One particularly important part of what we might call the 'pirate consciousness' was revenge upon the captains and masters who had previously exploited them. The pirate Howell Davis stated: "their reasons for going a pirating were to revenge themselves on base Merchants and cruel commanders of Ships." On capturing a merchantman pirates would commonly administer the 'Distribution of Justice', "enquiring into the Manner of the Commander's Behaviour to their Men, and those, against whom Complaint was made" were "whipp'd and pickled."

Interestingly, one of the favourite torments inflicted upon captured captains was the 'Sweat' - a word meaning to drive hard or to overwork - in which the offender was made to run round and round the mizzenmast between decks to the tune of a merry jig while he was encouraged to go faster by the surrounding pirates jabbing his backside with "Points of Swords, Penknives, Compasses, Forks &c." It seems the pirates were determined to give the master a taste of his own medicine - creating a literally vicious circle or treadmill reminiscent of the seaman's labouring life. The most militant of these sea-borne righters-of-wrong has to be Philip Lyne, who when apprehended in 1726 confessed he "had killed 37 Masters of Vessels."
Radical historian Marcus Rediker has uncovered interesting evidence of pirates' concern with retribution in the names of their ships - the largest single group of names are the ones involving revenge, for example Blackbeard's ship the Queen Anne's Revenge or John Cole's wonderfully named New York Revenge's Revenge. Merchant Captain Thomas Checkley got it just right when he described the pirates who captured his ship as pretending "to be Robbin Hoods Men." There is further evidence for this in the name of another ship - the Little John belonging to pirate John Ward. Peter Lamborn Wilson says: "[this] offers us a precious insight into his ideas and his image of himself: clearly he considered himself a kind of Robin Hood of the seas. We have some evidence he gave to the poor, and he was clearly determined to steal from the rich."

The response of the state to these merry men of the seven seas was brutal - the crime of piracy carried the death sentence. The early years of the 18th century saw "royal officials and pirates [locked] into a system of reciprocal terror" as pirates became more antagonistic to mainstream society and the authorities ever more determined to hunt them down. Rumours that pirates who had taken advantage of the 1698 royal pardon were on surrendering denied the benefits of the pardon only increased mistrust and antagonism; the pirates resolved "no longer to attend to any offers of forgiveness but in case of attack, to defend themselves on their faithless countrymen who may fall into their hands." In 1722 Captain Luke Knott was granted £230 for the loss of his career, after turning over 8 pirates, "his being obliged to quit the Merchant service, the Pirates threatening to Torture him to death if ever he should fall into their hands." It was by no means an empty threat - in 1720 pirates of the crew of Bartholomew Roberts "openly and in the daytime burnt and destroyed... vessels in the Road of Basseterre [St. Kitts] and had the audaciousness to insult H.M. Fort," avenging the execution of "their comrades at Nevis". Roberts then sent word to the governor that "they would Come and Burn the Town [Sandy Point] about his Ears for hanging the Pyrates there." Roberts even had his own pirate flag made showing him standing on two skulls labelled ABH and AMH - 'A Barbadian's Head' and 'A Martinican's Head' - later that same year he gave substance to his vendetta against the two islands by hanging the governor of Martinique from a yardarm. As bounties were offered for the capture of pirates, the pirates responded by offering rewards for certain officials. And when pirates were captured or executed, other pirate crews often revenged their brethren, attacking the town that condemned them, or the shipping of that port. This sort of solidarity shows that there had developed a real pirate community, and that those sailing under 'the banner of King Death' no longer thought of themselves as English or Dutch or French but as pirates.

Posted by Under The Black Flag on 10:46 μ.μ.. Filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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