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Pirates of Today, and Those of Yesteryear

Contrasting history and modernity

Welcome to the third installment of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, a series looking at the fantasy and the reality of being a sailor in the modern age. Today we’re looking at historical pirates and how they compare to modern ones.


If you were to turn on the news around 2009, you would have been hearing a lot about pirates in Somalia [ 1 ]. No, not your typical swashbuckling, sword-carrying, charismatic type, but the AK-47-wielding, Kevlar-vest-wearing type, with the stigma of terrorism. They were and are kidnapping, murdering, and striking a blow to the world economy.

Pirates are a real threat in this age from the Strait of Malacca and the rivers of Brazil to the West Indies and the Horn of Africa. Too often, they are the punchline to a joke, the subject matter itself thousands of years old.

Many historians believe that piracy is the second oldest profession in the world (the first oldest being boat building, of course). As long as goods have been transported on the sea, there have been opportunistic thieves to steal said cargo. The first documented reports go as far back as the 14th century [ 2 ]. There’s even evidence that the Egyptian pharaohs complained about pirates!

An authentic period ship, off the coast of Algarve, Portugal.

The age when pirates were most prevalent and successful was between the 1650s and about 1730. This was known as the Golden Age of Piracy. This is when some of the most prominent figures and names show up and when the most economic damage was done because of sea rovers.

Turning to Piracy

To understand why people turned to piracy, we must examine the working conditions of ordinary sailors. To become a major naval power in the world, Britain had to employ many people. The country was building boats faster than they could outfit them with crews.

Many sailors had horrible working conditions and little to no pay. Tours of duty went on for years at a time. Families would be left at home to fend for themselves. Only those with influence and money rose in the ranks, making promotion next to impossible. You can imagine that not many people would want to volunteer themselves, knowing that this is what was meant for them. This led to the practice of press ganging.

In seaport towns, navy workers, who were known as crimps, aggressively recruited sailors. They resorted to vicious tactics, like beating people over the head to knock them out—known as impressment, or colloquially, press ganging [ 3 ]. Once these victims were down, they were dragged onto a naval vessel and told to get to work once they woke up—usually when they were out to sea with nowhere to go.

Another tactic was “mugging,” which most people will likely think is what I just described. Crimps would frequent public houses (from where we get the term “pub”) that were near the docks in a port city. This ensured that most of the clientele were sailors. They would offer to buy a round for someone when their ale ran out. They would order said drink at the bar and drop a coin into the mug. When the sailor drank the ale and the coin slid down into their mouth, they had just accepted their first month of pay [ 4 ].

Another practice was waiting until they took a swig when the mug was covering their face. The crimp would then hit the bottom of the mug, stunning the hapless drinker. This is what led to mugs with glass bottoms so you could see if someone was trying to take advantage of you.

Once on board, the captain and the officers became your lords and masters. Everything they said and told you to do was law. You could not question their authority, lest you get the lash, or worse.

Captains were usually given commissions to follow during times of war from their superiors, usually an admiral. These captains would be given a certain allowance for provisioning a vessel. First and foremost were ammunition and black powder. Next were food and uniforms. Last was the pay. You can see how in some cases, pay for the crew was forgotten in lieu of supplies. Indeed, some captains and officers often pocketed the money themselves.

Speaking of pay, if you were in the British Navy during the golden age of piracy, pay was based upon your work experience. Sailors who had worked on boats for two years or more were known as Able-Bodied Seamen, and they made £14 a year. This wage was in place from 1653-1797. Using a calculator that shows how much the British pound was worth historically, it shows that £1 in 1715 is worth $2,629 today. Therefore, an Able-Bodied Seaman was making $36,806 a year in today’s money. Anyone who had one to two years of experience was called an Ordinary Seaman and they made £11 ($28,919) in a year. A person who had less than a year experience on the water was a Landsman, and they made £10 ($26,290) a year [ 5 ].

This assumes, of course, that you received your pay. In many cases, you were discharged from service with a chit (basically an I.O.U.) that was good in about six months. This is because the Navy was constantly low on funds to pay the workforce below the officer position. In many cases, sailors sold these chits to pawnbrokers who would give them pennies on the dollar for the value of the chit.

If you were injured on a Navy vessel, you were a liability to the crew. In some cases, you would be given a task that you could still complete despite your injury. Most common was cook or cook’s assistant. In most cases, you were dumped unceremoniously at the nearest port with not so much as a “sorry for your troubles.”

And then there’s this abandoned heap. This rust-bucket is actually used by Somali pirates in human trafficking. Glamorous enough for you?

You would usually beg for the remainder of your life. But don’t worry—your life usually didn’t last long after an injury. Even if a limb had to be amputated, there was no guarantee you’d survive the resulting infection.

Now imagine what it must be like to hear how life aboard a pirate ship compares. You vote who your captain is. You vote where you sail. In fact, the only time that the commands of a pirate captain are absolute are during battle or escaping an enemy. Each member of the crew receives an equal share in every prize (more on how much that later).

If you lost a limb or an eye in a fight, you were given enough money to live for the rest of your life and you were brought to the port of your choosing. You even had a choice in most cases as to whether you want to become a pirate in the first place. All these conditions seem like a dream job compared to working for the Navy [ 5 ].

Show Me the Money

Now as to how much money pirates earned. In the latter days of the 1600s, a pirate by the name of Thomas Tew received a letter of marque to attack the French from the governor of Bermuda. A letter of marque allows you to legally become a pirate, providing that you give a portion of your profits to the person who gave you the commission.

