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Jack Sparrow, Perhaps? The Origin of an Early “Hollywood” Pirate, Plus the Authentic Image of a Real Buccaneer

Mentor Pirate LR

The small caption reads “Cover Drawn and Engraved on Wood by Howard McCormick.” Author’s collection.

 

The illustration above was created in late 1926 or early 1927, and published in April of the latter year. Among its several pirate clichés (skull and bones on the hat, tattoos, curved dagger, long threatening mustache) is one I had thought was entirely modern: a pirate hair braid with coins attached.

Quite possibly, this coin braid is the artist’s idea of a pirate “love lock.” The love lock was popular among some young English and French gentlemen in the first half of the seventeenth century. Usually worn on the left side, it was typically tied with a ribbon, a “silken twist” as one author called it. Occasionally two were worn, one on each side as in the image below.

 

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Henri de Lorraine, Count of Harcourt (1601-1666), known as “le Cadet la Perle” due to his bravery in battle. He is also sporting a pair of love locks. Print by Nicolas de Larmessin, 1663. British Museum.

 

This “pirate love lock” is a noteworthy characteristic of the very Hollywood, very fantasy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, and I wonder if this image did not inspire much of his look. Historically-speaking, though, there is no historical basis for it among pirates of the “Golden Age” (circa 1655 to 1725), although it’s possible there may have been a gentleman rover or two who wore one during the first half of the seventeenth century–but not a braid or lock with coins.

Of course, much of The Mentor pirate image above was clearly inspired by famous illustrator and author Howard Pyle, as shown below.

 

"The Pirate Was a Picturesque Fellow."

Romantic, largely imagined painting of a buccaneer. From “The Fate of a Treasure-Town” in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, December 1905. The image is reprinted in Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates.

 

howard-pyle-how-the-buccaneers-kept-christmas

“How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas,” Howard Pyle, Harper’s Weekly, December 16, 1899, a special two-page image. I’ve discussed this image in Of Buccaneer Christmas, Dog as Dinner, & Cigar Smoking Women.

 

Howard Pyle A

A classic Howard Pyle line drawing, from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates.

 

There’s a hint of N. C. Wyeth too, not surprising given that he was a student of Howard Pyle. However, Captain Peter Blood was a gentleman pirate, and the pirate on The Mentor cover is clearly not.

 

Wyeth Captain Blood LR

Battered dust jacket from the photoplay edition of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, 1922. The cover art and identical frontispiece artwork by N. C. Wyeth.

 

And Wyeth’s Captain Blood cover is clearly influenced by this 1921 cover he painted for Life magazine. In fact, less the goatee, the two buccaneers might be one and the same:

 

Wyeth Life Cover 1921

Details about the painting can be found at the Brandywine River Museum of Art. Oddly, the Life magazine issue has no story or article about buccaneers or pirates.

 

Wyeth The Pirate

“The Pirate” by N. C. Wyeth. Pretty much the same pirate as immediately above, less the fictional “pirate boots,” this time painted for Hal Haskell Sr., a Dupont executive who commissioned it in 1929. For years the painting hung in Haskel’s yacht, and afterward to the present in the family home. The print is available from The Busacca GalleryArt-Cade Gallery, and other vendors.

 

The Pyle influence continued through the twentieth century in film, illustration, and mass market paperbacks about pirates…

 

Rockwell Pirate

“Pirate Dreaming of Home” by Norman Rockwell, 1924. The painting is also clearly based on Howard Pyle’s famous painting, “The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow,” and may be intended to represent the same buccaneer later in life, or perhaps is simply an homage to Pyle. (Norman Rockwell Museum.)

 

The Mentor illustration is also clearly influenced by Douglas Fairbanks’s 1926 film The Black Pirate, which was, according to Fairbanks himself, heavily influenced by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates and to a fair degree by Peter Pan.

Seriously, check out Fairbanks’s costume in the film, it’s obviously that of Peter Pan grown up. I have a soft spot for Douglas Fairbanks: my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, described him as a gentleman and a swordsman, and described how Fairbanks invited the Hungarian fencers to his mansion Picfair (named after Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford) after György Jekelfalussy-Piller won the gold saber medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

 

The Black Pirate

Anders Randolf as the pirate captain in The Black Pirate. Note the skull and bones on the hat, the dagger in the mouth, the hoop earring, and, just visible, the tattoo on the chest. Screen capture from the Kino Blu-ray. A useful review of the film is available here.

