Treasure Island: Pirate History Lesson!

Truly there is no rest for the wicked. Macbeth just closed a few weeks ago and we’re already only another few weeks away from opening our third and final show of the season. Which means it’s about time for me to lecture you all at length about the history or cultural significance of whatever project we’re working on. I always look forward to doing this, because there is little that nerds love more than getting to show off how much more they know than other people. But I’m even more excited about this one than I usually am, because we’re putting on an adaptation of Treasure Island and that means that the topic of my lecture today is pirates!

I should clarify that I am specifically talking about Caribbean pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, between the 1680s and 1720s. Pirates have always existed, wherever people have transported goods on the water and other people have stolen them, but the image you have in your head, with the cutlass and the Jolly Roger and the ruffled shirt and the bottle of rum, come to us directly, and surprisingly accurately, from the Caribbean. [Treasure Island is actually responsible for one of the only falsehoods we generally believe about pirates; that they buried their treasure, when instead, of course, they spent it. -ed.] Allow me to elaborate for 1500 words.

Capture of Blackbeard

“The Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718”. By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920.

The reason that our image of pirates hews so closely to reality is due in large part to the fact that pirates were consciously cultivating and trading on their reputation and image. They actively sought to create an aura of menace to cow their victims with the terror of a pirate attack, so they took every available opportunity to make themselves look fearsome and desperate. The Jolly Roger flags they flew were adorned with totenkopfs, bleeding hearts, daggers, skellingtons…all manner of sinister imagery to terrify their victims. Blackbeard grew out his beard and hair and stuffed burning fuses in them so he would look like a demon during raids. This curated savage appearance made them intimidating and marked them as outsiders with dangerous and antisocial ideas. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the society from which they had been voluntarily exiled. Being a pirate was about freedom, and they wanted to celebrate that freedom. Outlaw bikers and punks dress and act in a very similar style for more or less the same reason; to shock the normals and consciously make a distinction between themselves and society. 

Our stereotype about pirates’ drunkenness is also borne out by the historical record. But all sailors were drunk; the difficulty of keeping fresh water fresh on a ship travelling across the ocean meant that the only drinkable fluids had to have alcohol in them. Plus sailing was hard, dangerous, boring work, and getting drunk every day was one of the few sources of reliable entertainment and escape available. English sailors had a daily ration of booze, usually somewhere in the neighborhood of a gallon of beer, 8 ounces of rum or brandy, or a bottle of wine. Pirates were simply less constrained in their consumption than ordinary sailors, being governed democratically [more on this in a second -KH] instead by of a top-down bureaucracy. Many of the extant pirate contracts and accords set it in stone that there is to be no rationing of alcohol or food consumption on the ship, unless there was danger of running out. This meant that securing sources of alcohol was often the highest priority. There are multiple accounts of pirates seizing a ship and only taking their wine, or of expeditions turning around because their supply of rum had run out or been destroyed.

Rum Bottles

There’s a reason rum brands are so thoroughly associated with sailors and the ocean. Photo by Tim Nusog.

As I mentioned above pirate ships were governed democratically; every crew member got a vote on the ship’s council, and the whole crew got a roughly equal share of any treasure. Rules were agreed upon and a contract signed before the ship sailed, and any disputes while on the journey would be decided by the ship’s council. The captain was in command during battle only, and for the responsibility received only a double share. The captaincy was also democratically elected and could be (and frequently were) deposed at more or less any time. This is in marked contrast to most navy and civilian ships at the time, which paid a fortune to their captains and a pittance, when it paid at all, to their crews, and were run like dictatorships. Floggings, beatings, and other, more arcane corporal punishments like the keel-haul or the gauntlet were common. The English navy in particular also had a nasty habit of “pressing” sailors, abducting them from merchant ships or literally kidnapping them off the street and forcing them into service It should not be surprising that most pirates started out as ordinary sailors who either deserted (often when they were boarded by pirates themselves) or mutinied.

There were also both unofficial pirate havens and settlements that were inhabited and run solely BY pirates. There was minimal presence in the area from colonial governments and pirates would routinely outnumber and outgun any garrisons. The heaps of treasure pirates had at their disposal made it extremely easy for them to dole out bribes, and their intimidating reputation made taking those bribes an easy choice for most mayors and colonial governors. Tortuga and Port Royal (until its destruction in an earthquake) were major hubs of pirate activity. In addition to these unofficial havens were settlements and ports actively and entirely under the control of pirates, in a conscious effort to recreate a similar pirate society on the island of Madagascar. Nassau in particular became the ‘capital’, if such a thing could exist, of the Republic of Pirates in the Bahamas.

