Going On The Account: Blogtober – To The Best Of My Recall

Day three of Blogtober where I, Speaker7Sips of Jen and Tonic, and anyone else who wants to avoid NaNoWriMo can work on an alternative without relying on hipster detachment.  Truth to tell, there’s only so long you can get away with pushing thick glasses back up your nose and deflecting questions about your project with, “Yeah, I have an idea for the book, but it’s based on something you never heard of…”


Speaking of ideas, I’m trying for some stab at normalcy by going with a topic today that I wanted to work with when thinking about plans for Blogtober.  Yes, there was some thought put into this, with ideas which are mutable as the last two days can attest to; I did have some things I threatened promised to share, and now’s as good a time as any.


What I’d like to share is about how we can’t talk about people who didn’t share that much, at least not to a reasonable level.


What I’m going to ask you to work with me here on is probably going to not only get my BA in history revoked, but probably a personal visit from Doris Kearns Goodwin during which she torches my walls and breaks my windows.  OK, maybe not; those tricks are more Niall Ferguson’s bag, come to think of it…


But, what I ask is necessary, considering the folks involved:  pirates.  Yes, the terrors of the sea, who regardless of which era they sailed in all share one thing in common, a life outside the norms of society, making them not only dashing or frightening depending on how you feel about them, but also very, very badly documented.


Consider the pirates we can read about from the Golden Age of Piracy, a time when many able seamen (and a few women here and there) plied the sea lanes with pluck and native ability, but not much literacy.  We are talking about people who lived outside the law, who didn’t have the tools to keep track of their activities, or if they were smart enough to, they were also smart enough not to leave evidence to be used against them in trial.


Do keep in mind that the vast majority of accounts of pirates from this period, all of these come from trial transcripts when a particular sea dog was brought before a naval board to hear charges against him or her.  Which means that all of our reliable records of pirates, all consist of accounts by folks who were not that successful at pursuing the Sweet Trade.  The average pirate career for those caught was over in about 18 months on average before he ended up dancing the hempen jig and being displayed at the harbor entrance as a warning to others.  William Kidd’s body hung at the mouth of London harbor, encased in tar after being hung twice thanks to a defective rope, and took a year to rot away; hardly a success story all said…


Now, those pirates that are caught make up about a third of the Brethren of the Coast.  There’s the second contingent, the ones who died in pursuit of booty, whose stories are second hand or hearsay from those around them who may not have known all the facts.  In some cases, the survivors and hangers-on may have said anything they thought it would be to their advantage to say, perhaps to avoid looking like conspirators worthy of a trial themselves; in any event, there is less hard data from these sources, which we may not be able to fully trust.


As for the third, we’re looking at the success stories, the ones who didn’t die in front of witnesses or were executed by the state.  Not all of these were as well connected as Henry Morgan, who managed to not only get away with his deeds but collected a pension for it as well; the potential pool of successful pirates may never be known, as anonymity allowed them to disappear beneath the horizon and enjoy their gains to a ripe old age.  Granted, average life expectancy back in the early 18th Century was in the 30s, but still


So you have a culture where we know the most about the worst ones at the job, while the successes we can at best guess about.  And in a culture where horrifying tales were circulated far and wide to help soften the opposition, we’re dealing with a further complication with regards to veracity.


Which means that if we discuss any history of this culture, we have to assume a few liberties, in that if there is a documented failure, there might have been an undocumented success.

This flies in the face of professional historical study, which what I’m going to offer later on is not going to be.  Once upon a time there were what were known as “popular histories,” which meant that a few tales were collected, some guesses were made, and these were tied together with a narrative overlaid on some hard facts to offer something that may not be as dry as an authoritative account, but not entirely reliable either.


In other words, please don’t cite me in your term paper!  You’d be making a huge mistake, and the only one who needs to look like a fool here is me…


Do keep this in mind as we move on in the month, to discuss some pirates.  A particular subset of pirates, in fact…

2 thoughts on “Going On The Account: Blogtober – To The Best Of My Recall

  1. Thanks, Susan, but the reference actually comes from the period itself. Have to give credit where it’s due, although no one has a good idea who uttered the phrase first; unlike today, they didn’t have meme trackers to find who put this on a t-shirt first…

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