Author Archives: Brian Bixby

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.

Walking the cinematic plank: Cutthroat Island

Cutthroat_island_ver2There are some pirate movies that reworked the image of piracy successfully, such as Treasure Island (1950), Peter Pan (in several versions and adaptations) and most recently Pirates of the Caribbean (2003 – present). And then there are bad pirate flicks. While there have always been bad pirate flicks, such as Double Crossbones (1951), for about forty years, 1960 – 2000, that seemed to be all Hollywood could make. I recently tracked down and watched one of these forgotten “gems,” 1995’s Cutthroat Island, to see if I could figure out just why Hollywood couldn’t get it right for so long.

Cutthroat Island has it all, apparently: great sets, fast-paced action, a naval engagement, a treasure, a love interest, backstabbing, family disputes, a monkey, and the ritualized rape and murder of thousands of innocent civilians. Just kidding about that last one. This is a PG-13 movie, which means they can only hint at sex, and while extensive violence is allowed, it has to be relatively bloodless.

But they ARE great action scenes!

But they ARE great action scenes!

Bloodless. or maybe bodiless: that’s a major problem with this film. The movie spends so much time on its action scenes, from tavern fights to ship flights, that the characters get little change to develop. Everything looks so clean and antiseptic most of the time, even cleaner than the Disney-produced Pirates of the Caribbean films. And although Geena Davis could play a hot gal or a determined woman, in this film she always looks like someone’s suburban mother . . . even when she’s supposed to be playing a hot gal or a determined pirate captain.

This could have been hot

This could have been hot

Cutthroat Island apparently was trying to mix serious spectacle with self-parodying humor. This can be a successful formula: Against All Flags and The Crimson Pirate both did it in the 1950s, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films at their best do likewise. But the poorly developed characters undermine both aspects of this film. It’s significant that the single funniest joke in the film is Geena David cracking a double entendre at the beginning, so unexpected given her motherly appearance; while Matthew Modine’s character has his most amusing scenes when he first appears and has a chance to strut his stuff, before he gets sucked into the main plot and all character development is sacrificed.

History? Perish the thought! Apart from being set at Port Royal during the heyday of the buccaneers, history has no role in this film. And the film doesn’t even take advantage of that! Here we have Geena Davis playing a female pirate captain when there was no such thing in the Caribbean, and yet most of the time it passes unnoticed and unremarked.

What we’re left with is a film that’s probably best suited for kids immediately on either side of puberty. 8-year-olds will enjoy the action scenes while the sexual references pass over their heads. While 14-year-olds would snicker at the sexual references.

Cutthroat Island bombed at the box office in 1995, and almost killed Geena Davis’s career. Partly that was due to the film itself, partly to its troubled production and distribution history. Hollywood took it as evidence that pirate films wouldn’t work as mainstream films, as they did with Roman Polanski’s Pirates a decade earlier. Instead, they should have realized that they needed stronger characters and either better humor (the route Pirates of the Caribbean took) or grittier stories (which is where the first season of Black Sails went).

Getting rid of a pirate captain in the Golden Age of Piracy

The pirate crew thinks their captain has screwed up. So how do they get rid of him?

The "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies departed even further from the truth by making the black spot a supernatural thing

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies departed even further from the truth by making the black spot a supernatural thing

Well, if you read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, they slip him the black spot, a piece of paper marked black on one side, and the crew’s decision on the other. Late in the novel, the pirates want to depose Long John Silver as captain, but they’re a little short of paper. So they cut out a round spot from the last page of a Bible one of the pirates carries!

It’s a great story, but there’s no truth to it. Stevenson probably made it up himself.

Which raises the question of just how did a pirate crew in the Golden Age of Piracy deal with an unsatisfactory captain. Oh, Stevenson has the right of it in one respect. There really was a commonly understood procedure to deal with complaints about the captain. Which is not to say it was always followed.

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Let’s follow one instance where it was done right. Charles Vane was one of the red hots among the pirates who wouldn’t accept the King’s Pardon in August, 1718. He recruited a crew of other red hots who didn’t want to give up piracy, gathered them in his ship, the Ranger, and sailed out of New Providence harbor. Oh, and he used a fireship to try to burn up the Royal Navy ships in the harbor as he left. He failed, but what brass! Clearly Vane was a daring pirate captain.

Vane knew that the best way to keep his crew happy was to take as many prizes as possible. That way they’d have enough food and drink. And if they got lucky, they might capture a ship with a lot of gold and silver on board. They did well enough for a while. But then Vane lost a prize when the pirates crewing it went off on their own, and spent a month heading south without taking a single ship. The crew grumbled.

Someone really ought to do a movie about Roberts' last fight

Someone really ought to do a movie about Roberts’ last fight

On November 23, Vane saw a ship, pursued it, and ran up the pirate colors. Instead of surrendering, the other vessel raised the French colors and let loose a broadside. It was a French Navy ship! Vane decided the best course was to get away, as fast as he possibly could. It was probably the right decision. It was suicidal for pirates to engage a navy ship most of the time. The navy’s professionalism and strict discipline usually gave them an edge, even against pirate ships mounting more guns. This was so well understood that when “Black Bart” Roberts, one of the most successful pirates of that era, found himself trapped and forced to fight a Royal Navy ship, he tried his best to run past it in a storm. And even then, he thought it so likely he’d be defeated that he gave orders to try to run the ship aground to let the crew escape should they not evade the warship.

