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Cover Story January 25th, 2007

  Untitled Document


by lyle e davis

Who amongst us has not at one time or another played pirates? Perhaps we’d put a patch over one eye, wrap a bandana around our head, carry a sword (even if it was only a wooden ‘pretend’ sword) . . . and stalk about saying Pirate Talk things like . . . “Arrrr, matey!”

The memory of ‘playing pirates’ has no doubt been resurrected as a result of the recent Disney success "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," and its star, Johnny Depp. But those of us who’ve been around for awhile remember another pirate who graced the silver screen at one time and, indeed, is the model for many of todays actors who attempt to portray pirates.

The now infamous “Arrrr, that be right, Jim,” type of lines were created by a brilliant British actor, Robert Newton.

Sadly, Mr. Newton, who was born in 1905, has passed on at the way too young age of 49 (he died in 1956). It was his native Cornish accent and great gusto when playing Long John Silver in the 1950 classic film "Treasure Island" that set the standard for what pirates surely must have talked like.

Well, in fact, most pirates didn’t talk like that at all. It was all planted in our minds by the brilliant Mr. Newton and his portrayal and reinforced by Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Jack Sparrow, the current pirate de jour in the Disney movie.

Most British-born pirates would have spoken in Cockney or other regional dialects, while other buccaneers (some preferred to be called adventurers or freebooters) spoke in Spanish, Dutch, German, Chinese and perhaps Yiddish. The most successful pirate of all time was a woman who spoke one of China's many dialects. Ching Yih Saoa, widow of dreaded Chinese pirate Ching Yih and a former prostitute, commanded a fleet of more than 100 junks divided into five independent squadrons, plundering at will.

The Famous Jewish Pirate, Jean Lafitte


Oy, Gevalt!

Yes, Jean Lafitte was a Sephardic Jew. In the book "Jews on the Frontier" (Rachelle Simon, 1991) Rabbi Harold Sharfman records the tale of Sephardic Jewish pirate Jean Lafitte, whose Conversos grandmother and mother and another fled Spain to France in 1765, after his maternal grandfather was put to death by the Inquisition for "Judaizing."

Referred to as The Corsair, Lafitte went on to establish a pirate kingdom in the swamps of New Orleans, and led more than 1,000 men during the war of 1812. After being run out of New Orleans in 1817, Lafitte re-established his kingdom on the island of Galveston, Texas, which was known then as Campeche. During Mexico's fight for independence revolutionaries encouraged Lafitte to attack Spanish ships and keep the booty.

Jean LaFitte’s Tavern in present day New Orleans

There were other Jews in the pirate trade in the New World

In 1628, Moses Cohen Henriques, who helped plan one of history's largest heists against Spain, set sail with Dutch West India Co. Admiral Piet Hein, whose own hatred of Spain was fueled by four years spent as a galley slave aboard a Spanish ship. Henriques and Hein boarded Spanish ships off Cuba and seized shipments of New World gold and silver worth in today's dollars about the same as Disney's total box office for "Dead Man's Chest."
(As of today, worldwide box office receipts total $1,065,659,812 [that’s Billion, with a “B”]. Arrr, matey!
Henriques set up his own pirate island off the coast of Brazil afterward, and even though his role in the raid was disclosed during the Spanish Inquisition, he was never caught.

Jewish piracy has been around since well before the Barbary pirates first preyed on ships during the Crusades. In the time of the Second Temple, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus records that Hyrcanus accused Aristobulus of "acts of piracy at sea."

Today’s pirates, however, and there are plenty of them still kicking around . . . (or sailing around), speak in a variety of Asian and African languages. Last year they attacked more than 250 ships. Some used ship-tracking systems and were armed with machine guns. An international agreement signed by southeast Asian governments came into force just recently.

And pirates, unfortunately, are not the lovable creatures that Newton’s Long John Silver portrayed. They don’t have hearts of gold hidden beneath all that bluster. What they have usually is massive homicidal tendencies and the willingness to slaughter those with whom they come in contact.