 

BP Duel

Publicity still, possibly a frame enlargement from B&W footage given the grain, of the admirable duel on the beach between Randalf and Fairbanks, choreographed by Fred Cavens. More on this in a later blog post. Author’s collection.

 

And here, finally, we have Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in the flesh, braids and such dangling from his hair, again for which there is no historical precedent among Golden Age pirates that we know of. It’s hard to see how Depp’s costume, in particular his hair, might not have been influenced by the illustration at the top of the page. If it weren’t, it’s quite a coincidence.

 

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“Captain Jack Sparrow makes port” from the Jack Sparrow Gallery on the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean website.

 

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Jack Sparrow again, with a closer look at his braids &c. from the Jack Sparrow Gallery on the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean website.

 

As noted, it’s entirely possible that the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl costume designers never saw the image at the top of the page. They may have imagined it themselves, or been influenced by something else. A very likely possibility is Donald O’Connor in the 1951 film Double Crossbones, a campy pirate comedy that makes fun of nearly all pirate clichés.

 

Donald O'Connor

Donald O’Connor in Double Crossbones. Note the braid over his right ear. (Screen capture.)

 

Although this may seem to be little more than coincidence, there are other similarities between the two films, strongly suggesting the writers and costume designers were familiar with it. In particular, O’Connor plays a shy, somewhat bumbling shopkeeper’s apprentice in love with the governor’s beautiful ward, and she with him. Due to difference in social class he’s unwilling to express his love openly until by accident he becomes a pirate. Sound familiar? Even the costumes of the governor’s ward (Lady Sylvia Copeland, played by Helena Carter) are similar (homage-fashion?) to those of Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley. If not the Pirates of the Caribbean costume designer, then perhaps the Double Crossbones costume designer was familiar with the image at the top of the page.

 

Donald O'Connor 2

Donald O'Connor 3

Double Crossbones 4

Screen captures from Double Crossbones, 1951. Plenty of candlesticks, not to mention a painted miniature around the neck instead of a magical Aztec coin.

 

Of course, all this so far is “Hollywood,” for lack of a better term. There are a number of serious groups of reenactors, scholars, and others trying to correct the false historical image, all with varying degrees of accuracy, agreement and disagreement, and success.

Hollywood has yet to get aboard, no matter whether in pirate films and television series, or often any film or television set prior to the nineteenth century for that matter, probably because it’s easier to play to audience expectations (and, unfortunately, much of the audience doesn’t really care), not to mention that there’s a tendency or even a fad among costume designers to do something that “evokes” the image or era rather than depict it accurately, not to mention the time and other expense of researching, designing, and creating costumes from scratch when there are costumes “close enough,” so to speak, already in film wardrobes.

Here’s a hint, Hollywood: you can start by getting rid of the “pirate boots.” They didn’t exist. They’re actually based on riding boots, and a pirate would only be in riding boots if he were on a horse–and horses aren’t often ridden aboard ship. Further, you can get rid of the baldrics in most cases, exceptions being primarily for gentlemen pirates wearing smallswords into the 1680s, no later. (You can have some Spanish pirates with rapiers wear baldrics after this, though.) And for that matter, you can get rid of wide belts and large belt buckles too. But if nothing else, please, please get rid of the boots, which, if I recall correctly, a UK journalist once correctly described as nothing more than fetish-wear.

Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails, a great show with a great cast and crew, but I had nothing to do with the costuming, much of which is considered as near-blasphemy by advocates of historical accuracy in material culture in television and film. That said, the show is a fictional prequel to a work of fiction that variously created or expanded some of our biggest myths about pirates–buried treasure, the black spot, and so on. Looked at this way, if you can accept the story you can probably tolerate the costuming.

I’ve discussed what real pirates and buccaneers looked like several times, not without some occasional minor quibbling by other authorities. The Golden Age of Piracy has some details, as do two or three of my other books, but several of my blog posts also discuss some of the more egregious clichés, with more posts on the subject to come.

At any rate, here’s an image of a real buccaneer, a French flibustier in fact, from the 1680s. It’s an eyewitness image, one of only a handful of authentic eyewitness images of “Golden Age” sea rovers. It and the others prove that an image may evoke swashbuckling pirates while still being entirely accurate.