The Navy ship Vane confronted actually outgunned his ship. So Vane was very wise to turn heels and run rather than engage the ship. But for some reason the crew didn’t see it that way. Maybe they’d seized so little loot they were desperate. Maybe they were drunk and foolhardy. But they wanted to fight that Navy ship, and they loudly told Vane as much. However, it was a rule that in times of combat or chase, a pirate captain’s authority was absolute. Vane invoked that rule, and the pirates had no choice but to comply, then.

A pirate captain’s authority counted for nothing once the ship was not in a combat situation. Instead, the quartermaster became the most powerful officer. Originally the officer responsible for keeping track of supplies and sharing out the loot, the quartermaster had become a sort of crew’s tribune, responsible for presenting the crew’s concerns to the captain. On board the Ranger, the quartermaster was “Calico Jack” Rackam. Rackam called the crew and captain together the very next day, explained that the crew was dissatisfied with Vane’s performance, and called for a vote to label Vane a coward and depose him. The majority so voted, and Vane was deposed. And that was that.

Well, except for the question of who would be the next captain. The most obvious choice was the other major officer, the quartermaster. And that’s how Calico Jack Rackam became captain of the Ranger.

And there was the little problem of what to do with Vane. Pirates might often be drunk and illiterate, but they weren’t incredibly stupid. They realized that a man might not enjoy losing his position as captain, and might intrigue with his loyal followers to retake command. So the usual procedure was to get rid of the captain somehow. In Vane’s case, they had a prize, a small sloop, accompanying the Ranger. They gave the sloop to Vane and the handful of crewmen who were loyal to him, and the two pirate ships went their separate ways.

Weird fact: One of the "forced" men who overthrew Phillips was President Millard Fillmore's great-grandfather!

Weird fact: One of the “forced” men who overthrew Phillips was President Millard Fillmore’s great-grandfather!

That was the right way to do things. Even so, Vane was relatively lucky. Sometimes ex-captains were put off in a small boat, as Henry Every did to the legitimate captain of the vessel he seized to turn pirate back in 1694. Or he might be marooned on a small island, as Edward England was after he was deposed for being too kind to a merchant captain in 1720. Or, worse yet, he could be killed, as John Phillips was in 1724. Although perhaps the last example is unfair: Phillips was killed when the “forced” men (men who had been forced to join the pirates from legitimate ships) rose up and took over the vessel to end their piratical career. Hardly a voting situation!

Vane’s fate points to another way pirates broke with their captain, or sometimes vice versa. Pirates would sometimes keep ships they had taken, and split their numbers across two or more ships. Usually each ship would have its own captain, but the senior captain would have authority over all of them. Black Bart Roberts styled himself as “Admiral” and had as many as four ships under his command at one time. In practice, this was a recipe for dissension. It was natural for the overall commander to favor his own ship, and the captains of the other ships were often tempted to sneak away during the night or during a storm to strike out on their own. It happened at least twice to Roberts. Indeed, it was after Walter Kennedy made off with a ship in 1719 that Roberts drew up his articles which expressly forbade desertion.

There were many variations of the Jolly Roger; here is Walter Kennedy's

There were many variations of the Jolly Roger; here is Walter Kennedy’s

At least once, the trick was turned the other way. Blackbeard commanded a fleet of four ships in 1718, and they had accumulated a nice amount of loot. Blackbeard decided to cut most of his pirates out of their share. So he ran his two largest ships aground as if by accident. He sent off one of the other captains, Stede Bonnet, on pretext of securing a pardon, transferred all the loot into the smaller of his two remaining vessels, stripped the other one of its ship stores, and then sailed off with his favorite crew, leaving over 200 pirates stranded behind. So much for pirate honor!

They left Kidd's body to hang as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

They left Kidd’s body to hang as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

Then of course there were the other ways to end a captain’s rule. He could drown in a shipwreck, as Samuel Bellamy did off Cape Cod in 1717. Or he could die in combat when his ship was attacked, as happened to Blackbeard in 1718 or Roberts in 1722. Or he could be hanged after he has been captured and brought to trial, as happened with Captain Kidd in 1700, and both Vane and Rackam in 1720.

Pirate codes of conduct from the Golden Age (1721-24)

It seems odd for pirates to have rules. After all, are they not the lawless ones, the enemies to all nations? Yet pirates need to keep order among themselves, if they are to cooperate successfully in the taking and plundering of other ships, as well as managing their own ships.

