Monday, May 17, 2010

History: Democracy In The Golden Age

Ah, the Golden Age of piracy. When every pirate captain looked surprisingly like Johnny Depp, every ship was well and truly in shape, a prize was never taken that wasn't full of gold, silver and those huge pearls from Margarita, and every man jack had a say in how the ship was run.

Wait, what? Exactly. If Triple P hasn't busted those myths by now it's time to call Jamie and Adam. But, setting Hollywood and the guys who paint pictures for the covers of romance novels aside for this morning, there is a grain of truth to at least one of these 20th century cliches. Or is there?

The idea that pirates were the first true democratic society is a subject for debate, even among pirate experts. Angus Konstam, for instance, who has written and/or edited a number of books about pirates, hardly ever mentions the subject. Meanwhile authors like Peter T. Leeson, whose treatise on piracy and economics The Invisible Hook is well worth the read, devote entire chapters to the idea. Your humble hostess falls somewhere between these two extremes. While I feel that, particularly in the Golden Age, there was a level of democracy to pirate society, I don't think it applied everywhere and at all times.

There can be no question that the earliest boucaniers who inhabited Hispaniola were egalitarian. It was a share and share alike society that spilled over into seafaring when these guys left their barbecues behind and started raiding Spanish shipping. But is equality - some might use the term anarchy instead - democracy? Certainly there was a level of democracy exercised by Pierre le Grand when he and his men agreed to take a much larger Spanish merchant in around 1620. But there was nothing democratic about le Grand ordering his surgeon to drill holes in his boat when he caught up with his prize so that the men wouldn't change their minds.

Later on in the same century, Henry Morgan held war councils aboard ship before setting off to plunder cities on the Spanish Main. His captains had a say in where they would next strike, but the average buccaneer was left to his rum punch. He would be told only after the council where his ship would take him. That's more the kind of "democracy" that one could find in Puritan New England at about the same time. Only city fathers had a vote. Men without land, men of color and women regardless of status were out of the mix.

The most famously elected Captain of the Golden Age was Bartholomew Roberts. The entire formality of electing Roberts captain was documented by those present, so we know that men stood up to speak for or against their potential leader. We also know that the issue was then put to a vote and every man and boy aboard gave their yay or nay. Roberts, it turned out, was a good choice. He kept his men in ships and booty and delegated authority skillfully. There were no further votes or reprisals for Roberts until he was killed by the English in a firefight.

On the other hand, some captains of equal fame were not to their crews' liking and were treated appropriately. Both Charles Vane and William Kidd were ditched by their men, Vane was in fact marooned on a deserted island. Edward England was put in at Madagascar by his crew. Benjamin Hornigold was "asked" to leave his ship at Jamaica. Christopher Moody was put in a boat with a few others who were still loyal to him and set adrift. In very rare cases there is documentation of capital punishment for an unsatisfactory captain. Almost to a man these leaders were voted off their wooden island because they were not producing enough booty to keep their men happy. Only a lucky captain would do.

But by it's very nature, seafaring requires more of discipline and less of democracy to make it work. Whether taking a prize or fighting through a storm, every man must be held accountable to his duty. Strong leadership is the only way to effect the kind of snap decision making that will insure success. In a life or death struggle, stopping to debate can get you killed.

And so for every Vane or Hornigold there seems to be at least one pirate captain who never saw a challenge from his men. No buccaneer ever took Henry Morgan or Laurens de Graff to task, at least not face to face. Samuel Bellamy was an unchallenged leader of his crews until the weather sank his Whydah off Cape Cod. "Calico Jack" Rackham, though he seems to have been no better at the task of captaining a pirate ship than Charles Vane, only fell when the British caught up with him. For all his alleged brutality even to his own crew, Edward "Blackbeard" Teach was not just respected by his men but their loyalty to him was almost universal. Fair winds and fat prizes make even a sociopath lovable, at least to freebooters.

The bottom line, to my way of thinking, is that there probably was some semblance of democracy among pirates. Certainly it was used in a checks and balances sort of way to ensure that no officer got too big for his breeches. All the same, it does not seem that the ideal of complete equality with authority only exercised in the most dire situations was ever a day to day reality. Nice though the idea may be.


Sarah from Scare Sarah said...

Wow, that's a cool picture.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Sarah! It is indeed. The title of the painting is "Defiance" and it is by painter Bernard Finnegan Gribble. Pretty awesome.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline!

Folks, don't try the stuff you read here at home (ever!). Pauline is what you call an expert. Busting myths and blowing sh*t up is fun, isn't it Pirate Queen?

We liked him. Especially when he blowed up.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! So I'm the Jamie of pirate myths? Just without the facial hair I guess, which is good.

Mike Burleson said...

Good common sense! I enjoyed this very much.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Mike! Thank you, sir. Coming from you, I'm honored indeed.

Timmy! said...

Actually, you are more like Adam than Jamie, Pirate Queen.

But much better looking than anyone on that show.