People on Spits and Other Niceties

Pirates, one of the blessings of childhood, would seem, to judge by the impressive bibliographies they boast, to have distinct appeal also for grown men. The appeal could indeed be many-sided: villainous crime or dauntless courage or plunderlust in perilous seas; or simply the eternal boy in man, or, simpler still, the almighty dollar. Verbally, privateering may lack the grim glamour of piracy, as it legally lacks the grim fate; but despite these and other differences, the two are yet blood brothers, equally seeking treasure, equally inflicting torture, both of them a dramatic part of history, and in their combined total assets a sort of kindergarten of Big Business.
Having myself pretty much taken leave of piracy when I did of the Boy Scouts, I have no clear sense of just how large and erudite a cult it boasts; or of how much of its lure is mere lore, or of its annals is old hat. But, having noticed that two new books about pirates were appearing within weeks of each other, I felt, after so many negligent years, not only a certain cultural obligation to see the Jolly Roger hoisted again but a certain real desire. Though otherwise unlike, Hugh F. Rankin’s The Golden Age of Piracy (Colonial Williamsburg, $4.95) and Alexander Winston’s No Man Knoxes My Grave (Houghton Mifflin, $6.95) both begin, and quite well, with general historical summaries. Mr. Rankin reaches back to the Bible and to Julius Caesar being captured by corsairs and held for ransom. Mr. Winston, conceding that “piracy is as old as boats,” but whose main text runs to privateering, starts when it did, in 1243 with Henry III of England licensing three private sea captains to harass France, and brings privateering to an end during the Civil War, when a rusty Confederate tugboat “staggered into Nassau harbor and was sold for junk.” (Incidentally, the Americans during the Revolutionary War launched “the largest privateering operation” of all time.) Mr. Winston also reminds us that for centuries England was anything but a sea power, and became one by virtue of its merchant marine; under Elizabeth, the same ship might go in for piracy on one cruise, for privateering on the next, for naval service on a third. Under Elizabeth, too, the “Great Age” began. Though Spain ruled four of six continents and allowed no foreign ships to enter its colonial ports, it yet, instead of adequately fortifying them, put its money into armed convoys for its treasure galleons. Hence the French, by the 1550s, were burning and pillaging throughout the Spanish Caribbean and West Indies, and by the 1570s Drake had swept round to the Spanish Pacific, sacked Peru, and, bringing home an estimated £2,500,000, repaid the backers (Elizabeth among them) 47 for 1.
With Spain weakened in the West Indies after the Armada, the French and English colonized what Spain had left untouched, the English also seizing Jamaica by force; and privateering gradually became regularized. It differed from piracy not simply from being government-commissioned and therefore lawful, and from its booty needing legal condemnation before it could be divided, but also from its being variously owned or backed, where a pirate ship was always owned by its crew (with the captain in full command only when under fire). Where privateering, again, chiefly flourished and was justifiable only in time of war, piracy was a great peacetime refuge for the unemployed, the disreputable, and the down-and-out. During the 1600s Spain’s overseas possessions were harassed legally, pseudolegally, and altogether illegally by privateers and pirates, buccaneers, freebooters, and water thieves.
The Golden Age had picturesque outlawry, heroic villains, and spectacular feats enough, but was so much richer in malodorous deeds than derring-do that it could at most be said to reek with romance. Even its leisure hours ran to monumental swilling and mass rape. It also went in for such atrocities as piercing live human bodies with spits and then roasting them over a slow fire; for such absurdities as celebrating Mass aboard a captured ship and firing off salvos of cannon at the Sanctus, the Elevation, the Benedictus and Exaudiat; for such anomalies as matclotage, with two pirates tossing for a woman, one marrying her, the other enjoying her for stated periods while the husband made himself scarce. Pirates often had other occupations; one of them, according to Horace Walpole, became Archbishop of York. At the same time, some of the best-known pirate customs are among the least true. There is of record only one man who made his victims walk the plank; largely mythical is the business of hidden treasure, and greatly exaggerated, the number of pirates hanged.
