Friday, June 10, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, IV: Set A Thief, And You'll Have Two Thieves

It's an issue of trust. I went one way last time, but there's two sides.

(Uh, probably not. It's the tats. And the crazy.)

Susan Ronald begins her The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire with a "Master Foster," deposing on an attempt by Spanish port authorities to seize his Primrose, a 150 ton Londoner loaded with Home Counties grain in Bilbao  harbour on 26/05/1585 (Old Style), along with all other English ships. And, apparently, ships from Holland, Zeeland, "Easterland," Germany, and England. Typical of the times, the deposition specifies a religious motivation, while the historiography, as always, loves a good story and looks forward to the Armada campaign. For whatever reason, I can't resist reading Foster's story against the grain, not that there's much here to sustain my cynicism.

So how do I justify my cynicism? In this case, it's perversely hopeful. It doesn't seem to me that human affairs can continue if everyone is paralysed by fear of treachery. So, on the one hand, the merchant captain can't be so fearful of being seized and pressed into service that he won't come into port. On the other, the harbour master can't be so preoccupied with the danger of being taken advantage of by a dangerous heretic that they will not let the ship dock.

That these are real, and common fears, the Foster deposition, and many like it, tells us. So that has to be the weak point, because human affairs aren't coming to a screeching halt.  There's a deception going on here, a word that's doing illicit work. How about "heretic?" The work it is doing is telling us that of course the captain and the harbour master are on opposing sides, forever condemned to strife. Italics, though, on the "of course." Because why is this so obvious. Why should a harbour master or a sea captain care which church the other goes to, or even make the distinctions that some doctor of theology might.

And isn't there money on the table? Doesn't money count as a motive? And who ever tells the truth about money? The cargo will fetch you this much if you pay by letter of credit; this much if you pay cash. Maybe the truth of the matter is that the harbour master and the sea captain are adults, and would prefer to keep their business to themselves.

There's no maybe about it. This is the story of the corrupting sea.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Henry Mainwaring was "an English pirate, naval officer with the Royal Navy, and author." That'd be one way to put it. At greater length, we learn that he was a Shropshire lad, son of Sir George, and maternal grandson (the best kind, when there's money to be made!) of William More, Vice-Admiral of Sussex and Bishop of Colchester, with some kind of suffragen authority over the diocese of Ely in the Fens. It's an unlikely juxtaposition of offices, but Vice-Admiral means something a little different from a blunt old sea dog in this case. In this case, he's the guy who gets a cut when business crosses the shore of Sussex. We're back at the intersection of government and protection racket here, a point that N. A. M. Rodger makes at length here. And as we might expect, the Mainwarings did favours for those who did them favours. Henry's brother was Carver to Prince Henry, and Henry went to Brasenose College, Oxford, followed by the Inner Temple, and was apparently called to the bar in 1604 before turning to piracy.

Now that you've got that  out of your system, I'll complicate the story. Mainwaring was 24 in 1610, and a trial lawyer when he received a commission from the Lord High Admiral, Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, to cruise in pursuit of the "arch-pirate of Newfoundland," Peter Easton, then supposed to be cruising in the Bristol Channel. (Wikipedia blandly suggests  that he was cruising in the interest of the Killigrews of Falmouth.) Mainwaring, however, took his ship to the Straits of Gibraltar, announced his intent of making private war on Spain, and naturally soon turned up in Newfoundland. The treasure fleets of Spain being unaccountably missing there, he instead pressed sailors and took provisions for his four ships, and returned to the Straits of Gibraltar, where he took a Portuguese ship in dried cod and a French prize in wine, before going into what was then called La Mamora, just ahead of a Spanish fleet that reduced the town (to no permanent effect). The citizens of the town rendered their English prisoners to Mainwaring, who may at this time have received an offer of employment from the King of Spain that he declined. In 1616, he rescued the Newfoundland fishing fleet from unspecified menaces, received a royal pardon (a few years ahead of Easton), whereupon he returned to England, wrote a Discourse on Piracy, and received a commission in the Royal Navy, a commission that naturally qualified him to be the ambassador to Venice.

That the details of this story refuse to gel into anything like a coherent story shouldn't be surprising once you've read a little of the Discourse.

And generally a Pirate may in all those parts trim his Ships, without affront from the Country, although it be in such places as they may well, either surprise or disappoint them, as also victual themselves in this manner 1 : The Country people will not openly bring their victuals, nor in audience of any seem to harken to any such motion, yet privately with the Captain will appoint where he shall in the night find so many Beeves z or other refresh- ments as he shall need, who (that he may seem to take this away perforce) must land some small shot, and fetch them; with like cleanly 3 conveyance, and secrecy, he must land the goods or money in exchange, which by custom, they expect must be 2 or 3 times the value. In the same sort shall he have all kind of Munition, or ship's provision, if it be there to be had. I say not that this is done by open allowance, or toleration of the chief Governors and Commanders, yet I may well (12) imagine by proportion of other things in these days there may be some connivance where there is a fellow-feeling. (Mainwaring, Discourse on Piracy)

Mainwaring also explains how a pirate ship begins its career, as a ship full of "desperate men" who go out on the sea to earn a living, and promptly seize a ship. He explains that most pirate crews claim to be pressed men, and that this is actually a deception arranged by the pirate captain and the men themselves. He tells us that the "Governors" of outlying regions have an interest in all of this, and he gives a short geography of piracy. He explains that pirates like places where they can water, victual, take on firewood, and also crews. He notes that English pirates often call in Ireland for horses, an odd cargo for a pirate, and dwells on the value of ports where the anchorages are commanded by the guns of a citadel, which tends to discourage harbour theft. 