In the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" film, Keith Richards gets to play the keeper of the pirate code

In the third “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, Keith Richards gets to play the keeper of the pirate code

The pirates of the “Golden Age of Piracy” (roughly 1713 – 1730) took as their model the articles apprentices signed when they joined a profession. It is these articles that describe the pirates’ codes of conducts. We have at least four examples of pirate articles adopted by crews during the Golden Age, specifically between 1721 and 1724: those of Capt. “Black Bart” Roberts and Capt. John Phillips, who at one point sailed with Roberts, and those of Capt. George Lowther and Capt. Ned Low, who at one time sailed with Lowther. (Wikipedia gives the text of all four, plus that of Capt. John Gow, which I’ve excluded because it’s not clear whether his crew ever actually sailed under them.) Their many commonalities reflect not just a common pirate culture, but a recognition of the need for certain rules on any pirate ship.

Maybe his lesser share as captain explains why John Phillips once forced a man to drink at gunpoint

Maybe his lesser share as captain explains why John Phillips once forced a man to drink at gunpoint

The highest priority in the pirate articles was the equality of the crew members. Every code stated that crew members equally share in the plunder. Roberts’ code, the most elaborate, also called for equality in voting, provisioning, and joining boarding parties. The captain, quartermaster, and a few other officers got somewhat larger shares (typically two for the captain, though Capt. Phillips had to make do with only a share-and-a-half), but that’s about the only exception to equality on pirate ships. This put them in marked contrast to merchant vessels and navy ships, in which authority and pay were structured very hierarchically. It’s no wonder sailors sometimes chose to join a pirate vessel that attacked them. Pirate ships offered sailors more authority over their own lives, as well as a chance at more money, so long as you didn’t also mind the risk of being hanged.

Next in the articles came discipline. Pirates by their nature had to be ready and willing to engage in combat whenever they came upon a potential prize. Roberts and Phillips made this explicit in their codes: weapons were to be kept in a state of readiness at all times. Perhaps even more importantly, cowardice and desertion were forbidden according to all four of the codes. The most typical punishment for those crimes: death by being marooned.

Marooned (1909) by Howard Pyle (1853 - 1911)

Marooned (1909) by Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911)

Marooning was a simple and devilish punishment. The idea was to strand the offending pirate on a small island that lacked food, shelter, or fresh water. Preferably the island should be far away from the shipping lanes, such that the chance of rescue was unlikely. The marooned sailor was sometimes given a bottle of water or rum. But he was always given a pistol, and enough powder and shot to blow his own brains out. So the marooned sailor had two choices: die quickly from a bullet to the head, or die slowly from starvation and dehydration while hoping that maybe a ship might come by and rescue him.

Most marooned pirates probably died. Without witnesses, their ultimate fate was lost to history. But some survived. Captain Edward England was marooned by his crew over a dispute on the treatment of captives, was left on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean in 1720, along with three pirates who had taken his side in the dispute. They managed to escape to Madagascar.

Said to be Captain Lowther

Said to be Captain Lowther

Capt. Lowther, whose articles are among those we are examining, was marooned, so to speak, not as a punishment, but due to misadventure. He had taken his ship to a small island to be careened, that is, to be rolled on its side on a beach to scrape off marine growths and repair the hull.  Unfortunately for Lowther, an armed merchant vessel spied the pirates and attacked them, damaging the ship and taking much of the crew prisoner. Caught on a small island with no hope of rescue, Lowther is said to have shot himself in the head.

But piracy wasn’t all hard rules and tragic endings. Three of the codes contained incentives for good performance at helping find loot, such as sighting a prize or being part of the boarding party. (And probably the fourth vessel offered the same rewards, but just didn’t put them in their code.) And should you be injured in combat, all four codes offered you compensation according to the severity of your injuries. Lose a leg? Three out of the four sets of articles would pay you 800 Spanish dollars; Ned Low’s crew cheaped out and would only pay you 600. However, if you ever felt a little envious of some legless crew member for getting cash up front, and tried to take treasure for yourself instead of turning it over to the common treasury, you were violating the equality of sharing, and that would get you marooned.

Howard Pyle did a LOT of pictures about pirates, as well as writing about them

Howard Pyle did a LOT of pictures about pirates, as well as writing about them

Piracy was a violent life, no doubt, and the captains and crews knew it. So they set rules to keep from destroying themselves. Quarreling on board was absolutely prohibited, and was punished at the crew’s discretion. Roberts’ code contains what was probably the “safety valve” for this rule: if you wanted to fight, you had to take it ashore.

More curious to the modern eye, but just as essential, was the rule common to all four codes against gaming on board. Why? Think about it. The premise of piracy is that all will share and share alike. But if gaming is allowed, some will leave the ship much the richer, while others will have little to show for their efforts. Gaming would breed dissention and internal conflicts among the crew. It would increase dissatisfaction among those that no longer were making a profit from the voyage. So it was bad for the unity of the crew, for the happiness of the crew, and for the success of the voyage. This rule was so old it can be traced back to buccaneers like Henry Morgan. For much the same reason, Roberts’ rules include one that the crew will not break up until everyone makes a fortune of £1000. With the threat of death by execution hanging over them, pirate ships needed committed crews.

