Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Pirates Own Book: Through The Victorian Lens

The pirates of high Barbary became a particular fascination of Americans during the tense two years when the sailors of USS Philadelphia were imprisoned and enslaved in Tripoli. Once the boys were dramatically rescued by Eaton and his Marines, they came back to the U.S. with stories of savage tortures, from dunking in sewage to forced circumcision, and countless hours of heavy labor in chains. Of course, the American populace ate it up. The Barbary pirates became the slashers/serial killers/demons of their day. They were Jason, Freddy, Jeffery Dalmer and that thing that crawled into Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” all rolled into one.

Even after the U.S. negotiated peace treaties with the North African states in 1815, the fascination didn’t die. In fact, it seems to have increased as the Victorian era gripped the country. Our old friend Charles Ellms took full advantage of this in The Pirates’ Own Book. Two of his chapters are dedicated to Barbary corsairs and their prose may actually be more purple than anywhere else in the book. I am particularly fond of Ellms’ “Sketch of the Jossamee Chief – Rahmah-ben-Jabir” which is short (a mere five pages) but hits on just about every prurient image held so dear by his audience.

According to Ellms, ben-Jabir is an Arab in control of the port town of Bushire on the Persian Gulf. He is from another city, which is just across the bay in fact, but his “…fellow citizens had the honesty… to declare him an outlaw” and he took up the profession of piracy before taking over Bushire. He is in command of five or six vessels, each crewed by two or three hundred men and beyond that he has a following of some two thousand others.

Ellms quickly points out that ben-Jabir has no more concern for his subjects' lives than he might for his enemies':

An instance is related of his having put a great number of his own crew, who used mutinous expressions, into a tank on board [his ship] in which they usually kept their water, and this being shut close at the top, the poor wretches were all suffocated, and afterwards thrown overboard.

This is a great visual to begin with and no doubt riveted Ellms’ audience. He ratchets up the horror from there by informing on ben-Jabir with regard to his personal hygiene:

The butcher chief… carried his simplicity to a degree of filthiness, which was disgusting, as his usual dress was a shirt, which was never taken off to be washed, from the time it was first put on till worn out; no drawers or coverings for the legs of any kind, and a large black goat’s hair cloak, wrapped over all with a greasy and dirty handkerchief… thrown loosely over his head.

Once again, Ellms as a storyteller is getting the most bang for his buck. For Americans in the 1830’s, a man wandering around without pants would probably have been even more off-putting than someone wrapped in goat’s hair. And given the tales of captured virgins kept in locked harems for later defilement by Barbary chiefs, the whole picture would have been both horrifying and titillating.

Ellms also, through prose claiming to be the recollections of an English visitor to Bushire named Mr. Buckingham, tells of ben-Jabir’s amazing strength. Buckingham is a Royal Navy surgeon and is shown ben-Jabir’s right arm which was injured in battle but now healed. According to the account, the Chief of Bushire had his upper arm shattered from shoulder to elbow and nearly died of infection. He recovered, though, and “… the bone fragments… worked out, and the singular appearance was left of the fore arm and elbow connected to the shoulder by flesh and skin and tendons, without the least vestige of bone.” Despite this, ben-Jabir is quite capable of wielding a dagger expertly in his right hand, with a little help from his left.

As we know, no evil goes unpunished in Ellms’ pirate tales and ben-Jabir cannot escape a cruel fate. Neighboring Arab Sheiks blockade his port and attack his fleet. All but one of ben-Jabir’s ships is put to the torch and he is blinded in the action. When he is told that surrender is his only option, he orders his men to lead him down to the powder magazine of his ship. He brings along a torch and, almost heroically, blows both himself and his ship to bits, taking some three hundred of his enemy’s men with him.

The short chapter, which might seem to modern eyes as no more than an afterthought, was tremendously popular in its day. “Sketch of the Joassamee Chief” appeared in periodicals and pamphlets in the U.S. and abroad, and was happily plagiarized by hacks on both sides of the Atlantic. When Ellms’ name appeared in the byline, it doubtless encouraged sales of his book as well. No one seems to have enjoyed being frightened from their comfortable armchairs at home more than our Victorian ancestors. No one, that is, but us.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Always fun to have a good villain or group of "bad guys" we can demonize, isn't it, Pirate Queen?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Exactly.