A few years ago, I saw this exhibit at the Field Museum that really stuck with me. The exhibit focused on one ship, the Wydah, which is, according to the Field Museum, the first fully authenticated pirate ship to be discovered in U.S. waters. There’s a whole romantic story about how its captain had started life as a poor Irish(?) boy and then came to America and met a beautiful girl whose family was not impressed with him, so he went into piracy to make his fortune, and did make his fortune, and was on his way back to her when his ship wrecked off Cape Cod. Then it was found by this guy Barry Clifford, who grew up on stories of these particular pirates and lived in the area and became an underwater explorer with the specific hope of finding this particular ship.
The ship started life as a slave-trading ship and then was captured and became a pirate ship. (Unfortunately, it was captured after the slaves had mostly already been dropped off. I know. I was disappointed about that part of the story, too.) It was a very big deal find because, despite lore, there really isn’t a whole lot of buried treasure or shipwrecks in decent and accessible condition out there. The treasure, for instance, wasn’t usually buried so much as it was spent on whores and drinking the minute the pirate crew got to port.
The exhibit told the story of that particular ship, but also told the story of how pirates in pirate-heyday generally operated. And one of the things that struck me was that pirates were actually sort of decent human beings, generally by far more decent to their crews than merchant ships or British Navy ships would be. Of course, that’s grading on a pretty steep curve – the British Navy had no problem with kidnapping people off the streets of London and enslaving them on their ships and then not even providing enough sustenance for them to survive. European trading vessels routinely, deliberately, planned not to have enough food for the whole crew for the whole journey, because, after all, the ship would go faster once you threw the dead bodies overboard on the way back. So “better” is relative.
But in some ways, being a member of a pirate crew was a pretty good gig. I mean, sure, it was dangerous and involved sometimes killing people. But apparently the general M.O. for pirates when they took a ship was to first ask the crew if the captain was a decent person. If the crew said no, they killed the captain. (But if the crew said no, he’d probably been starving his crew, beating them for minor infractions, etc.) Then they’d ask the crew if they wanted to join up, or if they wanted to be taken to the next port and dropped off there. And then the pirates would honor their requests. (Unless you were the ship’s doctor, or had some other very valuable skill. Then they needed you too badly to let you go.) If the captain was nice enough not to warrant killing, he would either be dropped off at the next port with whatever of his crew wanted to stay with him, or he would be given the least of the pirate fleet’s ships (which now included that captain’s ship) to sail away in. Not bad. And not as vengeful and needlessly violent as we imagine pirates to be.
Then, if you were part of the pirate crew, life was still pretty good. Your captain would not beat you or steal from you or starve you. You were guaranteed healthcare (as long as the ship had a doctor). You an equal vote – equal even with the captain – in terms of who should be officers and where you should go and which ships you should attack, and any member of the crew had the chance to become an officer. It was an equal-opportunity kind of place, with Africans, Native Americans, and even women as members of crews. And each crew member got exactly one share of the loot. The captain got share x 2, as did the quartermaster. Other officers got share-and-a-half or share-and-a-fourth. If you were seriously injured in the fight to get that loot, you got share-and-a-half or share-and-a-fourth. Try that at the East India Company.
Or try it here. Can you imagine a corporate America where all employees were also roughly equal stock holders, where the CEO only made twice what everyone else made? Hell, let’s imagine a corporate America where the CEO gets, say, 20 shares, and then the number of shares moves on down from there, so that even the lowest-paid worker got 1/20th what the CEO got. That would be awesome. That would mean a very strong middle class. And still a pretty strong upper class.
I know, I know. I’m becoming a pinko-liberal socialist. I thought people got more conservative with age; I seem to be going through the opposite phenomenon. Please excuse me.