Only Roberts’ and his one-time crew member Phillips’ rules say anything about keeping women off the ship, or prohibiting pirates from molesting “prudent” women. I suspect this is yet another attempt to maintain discipline and keep the crew from internal conflicts. It was unlikely that a pirate ship would encounter sufficient women at sea to keep their entire crew happy. Best that everyone go without until the next time the ship visits a port. Not all crews felt that way; Low’s gang-raped and tortured at least one woman. But then Low was a psychopath, and probably inspired his crew to such deeds.

Sorry, JSB, yours is not a sick beat as far as pirates are concerned

Sorry, JSB, yours is not a sick beat as far as pirates are concerned

No women, no gambling: life on a pirate ship could get pretty dull. What to do for a diversion? Why, music, of course. Pirates loved music. I doubt they were great fans of Johann Sebastian Bach; they probably liked country airs and other old traditional songs. So when they took prizes, if they found any musicians aboard, they often “forced” them to join the pirate crew. But the pirates were not without some humanity. Roberts’ code contains a provision that the musicians are guaranteed Sunday as a day of rest. But they couldn’t refuse to perform any other day!

And that’s symbolic of these pirate articles in general: a mix of concern for the free and equal members of the crew, combined with the need for iron discipline among a society of violent men. Because that’s what these pirates were: an egalitarian society of criminals.

The career of Calico Jack Rackam, the pirate with two women pirates on his ship

Having already posted about the two famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, it’s time to look at their pirate captain, “Calico Jack” Rackam. In many ways, he’s typical of pirates in the Golden Age of Caribbean piracy, roughly 1713-1730.

The guy with the overextended lower jaw is Carlos II of Spain, whose inability to father children and death began the War of the Spanish Succession

The guy with the overextended lower jaw is Carlos II of Spain, whose inability to father an heir began the War of the Spanish Succession

As with most pirates, we know very little about the early life of Jack Rackam. He was probably English, and I’d guess at a birthdate around 1690. Best guess, based on his subsequent career, is that he had been at sea, possibly as a privateer, in the years before the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ended the War of the Spanish Succession. The end of the war ended large-scale privateering, for the European powers were at peace. They even reduced the size of their navies. Hence there were a lot of unemployed sailors milling around the Caribbean, just looking for decent employment. And if they had been privateers, they wouldn’t have been too averse to engaging in a little violence to make some money, and a lot more violence if a substantial amount of treasure was involved.

Well, lucky for them, a Spanish treasure fleet sank in shallow waters off the coast of Florida on June 30, 1715. All that lovely silver, just waiting for someone to salvage it. In November, 1715, the governor of Jamaica dispatched Captain Henry Jennings to go to Florida and dredge up some of the silver. Jennings arrived at the site of the shipwrecks, only to find that the Spanish government had already sent a salvage crew, which had been working on the wrecks for months.

There was gold in that treasure fleet, too! (Credit: Wikipedia/Augi Garcia)

There was gold in that treasure fleet, too!
(Credit: Wikipedia/Augi Garcia)

At this point, Jennings, shall we say, exceeded his orders. Instead of just leaving, which would have been the proper course, or competing with the Spanish in salvaging the wrecks, which would have been in accordance with his orders if illegal, he attacked and plundered the Spanish camp. Why waste time diving for treasure, when you can just kill some soldiers and take it? He came away with 60,000 pieces of eight. And then he went back again in January, 1716, attacked the Spanish again, and this time picked up 120,000 pieces of eight.

But Jennings’s success came at a price. The Spanish complained to the British, and the British government disavowed Jennings, making him a pirate.

Jennings needed someplace to go, someplace where he and his crew could spend their new wealth, trade for new ship supplies, and use as a base for further plundering. Naturally, the Spanish and British colonies were closed against him, and the French and Dutch didn’t want him either. Legitimate commerce was now more important than piracy to the European powers. What Jennings needed was an island not ruled by any of the colonial powers, a place that would welcome pirates.

As it turned out, there was such a place: New Providence in the Bahamas. Officially, the Bahamas were ruled by the British. But the Spanish had raided the islands during the late war, destroying British authority there. And in November, 1715, a pirate named Benjamin Hornigold sailed into the harbor, occupied the old fort, and established control of the island.

The women look right elegant in Black Sails' version of New Providence

The women look right elegant in Black Sails’ version of New Providence

Recent popular television series, such as Black Sails and Crossbones, have made New Providence into a tropical paradise, a prosperous pirate republic in which wealthy pirates can live in sumptuous mansions, while lesser criminals can patronize elegant whorehouses that would do credit to New Orleans circa 1900. The truth was a lot less elegant. New Providence had been a small, almost ruined settlement when Hornigold arrived, and the influx of pirates and traders meant an awful lot of tents and ramshackle structures had to be put up in a hurry. The place more resembled a goldmining camp than a resort town.

Jennings took up residence in this lawless bustling trading port. One of his subordinates was a man named Charles Vane. And probably by this time, one of Vane’s crew was Calico Jack.

New Providence became a pirate’s haven, and perhaps even a pirate’s heaven, for two years. No doubt Jennings, Vane, and Rackam enjoyed their time there. And then in December, 1717 the news came that Britain was going to reestablish control of the island. A former privateer named Woodes Rogers was going to be the new governor. He would come with ships and guns. And he would also come with a royal pardon. Any pirate that foreswore his lawless ways would be forgiven his former crimes. Any pirate that did not, or any pirate who did and then broke his word, would be hunted down and executed.

