Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Pirate's Own Book: In the Eastern Sea

Charles Ellms rarely had first hand knowledge of the pirates he wrote about in his seminal work on freebooters. Since the book was published in the 1830s, well after the threat of piracy along the coasts of North and South America had been all but eradicated, he necessarily had to count on second, third or even fourth hand accounts when writing about Christopher Condent or Edward England. The one exception to that rule in The Pirate’s Own Book is Chapter 13: “Authentic History of the Malay Pirates.” In it, Ellms states that he has witnessed these East India pirates with his own eyes, if not in action certainly upon the ocean they called home.

It is curious that this should be the area of piracy with which Ellms is most familiar. His work on pirates, though often more fantasy than reality, is considered standard reading for those who study freebooters. It seems that should also hold true for those who hunt modern pirates; aside from the Gulf of Aden, the Malaysian Archipelago is still one of the main hotbeds of piracy.

Ellms is not kind to the people of whom he writes and the taint of “western superiority” jumps off the page almost immediately. While he is careful to note that most of the tribal people along the coasts of East India Islands are law abiding citizens, he digs at certain of the groups, calling them “…barbarous and poor, therefore rapacious, faithless and sanguinary.” His recognition that the people are impoverished perhaps saves Ellms, if only just a little, from the harsh judgment of modern sympathies. In all places and times, want has driven men to actions they might not take if their families were well provided for.

The hierarchy of the pirates is simple and familiar, smacking of the Barbary corsairs of 200 years before. A wealthy chief funds the forays of the pirates, including provisioning and arming their ships, in return for a cut of the loot taken including captives, arms and any saleable goods. The pirate vessels, known as proas, according to Ellms who again has witnessed them first hand are:

from six to eight tons burden, and run from six to eight fathoms in length. They carry from one to two small guns, with commonly four swivels or rantakas to each side, and a crew of from twenty to thirty men.

These particular pirates are not interested in chasing ships in open water but will approach a merchant vessel at anchor in groups, surround it and then get to the bloody business of boarding. Ellms tells us that they are “… upon the whole extremely impartial in the selection of their prey, making little choice between natives and strangers…” He is clear, however, that a “resolute crew of Europeans or Americans stand but little danger” from these freebooters.

Ellms does seem to sympathize with the pirates once again when he tells the story of the freebooting “prince of pirates” Raga. Rajah Raga, as he is referred to, was originally a sea captain who watched his crew drown at the hands of a European naval vessel. The westerners offered no help to the dying men and Raga “… swore anew destruction to every European he should henceforth take.” While he does not actually come out and say it, Ellms seems to understand the source of Raga’s rage, even if he does not condone it.

The last seven pages of the chapter tell the story of the Salem, Massachusetts merchant vessel Friendship, captured by Malay pirates in February, 1831. Ellms does not specifically say whether or not he was present at this event, but he happily details the bloody slaughter of Captain Endicott and a good many of his men. In the end, of course, the pirates are overcome by an unnamed U.S. Commodore who bombards the pirate port, encouraging them to surrender and give up to “punishment” those who committed aggression against the Friendship.

Ellms assessment of these pirates, who were his contemporaries, is both forward thinking and rooted in the prejudices of his era. On the one hand he notes their mistreatment by western governments and extreme poverty as reasons for their depredations of both local and foreign vessels. On the other, he writes them off as inferior and easily handled by a “resolute crew of Europeans or Americans.” It is a curious mixture of thoughts that does not come to the page anywhere else in the book.

Reading Ellms makes me wonder what our descendants, who will have so much in the form of media to judge us by, will think of our mores and attitudes some two hundred years in the future. The thought slips away pretty quickly though; I’m fairly certain I already know the answer.

Header: A Piratical Proa in Full Chase from The Pirate’s Own Book


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! Ellms never fails to entertain. I think you are probably correct in your assessment all around on this one...

Pauline said...

This chapter got me interested in Ellms' life which, who knows, might be its own post one day.