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In My Good Books

The Mores of Buccaneers

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
18 February 2006

One expects pirate literature to be full of fantasy. Instead it turns out to be rich in curious facts. Exquemelin tells us that the sweet and delicious green fat of the green turtle is so penetrating that "when you have eaten nothing but turtle flesh for three or four weeks, your shirt becomes so greasy from sweat you can squeeze the oil out and your limbs are weighed down with it".

The agreements drawn up by the buccaneers specified the following rates of compensation: for loss of a right arm, 600 pieces of eight or six slaves; for a left arm or a right leg, 500 pieces of eight or five slaves; for a left leg, 400 pieces of eight or four slaves; for an eye or a finger, 100 pieces of eight or one slave.

A document reproduced by Captain Charles Johnson in his life of Captain Roberts sets out typical democratic terms under which the buccaneers were prepared to serve on a pirate ship. Every man had a vote and had equal title to fresh provisions and strong liquor, confirming Exquemelin's statement that the men always ate as well as the captain. No boys or women were allowed on board ship, and there was to be no gambling at cards or dicing for money. "No striking one another on Board, but every man's quarrels to be ended on shore, at swords and pistol."

The pirate ship in its day resembled the Filipino cockpit today in this sense: it was a society that had to be honestly run. The man who takes the bets before today's cockfight keeps them all in his head, and every participant is solemnly bound to honour his commitments. Anyone who cheats in the cockpit is punished by a single blow from each member of the audience - a system that the 17th-century pirates would have recognised and approved. But on Captain Roberts's ship the penalty for defrauding the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels or money was marooning. This is glossed by Johnson as "a barbarous custom of putting the offender on shore, on some desolate or uninhabited cape or island, with a gun, a few shot, a bottle of water, and a bottle of powder, to subsist with, or starve".

Surprising, perhaps, in this world of desperadoes, to find that lights and candles were to be put out at eight o'clock at night, and that "if any of the crew, after that hour, still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck". Surprising too to learn from the last article of the agreement that the musicians were to have rest on the Sabbath day, "but on the other six days and nights, none without special favour".

Musicians? Well, there was continual carousing - one could eat and drink, according to the agreement, as much as one wished. And pirate entertainments are recorded. The life of Captain Anstis tells us of dancing and mock trials on land in which the pirates took turns to be criminal on one day and judge another, the judge being dressed up in a dirty tarpaulin and a "thrum cap", with a large pair of spectacles on his nose, and sitting in a tree. An example of such an extempore dialogue is given.

In the life of Captain Bellamy, we learn of a play performed on board the Whidaw in 1717, written by Bellamy and called The Royal Pirate. It was acted on the quarter-deck to great applause. In one scene Alexander the Great was examining a pirate. The ship's gunner, too drunk to distinguish play from reality, heard Alexander intone the line:

Know'st thou that Death attends thy mighty crimes,
And thou shall'st hang to-morrow morn betimes.

The gunner rushed off to the gun-room where he told his drunk companions that "they were going to hang honest Jack Spinckes, and that if they suffered it, they should all be hanged one after another, but, by G-d, they should not hang him, for he'd clear the decks."

At this, he took a grenade with a lighted match and threw it among the actors. A general melée ensued in which Alexander had his left arm cut off and revenged himself by killing the culprit. "The gunner and the two surviving comrades were that night clapped into irons, and the next day not only acquitted but applauded. Alexander and his enemies were reconciled and the play forbade any more to be acted."

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The source for these biographies is A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson, 1724, my edition a reprint from 1926. A shorter version (without the life of Bellamy) is in print, Conway, £7.99.


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