The Ecphorizer

Pirates and Politics
Gareth Penn

Issue #28 (December 1983)

A visit by pirates, literary and real.  Shiver me timbers!

Some years ago, I was quartered by the Bulgarian government tourist agency with a family in Sofia. Babushka was fortifying me with quarts of hot tea for a hard day's sightseeing at the Tomb of Georgi Dimitrov when her grandson, about eight years of [quoteright]age, burst through the kitchen

What the Lockean state and the pirate have in common is freedom...

door. He had on a head-dress of brightly colored feathers, his face was streaked with warpaint, and he held a toy tomahawk in his hand. "Ya pirat!" he exclaimed - "I'm a pirate!"

What we see as confusion on his part may be due to the educational strivings of the Bulgarian government to eliminate all social distinctions, even those between red Indians and buccaneers. In any case, it's rather fitting that one should run across little boys playing pirates in a socialist state.

The reason I say this is that in the earliest pirate fiction, the buccaneer is depicted as the founder of the ideal social order. It's in a book by Daniel DeFoe, The History of the Pyrates (1728). DeFoe's hero is a French rover named Misson, who, after ravaging the Indian Ocean trade for some years, settles down on Madagascar. His crew then draft a constitution according to these principles:

...where there were no coercive Laws, the weakest would always be the Sufferers, and every Thing must tend to Confusion: That Men's Passions blinding them to Justice ...they ought to submit the Differences which might arise to calm and disinterested Persons ...they look'd on a Democratical Form ...(as) the most agreeable ...the Treasure and Cattle they were Masters of should be equally divided, and such Lands as any particular Man would enclose, should deem'd his Property ....

The pirate assembly then vested executive function ("supream Power") in a Lord Conservator, elected for a term of three years, at the end of which time he could either be reconfirmed or replaced, in order to keep government in the hands of the ablest and to curtail the abuse of office. This was over a half-century before our own Constitutional Convention, mind you. The fictional pirate served as a trial balloon for a ripening political idea.

Another sympathetic element was added to the lore of piracy by Byron's "Corsair" (1814), an epic poem depicting the pirate as a tragic hero driven to a life of crime by misfortune. The hero, Conrad, a "man of loneliness and mystery," is a peerless leader of men:

What should it be that thus their faith can bind?
The power of Thought - the magic of the Mind!
Link'd with success, assumed and kept with skill,
That moulds another's weakness to its will ....

Conrad's little polity is a republic of ants rather than an assembly of free men. Yet the picture of the pirate leader is a sympathetic one. He is a benign despot where his crew is concerned; as for himself, only his tragic compulsions trammel his liberty.

Perhaps the most influential piece of literature in the pirate-genre was Charles Ellms' The Pirate's Own Book (Philadelphia, 1837), which created most of the myth that captured the minds of both Tom Sawyer and my young Bulgarian friend. What finally did more than death could do to lay Erroll Flynn to rest was Burt Lancaster's cinematic send-up, The Crimson Pirate (1952), which buckled every cliched swash, right down to walking the plank, which was one of Ellms' own original contributions to the folklore of piracy.

What both the Lockean state and the pirate have in common is freedom, and I suspect that that has a great deal to do with the appeal of the pirate as a literary figure. It may be because of the greater degree of personal liberty prevailing today that the pirate-myth has fallen on hard times. But at a time when people were still bound by the chains of economic (if not political) circumstance, the figure cut by a Captain Nemo (1870) was enormously attractive. To the Byronic Ideal, Verne had added elements borrowed from the life of Captain James I. Waddell, Confederate States Navy, and high-tech transportation - which rendered Nemo invulnerable to anything but the forces of Nature.

Waddell, who was commander of the last Confederate fighting unit to lay down its arms, captained the C. S. S. Shenandoah, one of about a dozen Confederate Navy cruisers constructed in France and Britain. Negotiations leading to the delivery of these armed cruisers to the South were conducted for Dixie by two commissioners sent to Europe on the British merchant ship Trent. Trent was in passage between the neutral ports of Havana and Southampton when she was stopped by a Federal warship on the high seas. The Confederate commissioners were taken off at gunpoint and imprisoned in Boston, until pressure from Her Majesty's Government effected their release. The British correctly pointed out that similar acts on their part a half-century earlier had resulted in a declaration of war by the U. S. Government, a point which was not lost on the militarily beleaguered Lincoln Administration. It was also correctly pointed out that the conduct of the United States government in the Trent affair was, under the strict rules of international law, an act of piracy. There's an irony here: pirates like Misson act like bandits first, then establish states. States establish themselves first, then act like bandits. States have at best an ambiguous relationship with piracy. Consider these curious facts.

The greatest victory in a land battle ever accorded to American arms, the Battle of New Orleans (1815), was largely made possible by the aid of a Barratarian pirate named Jean Lafitte, who received in return a plenary pardon for all his previous buccaneering. The same M. Lafitte vanished at sea in 1825 during a battle with the U. S. Navy off Galveston, then part of Mexico. At the time, he was military governor of the city. The U. S. Navy raid on Galveston was denounced by the Mexicans as piracy.

Our Congress, divided as it was between slave and free state delegations, did not have the moral wherewithal to declare the slave traffic on the Atlantic as simply evil; it had to resort to the questionable legal fiction - standing international law on its head - that the slave trade was an act of piracy (while slavery itself was legal) in order to justify the Navy's participation in the international campaign to suppress it.

The black slaves who revolted against their masters on the Cuban ship Amistad in 1839 were tried as pirates in New Haven. The case boiled down to hair-splitting: if they spoke Spanish, they were pirates, if they didn't, they were kidnap victims. Some unknown State Department employee forged a document proving the slaves Hispanic; their defense counsel, ex-President J. Q. Adams, proved to the satisfaction of the Supreme Court that they did not in fact speak Spanish, therefore they were not pirates. They were then returned to Africa.

The last ship to fly the Jolly Roger was the Portuguese ocean liner Santa Maria, which was seized by anti-Salazar dissidents in January 1961. They had originally intended to sail to Angola and turn it into a free state but had to settle for political asylum in Brazil.

Real pirates, of course, were anything but admirable. They were a lot of homicidal low-life scum. But they embodied a vicarious ideal of mobility and freedom unknown to most law-abiding citizens. I suggest that much of the appeal of piracy in fiction stemmed from the realization of how much power the individual had lost to the state and economic institutions. The pirate of romantic fiction realized the striving of the individual to restore himself to his original condition of liberty. 

Historiographer Gareth Penn was inspired to write about pirates and piracy by his recent experiences dealing with Hollywood executives over the film rights to his Zodiac story.  Captain nemo lives, but now he produces moving pictures.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

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