Deception, in other words, is key. In fact, a "pirate" might well buy cargo at one end of his voyage, and sell it at the other. Which sounds a little more honest than a "privateer" who takes a commission to hunt a pirate and turns it into a license for private war. And yet it is the latter that gets the attention. Elizabeth's pirates, men like Francis Drake, have been the subject of one biography after another for the last two centuries, because there is, apparently, national honour in going out under a creatively misinterpreted letter of marque to plunder foreign shipping, so long as it be Catholic, or at least somehow to be associated with Catholics. Or the King of Spain. Or someone deserving... Dash it all, let's have done with all the pettifogging and admit that if you had energy, and lived a long time ago, you could basically do all the plundering you like! 

But there's a non-heroic side to Francis Drake that doesn't get as much attention. Having sailed around the world and earned vast wealth, Drake needed to find a place for himself within Tudor society. He bought an estate, Buckland Abbey, that suited such a fiery Protestant. (I'm tempted to substitute "explained" for "suited.") He acquired a coat-of-arms and a motto that rooted the Drakes in history and, hopefully, put an end to questions about his relationship with the Hawkins, and their relations in turn. He also needed gentleman's employment, one that might converge with his private interests, and soon enough found it as a revenue official, attempting to suppress illegal trade in salted pilchards. 

Illegal fishers, however, proved too much for the man who circumnavigated the globe and singed the beard of the King of Spain.  The issue was simple enough. Somewhere along the shore, someone was landing pilchards, heading, gutting, and salt-kippering them, and bringing them into a port; and wherever that port was (and it was probably in England), no-one was paying taxes on them. And for all of Drake's coastal cruising, no-one ever did catch them. The site that I've linked to puts the issues squarely. Drake had been bought into the establishment on his own terms; he would try to levy the taxes where the pilchards were being sold because it was in his interest to promote the  receipts of a port town where taxes were already being paid. Chances are that it was Bristol interests that he was opposing, and the fact that Newfoundland pirates were wont to hover in the Bristol Channel shouldn't be surprising any longer if the point of all this is that salt fish were finding their way into England without paying excise. 

Just as Easton cruised for the Killigrews, Drake fought the pilchard fishers as much to bring the cargo into Devon and Cornwall ports instead of Bristol. Eh, it's a story. It seems awfully anarchic, but that might be the point of it all. Less talk of the rising of the state, more of profits.  

What fascinates me is the fishers. Until the experts tell me differently, I'm going to choose to understand the age in which the Viking Age as retrospectively constructed around the need to control the stockfish trade, ultimately so that the Hanseatic League would bring silver to Trondheim to pay for it, so that the Archbishop of Nidaros could pay Peter's Pence in coin and leverage his office in national and international politics. Everything else that we know, even such apparent certainties as Scandinavia's pagan past, might well be subordinated to the need to control the stockfish. (The argument: St. Olaf  is the founder of Nidaros. Therefore, if the evangelising of the North is described as being accomplished in one go by Olaf and his predecessor, Olaf Trygvasson, rather than as a gradual process going back to the foundation of the Archdiocese of Hamburg and Bremen in 787, then we should be on Nidaros' side against Hamburg-Bremen in any discussion of contemporary issues.) 

The point here is not the niceties of the granting of palliums and the sanctification of kings. It's the industrial scale of activity. Stockfish looks like an entryway into the industry precisely because it doesn't require complicated organisation to bring salt, firewood, and fish together in one place. So that's the story as of 900. The pilchard fishers that Drake chased in vain through the nicks and crannies of the Cornwall coast are on another scale of activity because they do need all of those resources. The seaborne proletariat of the fish trade has become more capable, more organised, and, one assumes, more capable and more numerous. It's just that we can't expect to be told what is going on. 

Well enough; there's a lot of lying going on in history. We won't get to the bottom of it all unless we've got a hint of a clue. Henry Mainwaring is one guide. He tells us not to believe any story that we can't verify with our own eyes. The bedroom door is closed. We don't know who promised who what. So my other guide is a guy who claims to know what happened behind the door. Norman Rockwell, of all people. (Seriously: the pirate at the bottom of the painting is probably a raider of Sally, specifically, Jan Janszoon. Jan's "mulatto" son, Anthony, was a founder of New York.)

Okay, then. If national history is going to lead us astray, maybe technology and economics can help unravel the story. Sails need to be trimmed, ships watered, provisioned, and crewed. Fish will meet salt, and pirates will, apparently, need horses sometimes. The Newfoundland fishing fleet will show up in the Straits of Gibraltar and Newfoundland pirates in Barbary ports. Can we make it all make sense? Maybe. 

That is, not to overstate my claims, I think I can come up with a coherent story that starts in the Atlantic of the early 1400s. In 1408, Thorstein Olaffson married Sigrid Bjornsdaughter at Hvalsey in Greenland. Eleven years later, Bartolomo Perestrello, captain of Prince Henry the Navigator's plantation on the island of Porto Santo, took advantage of a calm to explore the menacing rock of Madeira that loomed out of the sea to wreck ships sailing downwind back from the Canaries and discovered just how easy it was to land on that island when the wind had no cause to bring you there on any course but the one from the Canaries.

From there, I'm going to sketch a process that makes the plantation of America is inevitable. 

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