Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Of pirates

Well, I’m back, as Sam Gamgee says to his wife at the end of “The Lord of the Rings.” Spent a lovely, relaxing week in Puerto Rico seeing the sights of Old San Juan, trying to photograph the elusive avian life of El Yunque rainforest and turning my back and shoulders scarlet on Luquillo Beach.

It occurred to me that I know hardly anything about Caribbean history, so after I got back, I checked a couple of books out of the library, a short general history of the region and Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates. The history book is pretty colorless, but TRoP is just terrific – a vividly narrated story full of larger-than-life characters and improbable incidents – as solidly “stranger than fiction” a work of nonfiction as you’re likely to find.

Pirate culture, as Woodard explains in this NPR interview, was “extremely egalitarian.” Crews elected their commanders and booty was distributed fairly equally. 

In the legitimate world, by contrast, absolutism was at its zenith and the lot of the average person was as miserable as could be. Here’s a passage that struck me especially strongly (the italics are mine): 
It’s a wonder any sailors survived. Mortality rates among the crews of vessels employed in the African slave trade were comparable to those of the slaves themselves. It was not unusual for 40 percent of the crew to perish during a single voyage, most from tropical diseases against which they had no resistance. About half the sailors pressed into the Royal Navy died at sea. (p. 43) 
A couple pages before that, Woodard notes Samuel Johnson’s observation that the lot of a sailor was “very much the same as that of a prisoner, only with the added possibility of drowning.”

I think most people underestimate how awful life was for almost everyone before the advent of modern technology. Our vision of the past abounds with kings and queens, wealthy gentlemen and highborn ladies – the masses of overworked, starving peasants fade into the background. We think of episodes like the Black Death or the Irish potato famine or the Inquisition as aberrations, not as just somewhat intensified versions of standard conditions. We project middle-class sensibilities backward, and think of merchants and landowning farmers as being average people, rather than members of the small, privileged elite they were. Virtually everyone we “see” in the past was part of the 1 percent – for the 99 percent, life was one long* stretch of subsistence-level misery.

The 99 percent were not distinguished by race or nation – you could be miserable and oppressed no matter what color you were. I think sometimes in our (laudable) desire to condemn the horrors of Western colonialism and American slavery, we forget that wealthy elites despised and mistreated, well, everybody, white people very much included
Watching workers load cotton onto a steamboat, [noted 19th-century landscape architect] Frederick Law Olmsted was amazed to see slaves rolling the bales down to Irishmen doing the more dangerous job of stowing the bales on the ship. When he asked for an explanation, Olmsted was told, “The n-----s are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard, or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything.”**
We have a long way to go on poverty, inequality and inhumanity, but sometimes it's worth reflecting on how far we've come. 

*Or short, more often than not. 
** The quote is from Olmsted's "A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States." 

1 comment:

  1. Good history! Yes, we seem to eager to believe that our founding folks were egalitarians. No, they loved incorporating for profit and all sea trade was lucrative and people expendable.