read, and even experience the supposed evil that the word “piracy” now embodies. The traditional image of Blackbeard charms the serpents of imagination. Modern pirates are fully aware of this.

Capt. Charles Johnson’s General History unfortunately and ironically cast the seeds of this unholy creation. His book forms the epicenter of a three-century old whirlwind of books, television and movies that resemble nothing of the boy Blackbeard’s parents might have called “Edward, Jr.” Almost every work ever produced on this man involves the hearsay, legends, grotesque imagery that “pirates” have become today. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) has surely eclipsed Johnson and now commands the greatest attention from our imaginations. David Cordingly assures that “the effect of Treasure Island on our perception of pirates cannot be overstated.”  Pirate maps, black flags with skulls, schooners, tropical islands, and dirty, untrustworthy scoundrels supporting parrots on their shoulders, balancing between one real leg and one wooden, have satiated imaginations since. The picture below shows a woodcut designed to illustrate the supposed savagery of piracy. The horrid and bloody scene could be the eighteenth-century version of “Fright Night” on the local television station’s late Saturday evening’s programming. This is the image we now possess of pirates, cultivated through the centuries.

Horrid Piracy and Murderan eighteenth-century woodcut print. Source: San Antonio Light (11 Feb 1940)
According to historical fact, however, Blackbeard, considered one of the most notorious pirates of the Golden Age, used theatrics to avoid bloodshed. Thache forced his opponents to give up rather than fight, destroying the goods and killing his men - a waste of valuable resources. He most likely did not wreck the Queen Anne's Revenge on purpose, killing half of his crew - and his only real advantage against the Royal Navy. He never prostituted his wife to his men - no records show this. Perhaps because of his resistance to cold-blooded murder, his lack of bloodthirstiness, he literally lost his head.

Images like these, however, served a purpose. They served as an ideological blind for the actions of other pirates that dressed better, but continued to take advantage, or capitalize for profit. We encouraged their use, for ignorance is bliss. This message extended to more than just sugar, molasses, cocoa, and gold. It was used in the mercantile world to ensure protection of property rights to objects, images, even intellectual material like words and sounds. Even today, theft of copyrighted material is still called “piracy.” The derogatory term is used to frighten the average person who might try to copy a song or movie and sell it to, or even share it, with his or her friends. The new image of the old pirate like Blackbeard, Vane, Bonnet, and Low is low, dirty, foul, indiscreet, unscrupulous, smelly and wholly unlike the true pirates of today. My suspicion is that pirates of old were not quite like that either. 

One of the first images generated in a Google search for "piracy" and "freedom" involves the perceived resentment of music pirates to being charged with theft of copyrights.

Still, the term “piracy” is seldom used to describe the actions of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller or his modern counterparts. Rockefeller undercut his competition by selling cheap until they could no longer stay in business. Then his company raised their prices again, often higher than they were before. After all, the competition that kept prices down had been eliminated by a monopoly that could force its will upon its victims/customers. In the case of Rockefeller’s company in 1874, he folded his competitors businesses in less than two months! “Muckraker” Ida M. Tarbell’s book on the History of Standard Oil Company revealed his “unholy alliances”:
… an attempt was made to win over the producers by offering, through their union, to buy all their oil at five dollars a barrel for five years. Oil was four dollars at the time. The producers refused. Such an agreement could only be kept, they said, by an association which was an absolute monopoly, fixing prices of refined [oil] to satisfy its own greed. All they wanted of the producer was to be a party to their conspiracy. When they had destroyed his moral force and completed their monopoly they would pay him what they pleased for oil, and the price would not be five dollars! What could he do then? He would be their slave, there would be no other buyer, could be none, since they would control the entire transportation system.
Excessive tactics like those used by pirate corporations such as Rockefeller’s Standard Oil were afterward regulated with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Corporate-stock-owning executives, aware of the effect of the written word, perhaps refused to call it “Anti-Piracy,” but it was assuredly that, though not actually perpetrated on the high seas, as Judge Nicholas Trott defined it at Stede Bonnet's trial in Charles Town. “Trust” or “large business” was a much milder term. Despite the rhetoric, Blackbeard’s spirit still haunts our world. After all, only a pirate would allow undue monetary influence into elections - like with Citizen's United, a deceptively mild name for such an evil power.

Blackbeard and other pirates of the Golden Age would have been, perhaps, a bit too open and direct for more subtle and devious corporate tastes. Still, to avoid any comparison and future bad press, the image of pirates and Blackbeard were vilified and turned into something impossibly evil, something that certainly must not exist in the advanced, enlightened present. We found it absolutely necessary look away from our past. The images like those seen in "Horrid Piracy and Murder" purposely neither resemble pirates’ modern day corporate counterparts in business suits, nor the actual consequences of their profiteering. These popular images of base and low pirate scum, as North Carolina’s eminent historian Hugh Rankin would have seen them, committing unspeakably foul deeds and receiving their just reward, became the norm. Rankin saw Blackbeard as a "piece of trash." But, we now know that assessment to be completely wrong.

Image of Blackbeard’s severed head on the bowsprit – Source: San Antonio Light (11 Feb 1940)
America is waking up. People realize that the earliest pirates of the Golden Age were seldom different from the pirates of the Industrial Age, Robber Barons, or the pirates of current corporate America. Indeed, we may be present for and will learn from the newer “Golden Age of Greed” in which CEO’s like Jack Welch of General Electric can eliminate 100,000 jobs, ship those jobs overseas, and still receive a pension of $10 million a year - $100 per lost job, every year, for a lifetime - true profit! Accomplishing the recognition requires opening our eyes toward such corporate greed as well as shunning the fraudulent popular perceptions of Johnson, Stevenson, Rankin, Lee, and many others. 