 

Flibustier C

One of several eyewitness images of French flibustiers (buccaneers) in the 1680s. These are the only known eyewitness images of Golden Age sea rovers. They went largely unnoticed and without commentary until I ran across them by accident while researching late 17th century charts of French Caribbean ports. I’ve discussed them in an article for the Mariner’s Mirror, and also in these two posts: The Authentic Image of the Real Buccaneers of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini and The Authentic Image of the Boucanier. The posts include citations to the original images.

 

 

Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 23, 2018. Last updated April 4, 2018.

Pirate Books & Patereros: the Pirate’s Version of Fahrenheit 451

Blackbeard LR

Probably fanciful illustration of Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, from Charles Johnson’s second edition of his General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1726). There are few eyewitness descriptions of Blackbeard: we only know that he was a tall, lean man with a large beard tied with ribbons. The lighted slow-match he reportedly wore under his hat is probably an invention of Johnson’s, for such a practice might easily lead to an ignited beard. No eyewitness notes them.

 

Following close upon the heels of my last post, here’s an excuse to riff a bit more on the  use of click-bait, plus correct some recent misunderstandings about pirates and the books they might or might not have read, plus speculate on what they might have done with them, and why–and also learn a little bit about breech-loading swivel guns.

The inspiration for this post is, again, an exaggerated article title, in this case from the Associated Press via The Washington Post, but the material has been published in quite a few various media. The article itself is pretty straight forward. It’s the misconceptions the click-bait-ish title creates that I have some disagreement with, particularly when combined with superficial reading or analysis:

Shiver Me Timbers! New Signs Pirates Liked Booty — and Books.

 

Book Scrap

The book fragment in question. (dncr.nc.gov)

 

In short, archaeologists investigating the likely wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, commanded by Edward Teach or Thatch, aka Blackbeard, discovered pages from a book, identified as A Voyage to the South Seas, and Round the World, Peform’d in the years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711 by Captain Edward Cooke, stuffed in the chamber from a breech-loading swivel gun. From this some possible conclusions have been drawn, and I’ve drawn a few in addition.

 

Patereros 1

At bottom, patereros aka breech-loading swivels being loaded. Note that the men handling the guns are nowhere near to scale. Most swivels were three to four feet long. At top, and enlarged below, are patereros being fired from a ship. From Les Travaux de Mars, ou l’Art de la Guerre, volume 3, by Allain Manesson-Mallet 1671 edition. Author’s collection.

 

It will help to understand how a breech-loading swivel worked. Generally referred to as a paterero (with variant spellings), from the Spanish pedrero, or rock-shooting swivel gun (formerly they were often loaded with stone shot or bags of flint shards), it was occasionally also referred to as a chamber, given that it was loaded via removable chambers rather than have charges rammed down the barrel from the muzzle.

Patereros were often of wrought iron, as in the photographs farther down, but could also be of “brass” (actually bronze, see the photo just below), which was much more expensive. Typically there were two chambers per gun (one in the gun, one to swap it with when fired), but this could vary. Given that the chamber volume was often larger than the required charge of powder, a wad or a wooden tompion of sorts, or both, was stuffed over the powder charge in order to keep it place, effectively tamping it down so that the burning powder (technically gunpowder deflagrates, it doesn’t burn fast enough to explode) had maximum effect, not to mention didn’t spill out.

The gunner first placed his shot, usually with an oakum wad in front and behind, into the barrel from the breech, then placed the chamber into the breech and hammered an iron or brass wedge in place behind it to keep the chamber in place and especially to prevent it from blowing back when the charge was fired. Patereros are noted in period writings, and also observed in modern practice (see image below), as having a lot of blow-back of embers and smoke into the gunner’s face, given the poor seal between the chamber and the gun itself.

 

Brass Swivel Guns Madrid

A pair of “brass” swivel guns: a breech-loading “paterero” or pedrero at the top, and a muzzle-loading swivel gun at the bottom. Museo Naval de Madrid. Author’s photo.

 

A legible book fragment found in a swivel gun breech is in fact a fascinating find, like finding a bit of true pirate treasure, and full credit and congratulations go to the archaeologists who made and researched the discovery.

