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From the archives:
"Proud Music of the Sea Storm" (February 1869 )
A poem by Walt Whitman.
Pirates of The Atlantic
September 3, 2003
he pirate, a figure out of history, legend, and lore, has reemerged of late, not just in fiction—as in this summer's popular movie, Pirates of the Caribbean—but also as a pressing concern in contemporary world affairs. In "Anarchy at Sea," The Atlantic's cover story for September 2003, William Langewiesche describes what he calls "a modern and sophisticated strain of piracy" that is posing a menace to international commerce on the high seas.
The new pirates have emerged on a postmodern ocean where identities have been mixed and blurred, and the rules of nationality have been subverted. Scornful of boundaries, they are organized into multi-ethnic gangs that communicate by satellite and cell phone, and are capable of cynically appraising competing jurisdictions and laws. They choose their targets patiently, and then assemble, strike, and dissipate. They have been known to carry heavy weapons, including shoulder-launched missiles, but they are not determined aggressors, and will back off from stiff resistance, regroup, and find another way. Usually they succeed with only guns and knives. Box cutters would probably serve them just as well. Their goal in general is to hijack entire ships: they kill or maroon the crews, sell the cargoes, and in the most elaborate schemes turn the hijacked vessels into 'phantoms,' which pose as legitimate ships, pick up new cargoes, and disappear.
Though the high-tech tools and methods of this new breed of pirates seem a far cry from those of the peg-legged, swashbuckling pirates of yore, their mercenary spirit of lawlessness is familiar. And their very presence on the high seas serves as a reminder that now as ever the ocean is, in Langewiesche's words, "a place that remains radically free."
It is precisely the utter freedom that the ocean represents that has inspired many a law-abiding land-dweller to pen works of fact or fiction dedicated to the exploits of the pirate world. Several such accounts have appeared in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly. Throughout its long history, this magazine has seen pirates portrayed in reports, memoirs, and short stories, as romantic heroes, depraved villains, well-meaning blunderers, and unconstrained adventurers.
At least one Atlantic contributor found the act of researching the life of a pirate nearly as exciting as the pirate life itself. In "Pirates in Parchment" (August 1927), Leslie Hotson set off to find "a sea thief par excellence" in the archives of the Record Office of London. "My thoughts are now salty and romantic," he wrote, as he began the process of digging through the dusty old files. Though his search turned up quite a few pirates, he did not at first find the kind of specimen he was looking for. "My pirate must be not only a great one," he wrote, "but also one who has been more or less lost in undeserved neglect, and therefore somewhat fallen from his bad eminence." Eventually, however, he stumbled upon Captain Jack Ward, a pirate who fit the description perfectly.
Captain Ward, Hotson explained, had started out legitimately enough, as an employee of the Royal Navy at the turn of the seventeenth century. But he was apparently not suited for the military life, and soon declared to his fellow sailors his piratical intentions:
"My mates," quoth he, "what's to be done? ... where's your brim cup, and your full carouse that can make a merrie heart? where are the daies that wee cryed Cargo in? ... when we might sing, sweare, drinke, drab, and kill men as freely, as your Cakemakers doe flies? ... when we might lawfully doe that, we shall bee hangd for and we doe now; when the whole Sea was our Empire where we robd at will?"'
His fellow sailors, it seems, were not well suited to the military life either:
[Ward's] exhortation fell on ready ears; and, to be brief, Ward and his fellows captured a bark, and later two other vessels, and made for Tunis.
Ward went on to have a very successful career, raiding fabulously wealthy Venetian ships and selling his stolen goods to the Ottoman Turks. He adopted Turkish dress and habits, and became known as the "archpirate of Tunis." Hotson credited Ward and his compatriots with teaching the merchants of North Africa to sail bigger and more powerful ships—a skill that they would later put to good use as the infamous Barbary pirates.
Despite his success, Ward eventually tired of his adventurous lifestyle, and sought to settle down. He was, Hotson wrote,
no more than human, and hoped to enjoy his wealth in peace. What is more, he was a true-born Englishman, and hankered for home. Urged by both of these desires, Ward began to make secret overtures to the British Government toward securing James's pardon.
But the English king rejected Ward's bid for repatriation, turning down a "magnificent bribe" of forty thousand pounds. Ward had no other choice but to settle in Tunis, where he took up the role of a Turkish aristocrat. One English sailor recalled visiting him near the end of his career:
Here in Tunneis I met with our English Captayne, generall Waird, once a great Pyrat, and Commaunder at Sea; who in despight of his denied acceptance in England, had turned Turke, and built there a faire Palace, beautified with rich Marble and Alabaster stones: With whom I found domestick, some fifteene circumcised English Runagates, whose lives and Countenances were both alike, even as desperate as disdainfull.