So the pirates debated among themselves whether to accept the pardon or not. Jennings probably hadn’t wanted to be a pirate, so he was all for the pardon. So was Hornigold. And so, it turned out, were a majority of the pirates on New Providence. But not all.

On Black Sails, Vane is a violent man, Rackam a sort of 18th c. pirate PR man, and Bonny is a psycho-killer

On Black Sails, Vane is a violent man, Rackam a sort of 18th c. pirate PR man, and Bonny is a psycho-killer

Charles Vane was one of the die-hards. He recruited a crew of other pirates, including Calico Jack, who wanted to continue on as pirates. And in one of those acts of bravado that endeared pirates to the public imagination, Vane waited until after Rogers arrived on July 26, 1718 to take his leave, in spectacular fashion. He filled a captured French ship with combustible materials, set it on fire, and sent it toward the British warships in the harbor. It failed to destroy the warships, but it caused a lot of havoc, especially when its loaded cannons blew up. And in the confusion, Vane escaped in his ship Ranger.

Vane was captain, while Calico Jack was on board the Ranger as quartermaster. These titles don’t quite mean what they do today. As captain, Vane’s authority was absolute in combat situations, and officially nonexistent otherwise. The quartermaster managed the ship’s supplies and treasury, making sure everyone got their fair share, and represented the crew to the captain. While technically subordinate to the captain, in a lot of ways the quartermaster was even more powerful. However, both officers could be voted out of office by the crew.

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

If it wasn’t clear enough, Vane proved himself a pirate by seizing a sloop from the British island of Barbados two days later. And so he became a marked man, the pirate who had openly defied Woodes Rogers and the British Navy. A useful reputation for terrifying merchant ships into surrendering without a fight, but a bad one if he were to be caught.

And with New Providence lost to the pirates, Vane and his crew had to live on what they captured. Trade goods were useless to them, until they found a new friendly port. No, what they needed were supplies: food, clothing, ship stores, medicine. Most ships only carried enough gold and silver coin for trading purposes, and while it was nice to seize, it wouldn’t make the pirates rich.

They did well enough for a while. But tension arose between the crew of the Ranger and the Barbadian sloop they had seized and manned. The pirates on the sloop felt they were getting short-changed, and resolved to go off on their own. Vane naturally took this as an insult, and chased the sloop until it took refuge in shallow waters along the South Carolina coast. The sloop’s crew then appealed for a pardon to the authorities, who granted it. At a stroke, Vane was deprived of a significant part of his strength.

That was always the danger with pirate crews. They were democratic in the most basic sense: you couldn’t do anything without a majority of the crew on the ship backing you up. And that made pirate fleets rare, for each ship’s captain was jealous of his authority and could survive only with the backing of his crew.

Blackbeard's flag: he wanted you to know he could kill you

Blackbeard’s flag: he wanted you to know he could kill you

You’d think Vane would have learned from the sloop’s defection. And if not from that, well, from his get-together with the pirate Blackbeard. The two captains met up in September, 1718, and spent some time in a continual drunken party. It was a great party, but the two captains made no common cause. Blackbeard had an under-the-table arrangement with the governor of North Carolina, and stayed, while Vane sailed north to Long Island.

And then Vane’s downfall began. He challenged what he thought was an armed merchant ship. Instead, it turned out to belong to the French royal navy, and made it clear it was quite willing to fight it out with Vane. Mindful that the French warship outgunned him, Vane decided to run for it. He had absolute authority as captain to make that decision. But the moment they escaped the French, Rackam as quartermaster called for a vote to depose Vane on the grounds he was a coward, and it carried. Rackam became the new captain of the pirate crew on November 24, 1718.

Vane and the minority of the crew who stuck with him were given a small sloop, which they sailed into the Caribbean. After one misadventure after another, Vane first lost his ship and then was taken prisoner by an honest ship captain who recognized him and transported him to Jamaica, where he was thrown into prison for a year. He was tried in Jamaica on March 22, 1721, found guilty of piracy, and hanged a week later.

Rackam as depicted by contemporaries

Rackam as depicted by contemporaries

Rackam was now captain of a pirate ship. In his General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), Capt. Charles Johnson offers an account of what Rackam did next, and also accounts of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. They’re colorful accounts. But stripped of the more romantic details, what they really amount to is that Rackam and his fellow pirates survived. They escaped capture. They took several prizes. But none of the prizes made them rich.

Maybe that’s the reason Rackam petitioned for the King’s Pardon and was accepted in May of 1719, and so ceased to be a pirate. But that probably wasn’t his only reason. For war had broken out again between Britain and Spain in December, 1718, and the British government decided it was desperate enough for sailors to pardon some more pirates so they could serve as privateers. Kind of short-sighted of the British government, since the war was wrapped up with a peace treaty in February, 1720.