However, it’s important to note the following about the facts in this instance of pirates, books, and Blackbeard’s ship:

1.  While the wreck is most likely that of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, this has not yet been proven beyond all doubt. Associated scholars and researchers have accepted it as the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship based on its characteristics and the fact that it probably could be no other. However, nothing recovered from the ship proves it belonged to Blackbeard and his crew. Notably, pronouncing it as Blackbeard’s ship gives it a cachet useful in fundraising and attracting tourists. In other words, it’s possible that the fragment had nothing to do with pirates. However, I think it likely that the ship was Blackbeard’s and thus the fragment therefore probably did have something to do with pirates.

 

DSCN0578

A modern functioning replica of a paterero–a breach-loading swivel gun–authentically forged using period techniques at the Medieval Center in Nykøbing Falster, Denmark. I had the opportunity during filming of a History Channel documentary to assist in firing it and testing its range and power with bags of scrap iron and bags of flint shards. Author’s photo.

 

2.  Still, even if it is Blackbeard’s ship, we have no way of knowing who stuffed the chamber with pages from a book. Possibly it could have been the French gunner or one of his mates who did so before Blackbeard and his crew captured the ship, having no use for a book in English. Or the chamber could have been captured from another vessel and brought aboard just as it was eventually found at the bottom of the sea.

However, I think these are lesser possibilities. Chances are, even a lazy pirate gunner would probably have cleaned and inspected a captured swivel gun and its chambers at some point. Although it’s commonly believed that pirates captured most merchantmen after a fight, this was not the reality: nearly all merchantmen in the early eighteenth century surrendered to pirates without a fight. And that’s what pirates wanted.

So, while it’s possible, even very much so, that the swivel gun chamber was never fired in anger by a pirate, I think it still likely that a pirate gunner at least inspected and maintained it, lazy though the early eighteenth century pirates typically were, except in the case of maintaining their personal arms (which was, I suspect, probably as much of a fetish behavior as a practical one, given how seldom they actually used them in action).

 

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The chamber loaded in the breech, with the iron wedge in place to seat the chamber and prevent it from blowing backward when the charge goes off. Author’s photo.

 

3. If it were Blackbeard’s gunner or one of the gunner’s mates (note that aboard ships a cannon is called a gun) who stuffed the chamber with pages torn from a book, what does this tell us about pirate reading habits in general?

NOTHING.

A bit of background. Some seamen, therefore some pirates, were illiterate. But the various officers responsible for navigation, gunnery, and so forth were all readers and to a fairly substantial degree, mathematically-inclined. They had to be. And any seamen hoping to advance from mate to master had to know how to read. Books were common aboard ships, and published accounts of voyages were common in seagoing libraries for the simple reason that they provided “intelligence” about places that might be visited. Remember, there was no Internet, there was no easy access to accurate (and just as often today, inaccurate) information.

 

DSCN0577

Test shot at roughly sixty to sixty-five yards range, generally considered the maximum effective range of this weapon. Blowback was common, and probably interfered somewhat with aim. If you look carefully, you can see a large ember, blown from the breech, near the ground just below the gun. Author’s photo.

 

In fact, some late seventeenth century buccaneers were published writers, describing their travels and adventures, often quite factually, occasionally with some apparent exaggeration: for example, Alexandre Exquemelin, William Dampier, Bartholomew Sharp, Basil Ringrose, William Dick, and Lionel Wafer.

What the pages of a book–and we’re assuming the book was not used because it had been damaged beyond all use, but was in readable condition–used in a swivel gun (technically, a paterero) chamber might tell us about pirate reading habits is that…

SOME PIRATES HAD NO RESPECT FOR BOOKS.

But we already know this. Often, when ransacking a captured vessel, early eighteenth century pirates would trash everything aboard, randomly and ruthlessly. At times this included books.

In the words of Captain William Snelgrave, master of a slaver captured by pirates on the Guinea Coast in 1719: “Moreover two large Chests that had Books in them were empty; and I was afterwards informed, they had been all thrown overboard; for one of the Pirates, upon opening them, swore, “there was Jaw-work enough (as he called it) to serve a Nation, and proposed they might be cast into the Sea; for he feared, there might be some Books amongst them, that might breed Mischief enough; and prevent some of their Comrades from going on in their Voyage to Hell, whither they were all bound. Upon which the Books were all flung out of the Cabin-windows into the River.” (William Snelgrave, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea [London: James, John, and Paul Knapton, 1734].)

Piratical Fahrenheit 451 by any other name! The destruction of books for social or political purpose!