We had several women pirates, one of the more notable being Anne Bonny. At various times a woman of leisure and wealth she eventurally became bored and sailed off to sea, dressed in men’s clothing. She became a pirate and earned the crew’s respect for her vicious and fierce fighting. Eventually, it became known that she was not a man but a woman. She had become pregnant. This is not a trait pirates are normally known for.

There are many famous pirates that most of us have heard about if not, in fact, have read about. Francis Drake, William Kidd, Henry Morgan, Edward Teach (also known as Blackbeard).

From Port Royal, Jamaica, came a number of buccaneers. A mix of men, from unstable sociopaths to brilliant leaders like Henry Morgan. One of the first to arrive and certainly one of the least savoury was a squat barrel-chested Dutchman with a terrible temper who was known as Roche Brasiliano. An historian of the times once described him when drunk “he would roam the town like a madman. The first person he came across, he would chop off his arm or leg, without anyone daring to intervene, for he was like a maniac. He perpetrated the greatest atrocities possible against the Spaniards. Some of them he tied or spitted on wooden stakes and roasted them alive between two fires, like killing a pig...” In his more sociable moods, he would buy a huge barrel of wine and sit in the street, inviting passers-by to partake in a drink with him. Few refused as the offer was usually made with a pistol in his hand.

Not exactly the gentleman pirate.

The Rewards of Piracy

It is probably an obvious statement to say that the main force behind piracy has always been the search for wealth. Pirates were able to acquire amazing riches, and goods, through their campaigns. The assets, of which the most noted and often most prized, were; gold and silver pieces, currency, jewelry, and precious stones. But the actual pirate booty, was acquired from looted merchant ships which usually included items such as linens, clothes, food, anchors, rope, and sometimes medical supplies. The cargo even included rare articles such as spices, sugar, indigo, and quinine.

The types of goods pillaged depended on the type of ship encountered, therefore, many pirates were very selective in the ship they attacked to be certain that the booty received was worth the risks of battle. It was equally important for the captain to choose the most rewarding area to monitor. One such area was the Spanish Main, rewards of which attracted many pirates. It was a well known fact in the pirate archives, that the Spanish treasure fleet made frequent yearly visits to Portobello to load treasure from Peru, which was twice the yearly revenue of England's King, and often included 25 million pesos in the form of silver bars, and coins.

Choosing the right ship and the right cargo to pillage, was an essential part of any pirate ship captain’s duty, wishing to avoid mutiny. However, failing to attack a promising ship, could also result in a similar outcome, since most of his crew were sailing, for a share in the plundered goods.

Another concern was the actual method for dividing the assets acquired. The pirate code stated that, any loot plundered had to be shared out equally. Some treasure was more easily divided among the crew than others. For example, certain coins, such as pieces of eight were cut up into smaller change. However, jewels were not as easily divisible. Evidence of the dividing process, can be observed in the Pirate knife markings on some of the pirate loot, on exhibition in museums around the world.

The idea of buried treasure is mostly a mythical one, as it is romantically portrayed in books such as Treasure Island. One pirate, however, who may have started the myth and was known for burying his treasure was Captain Kidd. But even though some pirates may have hid their plunder in this way, a great deal more money was spent searching for it than has ever been uncovered. Most pirates were extreme squanderers and rarely accumulated enough treasure to bury. Due to the danger and uncertainty of their profession, they were usually determined to live life for the present and not save for the future.

Capturing Ships

How did pirates actually go about attacking an enemy vessel? When pirates commanded a superior vessel they could easily confront any victim with cannon fire, crippling the ship and stimulating a quick surrender. However, pirates rarely commanded superior vessels. In fact, most often pirates commanded small lightly armored but highly maneuverable ships. For this reason, pirates seldom relied on fire power. Instead, pirates generally preferred to quickly board the enemy ship, robbing of goods, and rapidly retreating. Often, pirates would be greatly outnumbered, but because pirates employed various scare tactics they paralyzed their victims with fear.