So let’s give Rackam some points for being clever. It was not the first time. Taking the ship away from Vane was probably the first. And Johnson mentions an episode where Rackam’s ship got trapped behind an island by a Spanish coast guard ship which was accompanied by a prize sloop the coast guard had taken earlier. Rackam waited until nightfall, loaded his crew into a boat, quietly rowed it over to the prize, boarded and seized it, and then used it to escape.

But Rackam’s cleverness had limits. With the coming of peace, Rackam was out of a job as a privateer (assuming he had become one). So he fell back on his old trade, and by August, 1720, he was back at sea as a pirate. Given his past track record, this wasn’t a wise move; worse, it certainly meant he’d never get another chance at a pardon. Still, he had Anne Bonny as his mistress with him. And Mary Read was with him, though they were not lovers. Sadly, the one thing that wasn’t with him was luck. His men took only a few small boats before being pursued and captured by an armed merchant vessel sent out to hunt for them. They were brought to trial in Jamaica on November 16, 1720. Rackam, along with most of the crew, was found guilty and condemned to death. Probably the death sentence hurt him less than being scorned as a coward by Anne Bonny while he awaited execution, which occurred the next day.

Apart from his association with Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Rackam’s career was too typical of pirates in his time. They were privateers when they could be and pirates when they could not. Their prizes could keep them fed, clothed, and drunk, but gave them neither wealth nor safety. Becoming a leader put you at risk of your crew turning against you. And by 1720, the odds were good that you’d be captured and hanged before too long.

Pirates, states, and international law

WorldMapLongLat-eq-circles-tropics-nonToday, if you look at a map of the world, its land mass is likely to be divided up into about 200 nations, each marked in a distinctive color, which collectively take up the entire land surface of the earth.[i] The idea that the world should be divided up into nations, each of which occupies its exclusive territory, seems so natural that it’s hard to realize that in its fullest form this idea is only about a century and a half old.

For European rulers at the dawn of the modern era, sovereignty wasn’t primarily about uniform control of territory under one set of laws, nor about a nation of people. It was about rights held by the rulers over people, communities, institutions, and lands, rights which were not necessarily territorial in nature. For example, the rulers of a city might have the right to use the water from a spring that was several miles away on land ruled by someone else. Or a king might be able to regulate market days in his kingdom, except for certain cities which had purchased the right to regulate their own market days from the king’s predecessors. Or some individual might be ruler of several lands, and yet he might have different rights in each land, each land might have different laws, and their union under that individual might not survive his death. England and Scotland were ruled by the same people from 1603 onward, but they didn’t have a common government until 1707, and still have some different laws. That combination has endured for a long time, while the union of Sweden and Poland under the same king didn’t even last seven years (1592-99).

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was another example of two states under one monarch. Note how it consisted of many peoples, several of which have their own nations today.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was another example of two states under one monarch. Note how it consisted of many peoples, several of which have their own nations today.

“But what does this have to do with piracy?” you ask. Well, the rise of piracy in the Caribbean between 1630 and 1730 has to do with how European rulers tried to extend their sovereignty over the New World.

It helped the Spanish that Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503) was himself Spanish

It helped the Spanish that Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503) was himself Spanish

Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World in 1492 led the Pope in 1493 to give the Spanish monarchs the right to conquer the heathen lands of the New World and bring Christianity to the natives there.[ii] This set up two important principles for staking a claim to lands in the New World: discover it, and get the Pope to ratify your claim.

Alas for the Spanish, the Protestant Reformation turned England and the Netherlands into Protestant countries, which didn’t care one bit what the Pope said. So along with the first two principles came a third: a European ruler could lay claim to territory in the New World simply by occupying it in force with settlers and soldiers.

Hence from 1600 onward, the Caribbean became the scene of a conflict between the Spanish, who thought they had an exclusive right to the region[iii], while the English, Dutch, and French, along with some minor powers, simply tried to seize and hold islands and coastal settlements in the region, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. And, as we’ll discuss in class, they found the buccaneers useful auxiliaries in supporting their wars against the Spanish as late as the 1690s.

Supposedly cannons in the early modern era could throw their shot three miles, hence the three-mile territorial waters limit. (Credit: Wikipedia/GrahamColm)

Supposedly cannons in the early modern era could throw their shot three miles, hence the three-mile territorial waters limit.
(Credit: Wikipedia/GrahamColm)

Meanwhile, powerful rulers were beginning to transforms their domains into states more closely resembling the ones we have today, with uniform laws and exclusive territorial control. Curiously, that development raised a problem in prosecuting pirates. For states only controlled their territorial waters. No state controlled the high seas, the waters more than 3 miles offshore. So if pirates operated on the high seas, who had the right to prosecute them?

Legal theorists had developed the idea of international law, law that applied to relations between states (not necessarily what we would call nations these days, but close enough). The idea was that there should be laws that apply universally to all humans, laws that could even constrain the actions of states. Who would enforce these laws was a good question, but the concept was there.

