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November 9, 2010

Review: A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (guest post)

Metalheads Who Read

If you were a metalhead about in the 16th-19th century, you … wouldn’t have been a metalhead at all. You’d be a pirate, and rightfully so. All that drinking, smoking, fighting, cursing, robbing and pillaging sounds like your average metalhead party, really :)

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Louise Curtis in full-on Jack Sparrow garb

Pirates are a particularly fascinating subject close to the hearts of many metalheads, so I’m pleased to present a good friend and veritable pirate expert (the first time I met her she was dressed like a pirate), author Felicity Bloomfield (aka Louise Curtis of Twittertales fame). Every month, she tells a different story on twitter, one tweet at a time. It’s an awesome idea, and this month she’s doing a piratical tale, so she’s popping over for a couple of guest posts this week on one of our favorite subjects. Fel’s reviewing a book I consulted briefly during my years at university, where I somehow managed to wrangle an A+ on an essay about the archaeology of piracy. Anyway, it’s a roaring good read, so check it out.

This book is the ultimate book on actual pirates. It’s not just me, either. Robert Louis Stevenson loved it, and he’s just one of many. It was a massive bestseller in its day and is still the first source of historical pirate data. Even Pirates of the Carribean used it – if you watch the movies carefully, you can see that one of the lesser pirates has a permanently-smoking beard. An actual historical pirate kept burning brands in his beard in order to scare people (and it worked – it helped that he was completely psychotic).

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Port O’ Call: A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates – first published in 1724.

Mateys: The author is Captain Charles Johnson. But here’s the thing: it’s a fake name. To this day, no-one knows who wrote it. However, the book (which is non-fiction) is suspiciously detailed. Whoever Captain Charles Johnson was, he had a lot of very close friends who were pirates. For years, people thought the author was Daniel Defoe. But it wasn’t. It was almost certainly written by an honest-to-goodness pirate, during the golden age of piracy. One who took his secret literate side to his grave (and/or gallows). He may even have been a woman – more on women pirates next guest post!

Premise: Captain Charles Johnson details the lives (and usually deaths) of twenty-one of the worst pirates of the day.

Why it’s Krieg: Uh. . . were you paying attention?

Why it’s Emo: Every so often, he remembers himself and says “but of course pirates are bad. Very, very naughty and bad. In fact, I’m only sharing all this so you can all be sure to never become pirates, those naughty naughty villains.” I’m sure the tales of sea battles and gold were extremely sobering, and that’s why it sold so very very well.

Warning: It’s extraordinarily vivid in places but also often deadly dull – lists of names and laws and so on.

Quote 1: Here’s a story that sticks with you:

One night drinking in his cabin, with Hands, the pilot, and another man, Blackbeard without any provocation draws out a small pair of pistols and cocks them under the table which, being perceived by the man, he withdrew and went on deck, leaving Hands, the pilot, and the captain together. When the pistols were ready, Blackbeard blew out the candle, and crossing his hands, discharged them at his company; Hands, the master, was shot through the knee and lamed for life; the other pistol did no execution. Being asked the meaning of this, he only answered, by damning them, that if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was.

Quote 2: Captain Roberts was taken by pirates, and eventually he became one himself, but there was still something of the British Navy about him. Here are some of the rules of his crew – the square brackets belong to Captain Johnson:

I

Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of Moment.

III

No Person to game at Cards or Dice for Money.

IV

The Lights & Candles to be put out at eight o’Clock at Night. If any of the Crew, after that Hour, still remained inclined for Drinking, they were to do it on the open Deck [which Roberts believed would give a check to their debauches, for he was a sober man himself, but found at length that all his endeavours to put an end to this debauch proved ineffectual].

XI

The Musicians to have Rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six Days & Nights, none without special Favour.