Tew sailed out from Bermuda with a crew of 40 sailors. He completely ignored his letter of marque and sailed east to Africa. He went around the Cape of Good Hope and ended up on the island Saint Mary (Île Sainte-Marie) on the eastern coast of Madagascar. The self-proclaimed Pirate Master Adam Baldridge had set up shop on this island and traded with pirates and the local native population. Tew reprovisioned there and then set out for the Indian Ocean.

Once he reached his destination, he found a tribute ship bound from India to the Ottoman Empire. Tribute ships carried large amounts of valuable goods from one country to another for many reasons, usually to prevent hostilities. The crew of the tribute ship surrendered, and the loot was divided back on Saint Mary’s.

After divvying up the proceeds from selling to Baldridge, each member of his crew received anywhere from £1,200 to £3,000. The buying power of that amount today would yield anywhere from $3,000,000 to almost $8,000,000. Each member of the crew had at least 120 years’ worth of wages after working for two years [ 6 ].

Now to the modern pirates—more specifically, those off the coast of Somalia. Most pundits and news reporters were quick to demonize them without looking at the facts. Not yours truly! Knowing what turns ocean-going people to acts of piracy, I decided to find out the reason for these attacks.

If you were born in the earlier part of the 1980s, you may remember what was going on in Somalia during that time. When President Mohamed Siad Barré was deposed in 1991, the factions responsible for the coup couldn’t agree on a system of government [ 7 ]. As a result, there was a collapse that led to 14 attempts at appointing someone as the head of the war-torn country. For many years, there was no governmental body to regulate any activity in the waters surrounding the land.

Starting in the mid to late 1990s, large vessels were seen off the coast of Somalia dumping containers of radioactive material. This was later linked to the trash removal business of the Italian mafia, most notably the Camorra mafia and the ’Ndrangheta. Then came the trawlers, illegally fishing to the point that the local fishermen were deprived of their livelihoods. These fishermen started acting as the Coast Guard of the country.

They did everything they could to stop the illegal dumping and fishing, but more people were getting radiation sickness. A tsunami in 2005 washed up barrels of the radioactive waste and exposing more inhabitants. To make matters worse, a famine in the late 1990s, along with the depleted fish population, led to starvation—which led to desperation.

According to accounts, the first reported act of piracy was in 2005 [ 8 ]. It was a petroleum gas tanker owned by a Hong Kong company. These pirates started ransoming captains and crews. In most cases, there was no violence. For a while, these pirates were using the money to clean up the waste and prevent future dumping and excessive trawling.

But much like the pirates of old, once you start making money, you don’t know when to say enough is enough [ 8 ]. Also, some people join the cause for not the noblest of reasons. Some are truly bloodthirsty. Some are driven by greed. And some do it for the fun and ease of it.

And there you have it, dear readers. Remember that there are two sides to every story. And don’t take my views on the facts as sympathy for these pirates. Yes, their intentions were pure and I can see why they did these things. But they are picking the wrong targets now. They ought to target the companies that are doing the illegal actions, not the shipping companies that are passing through their waters.

Be sure to sail by next time as we talk about the popular myths of life as a pirate, as well as the reality they hide. Be sure to join us when we separate fact from fiction in our next installment!

Images

  1. “An authentic period ship, off the coast of Algarve, Portugal.“
    Source: schaerfsystem. “Pirate Ship Portugal Algarve Sea Waves Heaven.” Pixabay, pixabay.com/photos/pirate-ship-portugal-algarve-sea-745347/
  2. “And then there’s this abandoned heap. This rust-bucket is actually used by Somali pirates in human trafficking. Glamorous enough for you?“
    Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/old-rusty-dangerous-boat-left-on-1656701014
    (“Old, rusty, dangerous boat left on the shore, occupied by Somali pirates. Dirty coast, metal ship stranded on beach attacked, hijacked by pirates of Somalia. Boat for illegal smuggling of immigrants”). Shutterstock. Sweethour.

Jeromy Foberg has staffed conventions as a historian and panelist for the better part of a decade. His work in historical reenactment and experimental archaeology is voluminous, leading historical walking tours and serving as a tall ship sailor. In addition to his series, Jeromy’s worked with SFS as a model, performer, and a writer for The Living Multiverse. Having spent the past few years “living the dream”, he’s rarely settled down in one place to recount his accumulated lore … until now.

Resources

  1. Tikkanen, Amy. “Maersk Alabama Hijacking Piracy Incident, Indian Ocean [2009].” Britannica, britannica.com/event/Maersk-Alabama-hijacking. Accessed 2 Jan. 2022.
  2. Mark, Joshua J. “Pirates in the Ancient Mediterranean.” World History Encyclopedia, 19 Aug. 2019, worldhistory.org/Piracy.
  3. Lee, Alistair. “Press Gangs.” Historic UK, 22 Aug. 2021, historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Press-Gangs.
  4. Online Etymology Dictionary editors. “Mugging (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, etymonline.com/word/mugging. Accessed 2 Jan. 2022
  5. Foberg, Jeremy. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. Interview by Savan Gupta, 10 Sept. 2016.
  6. “Thomas Tew.” The Way of the Pirates, thewayofthepirates.com/famous-pirates/thomas-tew. Accessed 2 Jan. 2022.
  7. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Mohamed Siad Barre.” Britannica, britannica.com/biography/Mohamed-Siad-Barre. Accessed 2 Jan. 2022.
  8. Kellerman, Miles G. “Somali Piracy: Causes and Consequences.” Inquiries Journal, 2011, inquiriesjournal.com/articles/579/somali-piracy-causes-and-consequences.