Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Pirates Own Book: "His Predominant Characteristic, Ferocity"

When life gets your humble hostess down just a little, when she sits facing another round of query letters to send out and another week of hectic running about and the fact that her house needs a new roof and a paint job, nothing comforts like the comedy stylings of Charles Ellms and his delightful "The Pirates' Own Book". Well, I could drink but really that would only make me feel worse in the long run. Let us save the grog for Friday, Brethren, and launch into Chapter 9 in my favorite pirate fantasy book: The Life of Benito de Soto.

To answer any questions you may have on the subject, the picture above is an engraving from the original book and is entitled "Horrid abuse of the helpless women in the cabin". Trust me, that's a walk in the park compared to what those women really suffered but this was the 1830s after all.

Ellms describes de Soto as having been "bred a mariner" and notes that he was "in the guiltless pursuit of his calling" in 1827. At this time he joined the crew of a slaver headed for Africa, the members of which Ellms refers to specifically as "renegadoes". The ship reaches the coast of Africa (Angola specifically, though Ellms does not mention the spot) and the human cargo are taken aboard. De Soto falls in with the First Mate, who plans to mutiny and turn pirate. Most of the crew is convinced to join in and when the Captain is conveniently ashore they take control of the vessel. The crew members who "had rejected the evil offer" to become pirates were put in a boat well off the coast and left to their fate. The boat, I'm sure I need not mention, foundered and was lost with all of these right thinking men.

Meanwhile, de Soto staged an argument with the mate in charge and killed him outright. The others elected de Soto Captain and the Defensor de Pedro sailed for South America to sell the unfortunates in the hold and get right to that pirating thing. In fact, de Soto changed the name of the brig to the Black Joke. I'm giving de Soto props for ironic creativity on that one.

Once the slaves were sold, de Soto and his crew got to work with a vengeance. They were notorious for leaving no prisoner alive and no prize afloat, making de Soto one of the most reckless pirates ever. Ellms manages to avoid specifics in this regard, and gets straight to the incident that finally ended de Soto's mad reign of terror.

Morning Star was a British merchant ship carrying wounded soldiers and their wives from India back to England. She met Black Joke in the south Atlantic and was unfortunately pursued immediately. According to Ellms, de Soto originally thought the brig was Spanish. When told she was British he has de Soto say: "So much the better. We shall find the more booty." Now its Ellms who is the master of irony.

Morning Star was eventually caught and convinced to heave to and surrender. Ellms does his level best to fall all over himself apologizing for the Captain and crew of the merchant, being that she was carrying no cannon and the pirate ship was heavily armed. He tells us that despite the surrender "...courage, which is so characteristic of a British sailor, never for a moment forsook the captain." That's awesome. De Soto killed the Captain and the First Lieutenant directly when they came over the side of Black Joke as ordered. He then boarded Morning Star and killed most of her crew as well as a good many of the wounded passengers. The men that were not killed were secured in the hold while the women were taken to the Captain's cabin and repeatedly raped.

Ellms, interestingly, has these action occur without de Soto being present. In Ellms' account, the pirate Captain remains aboard his ship while the men he sent over to Morning Star (led, I feel compelled to add, by a Frenchman named Barbazan - yes like the modelling school), perpetrate the horror under their own auspices. These are the men who "...indulge in the pleasures of the bottle... and then having ordered down the females, treated them with even less humanity than characterised their conduct toward the others." In fact, according to testimony from the survivors, de Soto was in the middle of the entire orgy of torture and death, but there may be a clue to Ellms' narrative choices at the end of the chapter.

Eventually all the remaining prisoners are locked in the hold and Morning Star is left to sink, holes having been drilled into her hull. De Soto and his men sail off, though Ellms again makes this a choice of the mate Barbazan while de Soto sleeps. Morning Star's prisoners escape the hold, man the pumps and are eventually picked up by a British ship bound for Gibraltar.

Black Joke also ends up on the coast of Spain and is wrecked on a lee shore during a squall. De Soto manages to salvage her and, with prize goods sold and salvage money in hand, he heads to Gibraltar himself. He takes lodging at a seedy inn and Ellms describes him rather poetically. "He dressed expensively... His whiskers were large and bushy and his hair... was very black, profuse, long and naturally curled... He appeared to me such a man as would have made a hero in the ranks of his country, had circumstances placed him in the proper road to fame..."

In that passage may be the key to Ellms' unusual telling of Benito de Soto's story. De Soto was recognized in the street by one of the soldiers that survived the horror aboard Morning Star. The pirate was arrested and confined for an unusually long time while the Gibraltar authorities took statements from his unfortunate victims. Ellms, who was stationed on Gibraltar at the time, had the opportunity to visit de Soto in prison. The ambivalence Ellms felt toward the disease ravaged prisoner he met comes across very clearly in the writing. I have to wonder if Ellms felt sorry for de Soto, and chose a secondary villain to blame the Morning Star atrocity on.

De Soto was tried and convicted and sentenced to hang. Ellms witnessed the execution, and he offers a picture of a repentant pirate who "...seemed to wish for the moment that would send him before his Creator". De Soto died in 1832 and his head was displayed on a pike as a warning to other pirates.

Its rather poignant really, the juxtaposition between Charles Ellms and Benito de Soto. Ellms, whose book paints even the most gentlemanly privateers as blackguards and criminals, gives de Soto a generous dose of humanity. De Soto, who was certainly the kind of villain that would make Rob Zombie drool (I can hear the man now - "Sherri! This shit writes itself!"), comes off as a lost kid who might just have fallen in with the wrong crowd.

This is why I keep digging into "The Pirates' Own Book". Thank you Charles Ellms. Now I can get back to those query letters.


Timmy! said...

Not to mention that we need a new fence, a new mailbox, a new shed, etc... Oh well, that was a fun post anyway, Pauline. I like the "orgy of torture and death" line. Certainly a little different than Pirate porn movies... More like "Hostel" or "Saw"... No wonder Rob Zombie would dig it. After all, pirates were the rock stars of their day, right?

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! Must you make it worse? I think the rock star thing depends on the pirate. Jean Bart - you bet. Benito de Soto - not so much...

WasABuc said...

That was a pretty nice post! Interesting. These guys were mad men. I like the way the writer tries to play nicey'nice with De Soto. Something fishy there. Anyway, good read. Keep up the good work and fix your damned house, would ya'???!! Sheesh! We just re-painted our house & what a nightmare!!! looks cool now though. Put a coat of paint on a house built 60 years ago & voila! A sixty year old house with a paint job!! ar,ar. Or is that....

Pauline said...

Ahoy WasABuc! Good to have you aboard once again. And how right you are, on all counts. Smooth sailing!

Daggar said...

De Soto might not have been so original after all. He might have been imitating the more illustrious HMS Black Joke, the slavecatcher.


Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar! A thought provoking point. You may very well be right.