Age of Piracy

Pirates seek treasure both sunken and sea-going, from the 17th century through today. William and Mary Professor Kris Lane draws the connections between the old traditions and the fresh emergences of piracy.


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast, I'm Harmony Hunter. Until fairly recently, piracy was a subject that was only encountered at the movies, but a surge in piracy in Somalia has brought renewed attention to the problem.

It's a subject that got us thinking about the roots of piracy. So we're on the campus of the college of William and Mary today to catch up with Kris Lane, who's a history professor here. Kris, thanks for having us.

Kris Lane: Thanks for having me.

Harmony Hunter: Well, you teach a course on piracy at the college, tell me a little bit about that course and how you developed this expertise.

Kris Lane: I thought, If I could offer, if not a corrective, at least an alternative perspective on the history of piracy that incorporated victim's points of view and looked at cross-overs, sort of pirates, trading with Spanish subjects as well as raiding Spanish towns and ships and learning Spanish and speaking Spanish or Portuguese as languages of the sea.

Turns out there's quite a bit of movement across lines. They have Spanish renegades acting as pirates and escaped slaves from places like Havana who are also engaged in piracy. I quickly found it's a much more complicated story, in fact a pretty chaotic story. So I was motivated to write a book to try to sort some of that out.

Harmony Hunter: What are some of the other common sort of misconceptions that get carried along with these myths of piracy?

Kris Lane: What I find is the tension in my work is, the myths about piracy, we can debunk them. We can find enough documentary evidence to debunk them. Then if we want to support them we'll find that documentary evidence too.

Because occasionally I'll come across a document in Colombia or in Ecuador where, say, some early 18th century pirates are lost on the coast of South America, on the Pacific Coast. They wash ashore, and they have a Spanish captive with them whom they've captured somewhere along the way.

He survives, and is interrogated by local officials, and they story he will tell is usually, "These guys are completely crazy. They're drunk, they're crazy, they're mutinous, I don't understand their audacity. They'll literally do anything." And that image, that exaggerated image of pirate audacity and drunkenness and wildness is supported by the documents.

So I think we can find a bit of both. I haven't made it my job in life to debunk pirate myths because I think there's more than a kernel of truth in them.

But the general myth that they're essentially outside of any state authority most of the time is clearly one that needs to be corrected, that a lot of what we call piracy is in fact, people engaging in what they think are legal acts, but it would be something like paramilitary subcontracting today.

Harmony Hunter: This may seem like an impossible question given what you've just told us about how hard it is to say what a pirate is, but what is a pirate? Who is a pirate? What do you tell your students on the first day of class?

Kris Lane: I tell them that we're going to question when and if anyone is a pirate. That the term itself is loaded and contextual. That part of the study of history is trying to find out in what context is a person labeled as belonging to a particular group.

Let's just say, here's an example where Francis Drake is an outstanding naval hero for most British folks and that's kind of understood almost that he's a hero. He was knighted, and he was very much celebrated for his actions.

He, from a Spanish perspective, was a pirate. That's the term that Spanish folks used, "pirata." They feared him, they in a way, mythologized him in a very negative way in his own lifetime, but whether he was a pirate or not depends on who you believe. From the Spanish perspective he was, because he raided during peacetime. That is, when Spain and England were not officially at war, Drake still raided Spanish ships and targets. So in those contexts, he was a pirate, but he had tacit approval from Elizabeth.

Harmony Hunter: Piracy is also sort of an industry that comes out of a certain set of economic circumstances.

Kris Lane: Yes, many of the people who become pirates, especially in the 17th century, unlike Drake, in the 16th century and early 17th century, what we call piracy is mostly corsairing with genuine state approval by English and Dutch sailors and French sailors. In the 17th century once those northern Europeans establish colonies here in Jamestown and parts of the Caribbean, indentured servants, once their service is up, and some folks who engaged in merchant marine service, when their indentures are up, they're open for suggestions.

They're adventurers that often get swept into piracy because there's nothing else for them to do. The great attacks of the 17th century are buccaneer attacks that get bigger and bigger and bigger. In Henry Morgan's time particularly, the foot soldiers of that business are these out of work, very low class, former indentured servants, basically really desperate folks.

I would say that another myth that we have, that the pirates are always living well and living high, most of what the documentary evidence including their writings, that is when they leave behind journals, and they left behind a fair number. When they left behind these records they would say most of the time we spent searching for food and water.

As soon as we found food and water, we'd go after a ship. They liked the Caribbean because they could bounce around relatively quickly from island to island. Once they get into the Pacific Ocean, mostly in the 1680s they discover that there's a lot of ocean and not a lot of places to get water and food. You have to sail days and days and days before you bump into a town, and the pirates are parasites.

They don't produce their own food, they don't produce their own canned food. For example, they have to steal preserves. They'll steal crates of jam. Things you don't associate with pirates, they'll find a cattle ranch that they spot from the coast and put a shore and run up and shoot a bunch of cows and haul them off and leave the locals terrified but not do anything more than that.

So they're constantly desperate to survive and I think raiding and taking the big prize, the other myth another myth, they rarely do it. It's so rare, that if you get the impression from most histories of piracy, that the pirates are mostly successful, that they're doing all this damage and that the Spanish are just losing, losing, losing, bleeding silver because the pirates are so successful. It's exactly the opposite. Almost all the silver gets across the ocean whether it's going to China or it's going across the Atlantic to Spain. It's one-in-a-thousand chance of a vessel being captured by pirates, and even then the one that's captured may not be the one that has the silver.

Harmony Hunter: Pirates are actually fairly ingenious when it comes to this parasitic behavior that you mentioned. They plunder not only sailing ships but sunken ships.