Pirate Haven

From Sid Meier’s Pirates!, 2004.

Demographically pirates were more diverse than ordinary European or Caribbean society. The majority were English, and then a melting pot of Northern European nations, including French, Irish, Scottish (including many partisans of the exiled Stuart dynasty), Dutch, Danish, and Swedish, with a handful of Native American, mestizo, and African sailors as well. Having African sailors as crew members instead of as slaves seems to have been a ship-to-ship, and even person-to-person, decision; there were free black pirates on ships that re-sold slaves from captured slaver ships. There are also on record two female pirates at the time (and on the same ship under Calico Jack Rackham), Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And were I a gambling man I would wager there were many more who we don’t know about; existing as it did on the fringes of society, piracy would be likely to attract all manner of misfits and outcasts, including women seeking agency in their own lives.

Anne Bonny Mary Read

L-R: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Illustration from Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, 1724.

Contemporary accounts usually painted pirates as treacherous, greedy, cowardly, and vicious, because the contemporary accounts were written by authorities who had a vested interest in making piracy seem as hideous as possible. Elements of this reputation were in many ways welcomed and encouraged by the pirates themselves, because it made it much easier to intimidate civilian crews into surrendering (and because it suited their self-identity as outsiders). While it is certainly true that there were some pirates who tortured or executed prisoners it was very uncommon and frowned upon; Charles Vane was famous for his cruelty, but was also stripped of his captaincy and marooned by his crew for it. For all his fearsome reputation and appearance Blackbeard was never once known to execute anyone.

The historiography on piracy has undergone a recent shift to more accurately and sympathetically examine pirates, and the historical record is now much kinder to them. Pirates are now seen as more akin to the Luddite machine-breakers; disruptors, anarchists, and proto-socialists who scorned the society that would rather see them dead than equitably treated, or to frontiersmen who found autonomy in the absence of laws. This is not to say that pirates were maligned and persecuted heroes of yesteryear; they still made their living by theft and terror and by preying on the defenseless, and although they were mostly not sadists they were also certainly not opposed to killing. But the romantic, swashbuckling, devil-may-care reputation that they now enjoy is certainly how they saw themselves.

Will Turner

I swear I tried to avoid using pictures from these movies. Orlando Bloom as Will Turner, from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

 

A reputation that they currently enjoy in large part due to books like Treasure Island! Despite being written under the older historiographical model, in which pirates were villainous scum, this story and others like it were key to romanticizing the lifestyle and keeping them in the public eye. All media that depicts pirates, even the stories like this one or Peter Pan where they are the villains, inescapably serve to romanticize them. Just like, as Truffaut says, it is impossible to make a truly anti-war film, you cannot include pirates in a story without making them seem cool. Everyone wants to be a pirate, because pirates are the coolest.

If YOU want to be a pirate, or at least see us pretend to be pirates, please join us for Treasure Island! We will be performing at various locations throughout the city in May and June, and we’d be happy to have you join us! Tickets are available now!

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Geography Lesson

Welcome back, everyone! It’s been a while! I’m sorry to abandon you all winter, but, like a bear, We Happy Few needed to take the winter season to hibernate. We are rejuvenated along with the cherry blossoms of our fair city, though, and we are ready to begin preparations for our Spring show. We Happy Few are very excited to bring you all Pericles, Prince of Tyre this season! Tonight is our first rehearsal, which means while everyone else is working very hard in the rehearsal room I get to write about whatever oblique or tangential angle I can find on our play, and then find a way to connect it to our concept. To that end I am looking forward to answering your questions about this comparatively little-known play, starting with “What and where is a Tyre?”

Tyre is a city that used to be an island fortress off the coast of what is now Lebanon. Besides this play it is known for being the birthplace of legendary Carthaginian queen Dido and a stronghold of European crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries. But it is perhaps most famous for its defiance of Alexander the Great and his…creative response.