Since piracy on the high seas could not be prosecuted under the laws of any state, it seemed a good candidate for treatment by the international law. And so European legal theorists borrowed the idea from ancient Rome that that piracy was a crime against all humanity, because the pirates robbed and harmed people without regard to law or decency. While that resolved the status of piracy as a crime, it still left unclear who had the authority to prosecute piracy on the high seas. But the legal theorists had an answer for that as well. While no country could, on its own authority, prosecute piracy on the high seas, they could, as stewards for humanity and international law, take it upon themselves to prosecute piracy on the high seas for the offense against all humanity it was.

And so the laws of European states were extended over the oceans to which they had no proper claim, even in their own eyes, for the sake of ridding the world of piracy.

Barbary (Muslim North African) pirates attacking a Frech ship in the Mediterranean

Barbary (Muslim North African) pirates attacking a Frech ship in the Mediterranean

NOTES

[i] There are a few exceptions, including colonial possessions, disputed territories, and officially unclaimed territories.

[ii] Brazil was the exception, granted to the Portuguese because of their prior voyages of exploration, and due to the geographical accident of being east of the line drawn in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) between Spain and Portugal modifying the Pope’s ruling.

[iii] Officially conditional on converting the natives to Christianity, which, it must be said, the Spanish often did, never mind how or that they then proceeded to exploit the natives. The English policy of effectively driving the Native Americans off their lands wasn’t any better.

Summer “Pirates!” class postings

Now that summer’s here, and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s “Pirates!” course is in session, I expect I’ll be posting every week while the class is running.

However, due to a singular misadventure, the post I planned to put up for Sunday will not go up until Monday noon. My apologies to my students. In the meantime, I suggest they look at the previous posts on how Henry “Long Ben” Avery was linked to the fictional realm of Libertalia and the women pirates of the Caribbean.

Has the Adventure Galley of Captain Kidd been found?

Barry Clifford, famous for discovering the wreck of pirate captain Samuel Bellamy’s ship Whydah off of Cape Cod, has surfaced in the news with the claim that he has recovered a silver bar from the wreck of Captain William Kidd’s “pirate ship,” the Adventure Galley, off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. If so, it would be one of the very few pirate ships ever salvaged, along with the Whydah and another pirate ship, the Quedah Merchant, also one of Kidd’s ships.

I’ve summarized Kidd’s career as a pirate-hunter turned pirate here. (For more details, Robert Ritchie’s Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (1986) does an excellent job of combining scholarship with a lively narrative.) The Adventure Galley was the original pirate-hunting ship Kidd sailed to the Indian Ocean. Kidd abandoned it in 1698 on the island of Sainte Marie, a popular pirate haven just off the east coast of Madagascar, because the vessel was unseaworthy. The Quedah Merchant had been Kidd’s most lucrative prize as a pirate; he sailed that vessel from Madagascar to Hispaniola, before abandoning it in 1699 as too obvious an indication that he had indeed become a pirate.

Is Clifford’s find the Adventure Galley? As I’ve mentioned, many other pirates used Sainte Marie. In fact, a whole series of legendary tales developed around the pirates of Madagascar. (I’ll be offering a transcription of one of the oldest such stories sometime before July.) So while Clifford has the Whydah to his credit, Ritchie is right: there are other possibilities, and the silver bar in itself doesn’t tell us which ship it came from. It’s not like the Whydah, where Clifford found the ship’s bell inscribed with the ship’s name on it. I have to wonder if Clifford has seized on Kidd because his name is better known than that of the other Indian Ocean pirates. Nevertheless, I’m rooting for him to at least have found a pirate ship.

There are no surviving pictures of the Adventure Galley, but this is of a very similar ship, the Charles Galley

There are no surviving pictures of the Adventure Galley, but this is of a very similar ship, the Charles Galley

And on the sister blog to this one

I rarely cross-post from my fiction blog to my historical blog (or vice versa) but this is one of those exceptions, and it’s to toot someone else’s horn, so it’s OK. Over at Sillyverse, E. J. Barnes, whom some of you know as an illustrator and comic book artist, has a picture that goes with my current serialized story, Summer of the Netherfield Witch. So follow this link and take a look!

My apologies for the paucity of recent posts. After I taught a course on pirates, I needed to take a break for a bit. New articles should be appearing soon.

And now a change of topic: the Shakers go west

There is a blog called We’re History that offers historical insights written by historians for the general public. I occasionally contribute. Today’s post was mine, about the Shaker missionaries to Kentucky in the winter of 1805. It’s quite a little adventure that helped make the Shakers among the most successful communal groups in American history. You can get to it by following this hyperlink.

Shakers performing one of their famous dances during worship

Shakers performing one of their famous dances during worship

As low as one can go: the pirate captain Ned Low

Gentlemen pirates like Drake are knighted by the Queen

Gentlemen pirates like Drake are knighted by the Queen

Thanks to Rafael Sabatini and Hollywood, we have the popular image of the pirate captain as a heroic, and sometimes even noble figure. There’s something to be said about this when one talks about people such as Sir Francis Drake. But the Golden Age pirate captains were a common lot, and not known for their virtues. Oh, occasionally you run into the likes of Major Stede Bonnet, who was definitely a gentleman and not very good as a pirate captain. Or Edward England, who could so admire the fighting spirit of a merchant captain who fought against him that England set him free and let him go his way unharmed, instead of killing him as his pirate crew desired.

