THE PIRATE LIFE
(p43, this section occurs after the introduction of Robert Culliford, who has just escaped from prison and wants to turn pirate again.)
It's easy to see why they were ready to take the risk again of living the pirates' life. The alternative of honest work was bleak. Signing up on a merchant vessel often meant low wages, scant rations (to save merchants' money), extreme hard work under an abusive captain who could mete out most any punishment short of death. One clever captain, who caught a man stealing, forced the sailor to stick his finger in a hole in a heavy wooden block, then he drove in splintered wedges and made the sailor carry the blood-splattered block around for two hours.
So much misinformation has been scribbled over the centuries about pirates, so many movies made, from Errol Flynn as "Captain Blood" to the various Captain Hooks in "Peter Pan", that it might be helpful, in one quick blast, to sweep away some of the common misconceptions.
Pirates rarely sailed under the black flag with Skull & Crossbones, and certainly not in the 17th century. They generally opted for a "ruse de guerre" and used a flag of some country likely to lull the intended prey into sidling closer. If that failed, pirates in this era hoisted a simple Bloody Red Flag ("Jolie Rouge"), the succinct notice to the merchant vessel that any attempt at fighting free would result in death for every single person aboard.
Pirates rarely buried treasure but drank it up or spent it on whores. If they didn't bury it, then that standard, the treasure map, didn't exist either. Edgar Allan Poe and his "Gold Bug" notwithstanding, not a single authentic treasure map has ever been preserved. As for walking the plank, most pirate victims rarely made such a ceremonious exit.
The captains of pirate ships were not autocrats but commanded with the voted permission of their crew, and pirate captains, in any case, commanded only during chase and battle. All other major decisions, such as where to sail to look for prey or what punishments should be meted out, were voted on. The pirate ship circa 1700 ranked among the most democratic institutions in a world that still mostly honored the Divine Right of Kings.
All food and liquor was to be shared equally, a mind-boggling concept for sailors long used to watching officers dine and guzzle for hours on end. Treasure too was divvied on almost equal basis, with perhaps a double share for the captain and quartermaster. Historians might niggle but some of the concepts of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" that blossomed almost a century later in the American and French Revolutions, were practiced aboard pirate ships. Also, a healthy disrespect for authority spurred many of their actions.
And in this disrespect, some of the myths about pirates turn out to accurate. Pirates cursed a lot and often wore wild outrageous clothes. On shore, for instance, in Boston, in 1691, shoemaker William Smith, was overheard saying to his wife, "God damn you!, the Devil rot you!, and "Pox take you". For this, he was sentenced to two hours in the stocks. When William Snelgrave was captured by pirates off the coast of Africa, he was astounded by the "execrable oaths and blasphemies [which] shocked me to such a degree that in Hell itself I thought there could not be worse." One pirate captain in his cups, vowed: "If we swing our grappling hooks onto the clouds and attack Heaven itself, I'd aim my first shot at God."
As for clothes, in most countries sumptuary laws still regulated what the poor could wear, forbidding the non-property owners from donning luxury items such as fur collars or wigs or silks. Where laws didn't dictate drab clothes for the poor, custom discouraged anyone not wealthy from ostentatious dressing. Pirates, on the other hand, damned the whole business and outfitted themselves in whatever insane melange of stolen finery they fancied. Prisoners observed pirates teetering ashore in ill-fitting silver-buckled pumps or cinched into tight waistcoats with gold buttons. Sailors, who often had to mend sails, were generally adept at needlework; so, while merchant men might turn a scrap of canvas into tarred trousers, pirates would take the richest striped silk of the East Indies to fashion their wardrobe. One favorite accessory was the bright colored sash draped over one shoulder, with loops to carry two or three pistols. (Gunpowder at sea was so unreliable that extra weapons were a must and re-loading could take a half minute of extreme vulnerability.)
It is of course hard to generalize about hundreds of pirate ships that preyed on merchants from the waning days of Caribbean privateering in the 1680s to the mass hangings of the 1720s but from perusing trial testimony and eye witness accounts by prisoners, certain facts about their lives come into focus.
Pirates were mostly young, foul-mouthed men on stolen ships on a constant search for liquor, money and women. More often than not, they terrified under-manned merchant ships into surrender without having to fight. Since few of them ever returned home with their stolen loot, pirates knew they were choosing a lifestyle--"A merry life and a short one," boasted Bartholomew Roberts--rather than a shot at accumulating a nest egg. Few pirates were married, and some crews even forbade married men.
"Their lives were a continual alternation between idleness and extreme toil, riotous debauchery and great privation, prolonged monotony and days of great excitement and adventure," wrote John Biddulph in "Pirates of Malabar". "At one moment, they were revelling in unlimited rum, and gambling for handfuls of gold and diamonds; at another half starving for food and reduced to a pint of water a day under a tropical sun."
Drunk, cursing, hungry, horny. And violent. Pirates--these cursing young men in their crazy clothes, brandishing swords and pistols, expected immediate surrender and were deeply offended by being forced to fight.
When pirates prevailed, they tortured their victims to reveal where any scrap of treasure might be concealed. (Some merchants swallowed jewels--pirates off the China Sea forced captives to take purgatives.) A simple hoisting and drubbing was most common but some pirate captains delighted in offbeat torture. "Sweating", to take one example, neatly combined sadism and amusement. The fiddler struck up a tune and the pirates poked the victim with forks and daggers to keep him dancing and dancing until he confessed or collapsed.
And pirates often raped the female prisoners. The Admiralty clerks who took depositions from rogues under arrest wrote phrases such as the women were "barbarously used" or "outraged", but the simple fact was "rape". A member of Bartholomew Roberts crew was being led to the gallows in Cape Coast Castle off West Africa. David "Lord" Symson recognized a woman's face in the crowd, one Elizabeth Trengrove, a passenger on a ship they had captured. "I have lain with that bitch three times," bragged the unrepentent pirate, "and now she has come to see me hanged."
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