Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Piracy and Life

From my old web site:

I. The Madness of Life

As I drive around these days I am listening to a pretty good book about the Caribbean pirates of the 1710s and 1720s – Blackbeard, Bellamy, Calico Jack, and the rest. I am always struck by how miserable life was on those little wooden ships: the awful crowding, the diet of rancid salt beef and worm-ridden biscuit, the constant danger of accident, disease, and shipwreck, the dictatorial power of sadistic captains, the injustice that almost all of the profit went to investors and the captain, whose share even on the most dangerous privateering voyages was as much as 14 times that of a common seaman.

And yet thousands of men chose this life. One thing that always amazes me is how many sailing ships there were in the 18th-century world: 2,000 ships were destroyed in one Caribbean hurricane. It comes home to me how many people were involved in what was really a desperate venture. Sailors who died at home of old age were a small minority. On slave ships the mortality rate of the crew was as high as 40% on each voyage, which means that after five voyages only 8% would still be alive. Well, probably there was a "seasoning" factor, so the death rate was lower for men who had done it once before, but still it can't have been common to survive a decade of slave trading. In the 17th century the death rate was nearly as bad on ships sailing to Indonesia. In the 18th century the East Indiamen took the lead in improving safety conditions, using limes and sauerkraut to fight scurvy, and the like, but the death rate was still staggering by our standards. And those ships were so small that it took thousands and thousand of them to carry on any sort of commerce.

Other professions were just as bad. Gunflint makers died of silicosis after only a decade or two of work, coal miners of black lung or cave-ins, pearl divers of ruptured lung or the bends. And if work wasn't killing enough men there was always war.

There is in our species an astonishing restless vitality that is spendthrift of life. We breed like rats, doubling or tripling in each generation if there is enough food. Our swelling numbers press constantly outward, filling every available niche. We live in desert tents, igloos on the sea ice, and reed huts in malarial marshes; we take on any work no matter how dangerous.

Think of African slaves, seized from their villages, sold to strangers, stacked like barrels in the holds of ships, crossing the ocean in a lake of piss and shit, put to work on sugar plantations with inadequate food and frequent whippings. Some gave up and died, but most struggled on, mated, had babies, raised children, and dreamed of redemption. Now their descendants number a hundred million.

But it is not just us. Ants swarm to attack an anteater even as he sucks them down by the tens of thousands. The maple trees in my back yard must drop a hundred thousand seeds every spring, not one of which will ever grow into a tree, unless for some reason our suburb is abandoned and reverts to woodland. Against that one-in-a-thousand chance the trees are prepared. There is a sort of madness about life, like vines that thrust their way into any crack, no matter how many times they are pruned back, no matter that the crack leads only into a dark space where their leaves will wither and die. This is why I have never believed that there might be life hiding somewhere on Mars, in deep caves or underground lakes. Life as we know it is so powerful and adaptable that it would find a way to live everywhere on the planet, building shields against the ultraviolet radiation and insulation against the cold.

We are part of this madness. We like to imagine ourselves creatures of reason, but by taking to stormy seas in tiny ships, by marching into canon fire, by mining deep into the earth, we act out the part of swarming ants and vines that cannot stop climbing. We are part of the relentlessness of life. We cannot stop. We can only force onward and outward until every place is full, even the places that doom us to misery and death. And we do it with joy. Life loves living; we are living things, and we love our lives. In the face of death we erect monuments to our heroism; in the depths of despair we find spiritual comfort. We take pleasure from pain and toil. When pain and toil give way to victory, we know ecstasy. The beauty of the world moves us, because we are meant to live in it. The pulse and force of life is the greatest wonder we know, and that wonder, the gift given to all living things, is our greatest treasure.

II. Violence and Freedom

When I first read about pirates, as a teenager, I was not much moved by their stories. They seemed to me nothing more than criminal scum. Which, of course, many of them were. But now that I know something about the ruthless injustice of 18th-century life, I am more sympathetic to those who warred against it. Sailors did difficult, dangerous jobs for miserable pay, yet their bosses took every opportunity to cheat them even out of the meager wages they had been promised. If their ships wrecked, or if pirates seized their cargoes, they received nothing. If their employers went bankrupt, they received nothing. Sometimes their masters simply refused to pay them. A few tried to sue in court for what they were owed, but the judges were all shipowners, and the sailors never won anything. In wartime they might be impressed into the navy, forced to do years of dangerous service. If they complained, they were whipped senseless. If they tried to desert, they were hanged.

When war came, many sailors rejoiced. If they could avoid the navy, they could take service on privateers and earn a share of any plunder they could take from their nations' enemies. In war, the strong could take from the rich with impunity. As medieval troubadour Betran de Born, wrote,

Trumpets, drums, banners, pennons,
standards, horses white and black,
we'll soon see, and the times will be good,
as we'll part usurers from their money,
and mule drivers will not dare to go on roads
in broad daylight, nor townsmen without fear,
nor merchants on their way from France.
Those who gladly rob will be rich.
Of course, most did not get rich, but a few did, and that was much more of a chance than any of them had in peacetime. Betran de Born's zeal for war has a sadistic quality, but it still points toward the grim reality of life in an aristocratic society. Most of the wealth was in the hands of the aristocrats, and the only way poor people would ever get any was by taking it. When the law is controlled by the oppressors, the only possibility of freedom may be as part of a criminal gang.

