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PIRATES IN GENERAL
PIRACY, like murder, is one of the earliest of recorded human activities. The references to it coincide with the earliest references to travel and trade; it may be assumed that very shortly after men began the transport of goods from one point to another various enterprising individuals arose who saw profit in intercepting these goods on the way.
Trade follows the flag, and robbery whether by land or sea follows trade. "As surely as spiders abound where there are nooks and crannies," wrote Captain the Hon. Henry Keppel, the great hunter of Oriental pirates in the nineteenth century, "so have pirates sprung up wherever there is a nest of islands offering creeks and shallows, headlands, rocks and reefs — facilities in short for lurking, for surprise, for attack, for escape."
In all the seas of the world and in all times piracy has passed through certain well-defined cycles. First a few individuals from amongst the inhabitants of the poorer coastal lands would band together in isolated groups owning one or but a very few vessels apiece and attack only the weakest of merchantmen. They possessed the status of outlaws whom every law abiding man was willing and eager to kill at sight. Next would come the period of organisation, when the big pirates either swallowed up the little pirates or drove them out of business. These great organisations moved on such a scale that no group of trading ships, even the most heavily armed, was safe from their attack. Of this sort was the era of the Barbary corsairs, of Morgan and his buccaneers, of the wild West Country seamen early in Elizabeth's reign — pirates against whom competition was hopeless and authority powerless.
Then came the stage when the pirate organisation, having virtually reached the status of an independent state, was in a position to make a mutually useful alliance with another state against its enemies. What had been piracy then for a time became war, and in that war the vessels of both sides were pirates to the other and subject to the same treatment. In these times rose such men as the terrible Kheyr-ed-din, better known as Barbarossa, who carried the Crescent into the strongest ports of the Mediterranean and counted a victory over the Imperial fleet of Spain as all in the day's work; the sailor geniuses of Cornwall and Devon who, during one short and dazzling era, wrote the annals of piracy in poetry instead of prose; and Lemarck's Sea Beggars and Condé's Rochellois, who made war on Church and State in the name of liberty and the Reformation.
In the end the victory of one side would as a rule break up the naval organisation of the other, as Don John of Austria raked and burned the fleets of Islam in the narrows of Lepanto. The component parts of the defeated side would be again reduced to the position of outlaw bands, until the victorious power was strong enough to send them scurrying back once more to the status of furtive footpads of the sea whence they had arisen.
Piracy at its greatest moments becomes a major part of history itself but even in its lesser phases there is a fascination that is peculiarly its own, apart even from the spell that crime can exercise on the imagination. For it is crime of a very special sort, demanding of its followers much more than boldness, cunning or skill in the use of arms.
The master pirate had to be able to handle his ship (in the beginning often an unseaworthy one until he could steal a better) in tempests and in fights, make his way disabled to sheltering harbours, control his unruly ruffians through disease and discontent, employ the arts of the diplomat to provide himself with a safe market on shore for his stolen wares. Men like these are rare, and few of the respectable professions can show more masterful personalities than those to be met at the top of the pirate tree. Apart even from the semi-legal adventurers like Drake, Morgan and Barbarossa the pirates' Hall of Fame contains many a remarkable hero who in life was quite properly regarded as a criminal beyond hope of salvation.
They were a queer lot — in their oddities perhaps even more than in their abilities lies the secret of their fascination. As far as salvation goes it is astounding to find how many of them carried through their most desperate acts in the belief that they were laying by a credit for the after life. It was regard for his soul that inspired Captain Roberts, who always wore in action "a rich damask waistcoat and breeches, a gold chain round his neck with a large diamond cross dangling from it," to enforce a strict temperance on board his ship and a due respect for the sanctity of womanhood. It was this same concern for his soul that urged Captain Daniel to steal a priest for the celebration of Mass on board his vessel and to shoot one of the crew for making an obscene remark in the course of it. And probably no more fervent Utopian has ever existed than Captain Misson, who founded, fifty years before the French Revolution, amidst torrents of exalted oratory, a pirate republic dedicated to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The captive whose conscience refused to allow his escape from the owner to whom he had been sold because it would be cheating a man who had paid good money for him, the Quaker shipmaster who declined to use force against the Barbary corsairs and in the end prevailed against them nevertheless, are perhaps nearer in spirit to such pirates than were Blackbeard and Kidd.
