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Pirates and Privateers

Pirates and Privateers by Tom Bowling
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From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to Errol Flynn in Captain Blood on to today’s Pirates of the Caribbean, the romantic image of pirates in modern Western popular culture has long been with us. But of course pirates come in many guises, and not all of them as charming as Johnny Depp. Pirates are outlaws who move quickly, a form of lawlessness based on the application of immense short term power by mobile forces which fade away, similar to guerrilla warfare. In Pirates and Privateers Tom Bowling offers a lively history of piracy, from ancient times through the ‘privateers’ such as Morgan, with their Letters of Marque (an early example of State-sponsored terrorism), to the still real and flourishing threat of contemporary pirates that patrol the less well-regulated shipping lanes of the world today.
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Title: Pirates and Privateers
Author: Tom Bowling
A pirate is a sea- robber, an exploiter of weakness. If a pirate has the power he will take what’s yours. It’s simple. Historically, we see pirate captains as a form of gang leader, pirates as their gang members. But this implies piracy is more than a simple moral failing. Gangs are a social phenomenon. The pirate could be an unfortunate sailor captured and left no choice but to join the ‘gang’? He could be a soldier continuing his trade outside the law. He could even be a politician, pursuing a colonial ‘policy’ by extra-judiciary means. All of these are in the pages which follow. The high water mark of piracy, the period of the classic buccaneer (never privateer or corsair, as we shall see) with a ring in his ear, tricorn hat, fuses in his hair, cutlass, pistols and buried treasure, the period of the iconic pirate who conformed to all the prejudices we have gained from reading books and watching films, was undoubtedly the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.The place was the Spanish Main, by which I mean the Spanish American empire which stretched from Venezuela around the Caribbean to Florida. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Florida was a Spanish possession. The Spanish Main included some Caribbean islands. The classic Spanish Main pirate could be black or white, French, Spanish, American, Dutch or English. There are plenty of examples of each. Nor were his activities constrained by national boundaries, except in the case of a privateer, a sort of official, state-sanctioned sea-robber whose exact circumstances we will discuss later. Just as interesting as the spread of race and nationality, the pirates’ ‘class’ (perhaps too modern a term for this period;‘social background’ might be a better description) could not be predicted.There were ‘well to do’ pirates and, famously, a few women pirates.‘He’ could be male or female. He could be black or white. He could come from any one of a dozen seafaring countries. He could terrorise the seas for years or appear, grab a fortune and disappear again.This classic pirate, the one alluded to in the cinema performances of Johnny Depp and Errol Flynn, has gone forever.We have our own pirates now. Though piracy is thought of as a characteristic of the Caribbean, it took place (and may today take place) around the world – in the South China Sea, South America, the Indian Ocean, the Eastern American seaboard, the shores around Britain, even on the Thames and the Hudson rivers. There are plenty of reminders of piracy in London and New York. I was brought up in a family full of sailors in London.We lived by the side of what had been the river Neckinger in Bermondsey. Notwithstanding the fact that Execution Dock in Wapping lies opposite on the north side of the Thames, the Neckinger is reputed (not least by the Mayor of London’s website) to have been named after the Devil’s Neckinger, or necktie, by which is meant the hangman’s noose. Pirates are said to have been hanged at the Neckinger river mouth. Hence the name, it is implied: a nice story, unless yours were the neck to be stretched. Certainly it is recorded that convicted pirates’ bodies were displayed in chains at Blackwall, Cuckold’s Point and Redriff (i.e. Rotherhithe), which are all within a mile of the mouth of the Neckinger. But I’ve never seen a document which condemns a pirate to be hanged at or by the Neckinger. Though I’d have loved to have seen a pirate gallows there as a boy, though I’m certain there were Thames pirates until just outside living memory, I think the Devil’s Neckinger story is showman’s puff, repeated and convenient invention, not history. It also runs contrary to all we know about place names – the names of rivers change immensely slowly and rivers in England usually have their Roman or Ancient British names. How come the Neckinger gained its name during the age of pirates? I don’t think it did.
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