The main matter of Mr. Rankin’s book concentrates on pirate activities along the Atlantic coast from the Carolinas to Massachusetts, portraying most of our colonies as avid receivers of stolen goods. Mr. Rankin puts particular stress on Virginia, which doubtless accounts for his book’s Williamsburg imprint, the more so as Virginia was relatively very virtuous about pirates. But by ihe late seventeenth century they were widely accepted along the seaboard, both for having money and spending it, and for bringing booty that could be bought cheap and sold dear; indeed, so many colonies all but greeted a red flag with a red carpet that London thundered a sharp royal reprimand. Colonies with surplus cash found piracy one of the sounder investments; frequently, well-to-do citizens formed syndicates, fitting out the ships and fattening off the spoil. Eventually the Red Sea outranked the West Indies, as less hazardous for plundering and so profitable that young men of good family signed on as ordinary seamen. At home, and especially at high levels, there was admirable cooperation. Governor Markham of Pennsylvania, a “steddy friend” of pirates, sold protection at £100 a head and beamed on a pirate son-in-law. Governors of Massachusetts were said to grow rich off bribes, one of them specifically inviting pirates to chuck Philadelphia for Boston. Connecticut governors winked at piracy, for, being elected annually, they did not want to lose the merchant vote. In New Jersey magistrates upbraided people who “disturbed” pirates; in Delaware a naval officer was threatened with arrest for pursuing them. Governor Fletcher of New York equally sold protection and privateering commissions and was sent tokens of esteem, such as a captured ship.
With such welcome signs out, there were by 1700 so many pirates off the Atlantic coast that they had great trouble making a living. What saved them was the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701, which made it easy to get privateering commissions and to go greater distances after richer prey. But in 1714 the end of the war threw great numbers of seamen out of work and back into pirate ships. By then piracy had aroused strong opposition in the colonies: for one thing, it had grown more vengeful and murderous. Another fifteen years and the word “piracy” was seldom mentioned and the deed itself relatively rare. Presumably piracy was doomed in the colonies when crime cost a community more than the police did.
Though Mr. Rankin’s book is well documented, and its own survey of the colonial seaboard has documentary interest, it is rather pedestrian about pirates themselves, and makes rather colorless reading. There is too much mere stringing out of small incidents and facts, and even when Mr. Rankin shifts from his seacoast chronicle to individual pirates’ careers, he is not a very accomplished storyteller. Pirates, privateersmen, and their solid-citizen customers were all too often cruel, corrupt, extremely unsavory; but in chiefly making them dull, Mr. Rankin has taken the romance out of piracy the wrong way.
Mr. Winston’s book treats primarily, with skill and narrative vigor, of three men, the first two very famous—Sir Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, and Woodes Rogers. The three worked different waters, during different decades, under different sovereigns, and are most alike for sharing unknown graves. Anyone whose knowledge of such leaders is a little spotty should find Mr. Winston’s account of them a pleasant refresher course.
Henry Morgan was so decidedly a leader as to have probably been the greatest of all buccaneers. Welsh-born and Jamaica-based, he had prowled and plundered with a voided commission when the Jamaican governor was playing a double game of conciliating the peace-with-Spain party in England and being stealthily enterprising against Spain at home.
In 1665 Morgan was made vice admiral of a privateering expedition that sacked and seized Spanish territory by using a Portuguese letter o£ marque. Only mildly rebuked by the governor, Morgan next set forth, this time as admiral, to storm Cuba’s Puerto Principe and sack it, torturing prisoners wherever necessary till they blabbed of hidden treasure. But the booty proving scant, the crew growled, and to recompense them Morgan promised immediate great riches by a daring assault on powerful, triply fortified Porto Bello. Approaching it by night and then attacking it by land—"each man a clanking arsenal" of weapons—they won the Gloria fortress and blew it up with all its defenders inside. Besieging a second fort, they scaled its walls by using priests and nuns as shields, killed its governor, and possessed the town. Taking the third and last fort, they possessed the town’s possessions, grabbed everything in sight while gorging and guzzling and raping; made an either-or of a huge ransom or a burnt city, got the ransom and much booty as well, to sail home with 250,000 pieces of eight.