Siege of Tyre

Art by Adam Hook, for Ancient Siege Warfare, by Duncan Campbell

Remember how I said earlier that it was once an island? It was actually barely connected to the land by an extremely narrow sandbar which was submerged in water most of the time. This placed the city in an unusually good defensive position when Alexander came a-calling on his mission to conquer the world, and the Tyrians were accordingly disinterested in his overtures. So disinterested, in fact, that they killed his emissaries and threw their bodies off the walls in plain sight of Alexander and his army. Not one to take an insult lying down, and demonstrating his famously pragmatic problem-solving, Alexander ordered the sandbar be enlarged and built up to a causeway allowing his army to march up to the walls and besiege them. This was STILL not enough for the Macedonians to conquer the city, as naval sorties kept his siege engines from making any headway until naval reinforcements from Greece eventually gave him control of the waves and he was finally able to conquer the city. In retribution for their arrogance in fighting for their city and lives he crucified 2,000 and sold the rest of the population into slavery, and then to add insult to injury left his causeway in place. It connects Tyre to the mainland to this day.

You may notice that I did not spend a lot of time actually getting into what is significant about Tyre and why Shakespeare (and George Wilkins [I’ll get to THAT another time-KH]) chose to set this place here. To address that briefly: the obvious and boring reason is that the story Shakespeare plagiarized from Gower based it on, Apollonius of Tyre, dictated that it be so. But like I said that’s not especially interesting, and as you can probably guess from my primary conceit in most of my other blog posts I have something else in mind. Pericles, despite the title of the play, spends comparatively little of his time in Tyre, mainly sailing between and having adventures on and around a handful of islands and ports in the eastern Mediterranean. He ventures to Mytilene and Ephesus on the Turkish coast, to Tharsus and Antioch in the northern Levant, and all the way down to Pentapolis in modern Libya.

Pericles Asimov Map

Illustration by Rafael Palacios, for Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, by Isaac Asimov

But you won’t find me putting too much analysis into why he visits any of those cities, either. To my mind there is nothing overly significant about any of these locations individually; the important element to examine is the overarching setting of The Mediterranean, or to be even vaguer, The Sea. It is no accident that at different points the story is driven by not one but two distinct storms and a pirate raid.

Moore, Henry, 1831-1895; Rough Weather in the Mediterranean

Rough Weather in the Mediterranean, by Henry Moore, 1874.

And if the physical setting is meant to be vague the timing can be even more so. According to Isaac Asimov the presence of a King Antiochus the Great in the text vaguely establishes a time period of around 200BC, but since there never WAS a Pericles who ruled Tyre the timing can afford to be up in the air. Asimov also whines that ‘Tharsus’ doesn’t exist and is either a bastardization of Tarsus or Thasos, or an entirely made-up city-state, so its possible he was a little overly-concerned with the verisimilitude of this clearly fantastical play. This isn’t a history, like Henry V or Anthony and Cleopatra, where the time period is integral to the play and can be authoritatively nailed down. It is closer to a legendary ‘history’ like Cymbeline or Troilus and Cressida, that has a vague timeline but would be best categorized as ‘A long time ago’ or ‘Once upon a time’. If we must nail down a specific era the only timing that matters is that there be no hegemonic control in the region; for the plot to work all of the city-states, Pentapolis and Antioch and Tyre and Tharsus and Mytilene, all be independent and free to backstab and politic. That means it would have to be either after the Peloponnesian Wars (ended 404 BCE) and before the rise of Alexander the Great (330s-320s) or between the disintegration of Alexander’s empires (~300BCE) and the rise of Roman authority in the Near East (let’s call it 30BCE). This is without even taking into account anachronisms like Transylvanian whores and French johns and Spartan knights with Latin mottoes and clocks […not clocks. Wrong play again, sorry -KH]. The specific time period doesn’t seem to have been especially important for the story that Shakespeare wanted to tell, or we would have a more concrete textual sense of it.

This is not to say that we are meant to be kept off-balance or confused by the setting; only that we are not to put TOO much weight on where the action is meant to be. Pericles and the entire play are constantly in motion, and while I would argue that the Mediterranean/Greek/Hellenistic setting is important (for reasons I will ALSO discuss in a later blog) the continual, overwhelming, and above all unpredictable nature of The Sea is essential to the constant upheaval that typifies this show. I look forward to talking your ears off about this play for the next month until you all agree with me, and then continually bragging about how good it is after it opens in May. Won’t you join me?