And the same with the pages in the swivel chamber, burned to hell, so to speak, when the gun would have eventually been fired.

 

Pedreros at Sea

Detail from the Mallet illustration above, of patereros being used to defend a ship against attack from a boat.

 

And why wouldn’t these pirates want their brethren to read? In part, because many had been physically or psychologically abused into joining the crew. Unlike the late seventeenth century buccaneers, who never forced men to join (slaves and the occasional Spanish pilot excepted) and who let men leave the crew when the pleased (as long as they paid for their victuals), the early eighteenth century pirates operated more like gangs, intimidating seamen into joining and forcing them to stay for the duration. Other pirates, including some of those who had joined without coercion, may have been souring on the idea of piracy and were likely candidates for desertion. Reading material might have reminded them of what they had left behind, or of consequences, or both.

Chances are, the book used in the chamber was taken from a prize, as with Snelgrave’s library above. It’s possible that it may have been damaged during plundering then put to use as trash paper in a chamber. Or, it may first have been read by a pirate or by a few. Or, I think more likely, by none at all. But we have no way of knowing.

However, there is another intriguing possibility. Following the example Snelgrave gave of pirates and books, it’s quite possible that Blackbeard’s crew, if indeed the gun belonged to them, might not have cared much for the book from which the fragment came. It was written by the captain of the Duchess privateer, whose consort, the Duke, was commanded by Woodes Rogers, who would later go on to become Governor of New Providence–and chase pirates, Blackbeard included, from the island.

 

Dampier Title Page

Title page to A New Voyage Round the World by former buccaneer William Dampier, who would later serve as pilot to Woodes Rogers during his privateering voyage to the South Sea.

 

In sum, the point of all this is that the article title is a little bit misleading. And unfortunately, many readers these days seem to me to read the title, glance at the first paragraph, and that’s it. And this isn’t enough! Especially when too many readers don’t even read much past the title before “sharing” it. It’s vital that titles reflect the text as accurately as possible, and that the text avoid playing to expectations rather than serving the truth.

Even if we read the entire article, at best the facts about the book fragment can tell us nothing more than what we already knew: that published voyage journals were common reading, for a reason, among seafarers, and that some pirates had no respect for books.  Anything beyond this, however intelligent, is speculation.

This is not to put a damper on the excitement of finding readable text from pages stuffed in a swivel chamber that has sat under the sea for three centuries. But we need to stick as much as possible to facts, not fancy, particularly in this age of misinformation amplified by modern technology. Even is a subject as colorful, popular, and full of misconceptions as piracy. Or rather, especially so.

 

 

Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 18, 2018.

For Fun: Underwater Samurai!

Samurai Detail

Detail from the full image below.

 

Just for fun: Samurai underwater combat! Imagined underwater fighting, both via surface supplied air (“deep sea diving”) and free swimming descents, during the very real Battle of Yalu River in 1894. Japanese forces defeated a Chinese fleet in a very close battle during the First Sino-Japanese War. The underwater imagery is, of course, quite imaginary but also quite cool.

 

Yalu River Battle 1894

Underwater battle during the Battle of Yalu River by Kobayashi Toshimitsu, 1894. Rijksmuseum.

 

 

Pirate Versus Privateer

New Providence Fight 1751

English privateer sloop engaging a Spanish merchantman during the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Detail from a chart of New Providence, 1751. Library of Congress.

 

A few quick notes on the use of the word pirate when the term privateer is appropriate.

It’s a minor issue, I know, this particular instance of the practice known today as “click-bait.” The practice has been around a long time, not only in political rhetoric but in marketing as well. But it has grown much worse over the past decade, and, given the state of affairs today in regard to the truth, in which outright lies often pass with too little outcry, and, almost as bad, in which mere unfounded opinion is often given equal time with solid expertise, any egregious usurpation of fact or meaning should be shunned–even in such a trivial-seeming matter of pirate versus privateer.

I am not entirely innocent of the charge myself, but in my defense it’s not been an egregious offense, and one generally committed by my publishers primarily because the word pirate is so marketable, not to mention that publishers invariably retain the right to change or even outright reject the author’s title.

