Tuesday, January 31, 2012
A group of Crow's unusual friends stopped by earlier today to carry him off on a winter cruise. Before he left he mentioned a few things about pirates it's not currently fashionable to know even though there's always been something romantic about the idea of piracy.
We've long been told by those who control information that pirates were thieves, yet the truth is far more complex. Sailors aboard Royal Naval ships and merchant marine vessels were some of the sorriest men alive, 'caught in a machine from which there was no escape, bar desertion, incapacitation, or death' as one writer of the day put it. Many of them were press ganged into service, many were debt slaves or had been criminalized after losing their farms when the English Commons were abolished.
As the great fleets discovered and annexed previously unknown lands many dispossessed people the world over became desperate. The merchant ships of the 17th and 18th Centuries were the engines of the emerging global capitalism but the seamen were totally excluded from the wealth they worked to generate. The decision to 'turn pirate' was a choice made to wrestle back some autonomy, and when they did, life on a ship changed dramatically. Officers were democratically elected. Food was shared equally among men of all ranks. When booty was collected the Captain only took two shares where the lowest took one - income differentials that would make a modern CEO faint. Loss of a limb aboard would be met with a payment of around $30k in today's money - an amazing form of early health insurance.
It could be said that far from being simple thieves, pirates were perhaps the original anti-capitalist protesters. The reason they were hunted down and suffered savage public executions was because the powers of the day were petrified of the consequences of the pirates' ethos. One hundred years before the French Revolution it was pirates who coined the phrase 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'.
Of course, piracy in those days was hardly all fun and games but they were hard times for most people everywhere. We're not often brutalized, beaten, or left unpaid, but our lives are no less reduced, narrowed, and restrained by powerful forces far beyond our control. Wouldn't it be nice to see the Jolly Roger raised again to restore to life some democracy, some fairness, and perhaps a little merriment too?
Avast Crow. I hope you enjoy the warm sea breeze off the shores of far Tortuga.