Tuesday, June 19, 2012
History: Why Turn Pirate?
The issue of ill treatment aboard Royal Navy and British merchant vessels was a long standing one and it was arguably one of the primary causes for the rise in piracy that led to the early 18th century "Golden Age" of same. What happened aboard ship, though technically governed by Admiralty Law, was almost entirely hinged on how sane, rational and humane an individual captain and his officers might be. Knowing that ultimate power corrupts ultimately, one can easily imagine how bad things could become afloat if the governor of your little wooden world was a sadist.
All it took was for an officer or captain to decide they had it in for a man and things could turn ugly. As Gaile Selinger, pirate historian, notes, history is full of stories of men being permanently crippled or dying due to seemingly unfounded harsh treatment aboard ship.
Men could be chained below decks and held indefinitely, sometimes with very little or no food and water. Sweating was a popular punishment as well, with various ways devised to work a man quite literally to death. Men might be forced to climb up and down the rigging, hour upon hour, until the simple fell to their death. Hugh Pigot, the famously cruel captain of HMS Hermione, would effect this punishment and, once the man dropped over of exhaustion, have him tossed into the sea dead or alive. On other occasions men were forced to run around the deck to the same end. Pirates notoriously adopted this form of torture, adding the pricking with sharp objects shown in the engraving above.
Boys were sometimes made to sit at the main masthead as punishment for an infraction, sometimes as simple as misspelling a word in a letter home. They might be left up there for days; if they fell asleep and tumbled to the deck, so be it. Men were also similarly tortured by being hung from the top. Battered against the hardwood of the mast and exposed to the elements, death would often result.
The general malevolence of Royal Navy officers toward common seamen can be summed up in the writings of one of their own, Nathan Uring, who called sailors "... unthinking, ungovernable Monsters... when there is no power nor laws to restrain them." Even writers of nautical fiction who hold the Royal Navy dear had to concede that trouble could arise at least now and then. Patrick O'Brian has Jack Aubrey's usual coxswain, Barrett Bonden, aboard another ship at one point in the Aubrey/Maturin series. When Bonden requests a transfer to HMS Surprise, he is given the ridiculous punishment of 500 lashes for his trouble. Needless to say, Captain Aubrey takes immediate action. Unfortunately, most sailors weren't so lucky.
Given all this and more, it seems a simple thing to imagine why a man would turn pirate. Better to take your chances on your own, and not have as much worry about torture, denied pay or lack of shares in a prize. At least you knew what you were getting into: a short life, but a merry one indeed.
Header: Pirates "sweating" a prisoner, 19th c engraving via Photographers Direct