Kris Lane: Yeah, there's a whole class of people, beginning in the 17th century really called wreckers. They're famous into the early 20th century in England for example, but people who kind of live near dangerous waters hoping for ships to wreck that they can then salvage. They don't care about the victims of course, they care about the booty. But what they're doing is trying to make sure they can identify what ships are carrying really valuable things.

So the pirates are really keen on information. So like modern criminals I guess, they're really anxious to capture people who know, pirates for example who know where ships are going in and out, and what they're carrying. They'll sometimes grab an African slave who's just paddling a canoe in a bay and say, "Tell us when the last ships came through, where they're going." Then they would get a sense of where ships are going down, where they're foundering, where they're sinking.

The Florida Straits are a perfect graveyard for ships. It's all the ships going across the Atlantic have to pass through this narrow channel between the Bahamas and Florida. It's full of coral reefs, it's just dangerous as can be. There are hurricanes, and the pirates know that pretty quickly. They figure out, okay, this is the choke point. This is where ships are going to go down.

As soon as one goes down, you want to be the first one there. Actually, you want to be the second one there. The pirates are not so interested in diving themselves and digging around in the sand. They do it occasionally. The Bahama pirates in around 1712 forward, there are some major wrecks in the early 1700s that produce tons of silver.

The pirates there, like good lazy pirates, they wait until the Spanish try to salvage those wrecks, and then they rob them as soon as they've done it. That's the usual pattern. So there are records in the 17th century who actually developed these diving bells and all sorts of other technology to try to recover sunken ships.

Harmony Hunter: Tell me what a diving bell is.

Kris Lane: Oh, yeah, if you can imagine using a gigantic church bell and lowering it into the water with a certain amount of air in it. You don't want it completely full of air, it will quickly just turn upside down, but with a controlled amount of air trapped in it, it can be lowered next to a diver. A diver can go and collect things and tie ropes onto them and they'll be pulled up as he tugs the rope, and then he can pop up into that bell and get a breath of air and then continue working twenty or thirty feet down maximum.

That would be pushing it even. So in Florida waters, and even parts of the coast of Northern South America and Hispaniola, what's today Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The use of diving bells for recovering cannons. I mean there are other things that go down with ships that are valuable, especially if you can get them quickly and they don't corrode.

But certainly treasure and ironware, all the other stuff that's very hard to replace, and that might be easily salvaged. As far as we know, the actual diving is done by either enslaved Africans or free people of color. That's kind of the standard and there are many cases of the Spanish either hiring or owning slaves who do just that. That's their job.

Harmony Hunter: You're a scholar of the Golden Age of Piracy, do you see any connections between the piracy that was happening then, and the piracy that's happening now? Are there the same type of economic motivators, the same types of people being drawn to it?

Kris Lane: I wouldn't call it a perfect revival or a kind of carbon copy of the past, but I would say that there are a lot of patterns that are very similar. Now other scholars of piracy have tried to say this is not the case others have said no, the modern pirates are nothing like the pirates of the Golden Age. They're motivated just by simple greed and they're not really maritime people, that is, they don't spend a lot of time at sea.

Whereas the buccaneers of the Golden Age if we have this kind of idealized image of the pirates from the late 17th century, early 18th century, that's the model. That these are your sea people, they are more comfortable on a vessel than they are on land. They spend most of their time sailing around looking for things. The pirates of Somalia and parts of Southeast Asia, they might be very comfortable in boats, they might be fishing people, but for the most part, they're not traveling long great distances from place to place searching for plunder. They're kind of staying close to home.

But I would say the Somali pirates are typical of the long period study of piracy. That is, if you look at piracy on the northern coast of Africa, particularly the Barbary coast, so called Barbary coast pirates of Algiers in the 17th and 18th centuries, they stay close to home. They have a home base, and what they're doing is not so much plundering ships that are carrying valuable cargo, as capturing ransom-able people. And that capturing and ransoming or kidnapping of people, is one of the oldest pirate traditions that we can think of. It just doesn't occur to us that that's something that would happen.

But again, our static image of the pirates makes us think that they wouldn't do such things, and therefore, the Somali pirates are somehow different. In fact, they fit the pattern very well. That having land bases that are outside of formal government authority that could be used for housing prisoners and having that technology to communicate back in the Mediterranean it was you just sent letters back and forth. So that kind of piracy, that activity of extortion, ransoming of captives, it's very typical. I don't think it's unusual at all.

Another thing that's similar too is sea traffic and the sea itself is an uncontrolled business. We imagine that there ought to be some sovereign body over the ocean, but there isn't. International jurisdiction was a major problem in the 17th century as well. What was the solution then? The British Navy. The British Navy, or the British authorities in general decided that it would be their mission, one of their missions to suppress piracy.

Harmony Hunter: Is there any thought you want to leave us with about the nature of piracy or any of the misconceptions?

Kris Lane: I think that it's best if you don't kill the myths. Keep alive the sense of romance of piracy, and if anybody hasn't done it in a while, I recommend reading Treasure Island. Because in my view, it captures the ambivalence better than any other book, better than any scholarly book. The notion of piracy as a temptation, something that's exotic and romantic and strange, but also fraught with moral difficulty and dilemma that it's a dangerous thing.

One of the things that Long John Silver says to young Jim Hawkins is, you can't touch pitch and not be mucked. It's you can't get close to this nastiness of piracy without getting a little bit of it on you. And I think that sticks to me as one of the best object lessons about piracy.

Harmony Hunter: Kris, thanks so much for being our guest today.

Kris Lane: My pleasure.

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