Realistically, pirates of old did not resemble the young copiers of DVDs, the minor annoyances who are today still branded harshly as “pirates.” Blackbeard, the notorious pirate of the eighteenth century, happened to be a wealthy and aristocratic sugar merchant and privateer named Edward Thache, cunning and ruthless, an eager opportunist bursting to exercise himself in the game of profit. He was perhaps too enthusiasatic, an “enemy of all mankind” in the sense that he stole his loot without reserve and without a “commission” from a governor or board of directors.

Buccaneers in the seventeenth and pirates of the eighteenth-century’s Golden Age were actually economic founding fathers of America. They were patterns for the economic pirates of today, as surely as their earlier hero Sir Francis Drake provided their example. Blackbeard was no more ruthless than John Hancock, merchant, smuggler, statesman, and prominent patriot in the American Revolution. In one particular piratical incident, Hancock unloaded 75% of his cargo of Madeira wine before arriving in Boston Harbor in 1768 to pay the taxes. He only paid for the 25% still on board. He saved the other 75% and probably called this “profit.” When it was discovered that his hold was nearly empty, however, Hancock’s vessel, the Liberty, was seized. Two tidewaiters testified that nothing was unloaded and Hancock went free. One month later, while the British warship HMS Romney (no joke) was in port, one of the tidewaiters changed his story, saying that he had been forcibly held on the Liberty on the orders of John Hancock while the wine had been illegally unloaded. Historian Lawrence Karson tells:
When released, the tidesmen were subjected to "such threats and denunciation of vengeance, death and destruction in case they divulged the affair." The following day the Liberty was again boarded and seized when the collector of customs [claimed] twenty barrels of tar and two-hundred barrels of oil were found on board at the time of the seizure, yet no bond had been posted and no permit to load had been obtained.
Hancock committed a crime – to England – but not to Americans. Remember, “treason” and “pirate” are relative terms. Hancock became one of the wealthiest men of his time, had three U.S. Navy vessels named for him, cities across the country and businesses including John Hancock Insurance, John Hancock Tower, and the John Hancock Center in Chicago. He even has a university named after him. We have enthroned Hancock’s elegant visage in stone, for example, on his memorial in Boston's Granary Burying Ground. How does Hancock’s actions in the Liberty compare to those of a more complete understanding of Blackbeard today? Why is it that Blackbeard’s image is not majestically cast in stone? Why is it that there are no Navy vessels named “Edward Thache?” He simply existed 50 years too early. The picture below depicts perhaps two new views of eighteenth-century American merchant-pirates. 

Two memorials to merchant-pirates of the eighteenth century – (left) Smuggler John Hancock’s stone memorial in Boston's Granary Burying Ground, dedicated in 1896 and (right) Capt. Charles Johnson’s woodcut memorial to notorious pirate Edward Thache, published in 1736.
Until recently, we knew so little of Blackbeard and it seemed as though we would never truly understand the man - even his real name! He could become the scapegoat that American capitalists needed. Today, we know more about the former Royal Navy man, the wealthy son of likely sugar and maritime merchant Capt. Edward Thache, who sailed to Jamaica between 1680 and 1695. We understand that he probably respected human life. We now know of his grandfather, the Anglican minister Rev. Thomas Thache and his grandmother Rachel. Now known are his brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, in-laws, cousins, and perhaps, even his children. No longer does he exist apart from reality, only in our minds as “evil” and “notorious” – no longer can we claim absolutely no relation to the pirate – to the “black” deeds of “Blackbeard.” We have learned that to denigrate Edward Thache as just a criminal of the colonial seas is to ignore our own terrible profiteering past. Thache has been redeemed from a rhetorical life as a rogue and felon – reborn as simply another businessman in the immoral pecuniary precinct of theft and rhetoric known as American capitalism. Blackbeard’s historical image can now come to life as vividly and patriotically as the smuggler John Hancock’s. After all, it’s only fair.

Blackbeard's friends just made one simple mistake - the U.S. Constitution. It's a fluid document and can be changed. The pirates' and capitalists' mistake could actually change their world completely - we can have our democracy and keep it, too. We only need to vote. The days of pirates are numbered! ;)

The aristocratic pirate Stede Bonnet hanged in Charles Town in 1718!


Warning!! This could change your most basic perceptions...

See how the Bahamas and its sister colony Carolina became pirate strongholds through neglect of its wealthy private owners years before Hornigold and Thache and their “Flying Gang” - how pirates came to the American South, killed 600,000 people to maintain their "peculiar" institution of slavery, and developed a unique conservative ideology that survives today.

See where America began – from New Providence and Charleston to the Lower Cape Fear - enmeshed in the violent wilderness “beyond the lines of amity” – competition and sport, stealing treasure and burning ships - with Caribbean Buccaneers and Pirates of the Golden Age!


Look for the article:
“ ‘Born in Jamaica of Very Creditable Parents’ or ‘A Bristol Man Born’? Excavating the Real Edward Thache, ‘Blackbeard the Pirate’ “ in the July issue of North Carolina Historical Review!

Blackbeard Reconsidered:

Author site:

Blackbeard's Genealogy Poster:

Blackbeard in French records:

Other publications of Baylus C. Brooks:

Dianne's Genealogical Research Site:

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