The history of piracy is therefore not a mere grim chronicle of the triumph of law; it is more than a series of romantic yarns about gold, fighting and adventure. It has its amusing side as well, strange lore, ludicrous happenings, the bizarre in human nature. We follow Captain Bartholomew Sharp. in the most amazing of all pirate voyages and listen to one of his captives, a Spanish gentleman, whiling away the monotony of the quarter deck with stories of how a priest went ashore in Peru while ten thousand Indians stood gazing at him, and before them all laid his Cross gently on the backs of two roaring lions who "instantly fell down and worshipped it," whereupon two tigers followed them and did the same. We share the terrors of Ludolph of Cucham, who in 1350 wrote a catalogue of the dangers which might be experienced at sea from "sea monsters" and especially the sea swine, an animal which will rise up near the ship and beg — "if the sailors give it bread it departs but if it will not depart it may be terrified and put to flight by the sight of a man's angry and terrible face." If the sailor is frightened he must not show it: "he must look at it boldly and severely and must not let it see he is afraid, otherwise it will not depart but will bite and tear his ship." And though one must be distressed at the stories of Christian sufferings in captivity, one can also delight in the opportunity which the experience gave good St. Vincent de Paul of studying the alchemy which stood him in such good stead afterwards, and sympathise with the complaint of "Sir" Jeffery Hudson, Charles I's pugnacious dwarf, that hard labour in captivity had increased his height from one foot six to three foot six.
Nor is there humour lacking in a notable pirate kidnapping which occurred in the Ægean Sea in 78 B.C., an event which, had it turned out a trifle differently, might have changed the whole history of the world.
In that year a certain young Roman gentleman of exalted family connections, having been banished from Italy by the dictator Sulla because of his adherence to the dictator's exiled rival Marius, was travelling by sea to Rhodes. Being a young man full of ambition and having nothing else to do while Rome was forbidden him, he had decided to improve his time by perfecting himself in an art in which his masters had told him he was deficient: elocution. To this end he had entered himself at the school of Apollonius Molo, the famous teacher of oratory.
While the ship was sailing past the island of Pharmacusa, off the rocky coast of Caria, several long low craft were suddenly seen coming out towards her. The merchantman was a slow sailor and with the breeze dropping any hope of escape from the pirate boats, propelled by the long sweeps and strong arms of slaves, was out of the question. Dropping her little auxiliary sail she waited for the sharp-beaked craft to slip alongside and in a short while her decks were crowded with swarthy ruffians.
Looking round at the groups of frightened passengers the pirate chief was at once struck by a young aristocrat, exquisitely dressed in the latest fashion of Rome, who sat reading, surrounded by his attendants and slaves. Striding up to him the pirate demanded who he might be, but the young man, after one disdainful glance, turned back to his book. The infuriated pirate then turned to one of the young man's companions, his physician Cinna, who informed him of the captive's name, which was Caius Julius Cæsar.
The question of ransom was at once opened. The pirate wanted to know how much Cæsar was willing to pay to gain his own freedom and that of his servants. As the Roman did not even take the trouble to answer, the captain turned to his second-in-command and asked him what he considered the party worth. This expert looked them over and gave it as his opinion that ten talents would be a reasonable sum.
The captain, irritated at the young aristocrat's superior airs, snapped, "Then I'll double it! — twenty talents is my price."
At this Cæsar spoke for the first time. With a lift of his eyebrows he remarked, "Twenty? If you knew your business you'd realize I'm worth at least fifty."
The pirate chief was staggered. It was something quite out of his experience to find a prisoner who considered himself so important that he would volunteer to pay nearly twelve thousand instead of three thousand pounds in ransom. However he took the extraordinary young exquisite at his word and bundled him off into the boats with the other captives, to wait in the pirates' stronghold for the return of the messengers sent to collect the ransom.
Cæsar and his party were installed in some huts in a village occupied by the pirates. The young Roman occupied himself principally with daily physical exercise, running, jumping and throwing large stones, at times in competition with his captors. In his less strenuous hours he wrote poems or composed orations. In the evenings he would often join the pirates round their fire and experiment on them with his verses or his oratory. It is recorded that the pirates entertained an extremely low opinion of these compositions and said so with indelicate candour — either their taste in such matters was low or else Cæsar's verse, now lost, did not attain the literary standard of his maturer prose.
