PLUNDER AND MAYHEM
PIRATES ARE CRIMINALS
PIRATES ARE CRIMINALS
Young men seeking opportunity often fall in with dangerous company. Dangerous company thrives where social order is not maintained. All societies prosecute members who do not conform to a minimum standard of expected behaviour. Criminals are not dangerous when their rules are obeyed. They present a danger when their version of order is disturbed.
Take pirates for example. Pirates are archetypal criminals. There have been pirates since the first craft was launched upon the water and there are pirates creating some sort of disorder on virtually every navigatable body of water in the world today.
Among the most interesting of pirates were those who roamed the Caribbean in the 17th Century. They were interesting because they operated in a part of the world where it was very difficult for any of the dominant cultures to create and maintain order. In other words the element in society that was disturbing everything, was in fact, in many cases, the dominant society.
They lived by a code and often without pity or remorse when punishing transgressors. If a man should run away or keep a secret from the company, he'd be marroon'd with one bottle of powder, one bottle of water, one small arm and shot. If any took anything from another in the company to the value of a piece of eight, he would be marroon'd or shot. When one shall strike another unprovoked, he shall receive Mose's Law (that is 40 stripes lacking one) on the bare back. A man smoking in the hold without a cap to his pipe or carry a candle lighted without a lanthorn (lantern), shall suffer punishment. If one didn't keep his weapons clean, fit for an engagement, he'd be cut off from his share.
And they weren't low life scallywags when it came to women. If a man meddled with a prudent Woman, without her consent, that could mean death.
Harsh but there was caring aspect to their society as well. If the injured pirate survived the amputation of a damaged limb, he received a primitive substitute for his arm or leg, usually a spare piece of the ship carved into a prosthetic. Injured pirates were compensated financially and often offered non-demanding work on the ship. Such work could include operating cannons, cooking meals, and washing the ship decks. If any Man was seriously wounded during an engagement he'd get 400 pieces of eight; if he lost a limb, 800.
In the days before the most famous pirate of all, Henry Morgan, Port Royal, Jamaica was an important place. Of course there were pockets of pirates throughout the West Indies, in St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, but Port Royal and Tortuga were the main nests of these sea going bandits. It was a lawless harbour for opportunists. These opportunists were pirates and bucaneers.
Fighting was their stock and trade. These were well armed outlaws. They used muskets for long distance sniping. Pistols, once fired were turned into clubs or thrown. The cutlass, that most deadly of baldes was well employed for the close work.
When they weren't fighting, they were looking for a fight. Life at sea was boring and if there were no vulnerable merchant ships within reach, the pirates took to fighting amongst themselves. Captains often had to intervene and control them by either fear or respect. These bored thugs became anti-social within their own anti-social society.
However the captain did not always have the last word. In many cases ships were run democratically as partnerships. Here was an anti-social society designed and maintained by an anti-social subculture.
The distribution of wealth is always an important aspect of any society. When it came to dividing up the spoils Bucaneers worked on a well understood hierarcy. In all but exceptional cases the Captain would have one full share and a half in prizes; the Master, Carpenter, Boatswain and Gunner would have one share and quarter.
The reputation of pirates as wastrels was well founded. They squandered their loot on booze and whores in Port Royal then returned to their lawless ways. A ship anchored after a successful plundering spree might spend thousands of pieces-of-eight in a single night ( 10 pieces-of-eight could buy a small herd of cattle). When it came to daily behaviour pirates believed that being drunk most of the time was the way to go about things. Beer, often bottled, was preferred over water.
As for food, hard tack, a tough biscuit, all too often was the only thing that stood between a pirate and starvation. In the Caribbean limes were plentiful as a source of Vitamin C and thus scurvy was no problem. In times of luxury, a few hens could provide fresh eggs and meat. Seafood was plentiful and the turtles that thrived in the warm seas were a staple shipboard diet.
Many pirates preferred life at sea as life ashore meant endless chores associated with overhauling and preparing the ship for the next voyage. Barnacles and seaweed needed to be careened (scraping debris from the bottom of the ship). Battle damaged sails and rigging would have to be replaced or repaired.
Most pirates in the Caribbean tended to operate from small lightly armored but highly maneuverable ships like the Somalis do today. They seldom relied on fire power. Instead, pirates generally preferred to quickly board the enemy ship and create mayhem with cutlasses.
A group of buccaneers in Tortuga even named their society, calling themselves the Brethren of the Coast.
When Jean Le Vasseur was commissioned to take full posession of the island he easily expelled the ill-organised English colonists.
The Brethren of the Coast were a different matter altogether. They consisted of a mix of races and cultures but most were French and English. A Spanish report from 1646 mentions the population included some Dutchmen. Apparently their society was not based on race or culture, but belief.
La Vasseur had to tolerate this unruly and aggressive subculture as he was not strong enough to move against them so he imported several hundred prostitutes hoping to regularize the lives of these rascals some of whom lived in a kind of homosexual union known as matelotage.
Le Vasseur was assassinated by his own followers in 1653. During his years as a Governor the island was heavily fortified against attacks from Spanish forces. His successor, Chevalier de Fontenay, was attacked and overcome in January 1654 by Spanish forces from Santo Domingo. A garrison was left to hold the island but it was withdrawn in 1655 to aid in the defence of Santo Domingo against English forces in the area.
The English eventually sailed from Jamaica and reoccupied Tortuga. From Tortuga they attacked the Spanish who remained on Hispaniola. Eventually the French and English become the dominant Caribbean culture and they were more successful in limiting the the activities of the pirates but they never eliminated it. Subcultures don't believe it is in their best interests to adhere to the order of the dominant culture and force only maintains order, and never permanently. Apparently belief cannot be imposed by force.