Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pirates Over the Centuries:
History and Popular Culture
(With Assorted Digressions)

By Henry J. Stern
April 14, 2009

The best thing to happen in the event of scandal is for another more important story to drive your problem out of the newspapers for a few days. That happened after Bernie Madoff was arrested in December 2008, eclipsing the downfall of the Governor of Illinois. It has happened again this month with the Somali pirates.

This column is an amalgam of history, popular culture and social attitudes. If you take the time to read it, you will learn things you never knew. It is not a prescription for dealing with piracy; that task is for the policy-makers. We see the recent pirate situation as an illustration of today’s fractious world. Some pirates control countries, like North Korea and Iran. If present events continue, pirates will gain control of nuclear weapons. That prospect should be very much in the mind of our country’s leaders, who appear to believe they can protect the United States from attack with kind words.

Most of us believed that pirates were creatures of the past, now recalled without ill feelings in the names of sports teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Originally the word “buccaneer” applied to pirates who attacked Spanish and French shipping in the Caribbean in the late 17th century. They had their own ships, with larger crews, and were more apt to attack coastal cities than regular pirates. Over the centuries, the meaning of the words has blended, but buccaneer suggests boldness and bravery, while ‘pirate’ is not a compliment, despite the favorable image conveyed by Johnny Depp recently in a pirate film trilogy. In those movies Depp plays a more sympathetic character than he did as Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

‘Pirate’ has an unfavorable meaning when it is used by the motion picture industry to describe film pirates, who steal or surreptitiously record original prints to sell DVDs, in violation of the laws of copyright and intellectual property. But at the same time, pirates who appear as characters in films are often depicted as heroic figures. This suggests that it is not so bad to attack ships and compel some people to walk the plank, as long as you don’t record movies produced by the studios.

An early example of this portrayal is seen in “Captain Kidd”, a 1945 film starring Charles Laughton, Randolph Scott, Barbara Britton and John Carradine, all well-known performers. William Kidd, not to be confused with Billy the Kid, a Western outlaw, was born in 1645 in Scotland and hanged in 1701 at Execution Dock in London. Kidd had been a privateer, which is a mercenary sailor. He was employed by the British Navy to protect British ships and intercept French ships while the two countries were at war. Privateers were not paid by the Crown. Rather, their income was the wealth they could seize from enemy ships. The rewards could be substantial, but privateers did risk their lives with each foray, since if captured they could be hanged, or at least enslaved.

Captain Kidd, who was not all bad, was active in building Trinity Church in New York, at Broadway and Wall Street. He became involved with Richard Coote, the Earl of Bellomont, who was Governor of New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. At the time, governors were chosen by the King of England rather than by popular election. If you ask whether our current system has resulted in the election of better governors, the answer would have to be usually but not always. Nonetheless, elections confer legitimacy on those who are elected, and provide some limitations on the chicanery that is sometimes involved in the electoral process. See Bush v. Gore (2000).

The former privateer acted in the service of the British, who at the time ruled the American colonies. Wikipedia claims that his crew became mutinous and committed acts of piracy, for which the captain was held responsible. He retired to Boston under the promise of clemency by the Earl of Bellomont. The earl, however, was not a man of his word, and shipped Kidd to England in 1699, where he was placed on trial for piracy on the high seas and the murder of one of his crew, William Moore. Kidd’s defense was that Moore urged him to attack a Dutch ship while the Netherlands and England were at peace.

While we cannot sort out these allegations, the likelihood is that Rule 30-T applies:

“The truth lies somewhere in between.” It is undisputed that Kidd was arrested, tried, found guilty by the High Court of Admiralty, and sentenced to death by hanging.

Hollywood showed its predilection for romanticized swashbucklers even before "Capatin Kidd." In the 1935 film "Captain Blood," Errol Flynn plays the title role of Peter Blood, an Irish doctor wrongfully accused of treason and sentenced to slavery in British Port Royal, in what is now Jamaica. Blood escapes, begins a new life as a pirate and, in the film's climax, defends the British port from a hostile French fleet. The 1935 film was a remake of an earlier 1924 version produced by the Vitagraph Company and starring J. Warren Kerrigan. Both versions derive from a 1922 novel by Rafael Sabitini. In Sabitini's novel, and its subsequent iterations, the protagonist is modeled after Colonel Thomas Blood, a 17th century Irishman most famous for a failed 1671 attempt to steal the Crown Jewels of England from the Tower of London.

"Blood" was nominated for the Academy's Best Picture award in 1935, and laid the groundwork for Flynn's long career playing various outlaws and recalcitrants - perhaps most famously in the early Technicolor film, "The Adventures of Robin Hood," released in 1938. Modern studios are betting that the "Blood" story retains its attractiveness almost a century after its initial release; a new version of "Captain Blood" is slated for a 2011 rollout.

Our own exposure to fictional pirates was limited to the comic strip and radio program, “Terry and the Pirates.” The strip, drawn by Milton Caniff, was set in China and ran from 1934 to 1946. The pirates in the title were peripheral to the plot, possibly linked to the strip by a villainous Dragon Lady. The 15-minute eponymous radio serial was aired during the cereal hour, at 5:15 on NBC, then ABC. Although the taped introduction featured excited jabbering, presumably by Asians, possibly pirates, we little Anglo-phones couldn’t understand a word of it. During the war, the story focused on Terry’s adventures in the Pacific theater in World War II. After 1946, Caniff drew Steve Canyon, a veteran who rejoined the Air Force during the Korean War. Pirates, if any, were under the radar screen.

