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The sailors who became pirates did not do so only because of their suffering - of the tens of thousands of sailors employed on the Atlantic trade, only a minority (no more than 4000) ever became pirates - but also because of the vision of freedom that becoming a pirate provided.
Each mutiny followed a similar pattern: once the ship's officers and any loyalist seamen were overpowered, the rebels organised a meeting involving the entire crew. At this, 'articles', the rules of the ship, were drawn up, and officers elected. The articles followed certain common rules:
* Providing for the care of those injured on board, or in combat (One of the most audacious acts of notorious pirate captain Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, was the blockade of Charleston Harbour: not as one might suppose for grog or gold but to obtain medicine for sick crewmates);
* Limiting the powers of the elected officers: the captain only had control of the ship whilst in storm or combat, at all other times power rested in the hands of the ship's council, made up of all the 'full' pirates on board - new recruits were denied representation until they had proved themselves, usually in combat.
When pirates attacked a merchant ship their first act would be to raise the 'Jolly Roger', the pirates' flag. This would begin the psychological assault, informing the seamen that to oppose them would mean death. So many ships' captains would be prevented from mounting a bloody defence by the rest of the crew simply folding its arms and refusing to fight that parliament decreed that to refuse to fight pirates was a crime punishable by death. For all their violent reputation, the pirates themselves would rather not to fight at all, and the chance of taking a ship cleanly was much preferred.
Once aboard, the crew of the ship were gathered together and their officers paraded before them. The crew were invited to speak out either in favour or against the captain and his staff: their testimony would decide the fate of the captain and his ship. Good or kind captains would find themselves not only still alive but often still in command of their ships at the end of the pirate attack and with the bulk of the cargo intact, minus any alcohol, fresh food, or gold and silver.
A bad or violent captain would, however, be lucky to escape with his life and what the pirates couldn't take or use would be burned with his ship.
The final act before the pirates departed was to appeal for volunteers. Hardly a ship could be found without one or more potential pirates.
For the pirate the aim was for a short life, but a merry one, and the pirates found what comfort they could when they could. The hunt for alcohol was a constant one. Although merchant and navy ships were not known for their sobriety - Nelson's ships have been described as asylums of chronic alcoholics - the pirates' appetites sometimes got them into real trouble. More than one ship was wrecked on reefs or captured by the authorities because the crew were too drunk to sail or to fight.
The privateers of the 17th century had followed a practice of matelotage, a relationship of shared property and responsibility between two men, and the pirates carried on this liberated attitude toward homosexuality. Whereas the Royal Navy at the time has been described as being run by 'Rum, Sodomy and The Lash', homosexuality was punishable by death on navy ships. On board a pirate vessel love was accepted wherever it could be found.
Women played a very minor part in this extremely masculine world, but Rediker, who tells the stories of the famous female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, challenges the bourgeois historian's view that women were only victims or whores. He shows that, on one ship at least, 'the molestation of unwilling women' was banned by the articles and punishable by death.
Although most pirates had served on the middle passage and thus had been a part of the slave trade, the pirates displayed remarkably little of the racial prejudice that was being developed at that time in order to justify the trade. Whilst pirates were known to take, and sell on, slave cargos, black former slaves made up a considerable portion of pirate crews (over 40% of Blackbeard's crew were black). Pirates would often describe themselves as Maroons, copying the name adopted by the escaped Jamaican slave gangs. On one occasion, Marcus relates, the captain found himself handed back control of his slave ship only after the pirates had released all the chains and provided the slaves with a knife each. That the captain and his 'cargo' would be able to discuss their respective situations on a more equal basis would have appealed to the pirates' sense of justice.
It was the threat that the pirates made upon the profits of the slave trade that determined their fate. The seaboard coasts of both Africa and the Americas were swamped with navy ships; the pirates were hunted down and hanged by the dozen. The pirates themselves responded to state terror with a terror of their own. More merchantmen were burnt; towns that hanged pirates were blockaded. The pirates themselves declared "No surrender" and vowed to blow themselves and their ships to kingdom come rather than be captured. But the writing was on the wall, and the dwindling bands of pirates either dispersed or died fighting, or upon the scaffold.
Marcus Rediker has done us a great service: he has written an account of those who, facing a world full of horror and brutality, rebelled and challenged the conventions of class, race and gender. Laughing in the face of authority as they laughed in the face of death, the pirates' rebellion created an alternative to the dour hypocrisy of our 'betters', which has given hope and inspiration for over 300 years.
the jolly roger
There have been a number of different explanations of the origin of the most famous of the pirates' flags, the 'skull and cross bones'. In the book Socialism For Beginners, Anna Paczuska declared that, despite pirates' flags being almost exclusively black, the term Jolly Roger was a perversion of the French Jolie Rougier (red and beautiful). This may have some basis in fact as the navy flag signal for mutiny was a red flag.
The Jolly Roger flown by the Atlantic pirates, however, was black and either showed a skeleton or a skull and bones. Marcus Rediker provides a more convincing explanation of its origin.
The flying of the Jolly Roger was a part of the psychological war waged by the pirate band and was designed to strike terror into the hearts of those who saw it. The skull and crossed bones device was commonly used by a ship's captain in his log, as a sign that a seaman had lost his life on voyage. As such it would be a universally recognised symbol of death. The colour of the flag indicated 'no quarter' and ordered the victims not to resist. Finally, Rediker argues that the name is taken from 18th century slang for sex (as in 'a good rogering'). Quite simply, if the captain of a fat merchantman were to look out, and see through his telescope the Jolly Roger flying, then he could be sure that he was well and truly fucked.
This article was originally published by the
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