Ward never achieved the legendary status that a number of other infamous pirates have enjoyed, but Hotson believed that, because of his indirect but important influence on Britain's Empire, he deserved to go down in history.
Such a supreme talent as his transcends the circumstances of his time, and has an importance for all history
. Events have shown that
the puissant pirate was Britain's unconscious benefactor—a forerunner of the great empire-builders. For it was thanks to his endeavors that England, to protect her trade from the Turk, soon found that she had to acquire Gibraltar and Minorca, two priceless imperial possessions, as naval bases. Ward, in training the Turks in improved English piratical methods, unwittingly strengthened England against the world.
Ward was just one of many pirates operating in the early seventeenth century. In "The Horrors of San Domingo" (September 1862), John Weiss described how in 1630, when the French and English were chased by the Spanish from their settlements on the Caribbean island of St. Christophe (now St. Kitts), they withdrew to the island of San Domingo (now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and turned to piracy—developing a flourishing piratical culture that drew criminal adventurers from all over the world.
They were all outlaws, without a country, with few national predilections—men who could not live at home except at the risk of apprehension for vagrancy or crime,—men who ran away in search of adventure when the public ear was ringing with the marvels and riches of the Indies, and when a multitude of sins could be covered by judicious preying.
Though they lived outside the law, these men did not consider themselves sinners. Religious rituals were observed before each raid. Weiss recounted the story of one observant Catholic captain, who, during a raid on an island, captured a local curé, or priest, and asked him to perform mass for his men in their vessel—a request which the priest "did not care to refuse."
They followed their own policy of lust and avarice, over regions too far from the main history of the times to be controlled.
They sent on shore for the proper accessories, and set up a tent on the quarter-deck, furnished with an altar, to celebrate the mass, which they chanted zealously with the inhabitants who were on board
. Only one slight incident disturbed [the] devotions. One of the [pirates], taking an indecent posture during the Elevation, was reprimanded by Captain Daniel. Instead of correcting himself; he made some impertinent answer, accompanied with an execrable oath, which was paid on the spot by the Captain, who pistolled him in the head, swearing before God that he would do the same to the first man who failed in respect for the Holy Sacrifice. The curé was a little fluttered, as it happened very close to him. But Daniel said to him, 'Don't be troubled, father; 't was a rascal whom I had to punish to teach his duty.' After mass they threw the body into the sea, and paid the holy father handsomely for his trouble and his fright.
Some Atlantic contributors have taken it upon themselves to warn readers against such dubious behavior on the part of pirates. In Harriet Beecher Stowe's moralistic short story, "Captain Kidd's Money" (November 1870), for example, the tale's narrator recounts for an audience of curious boys the story of the legendary Captain Kidd, placing special emphasis on the fact that Kidd rejected the religious teachings of his parents, and arguing that in the end his "wicked" ways backfired.
They say he got no end o' money; gold and silver and precious stones as many as the wise men in the East. But ye see, what good did it all do him? He couldn't use it and dars'n't keep it, so he used to bury it in spots round here and there in the awfullest heathen way ye ever heard of. Why, they say he allers used to kill one or two men or women or children of his prisoners and bury them with it so that their sperits might keep watch on it ef anybody was to dig arter it. That are thing has been tried and tried and tried, but no man nor mother's son on 'em ever got a cent that dug.
The storyteller told the boys that he himself had witnessed one attempt at digging up some of the treasure, but that the local troublemakers who tried it were foiled by their own greed, and by the "sperits" that watched over the gold. "It's the Devil's money," declared the storyteller, "and he holds a pretty tight grip on 't."
Nearly fifty years later, The Atlantic had the good fortune to find a real live pirate to tell his own story in the magazine's pages. During the Civil War, Union forces used their superior naval power to blockade Southern ports, thereby preventing the increasingly impoverished South from engaging in much-needed trade. The Confederate Navy, supplied mostly with ships built in England, therefore undertook not only to sneak merchandise in and out of the South past the blockade, but also to attack and burn the Union vessels—stealing their goods, and capturing their crews. In 1917, The Atlantic published excerpts in four installments from the memoirs of a "Rebel reefer" named James Morris Morgan. [Installments two and three are available here.]