The pirates of the 21st century, whose activities flourished after the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, following a civil war, appear to be less bloodthirsty than their historic predecessors. Their motive is largely economic. They allege that their coastal waters were poisoned by Western vessels discharging toxic wastes in the ‘90s, leading to the collapse of their fisheries industry. Three hundred fifty years after the first wave of piracy in the Caribbean, and two hundred years after the Barbary pirates attacked the ships of the young United States in the Mediterranean Sea, a vast swath of the Indian Ocean east of Africa has become the center of pirate activity. The technology is much better now on both sides, swords having given way to AK-47s. This week, however, the United States relied on Navy SEAL (sea, air and land) sharpshooters (with night vision on their rifles) to execute three pirates holding an American hostage.

BTW, one person has the park name, Seal. It is Thedore Roosevelt IV, a banker who is on the board of Hudson River Park Trust. When I met him years ago, I offered him the park name “Rushmore”, in view of his distinguished lineage. He told me that he preferred “Seal”, taking deserved pride in his naval service. Both of the presidential Roosevelts served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy: Theodore under President William McKinley, a Republican; and Franklin under Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat.

Theodore Roosevelt was President in 1904, when a Greek generally believed to be an American, Ion Perdicaris, was taken hostage at his villa in Tangier, Morocco, by Berber tribesmen led by Mulai Ahmed Er Raisuli. TR later arranged to send a brief but threatening message to Morocco: “Perdicaras alive or Raisuli dead.” This ultimatum was later described as a hoax, the release of Perdicaris having already been arranged. It was later learned that Perdicaris had given up his American citizenship years before, in order to forestall the seizure of his southern properties by the Confederate States of America (1861-65).

In fact, Perdicaris got along well with his captor, Raisuli, being quoted as follows: “I go so far as to say that I do not regret having been his prisoner for some time. He is not a bandit, not a murderer, but a patriot forced into acts of brigandage to save his native soil and his people from the yoke of tyranny.” This may have been an early example of the Stockholm syndrome. Eventually, the Sultan of Morocco paid $70,000 in 1904 dollars to secure Perdicaris’ release.

The Barbary Wars were important to American history in involving the United States Navy in action overseas for the first time. However, since it does not involve misconduct by America, the abuse of other peoples, or the amassing of great wealth at the expense or the underprivileged, it receives short shrift in history classes, and relatively few of our citizens are aware of what took place. The conflict has survived in the first line of the Marines’ hymn, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” The last lines of that hymn are less well-known: “If the army and the navy ever look on Heaven’s scenes; they will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines."

The next three highly informative sentences are pirated, but with attribution, from Wikipedia.

“The Barbary Corsairs, sometimes called Ottoman corsairs or Barbary Pirates, were Muslim pirates and privateers who operated from North Africa from the time of the Crusades (11th Century) until the early 19th century. Based in North African ports such as Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, Sale, and other ports in Morocco, they sailed mainly along the stretch of northern Africa known as the Barbary Coast. Their predation was said to extend throughout the Mediterranean, south along West Africa’s Atlantic seaboard, and into the North Atlantic as far north as Iceland, and they primarily commandeered western European ships in the western Mediterranean Sea.

“In addition, they engaged in Razzias, raids on European coastal towns, to capture Christian slaves to sell at slave markets in places such as Algeria and Morocco.”

Link here if you want to read the remaining three paragraphs of that entry. I had never known about the Muslims’ propensity for Christian slaves, but imagine it will be attributed to injustices during the Crusades. The word ‘corsair’ originated with French privateers. They gained a reputation for swashbuckling behavior. Ford named a midsize car the Corsair in 1964. GM produced the Chevrolet Corvair, a small car which tended to roll over and was described as “Unsafe at Any Speed” by Ralph Nader in 1965. Thus began a chain of events which led, thirty-five years later, to the election of George W. Bush as President of the United States. Nader, candidate of the Green Party for President, received 97,421 votes in Florida in 2000, the year in which Bush carried the state and its 25 electors by 537 votes. Nader had chosen to spend the weekend before the November 7 election campaigning in Florida, the largest of the battleground states between Bush and Gore.

This brief view of piracy, in history and in popular culture, with digressions into politics and diplomacy, shows that while some things change, like weapons systems and means of communication, others remain the same, like the seven deadly sins. Piracy encompasses pride, greed and lust, but they are found in many other human activities. We recall Woody Guthrie’s words, written in 1939, which is now seventy years ago, a conventional lifetime. The song is titled “Pretty Boy Floyd,” after Charles Arthur Floyd (1904-34), an American gangster and bank robber who was shot dead by the FBI in Ohio. Since the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI has changed its M.O. in making arrests.

Floyd is said to have hated his nickname, as did Baby Face Nelson, a contemporary who was in the same business. Guthrie wrote with reference or reverence of Floyd. There is relevance to the romanticization of piracy in Guthrie’s description of Floyd’s career. This is the penultimate of the song's eleven stanzas.

“Well, as through this world I’ve rambled,
I’ve seen lots of funny men.
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.”


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