Wednesday, August 26, 2009

History: What Would Pass for Nice Booty

I know everybody loves the stuff and I'll probably draw some wrath from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" crowd but I honestly think that popular fiction has dumbed pirates down to a reprehensible degree. The belief that every ship was
full of gold that could then be spent without question ashore sort of makes these guys look like all they had to do was shoot a man or two and their ship had come in - so to speak. Either that or just be crotchety British actors who turned to skeletons at night. Hell, skeletons don't even need grog, do they? Sometimes history is far, far more interesting than mass market, made to make money fiction, regardless of Disney's ability to afford CGI. Told you I wouldn't be popular after this one.

But I'm not here to feed the fantasy (if I were my profile picture would graphically attest to just how much cleavage that waistcoat is capable of producing when laced up tight). I'm here to show you the ropes and so let us talk about what was really crammed into the holds of those unfortunate merchant ships that encountered our Brethren at sea. I know some of you are with me still, and I thankee.

Most of the time - and I'm talking from Ancient Roman days to right stinking now - the merchant vessel was carrying humble goods for sale to humble people in humble ports around the world. It was not uncommon for pirates during the Golden Age to come across ships taking livestock or human chattel to a Caribbean port. Molasses, rum, wine, sugar cane and cloth were also top prizes. Fruits and vegetables were not uncommon and, despite the popular picture of "scurvy dogs", guys in a crew like Blackbeard's had access to a remarkably healthy diet because of small prizes full of produce. All of these items were routinely taken to a known port where merchants were happy to trade with seamen "on the account" for the cold hard cash that bought fancy clothing, women and rum.

Of course, there were places where incredible fortunes might be stumbled upon, but these were the exception and not the rule. They were also one of the myriad reasons so many sailors chose and then stayed with the perilous life of a pirate or privateer. Venezuela had harbors what produced enormous pearls seemingly endlessly, and ships that sailed from Maracaibo and Caracas were frequently laden with this kind of wealth. Mexico was a source of gold and silver, as was Peru and whole galleons full of gold dust or silver bars were available in the time of the English sea dogs and the buccaneers.

In the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, East India men returning from the wealthy ports of China and India frequently carried chests of jewels and bolts of silk, both of which could be traded on the West Coast of Africa or in Madagascar for enormous sums. Thomas Tew, the English pirate turned American dandy, captured a merchant in the Indian Ocean in the late 17th century that yielded a share of 3,000 pounds for every crew member. The modern equivalent would be approximately 4 million pounds. Set for life. No question.

By the privateering days of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the treasure ships of the Spanish Main had dried up. Simple cargoes like rice, salt, ivory and indigo as well as frilly goods like lace and silk stockings or underthings were more common. Men like the Laffite brothers made multiple fortunes simply by providing a goods-starved market in the form of New Orleans under the American embargo of foreign merchandise with a one-stop, tariff free shop. They also saw an opportunity in the revolutionary enterprises of Central and South America. Ships transporting arms and munitions were a delight to a privateer. Not only could he (or she) have their pick of cannon - which were particularly hard to come by - but liberationists would happily pay top dollar for any weapons at all. Most unfortunate of all, the slave trade had not ceased but simply gone underground. Since slaves could not legally be imported into the U.S., plantation owners throughout the country flocked to Barataria or Galveston to buy smuggled men and women from the Laffites.

I'm not saying no one got rich by any means. Plenty of savvy men and women made fortunes in "the trade". And there's my argument really. Nothing was handed to them. They had to be savvy just to be able to stay alive, make a buck and have a little fun. And an evening by the fire having a few chuckles with a guy like Thomas Tew seems like a lot more fun to me than trying to drink with a skeleton.


Timmy! said...

And this is why a movie like "Master & Commander" is so much better than all of the "Pirates of the Carribean" movies put together. Oh sure, there's CGI in that one too, but at least it's a little more realistic. But hey, if ya wanted realism, don't go see a Disney movie based on an amusement park ride, kids... I'm just saying... Am I not right in saying that, Pauline?

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! Would you call me an aged man of war... Oh wait. That's the right response for the film but... Plus "Master and Commander" is based on O'Brian, who actually did tons of research. What the writers of PotC did besides play with toy boats is surely in question (viz: the Governor's daughter had never worn a corset before she got to the West Indies and so on).