Morgan trained at a prestigious naval academy in the North, and became an officer in the Confederate navy at the age of fifteen. He was assigned to the Georgia, the companion ship to the Alabama, which was one of the most successful Confederate vessels—capturing millions of dollars worth of Union commerce. Morgan described his first impressions of the life of the blockade-runners:
Their business was risky and the penalty of being caught was severe; a reckless lot they were, who believed in eating, drinking, and being merry, for fear that they would die on the morrow and might miss something.
Morgan himself was delighted to capture and plunder Union vessels, and with some supportive coaching from his more experienced colleagues, he gradually became proficient in such skills as the boarding and burning of ships. He described his first attempt at setting a captured ship ablaze:
The men who commanded many of these blockade-runners had probably never before in their lives received more than fifty to seventy-five dollars a month for their services; now they got ten thousand dollars in gold for a round trip, besides being allowed cargo space to take into the Confederacy goods which could be sold at a fabulous price, and also to bring out on their own account a limited number of bales of cotton worth a dollar a pound. In Bermuda these men seemed to suffer from a chronic thirst which could be assuaged only by champagne; and one of their amusements was to sit at the windows with bags of shillings and throw handfuls of the coins to a crowd of loafing negros in the street and watch them scramble. It is a singular fact that five years after the war not one of these men had a dollar to bless himself with.
Lieutenant Evans asked me if I would like to try my hand at setting her on fire. There were quantities of broken provision boxes lying about the deck, which I gathered and placed against her bulwarks; then I lighted a match and applied it. The kindling-wood burned beautifully, but when its flames expired there was not a sign of fire on the side of the ship. I was surprised and puzzled, and turned to seek an explanation from my superior officer, who was standing nearby, laughing heartily. He told me not to mind; he would show me how it was done (He had had previous experience in the gentle art when a lieutenant with Captain Semmes on the Sumter.) I followed him into the cabin, where he pulled out several drawers from under the captain's berth, and, filling them with old newspapers, he applied a match. The effect was almost instantaneous. Flames leaped up and caught the chintz curtains of the berth and the bedclothes, at the same time setting fire to the light woodwork. The sight fascinated me
. It was a strange and weird sight to see the flames leaping up her tarred rigging, while dense volumes of smoke, lighted by fire from the blazing cargo below, rolled up through her hatches.
The Georgia sailed incognito, usually flying a British or American Flag, so as not to attract hostile attention. But when a merchant ship displayed the Stars and Stripes, the Georgia would quickly lower its innocuous banner and raise the Confederate flag. Morgan recalled the thrill of capturing one enemy ship in this way:
Suddenly, about four o'clock in the afternoon, we descried on the horizon a big full-rigged ship with long skysail poles—the sure sign of the Yankee.
We hauled down the British colors, hoisted the Confederate flag, and sent a shot bounding over the water just ahead of her, which, in the language of the sea, was an order to 'heave to.' In less time than it takes to tell, the main-yard of the doomed ship swung round and her sails on the main' and mizzenmast were thrown aback, as the American flag was broken out and fluttered from her peak. We immediately lowered a boat and our second lieutenant, Mr. Evans, accompanied by me, rowed over to the prize.
So magnetic, it seems, was the allure of the pirate world, that even some of those whose first encounter with piracy was as its victims found themselves not just captive, but captivated by it. Morgan described a surprising turn of events when he and his men tried to release onto land the crew of one Union ship they had captured:
After looking over the ship's papers, we made her crew lower their own boats and forced the captain, his three mates, and the crew of twenty-seven men to get into them with their personal belongings. We then ordered them to pull for the Georgia, which they did with no enthusiasm whatever. On arriving alongside the cruiser, they were allowed to come over the side only one at a time, and were then hurried below and placed in irons. It was not considered advisable to give them time enough to see how weak our force was.
They must have become attached to us, for first one man and then another asked to be permitted to talk to our first lieutenant, and when this was granted, would request to be allowed to ship aboard. To our surprise the second and third mates and twenty-seven seamen joined us, and afterwards proved to be among the very best men we had.
Yet another released captive—the wife of a sea captain whose boat they had attacked—gave Morgan and his shipmates an even greater surprise:
A few months afterwards we saw in a newspaper an interview in which she gave a very uncomplimentary account of her experiences with the pirates, but consoled herself by saying that she had saved from their clutches sixteen thousand dollars in gold of the ship's money by sewing the coins into her petticoats, and safely left the corsair with her treasure. When we read this, we felt that we had been robbed.
Law-abiding land-dwellers though most of us may be, perhaps deep down, there is something of the unfettered pirate in all of us.
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More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.
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