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April 14, 2005

Books, Journals & More – A Closer Look: Marcus Rediker

Lashings, torture and killings were common on the ships that lapped up riches on trade routes traversing the high seas of the Atlantic in the 18th century.

A favorite discipline tool of ship officers was the cat-o’-nine-tails or simply “the cat”: a whip with nine leather lashes designed to tear a man’s flesh. After a whipping, a sailor became known as a “tiger” when his wounds turned to scars, giving the appearance of stripes.

Tired of the cramped quarters on ships, low wages and whippings, 27-year-old boatswain William Fly, like many of his contemporaries, turned “pirate.” Fly’s violent transition to piracy is related in Marcus Rediker’s “Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age.”

According to history professor Redi-ker, Fly was a poor man born of “very obscure parents.” He was sailing to West Africa on the Elizabeth in 1726, when he and another mate tried to organize a mutiny against the ship’s captain, John Green. Fly and another sailor woke Green, took him on deck and beat him. As the men attempted to throw Green overboard, the captain grabbed a mainsheet (a rope at the end of a boom) to hold on. Another sailor stepped in with an ax and chopped off the captain’s hand. The captain “was swallowed up the Sea,” according to accounts unearthed by Rediker.

Fly and his mates celebrated. “These sailors, who routinely sewed canvas sails and were therefore expert with needle and thread, stitched a skull and crossbones onto a black flag, creating the Jolly Roger, the pirates’ traditional symbol and instrument of terror,” according to Rediker.

After capturing and plundering five vessels, Fly and his men were overtaken by a group of sailors who took them to Boston Harbor to stand trial for murder and piracy. Fly, who eventually was hanged, said to officials: “I can’t Charge myself — I shan’t own myself Guilty of any Murder — Our Captain and his Mate used us Barbarously. We poor Men can’t have Justice done us. There is nothing said to our Commanders, let them never so much abuse us, and use us like Dogs.”

These sailors were caught up in a nasty maritime labor market where the lack of war meant swells of sailors looking for work. So labor was cheap or free. Sailors were shanghaied, paid dismally, beaten frequently, exposed to many diseases and often maimed by accidents at sea or war. The merchants of the Atlantic were powerful and wealthy with commodities such as gold, silver, fish, furs, servants, slaves, sugar and tobacco. (There really was treasure, but it wasn’t buried. See sidebar story.)

Pirates reigned from about 1650 to 1730. Rediker’s book explores “the golden age,” 1716-1726, when pirates were the most numerous (around 4,000) and successful of their generation. This period featured the legendary Edward Teach, aka “Blackbeard,” and Bartholomew Roberts, who plundered 400 ships.

These golden-age pirates were the foundation of popular culture heroes that are as strong and as fascinating as the real personalities were centuries ago, Rediker said.

The pirates and their legends were revered by the common people of their time.

“The pirate is a robber but the story is much more complicated,” said Rediker. Going “pirate” was more about a social uprising than just stealing someone else’s goods.

“They organized their ships in a democratic fashion,” explained Rediker. “In my studies of working people during this time period, I’ve never come across anything as democratic as the pirates’ social organization.”

Typically, the naval and merchant ships (the vessels of the 18th century) were ruled by hierarchical leadership, organized through violence. “They were the antithesis of democracy,” Rediker asserted.

“When these poor sailors got on a ship of their own, they tried to run it differently,” he said. The pirates elected their own captain and the quartermaster, whose main job was to keep an eye on the captain. They used discipline, but only when all on board agreed, according to Rediker.

“What also interested me was the way they divided up their loot,” he said. “On a navy vessel, a captain might make 60 or 80 or 100 times the common sailor’s take. But on a pirate ship, the distance between the top and the bottom was minimal. Every pirate would get a share and the captain would get a share and a half or maybe two shares at most. One of the reasons they did this was to recruit. Common sailors would be more likely to join a pirate ship if they felt the booty was being divided up in a fair way, so they were very self-consciously egalitarian.”

According to Rediker, the social aspect of piracy made them instant rebel heroes: The pirates raided ships knowing they would surely meet an early death. But those consequences seemed more appealing than toiling away on a merchant ship. A favorite pirate motto was: “A merry life and a short life,” according to Rediker.

Many pirates did indeed meet their death at the gallows after an extensive campaign by merchants and governments throughout the Atlantic to capture them.

“They were heroes because they resisted the bad circumstances,” said Rediker, noting that the folklore we have today originated on the lower decks of those ships. People of the 18th century were telling stories about Blackbeard and other sailors while they pirated, making them living legends.

Blackbeard consciously created his own legend. Towering at 6’2” when the average man stood 5’ 6”, Blackbeard had an impressive mantle of black hair and a beard than began just below his eyes, according to Rediker.

“He had this satanic appearance and he used it as a means of intimidating people. Before battle, he would tie up his hair and beard in ribbons and then he would put sparklers around his head to create this glow and people would be terrified of him.”

Blackbeard played with the imagery of being the devil. Rediker came across one story where a man on shore asked Blackbeard who he was. He replied, “My name is Blackbeard. I came from hell. And I’m about to carry you there.”

According to Rediker, “We love pirates because they were rebels, because they didn’t conform. They had their own ideas; they didn’t care what everybody else’s were. They were free.”

The public’s fascination with pirates has been virtually endless and that fascination continues with Rediker’s book. A film producer has bought an option on the book. Rediker, who has worked on a screen treatment for the producer, expects the movie of his book to be “The Anti-Pirates of the Caribbean.”

—Mary Ann Thomas

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