Sunday, August 19, 2012

Best choice at the time

I was surprised to hear in one of the Great Courses that in ancient times, people sometimes sought and applied for the position of slave.  There were circumstances when being a slave was the best choice for shelter, food, etc.  I was reminded of that idea the other day when we toured the traveling exhibit from the National Geographic Society about pirates.  The displays and texts referred to pirates in the Caribbean and nearby areas in the early days of our country.

Several of the exhibits emphasized that serving in the navy of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and other colonizing nations was a very difficult life.  Severe discipline and punishment, poor food and bedding, and often not getting paid made the occupation less than ideal.  Successfully joining a pirate band could be quite different.  Every person's voice and opinion tended to carry more weight, captured money and goods were split evenly, and in general the life was often actually better, all things considered.  True, if captured by the troops or navies of the various nations, one might be executed.  However, sometimes one nation lent support and encouragement to particular pirates to prey on the ships of a rival country.  

We learned that there were some women pirates and some of them were skilled and deadly fighters, adapt at the toughest job, the landing on the victim ship and subduing it.  One of the women was quoted that the fear of being hung for crime was a good deterrent that kept the riff-raff out of the business of being pirates.

Pirate bands needed some skilled members, especially carpenters to keep the ship in good shape.  So, carpenters were sometimes press-ganged, which was also the way some navies and armies met their manpower needs.  Especially in the situation of a ship out on the ocean, to find that one had been knocked unconscious or drugged and hauled aboard ship, where one's duties and life were to be carried out according to the desires and needs of the officers and the ship, was to find oneself in a tough place indeed.

Sometimes pirate ships were used in the slave trade, bringing Africans to the New World.  Slaves to the Caribbean, sugar to the colonies for processing, rum from the process could all be profitable cargoes.  We saw slave bindings that were sobering.  One type was a bar with places on it for the wrists of two men, who would be coupled together side by side for the entire voyage of months.  Between 12% and ⅓ of the slaves on a ship tended to die en route from unsanitary conditions.
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