Today I’m handing my blog over to fellow Etopia Press author, Elin Gregory!
Many thanks, Kiran for allowing me space on your blog and time to talk about pirates, a subject very close to my heart.
Democrats, with a small ‘d’.
Some years ago the museum in which I work was short of an exhibition to cover the summer months. During a discussion with the curator I suggested that we do something to bring the kids in. “And what do you suggest?” she asked.
“Something everyone likes – like pirates. Everyone likes pirates.”
So much fun! I borrowed artefacts from all over and had a dressing up box. It was a hoot to see fully grown men putting on eye-patches and bandannas and sword fighting all around the gallery. We even had a pirate day – free to anyone in costume – and made hats and cutlasses, dug for treasure and let the kids walk a very low plank. For the 4 months of the exhibition we heard more giggling than ever before or since.
Of course, we also had people who pointed out what awful people pirates had been in real life – scum of the earth, cowardly thieves and murderers with poor personal hygiene – and all that is true but there were interesting social aspects to piratical history that we didn’t have the space or the means to cover in the exhibition.
Pirates were drawn from all walks of life, not just from amongst seamen. For quite minor crimes a man could be transported to the Caribbean as an indentured servant. Poor labourers or apprentices could be shackled to well-educated professionals. Some of the prisoners were political – supporters of the Duke of Monmouth or, later, of the Jacobite cause. In the cane fields it was the ability to swing a machete that mattered, not ones social standing. When the time of servitude ran out, or they escaped, they signed on ships as deck hands to try to get home, or as sailors. Some of them ended up as pirates – free men with a uniquely egalitarian idea of how the world could be made a better place – and some pirate crews began to organise themselves.
This was a time when birth was everything and it was sincerely believed that God decreed a man’s status. Yet in the early years of the 18th century pirates established a system of accountability for their own behaviour and for that of their officers. The captain, quartermaster, bo’sun and mates were elected by vote from the most able men available. Major decisions about the route they took or prizes to be attacked were made in the sight of the whole crew. In addition, ‘articles’ were drawn up – a list of rules to live by. Some of the rules concerned the safe running of the ship – limits to drunkenness, care to be exercised with naked flames – and some governed the division of treasure, laying down the shares of plunder each man could expect and promising retribution to anyone who tried to defraud the company. Other rules placed limits upon the power of the officers – the captain’s cabin, for instance, though nominally his, could be entered at any time by anyone in the company and if he gave orders that could place the company in peril the quartermaster could countermand him. All men were entitled to equal treatment, equal shares of necessities and, if injured while about their business, they would be compensated from the common fund at a rate suitable to their injury – an eye was worth 100 pieces of eight. When a new recruit joined, or was forced to join, he would be made to sign the articles to show he understood the rules and agreed to abide by them.
It was recognised that if these sets of articles with their signatures had fallen into the hands of the authorities it would have spelled disaster so pirates crews often came to an agreement that they would blow the ship and themselves up. Men who regularly toasted each other with “curse the King and all Higher Powers, and damn the Governor” preferred death at their own hands to trial and hanging.
Below is an excerpt from On A Lee Shore where democratic principles are weighed against good old common sense.
Find more of my thoughts about the Golden Age of Piracy on blogs belonging to Sue Roebuck, Trisram Laroche and Catherine Cavendish. Comment here or on their blogs for a chance to win a copy of “On A Lee Shore”. Each comment = one chance so the more the merrier.
Blurb: “Give me a reason to let you live…”
Beached after losing his ship and crew, and with England finally at peace, Lt Christopher Penrose will take whatever work he can get. A valet? Why not? Escorting an elderly diplomat to the Leeward Islands seems like an easy job, but when their ship is boarded by pirates, Kit’s world is turned upside down. Forced aboard the pirate ship, Kit finds himself juggling his honor with his desire to stay alive among the crew, not to mention the alarming—yet enticing—captain, known as Le Griffe.
Kit has always obeyed the rules, but as the pirates plunder their way across the Caribbean, he finds much to admire in their freedom. He deplores their lawlessness but is drawn to their way of life, and begins to think he might just have found a purpose. Dare he dream of finding love too? Or would loving a pirate take him too far down the road to ruin?
“How can a Captain rule a ship if every man of the crew knows as much as he knows and is privy to the workings of state?” Kit asked. “There needs to be a proper order.”
“Don’t see why,” Davy said. “We’re all men. You, me, O’Neill even though he’s Irish, Valliere even though he’s black, Lewis and Prothero even though they are mollies. We all deserve our say.”
“Indeed,” Saunders was there again. “Young Davy has grasped the great Athenian principles of democracy, which is a fine and wonderful thing on paper but falls down sadly when applied to flawed and sinful men. Take Denny for instance,” they looked across to where Denny was clinging to the rigging waving to the Garnet’s long boat. “Denny is a man, therefore he is entitled to his say. But would either of you agree to put Denny in charge of any great enterprise? Could he Captain a ship? Would you expect him to inspire men to exert themselves under terrible and dangerous circumstances? No of course you wouldn’t. He can just about be trusted to run an errand as long as it’s not a complicated one. So, although all hands are able to hear what is said, and speak their piece, we rely on our betters—for they are our betters—to decide what is best for the greatest number and to see us safely to port.”
“An’ if they don’t, we get to vote them out,” Davy muttered and Saunders nodded again.
“True—they remain in charge just as long as the hoi polloi are kept satisfied. As long as panem et circenses are forthcoming our Captain will remain the cockalorum. Now—if you gentlemen will excuse me—I have a crisis to attend to.” He hefted an empty bottle and went on his way.
Many thanks, Kiran, for your hospitality.
It’s a pleasure to have you