Despite Spain’s protests to London, London’s to Jamaica, and other deterrents, Morgan went on steadily amplifying his merciless success story. In 1669 he attacked a Maracaibo that had made itself a deserted town; finding the treasure had vanished with the townspeople, Morgan first sent out search parties and then applied torture to get hold of the booty. He next went and took a second town, Gibraltar, with once again the townspeople fleeing and the treasure, not long after, forthcoming. On returning to Maracaibo, however, the victors found themselves bottled up in the harbor by three Spanish men-of-war; but after Morgan ran a fireship into one vessel, which went up in flames, a second fled so ineptly that it sank, and the third, when attacked, surrendered. There was still a menacing fortress to reckon with, but by feigning a land attack the buccaneers slipped out of the harbor by night. After such triumphs, Jamaica was forbidden to go near anything Spanish, and Morgan lay low for a while before sailing off on his most ambitious and arduous project—Panama, reputedly “the richest town in Spanish America.”Preceded by a nine-day crossing of the isthmus under a hellish sun, with starving men bedeviled by swamps and snakes, vile insects, and Indian arrows, the fight for Panama itself ended with the city a gutted, smoking ruin. One hundred and seventy-five mules, it was said, were needed to transfer the booty.
Jamaica voted Morgan thanks, but Spain’s pressure on London ended by His being summoned there to “answer for his offenses.”Once in London, however, he went not to the Tower but to noblemen’s dinner tables, and his official hearing two years later amounted to putting him on the honors list. Charles II gave him a jeweled snuffbox, a knighthood, and a deputy governorship of Jamaica. Back home he had, over the years, It is ups and downs; playing politics he viciously persecuted his former confederates, the buccaneers; became an ailing, monstrous-bellied drunk; died well off; was given a state funeral, with a tremendous salute of guns, and buried on the waterfront, only for a Morgan-hearted earthquake to heave his resting-place into the sea.
If Morgan was clearly a success, Captain Kidd was from the outset a failure. A middle-aged New York man of property, he went in 1695 to London to seek command of an English warship. But meeting a fellow New Yorker, Robert Livingston, and through him New York’s and New England’s new governor, Lord Bellomont, Kidd was worked upon to command a privateering venture backed by such notable Whigs as the Keeper of the Great Seal, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Secretary of State. The project—to go to Madagascar and the Red Sea, capturing outgoing cargoes from Europe and incoming ones from the East—was not to Kidd’s advantage: his crew, themselves raw and inadequate, were given just a fourth of the booty, while most of it went to the backers, whom he and Livingston had to repay if the project failed. He seems to have given in for fear of damaging his future.
He damaged it almost at once with a series of blunders—going first, for example, not to Madagascar, but to New York to improve his crew, and collecting wharf rats and the like who impaired it. He then, with his first strike, incurred a charge of piracy; he later, in a rage, cracked the head of a defiant gunner and killed him. As the voyage pioceeded, he captured three prizes (two carrying French—i.e. enemy—passes, justifying seizure), and then with the Queduh, when his own Advertl\n e was falling apart, made a big haul; but, once paid off, seven eighths of his crew deserted him.