Walking the Plank

Writers of piratical stories would describe the dreaded “walking the plank.” In fact, there is no evidence that pirates ever made their victims walk the plank; there was far too much sport of another kind to be had. A favorite method of dealing with prisoners was to tie them to the mast and then pelt the unfortunate victim with broken bottles. Many other cruelties were also employed. The life of a pirate was, above all things, exquisitely wretched and boring; such that when prisoners were taken there was much gleeful anticipation among the pirate crew regarding the entertainment in store for them. For women captives it was even worse. The entire ship’s company would have their way with the unfortunate woman, or women, and then they would be thrown overboard.

It is most curious that the piratical life - nasty, short, and invariably brutish - has been so romanticised by literature.

Code of Conduct on a Pirate Ship:

The rules of each pirate captain were clearly stated to each member of the crew. There was little ambiguity about acceptable behavior among pirates on a typical pirate ship. When a rule was breached, the crew was often without pity or remorse in punishing a guilty crew member. Although in cases of particularly useful pirates such as skillful fighters, exceptions were inevitably made. Below, a sample:

• Every man shall obey civil Command; the Captain shall have one full share and a half in all Prizes; the Master, Carpenter, Boatswain and Gunner shall have one Share and quarter.

• That Man that shall not keep his Arms clean, fit for an Engagement, or neglect his Business, shall be cut off from his Share, and suffer such other Punishment as the Captain and the Company shall think fit.

• If any Man shall lose a Joint in time of an Engagement he shall have 400 pieces of Eight; if a limb 800.

Life on Land

When the pirates returned from their plundering escapades, they were ready for fun. If returning from a successful voyage, the pirates quickly depleted their blood stained prizes in the local taverns, and alehouses. Often times, drunken pirates in their daze for pleasures, spent thousands of pieces-of-eight in a single night (in those days 10 pieces-of-eight bought a small herd of cattle!). Pleasures such as rum, food, wine, and gambling, made poor tavern masters rich overnight. In short, the pirates wasted in the taverns all they had earned, by giving themselves to all manner of voluptuousness they could afford. Life on land wasn't just fun and games. For the successful pirate it involved a heck of a lot of work. This work was carried out before the pirates were to sail again, and concerned preparing the ship for the next voyage, and making sure it was in good working order. After a long voyage, barnacles and seaweed would attach to the bottom of the vessel, and the bottom of the vessel would need to be careened (scraping debris from the bottom of the ship). After a good battle, sails, and rigging would also have to be replaced, or repaired. One of the most important tasks was to stock the ship well enough with fresh supplies of water and food for the next voyage.

Punishment for Piracy

During the 18th century, death was often sudden, in the midst of battle, by shipwreck, tavern brawls, disease, etc. But then, there was always death by ‘dancing the hempen jig’, a pirate’s term for a hanging, which awaited any pirate brought to trial, and sentenced.

Trials for piracy were usually held in admiralty courts, tribunes that had been founded in 1340’s in England, for trials concerning crimes committed beyond the high water mark. It was possible for a member of the pirate crew to turn King’s evidence and testify against his fellow pirates, for which a pardon was granted, but only after the others had been convicted. Once convicted, the pirate could be hanged any time ten days after the trial.

On the day of the hanging, the condemned pirates were led in a procession by an officer. The final destination was the gallows, which was usually positioned in a public place near the water, often at the low-tide mark. The entire event, like all hangings, was a spectacle that drew large crowds.

Before the actual hanging, a chaplain usually gave a sermon. After the sermon, the pirate was allowed to speak to the people before being swung off the cart beneath the gallows. In their last speech before execution, some appeared to be repentant, some frightened, others surly, while there were those who told crude jokes to the crowds.

After the execution, the bodies of the less significant crew members were buried face down, below the high water mark, or left hanging until three tides had passed over them. The bodies of the most notorious captains were often embalmed in tar, encased in an iron framework or chains, and hung from a gibbet in a conspicuous place by the water edge where they swayed in the wind until nothing was left. This served as a frightening example to those leaning towards the tempting rewards of piracy.

Today’s Pirates

The International Maritime Bureau, a division of the ICC Commercial Crime Services, reports an upsurge of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia and in Brazilian ports.