For example, The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques is actually about the tactics of pirates, privateers, and commerce-raiding men-of-war. But pirate is the word used in the subtitle, a decision made by my publisher. Likewise The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main 1674-1688: buccaneers were often pirates, but also often legitimate privateers as well as what might best be termed “quasi-privateers” or “quasi-pirates” operating without a legitimate commission but with a “wink and a nod” from their respective governments. Pirate Hunting: The Fight Against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders From Antiquity to the Present also discusses privateers, commerce raiders, and even early submarines. The Golden Age of Piracy is the most accurate, but, as noted already, even buccaneers were often privateers.

 

Prize in Tow 1751

English privateer sloop with Spanish prize in tow during the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Detail from a chart of New Providence, 1751. Library of Congress.

 

Strictly speaking, piracy is armed robbery on the open seas. In the past, it was armed robbery pretty much anywhere there was ocean or land touching the ocean, at least if the thieves came by sea. Not just a crime, but a hanging crime, in other words.

Privateering, however, derives from private man-of-war, a vessel commissioned by a legitimate state to attack enemy shipping and profit from it. Lawful plundering, in other words, an entirely legal practice. A privateer might be imprisoned by the enemy if captured, but he wouldn’t be tried and hanged for piracy.

I’ve made plain in print many times that there is plenty of overlap among the various sorts of sea rover, that is, among pirates, privateers, and commerce-raiding men-of-war. That said, in most cases during the Golden Age of Piracy (circa 1655 to 1725) and afterward, the overlapping is much less common. In particular, the distinction is readily apparent everywhere except in the case of Caribbean buccaneers during the Golden Age (and strictly speaking, the only period in which true buccaneers existed).

In other words, in the majority of cases the distinction between pirate and privateer is obvious. Privateers in no ways considered themselves to be pirates, nor did anyone else except in a figurative sense by some of their their victims. Only if a privateer had overstepped his lawful authority and entered the realm of piracy might he be considered a pirate. Privateers did not claim to be pirates. Rather, they rejected the term outright. You’d get into a fight if you called a privateer a pirate, quite possibly a fatal one in the form of a duel.

 

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“An English Indiaman Attacked by Three Spanish Privateers.” Willem van de Velde the Younger, painting dated 1677. Strictly speaking, the privateers were Ostenders commissioned by Spain. Royal Collection Trust.

 

So how does the use of the word pirate in the title of my books, and in similar books, differ from books and articles in which pirate is used as a term for privateer? Because my books and others like them are largely about piracy. Were they largely about privateering, the word privateering, not piracy, would appear in the titles.

Pirate and piracy have become romantic words, so it’s easy to see why they’re used whenever possible, however tenuous the connection to the subject. They’re therefore commonly used as umbrella terms for anything resembling plundering at sea, lawful or not. And they’re used in spite of the reality of piracy being anything but romantic to the usually entirely innocent victims: common seamen, coastal inhabitants, free people of color taken and sold as slaves by pirates, not to mention slaves captured by pirates and sold elsewhere, often away from their families.

In fact, it should be privateering and pirate hunting that convey the most romance, with piracy conveying revulsion, as it did in the past.

But it’s the caricature that matters: the word pirate conveys the image that draws the eye, and the description the ear.

 

BHC0893

“An English Ship in Action with Barbary Vessels” by Willem van de Velde, 1678. National Maritime Museum. The Barbary vessels were privateers, commonly known as Barbary corsairs. They were not pirates, notwithstanding that the term was sometimes, and often still is, applied. They were actually legitimately commissioned privateers. The reason they are often referred to as pirates is because (1) they were not Christians, and (2) they captured and enslaved white Europeans. The irony that white Europeans enslaved black Africans (and other people of color as well) seems to have been lost. (Note: This painting was used for the Pirate Hunting dust jacket.)

 

Part of the problem with the lure of the word is that piracy has been re-interpreted as a form of rebellion against injustice. Pirates, we are told by too many scholars both amateur and professional, were rebels against empire, against unfair corporate practices, even–falsely–rebels against slavery. They are mostly the “good guys.” We are told that they may even have helped inspire the American Revolution and that they even threatened the existence of the English and other empires. Although there are occasional fragments of related truth in these claims, none of them are profoundly true or even slightly more than less true. They are not even as true as the suggestion that privateers were a form of pirates.

The fact is, we’re attracted to pirates so we sanitize them, we invent reasons, and let others invent reasons, why they weren’t as bad as they were. We make them palatable.

But to reemphasize, pirates were sea criminals, and in no way did their victims view them as heroes. Simply reading through a list of pirate cruelties and other depredations should be enough to correct the false image–but seldom does it. Privateers, although some did break the law at times, were by comparison Boy Scouts.