The Adventure’s first voyage was its last. Kidd, already condemned as an “obnoxious pirate” in London, turned homeward a hunted man; reaching Boston, he let Bellomont have his precious French passes, cached booty instead of offering it for Admiralty condemnation, was arrested, put in heavy irons, and ordered at length to England. There, “the Kidd affair” became Tory fuel to roast the Whigs. First kept incommunicado and then imprisoned in Newgate, Kidd, when finally questioned by the Commons, proved truculent and self-vindicating; had he vilified his Whig backers, he might have been let off. Instead, lie was Ordoted to trial. With the key French passes missing from his papers, with the £50 the court allowed him for counsel arriving too late to he of much use, with Kidd only then learning he was charged with the gunner’s murder, and with the testimony one-sided and hostile, it took a jury an hour to find him
Mr. Winston seems judicious on a subject that leads to such partisan extremes as to execrate Kidd as a fiend and to exalt him as a martyr. The trial, Mr. Winston thinks, was a fair one for 1701 but not for today. Kidd coidd not testify in his own behalf, the justices showed great bias, and their summing up was little less than a directed verdict of guilty. In terms of evidence, the important “lost" French passes (though they covered only two of five piracy charges) had actually, it transpired, been read out to the Commons and gone word for word into its journals. On the other hand, there were charges brought against Kidd he could not refute, and charges he brought against others he could not substantiate; and he undoubtedly “transgressed every regulation governing lawful privateers who took prizes.”As for the man himself, he was all too ambitious and not very bright, fatuously thinking his royal commission and his grandee backers unchallengeable sureties. Yet in one sense Kidd’s ambition has, I think, been fulfilled—to the untutored, his is the generic name for a swashbuckling pirate, and his forever-searched-for spoil the englamoured symbol of buried treasure.
Woodes Rogers, Mr. Winston’s least well known subject, emerges, partly because he is, the most engaging. There is something really unusual about his humane and dutiful nature, as there is the smack of adventure and exploration about his one great privateering voyage. At the same time, being richer in sharp-etched incidents than big events, the voyage is not easily summarized. At twenty-nine, having never been more than an apprentice mariner, Rogers was chosen during the Marlborough wars to command a terrifying voyage around the Horn, with commissions to attack enemy French and Spanish ships in the South Seas, His backers were Bristol’s solidest citizens, happy to mingle patriotism with profit.
The first mistake on the voyage was the steward’s: there was far too little liquor for the men, something rectified in the Canaries. Next, and harder to rectify, the men were allotted far too little booty, the backers gobbling up most of it; but Rogers passed on to the crew his valuable “cabin plunder” rights. A decent man, he could also severely discipline a brash agent, a stir-crazy crew, a mutinous mate. The weather turned mutinous also, with rounding the Horn all hideous gales and towering seas. Into the Pacific at last, Rogers’ two ships presently sighted one of the Juan Fernandez Islands. A yawl sent into the bay, and then a pinnace, both failed to return, but at length brought back a “barefooted, heavily bearded man, dressed in goatskins" who had for four years been marooned and was named Alexander Selkirk. For a time he was the expedition’s only prize; finally Rogers captured a small ship, then a less small one, then two more. Feeling the moment had come for a large strike, he attacked the port of Guayaquil, but by stalling the negotiations, the governor surrendered a town emptied of booty; search parties, however, proved helpful. Prize barques and feverish crews and mock battles followed; then Rogers decided to attack a Spanish galleon out of Manila, “the richest prize afloat.” His ships captured a handsome lesser prize from Manila, but the great one murderously mauled its attackers and sailed grandly on.
Its attackers now sailed for home, had a sixtydish feast on Guam, so lacked food losing their way to Batavia that rats became a delicacy, and what with frighteningly leaky ships, foul weather, desertions, and deaths, were a year in reaching England. For five years thereafter, the booty produced accusations and wrangles and lawsuits, Rogers himself winding up with just enough prize money to pay his family’s accumulated bills. Of his notes of the voyage, however, he made a remarkable book, A Cruising Voyage Round the World, which had two interesting effects. His account of Selkirk’s island solitude inspired Robinson Crusoe; his urging England to traffic briskly in the Pacific world was pounced on to push that most insane of speculations, the South Sea Bubble, which sent, stocks as high as 1000 percent of par, to plunge catastrophically and fill England with paupers. Meanwhile, Rogers, with six partners, leased the Bahamas, hoping to grow rich off their resources, only to find it his duty as unsalaried governor to uproot the one thing that paid: piracy. Bankruptcy and debtor’s prison followed, but then a nice salaried Bahamas job, for a fairly happy if humdrum ending.