Quote 3: A group of pirates decided to beg for pardon, so while they waited for the 1700s postal service to get back to them, they amused themselves on a small island off the coast of Cuba. They passed their time by drinking, dancing, and playing at mock court – randomly choosing who would play the prisoner, judge, and attorney general. Captain Johnson saw fit to describe some of it (in suspicious detail) – his comments are in italics:

Attorn Gen: An’t please your Lordship, and you Gentlemen of the Jury, here is a Fellow before you that is a sad Dog, a sad sad Dog, & I humbly hope your Lordship will order him to be hanged out of the Way immediately. He has committed Pyracy upon the High Seas, and we shall prove, an’t please your Lordhip, that this Fellow, this sad Dog before you, has escaped a thousand Storms, nay, has got safe ashore when the Ship has been cast aside, which was a certain sign he was not born to be drown’d; yet not having the Fear of hanging before his Eyes, he went on robbing and ravishing Man, Woman and Child, plundering Ships Cargoes fore and aft, burning & sinking Ship, Bark and Boat, as if the Devil had been in him. But this is not all, my Lord, he has committed worse Villanies than all these, for we shall prove, that he has been guilty of drinking Small-Beer, and your Lordship knows, there never was a sober Fellow but what was a Rogue. My Lord, I should have spoke much finer than I do now, but that, as your Lordship knows our Rum is all out, and how should a Man speak good Law that has not drunk a Dram. However, I hope, your Lordship will order the Fellow to be hang’d.

Judge: Hear’ee me, sirrah, you lousy, pitiful, ill-look’d Dog; what have you to say why you should not be tuck’d up immediately, & set a Sundrying like a Scare-crow? Are you guilty, or not guilty?

Pris: Not guilty, an’t please your Worship.

Judge: Not guilty! Say so again, sirrah, and I’ll have you hang’d without any Tryal.

Pris: An’t please your Worship’s Honour, my Lord, I am as honest a poor Fellow as ever went between Stem and Stern of a Ship. . . but I was taken by one George Bradley [the name of him that sat as a judge], a notorious Pyrate, a sad Rogue as ever was unhang’d, and he forc’d me, an’t please your Honour.

Judge: Answer me, sirrah, how will you be try’d?

Pris: By G—and my Country.

Judge: The Devil you will. Why then, Gentlemen of the Jury, I think we have nothing to do but proceed to Judgement.

Attorn. Gen: Right, my Lord; for if the Fellow should be suffer’d to speak, he may clear himself, and that’s an Affront to the Court.

Pris: Pray, my Lord, I hope your Lordship will consider—

Judge: Consider! How dare you talk of considering? Sirrah, Sirrah, I never consider’d in all my Life. I’ll make it Treason to consider.

Pris: But, I hope, your Lordship will hear some Reason.

Judge: D’y hear how the Scoundrel prates? What have we to do with Reason? I’d have you know, Raskal, we don’t sit here to hear Reason; we go according to Law. Is our Dinner ready?

Attor. Gen: Yes, my Lord.

Judge: Then, heak’ee, you Raskal at the Bar; hear me, Sirrah, hear me. You must suffer, for three Reasons; first, because it is not fit I should sit here as Judge, and no Body be hang’d; secondly, you must be hang’d, because you have a damn’d Hanging look: And thirdly, you must be hang’d because I am hungry; for know, Sirrah, that ‘tis a Custom, that whenever the Judge’s Dinner is ready before the Tryal is over, the Prisoner is to be hang’d of Course.

There’s Law for you, ye Dog. So take him away Gaoler.

This is the trial just as it was related to me; the design of my setting it down, is only to show how these fellows can jest upon a thing, the fear and dread of which, should make them tremble.

Sure, Captain Johnson. We believe you.

Rating: This book is beyond rating. There is nothing else like it.  If I had to name a number, I’d say: Five cutlasses and a bottle of rum.

This article is written by Louise Curtis, who writes a blog of Daily Awesomeness at http://twittertales.wordpress.com and is currently sharing a piratical tale in real time through twitter at http://twitter.com/Louise_Curtis_

I’ll drink to that! Yarrrrrrr!