At the same time, the IMB is concerned about the constant nature of piracy in Southeast Asian waters. Ships travelling to the affected region are being advised to be particularly cautious when transiting the waters between the South China Sea and the Java Sea. These pirates are using relatively heavy weaponry (mortars and rocket-propelled grenades) against vessels sailing in East African waters. The IMB advises vessels to remain at least 50 nautical miles offshore when transiting the coastal regions of Somalia. In recent incidents, the pirates off Somalia pretend to be coast guards. There have even been such instances with corrupt law enforcement officials. Their deception often begins with vocal warnings through loudspeaker or radio, followed by attack with automatic weaponry. It’s believed that some attacks are aimed at gaining control of a ship in order to seize others, as the pirates' own craft is usually too small and too slow to really be effective. Recently, the pirates attacked a British registered racing yacht off the coast of Somalia. The small pirate craft fired a mortar at the yacht in the Gulf of Aden, and some of the pirates attempted to board the vessel. Fortunately, the pirates quickly fled when a container ship and a Canadian Navy vessel came to the yacht's rescue.

These recent piracy problems have been under the observation of the United States, which is growing increasingly concerned about armed gangs attacking vessels in the country's ports.

Pirates have been attacking ships in the Strait of Malacca for 1,500 years. Half the world's oil and a third of its commerce passes through the narrow shipping lane of the Indian Ocean. So the loot may not be gold and jewels anymore, but there's still plenty for pirates to plunder.

The Straits of Malacca is the equivalent of the new silk route for the modern economy. Global trade depends on being able to ship fuel across this pirate-infested waterway because you need to transport hydrocarbons from the oil rich Persian Gulf to East Asia where you have major economies such as Japan and China. Those countries are getting pretty anxious about pirate attacks, which have become more violent and organized in recent years. And Washington is worried too. The big fear is that terrorists could link up with pirates to blow up an oil tanker or attack a major port.

It is said that the Strait of Malacca is an area where the captain of the ship never sleeps at night. Former Indian Navy officer Raja Menon says at least 250 ships navigate these dangerous waters every day. If pirates can't be stopped, the big tankers will have to start using a longer route. This affects all of us because piracy has a cost. The financial effect is more in terms of shippers avoiding certain routes or insurance companies jacking up the insurance rates which are then passed on to the consumer. That's one reason many Asian countries have agreed, in the recent anti-piracy agreement, that their armed forces will work together to protect their ships and ports. They need all the friends they can get to fight the fearsome bandits of Asia's high seas.

So where are the Pirates?

Reported incidents for 2002 are as follows:

Indonesia: 103
Gulf of Aden/Red Sea: 11
Ecuador: 12
Guyana: 12
Vietnam: 12
Nigeria: 14
Malaysia: 14
Malacca Straits: 16
India: 18
Bangladesh: 32

It can be seen that Indonesia is the worst of the lot, but as a whole The Malacca Straits is the place to be wary of as on one side is Indonesia and on the other is Malaysia so if it is going to happen to your ship it may well be as you steam through.

Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia conduct patrols of their waters at ever frequent intervals. But the area involved and the hundreds of small islands and possible hideaways prevents a full scale watch from being conducted. Ships make patrols but the chance of catching a pirate in action is minimal. The other means to catching a pirate in action is to have a fast reaction squad at hand. This requires a central monitoring facility and for any ship under attack to be able to report immediately and silently so that the pirates are unaware as to the call having been made. But again the area is so large and the possibilities so great that the chances of getting help to the stricken vessel in time is minimal and so far this course of response has made no inroads to the problem.

The best means to combat modern day piracy on the high seas is to follow the few basic rules stated previously. To not anchor in unsafe places, to maintain a careful watch when underway and at anchor, to report any occurrences or incidents immediately, to batten and secure the vessel down at all times, to maintain full speed when passing through these area and to have adequate security precautions in place like charged fire hoses at the ready to repel boarders. And if Pirates should get onboard to be calm and to give them whatever they want. There is no point in being a dead hero!










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