It was a strange life for the spoiled dandy whom Sulla had described as "the boy in petticoats." He sounds like a character in an Oscar Wilde essay who very successfully rose to the demands of life amongst Albanian brigands. All the witnesses agree that under his precious affectations he was utterly fearless. Not only, like a true Roman patrician, did he despise his captors for their uncouth manners and want of education but bluntly charged them with these deficiencies to their faces. And he thoroughly enjoyed himself in telling them what would happen to the whole gang if they ever fell into his hands in the future, solemnly promising that he would crucify the lot. The pirates, more amused at his effeminacy than angry at his threats, held him in a kind of condescending respect and thought the promise of a general crucifixion an excellent joke. Once at night when, according to their custom, they were sitting round their fire far into the night, drinking and indulging in various unmusical noises, their perplexing captive sent a servant in to the captain to desire him to keep his men quiet as they disturbed his sleep. The request was honoured: the chief told his crew to pipe down.
At last after thirty-eight days the messengers returned to say that the ransom of fifty talents had been deposited with the legate Valerius Torquatus, and Cæsar with his companions were put on board a ship and sent to Miletus. It had taken an unexpectedly long time to collect so large a sum of money, because after Sulla had banished Cæsar he had confiscated all his property and that of his wife Cornelia. In the circumstances it might have been better for the young man to have diminished his self importance somewhat.
On his arrival at Miletus the ransom was paid over to the pirates, who at once departed, and Cæsar went on shore to carry out the plan he had determined upon. From Valerius he borrowed four war galleys and five hundred soldiers, and at once set out for Pharmacusa. Arriving there late the same evening he found the whole pirate crew, as he had expected, celebrating their luck in an orgy of eating and drinking. Taken completely by surprise they were unable to resist and surrendered, only a few managing to escape. Cæsar captured some three hundred and fifty of them and had the satisfaction of getting back his fifty talents intact. Putting his late hosts on board his galleys, he had all the pirate ships sunk in deep water and then set sail for Pergamum, where Junius, the Prætor of the province of Asia Minor, had his headquarters.
Arrived at Pergamum Cæsar clapped his prisoners into a well-guarded fortress and went to interview the Prætor. He found that official, who was the only authority with power to inflict capital punishment, away on duty. Following and overtaking him Cæsar explained briefly to the Prætor what had happened; he had in safe custody at Pergamum the whole pirate gang with their booty, and asked for a letter to be given him authorising the deputy governor at Pergamum to execute the pirates or at least their chiefs.
But Junius did not take kindly to the idea. He disliked this imperative young man who rushed in to upset so unexpectedly the tranquillity of the prætorian round and took it so easily for granted that he had but to order and the Governor-General of all Asia Minor would instantly obey. There were other considerations as well. The system whereby his merchants paid tribute to the pirates for immunity had the sanctity of an old custom which worked, on the whole, not too badly. If Junius did as Cæsar wanted, the pirates' successors, being strangers, would most likely prove even more extortionate than Cæsar's captives. It was, in addition, an understood thing that officials like the Prætor, stationed far from Rome on the outposts of the Empire, were there not only to serve the state but to turn a profitable penny against the day when they should retire to civil life at home. The pirate gang was rich and might reasonably be expected to make a proper acknowledgment to the Governor if he exercised his prerogative of clemency and turned them loose.
However it would have taken too long a time to explain these complicated affairs of state to a young man, one for whom, moreover, Junius entertained such a strong dislike that amiable conversation was difficult. He promised Cæsar to go into the whole matter after his return to Pergamum and later inform him of his decision.
Cæsar quite understood. He bowed himself out of the Prætor's presence and by forced rides achieved the return journey to Pergamum in a day. Without more ado, on his own authority (probably the new situation in Rome was unknown to the provincials) he ordered the pirates to be executed in the prison, reserving the thirty principals for the fate he had promised them. When they were led before him in irons he reminded them of that promise, but added that out of gratitude for the friendliness they had shown him he would grant them a last favour: before being crucified each of them should have his throat cut first.
Thereupon Cæsar resumed his journey to Rhodes and in due time enrolled himself in Apollonius Molo's excellent school of oratory.
Excerpted from The History of Piracy by Philip Gosse. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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