Wednesday, August 5, 2009

History: Ain't That Pretty At All

I don't generally hear anyone who does the pirate "thing" talk a whole lot about slavery. Granted, its not really one of those topics that lends itself to conversation over a mug o' grog and a deck o' cards but the reality is that pirates on both sides of the Atlantic were intimately familiar with slaves and slavery and sometimes that is worth remembering, even if its just for the sake of the nameless thousands who lost their lives at the hands of a brutal system that is - even more unfortunately - still with us in our world today.

The pirates of the Caribbean and Gulf had rather an ambivalent attitude towards human bondage. More than a few pirates were black, either free by law or runaways. There was certainly more than one black corsair Captain, although many of their names are lost to history. One of the most notable was Diego Grillo, an African slave from Spanish Cuba who escaped the killing fields of the sugarcane plantations in 1668. Nicknamed "Lucifer" he terrorized Spanish shipping for a number of years. Many crewman of both buccaneer and privateer ships were black. It is estimated that as many as 30% of pirate crews were black during the so called Golden Age in the early 18th century, and in the trade escaped slaves were considered excellent mates. They would fight to the death to avoid recapture, where - particularly in the Spanish and French islands - they could face hanging, flaying or burning alive for running away. I'd fight like hell, too.

The privateers of the early 1800s had large percentages of blacks among their crews as well. In many cases, however, particularly where the ships were working from a Laffite base such as Barataria, the blacks were free men. Many of them were refugees from the Haitian revolution who had been forced to flee along with the white population. They were looked on as no more trustworthy by the new Haitian Republic than a white person, and many free people of color owned black slaves themselves.

Despite this seemingly egalitarian attitude toward an otherwise unrecognized group, Caribbean pirates and Gulf privateers thought nothing of selling the human cargo for profit if they captured a slaver. The juxtaposition is astounding in many ways. For me, it is another example of how our ancestors perceived the world so much differently than we do and its almost impossible to really wrap one's brain around.

Across the water, on the northern coast of Africa, the pirates of the Barbary Coast (what we now think of as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) were sailing with slaves as well. In this case, though, color was not the issue. Religion was.

The Barbary pirates enslaved Christians - mostly sailors taken from ships they had plundered - and put them to work at their galley and xebec oars. The life
expectancy for a man rowing a Barbary galley was six months at most. If the

man was not ransomed by his family or country, he could expect to die of drowning, disease or shear exhaustion. Men were chained by the ankles, seven to an oar which was approximately fifty feet in length. The bench beneath them was ten feet long, four feet wide and covered with sheepskin because it helped create a smoother rhythm as the naked rowers worked.

There were no potty breaks, the rowing area was not sheltered from the sun or wind and at least one overseer strolled the bridge between the two gangs of rowers, his whip at the ready. The slaves could be expected to row up to twenty hours a day, depending on where the galley was headed. Since the Barbary pirates made raids as far north as Iceland, I don't think I need to elaborate on how plausible that pace might be. Food and water were got on the fly, with the most usual fare being a biscuit or bread soaked in wine stuffed into your mouth while you rowed. Ben-Hur it wasn't... That looked vaguely like a pleasure cruise by comparison.

My point? I'm really just trying to pass on information here but I want us all to remember that these "pirates" we like to talk like, dress like and admire weren't always nice guys. In fact, many of them were sociopaths who couldn't have fit in to society if they tried. And then too, some institutions just encourage that kind of behavior. Like slavery.


Timmy! said...

Gonna hurl myself against a wall... Nice Warren Zevon reference, Pauline. "Wekeep you alive to serve this ship, row well and live 41"... Slavery's bad, m'kay?

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! I like to think ol' Warren would have appreciated it. And saying slavery is bad is an understatement, Mr. Garisson.