But those characters were exceptional. By and large, the only virtue pirate captains had was bravery in battle. They were thieves, plain and simple, leaders of thieving crews, capable of unreasoning violence.

And sometimes they were much, much worse. How bad? Consider the case of Ned Low.

Keep in mind that by the 1713-1730 “Golden Age of Piracy,” there were a lot of pirates who had served on merchantmen. They had not enjoyed the low pay or harsh discipline imposed by many captains. And they sometimes took vengeance on captains of ships they seized as prizes. They’d ask the seamen on that ship if the captain was a good man or bad, and treat him accordingly. Good captains often got their ships back, and even much of their cargo. Bad captains might be killed.

Nope, no oil portraits of Ned Low for some reason. Instead we have this engraving, which you would think is symbolic of what Ned did to commerce, but is really about an actual incident when a  storm almost sank his ship

Nope, no oil portraits of Ned Low for some reason. Instead we have this engraving, which you would think is symbolic of what Ned did to commerce, but is really about an actual incident when a storm almost sank his ship

But this does not explain Ned Low. Ned seems to have combined innate viciousness with a lust for vengeance, and, to make matters worse, easily took offense. His career as a pirate captain began on May 28, 1722, when pirate captain George Lowther decided he would better be rid of a trouble causer like Ned, and turned over a new prize to him. That tells you something about Ned right there, that a pirate captain considered him too wild.

Many pirates would ransack the cargoes of the ships they captured, taking what they wanted, and sometimes casually destroying the rest. But that wasn’t enough for Ned Low. No, during much of his career as a pirate Ned preferred to set fire to the ships and destroy them and their remaining cargo. New England and Portuguese ships in particular got this treatment due to grudges Ned held.

Still, that was better than his treatment of the people on board of the ships he captured. He’d captured a French ship of 34 guns in July, but decided to scrap her after taking a pink (a square-rigged narrow-stern cargo ship) that sailed better. Apparently the French ship’s cook had been unsatisfactory, his cooking too greasy, because Ned had him bound to the mainmast before he burned the ship. The joke was watching the cook burn, to see if he was also too greasy.

Ned's crew thought that stringing up people was entertaining

Ned’s crew thought that stringing up people was entertaining

At least the poor cook wasn’t Portuguese. Low seems to have disliked them even more than the French. He captured a ship in August with Portuguese passengers. His crew delighted in stringing up two Portuguese friars to the foreyard mast by their arms until they were almost dead, bringing them down to recover, and then repeating this feat. One of the other Portuguese passengers on deck was disemboweled with a cutlass for looking sorrowfully upon the treatment of the friars.

On yet another occasion, Low took a Portuguese ship and tortured several of the men to find out whether there was money on board. There indeed had been, but the captain had tossed the money overboard, rather than let the pirates have it. For his pains, Low had the captain’s lips cut off and broiled them up as a delicacy right before the poor captain’s eyes. Only then did Low order the murder of the entire 32-man crew of the Portuguese ship. After all, one can only torture them before they’re dead.

Back in his early days, Ned had been a logwood man, cutting logs in the Bay of Honduras. Logwood men hated the Spanish, for the Spanish considered the Bay their territory, and often attacked the logwood men. So when Ned Low decided to pay a visit to the Bay in May of 1723 and captured a Spanish ship that had taken some logwood cutters prisoner, it is no wonder he decided to kill the entire Spanish crew. Some of the Spanish escaped by jumping overboard, but Ned ordered a boat out to hunt those men down and kill them.

Ned on one of his "off" days: he actually gave the captain a choice between taking a drink or being shot. The captain drank.

Ned on one of his “off” days: he actually gave the captain a choice between taking a drink or being shot. The captain drank.

About a month later, Low took a New England ship sailing from Jamaica. As I’ve said, Low had an animosity toward New Englanders because they had sent out ships to hunt him. So he took the captain and cut off his ears, slit his nose, and “cut him in several places of his body.” The next ship Ned took wasn’t from New England, but Ned decided to torture the crew anyway, Besides the usual slashes with a cutlass, he had burning matches tied between their fingers to burn away the flesh.

After barely getting away from an encounter with a Royal Navy ship, Ned became even more vicious. He had the captain of the next ship he took whipped naked around his deck before cutting off his ears. Only then did he kill the captain and sink his boat. (The crew survived.) He was a bit more lenient with the next boat he took, only cutting off the captain’s head. But then he returned to his usual habits. One particularly unfortunate captain had his ears cut off and then was forced to eat them. At least he got to season them with salt and pepper.

In short, Edward Low was no gentleman. Did he have any redeeming features? Well, yes, one. He’d apparently been happily married to a woman who died in childbirth. Supposedly that was one reason why, when he needed more crew members, he preferred to force single men and not married ones. And that’s the whole of Ned Low’s virtues.

Curiously, we don’t know what happened to Ned. One account has him hanged by the French, another that he was deposed by his crew and marooned on an island where he died. Frankly, I think a fitting end would have been for him to end up the victim of cannibals.