There are periods in history in which some groups of commissioned privateers behaved piratically: Spanish Caribbean privateers in the Golden Age, French and English buccaneers in the Golden Age, Colombian privateers during the South American wars of revolution (and likewise Spanish men-of-war fighting Colombian privateers), for example. But they are in the minority as compared to the enormous number of commissioned privateers, and when privateers did commit piratical acts, they were considered to be pirates. However, the majority of privateers behaved lawfully or largely lawfully, restricting their attacks to enemy shipping as permitted by law. The majority of privateers should never be referred to as pirates, nor should the term pirate be a catch-all for any sea rover, legitimate or other.

 

A View of ye Jason Privateer, Nicholas Pocock, c1760, Bristol City Museums

A View of ye Jason Privateer by Nicholas Pocock, circa 1760. Bristol City Museums. Downloaded from British Tars 1740 -1790.

 

The inspiration for this post–not that it hasn’t always been on my mind in a small, usually resigned, way–was a recent NPR “All Things Considered” segment: How Pirates Of The Caribbean Hijacked America’s Metric System. The segment does note that:

“And you know who was lurking in Caribbean waters in the late 1700s? Pirates. ‘These pirates were British privateers, to be exact,’ says Martin. ‘They were basically water-borne criminals tacitly supported by the British government, and they were tasked with harassing enemy shipping.'”

But the privateers were not tacitly supported by the British government, that is, with implied consent. Rather, they were officially supported, they had explicit consent. They were not pirates, notwithstanding some critics who considered that privateering was in some ways piracy legitimized.

Bad history and click-bait are a common combination these days, although the example above is not by far one of the many egregious examples. Still, it is hard to imagine that the word pirate was used for any reason other than to draw the reader or listener in. Worse, the phrase used in the title is “Pirates of the Caribbean,” conjuring up images of romantic buccaneers, not to mention fantasy pirates like Jack Sparrow.

The correct title of the NPR segment should have been “How Privateers Hijacked America’s Metric System.” But this has much less cachet, and is far less likely to get someone to click on the published article and read it, or tune in later to listen. The title is actually a bit doubly misleading: did the capture of a metric weight really keep the new US from considering the metric system? Or was it, as the segment does note it might have been, just a missed opportunity?

 

Manila Galleon

The capture of the lesser Manila galleon, the Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño, in 1709 by the Duke, an English privateer commanded by Woodes Rogers. From the French edition of Woodes Rogers’s description of the voyage. Voyage autour du monde, commencè en 1708 & fini en 1711 (Amsterdam: Chez la veuve de Paul Marret, 1716). Image downloaded from the John Carter Brown LUNA library.

 

I emailed All Things Considered on this minor matter several days ago. I haven’t heard back, even though I noted my several works on the subject of piracy and privateering. Perhaps the editors found the word click-bait offensive, or the fact that I pointed out that pretty much the same article ran in The Washington Post this past September on Talk Like a Pirate Day.

I’m not singling out NPR, this is just the most recent example I have at hand. I like NPR and have been a listener off and on for decades (mostly depending on how often I’m in my Jeep). But facts are facts, and when they’re imposters it doesn’t matter who the offender is–the offense needs to be pointed out.

The difference might be a non-issue with an educated audience, one that understands the difference between pirate and privateer. But today too many people are getting their education, such as it is, from click-bait articles on social media–articles that are ultimately misleading.

While this may seem to be nothing more than quibbling, it remains vital for the sake of truth to get facts straight. And this includes word definitions because they’re the primary means of conveying factual meaning, aka facts. We’re overwhelmed today not only with obvious liars and subtle liars, but with a large segment of society who excuse loose meaning and interpretation as a means of getting attention. It’s not only ideologues and Mammon’s imps who play fast and loose with the truth anymore, but every know-nothing and know-a-little know-it-all considers his or her wrong-headed opinion to be equal to that of the knowledgeable, facts be damned. And the disease is spreading to mainstream educated society: the Internet is making everyone lazy. How to stop this? By using facts to point out errors, misconceptions, and outright falsehoods.

For the privateer, definitions and facts made all the difference: it’s what kept him from being hanged as a pirate.

 

 

Copyright Benerson Little, January, 2018. First posted January 2, 2018.