Violence shook up society, and since in the normal run of things society was grotesquely unfair, that meant that poor people might gain from war and turmoil what they could not hope to get in peace. Of course the poor were also the main victims of war, and most of them ended up poor no matter what happened, but violence at least gave some the hope of getting more for themselves. Who can read about one of those protocol-bound courts, like those of the French kings or Chinese emperors, places where outsiders were doomed by embarrassing public miscues or done in by backstairs whispering, without fantasizing that a barbarian horde would ride in and sweep them away?

Nor was violence only a matter or war or piracy. I have lately been working on the history of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was built in the 1830s by thousands of workers, most of them Irish immigrants. The canal was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, and the workmen's pay was often short or months behind. Excluded from most kinds of work by "no Irish need apply" rules, the Irish canallers badly needed to be paid for the backbreaking work they did. To get the wages they were owed, some groups rioted and threatened to dynamite the dams and culverts they had spent months building. It worked; faced with the prospect of losing their investment, the Canal Company paid up. When work on the canal wound down and jobs were short, the canallers formed associations based on their counties of origin and tried to drive all the other workers off the canal. Non-Irish workers were their first targets, but they also fought against each other. Work on the canal was so important to them that they fought to keep it. Again, it worked, at least for a while. When the Canal Company finally called in the state militia and arrested the leaders of the associations, wages on the canal fell from $1.25 a day to 87 cents. By banding together and using illegal force, or the threat of it, the workers got much more for themselves than they would have by meekly obeying the law.

Those societies most deeply devoted to freedom are often very violent, for example the plains Indians. In some borderlands peasants who were often needed as soldiers paid much lower rents than their counterparts in peaceful regions. Because of the constant threat of violence, their lords had to offer them good terms to get them to stay. The Roman tradition records that their commoners won political rights by refusing to serve as soldiers in wartime. The patricians tried to argue that in time of war the whole community had to stick together, but the commoners were not moved by this argument. During war was the only time the patricians really needed them, so it was then that they had their only real leverage.

So are violent societies more free? Not necessarily. The Spartans managed to combine regimentation with violence, as did many others. Oppressors can use violence, too, and usually have. It is also important to note that those able to take advantage of the freedom that war and violence brought were mostly men, and that women were more likely to be victims. Some of those free, violent societies, like the Bedouin and the Plains Indians, were particularly harsh to women. Yet when men won power with swords and guns, the women's world was shaken up, too, and they rose and fell with their men.

So violence was an ambiguous force but until modern times it was the one thing able to undermine the fixed and grotesquely unfair order of the world. Before the rampant technological progress of the modern age, civilization tended toward a hereditary hierarchy. In an old civilization, each person's place was fixed when he or she was born, and only extraordinary effort, or extraordinary luck, could ever change it. During long periods of peace, like the heyday of the Roman empire or Ming Dynasty China, social stratification could reach absurd heights, with a tiny minority controlling almost all the wealth. But then the barbarians came, the rulers were cast down, and the deck was reshuffled. The men who overturned the old order were no better than the men they replaced, but they, like the pirates, understood that only hope for change was in violent upheaval.

III. Demography and Destiny

Why did the sailors do it, or the gunflint makers, or the slaves? Because they had no choice. The only real freedom the poor of pre-industrial Europe had was the freedom to starve. If they wanted to stay alive, they had to accept one of the slots the system allowed them. The political science of the 17th and 18th centuries is full of the fear that if poor people ever got too comfortable, they would refuse to do the miserable, badly paid jobs on which society depended. Only people threatened with starvation, the philosophers reasoned, would make gunflints or mine coal. No one in that era seems ever to have considered that such jobs could be made safe and profitable enough to tempt free, well-fed people to take them.

From the founding of civilization to the twentieth century, people took dangerous jobs and lived in horrific places and died early deaths because there was nowhere else for them to go. Because the world was full, and every decent spot was taken. Because there were simply too many people.

In every age, advances in technology that should make us all better off lead instead to population growth, so that the mass of people are as poor and miserable as they were before. Many of my students are puzzled to discover that although Egypt was the richest place in the ancient world it had some of the poorest people – we read of peasants whose estate was one sixth of an olive tree. The riches of the Nile were paltry compared to our power to breed and consume. The technological progress of the 17th and 18th centuries could have allowed a small population to live very comfortably, but instead it set off a great wave of population growth, so that by 1810 the world was again troubled by famine and revolutionary unrest. Since then our technology has advanced so rapidly that much of the world has managed to keep ahead of the Malthusian scissors, but it has been a desperate race, and along the way many have been trampled into the coal dust. Whole peoples, like American Indians and Australian Aborigines, have been crushed, and millions of miners and factory workers used up and cast aside. Yes, there has been progress, but imagine if all that economic progress had taken place in a world with a stable population. Of course growth would have been slower, but its benefits for each person would have been vastly greater.

George Orwell once wrote that the best time in history to have been a working man was during the opening of the American frontier. "If you didn't like the boss, you socked him in the jaw and moved further west." To Orwell the availability of empty lands was the best defense against oppression. If people have somewhere else to go, there is a limit to how much they can be abused. The availability of desert islands in the Caribbean, empty because disease and enslavement had wiped out their natives, certainly helped poor sailors in the 18th century. If they could not find acceptable work, they could row to some remote islet and live for years by catching turtles and raiding sea-birds' nests. Once the region became crowded again, every bit of land claimed as somebody's property, the sea turtles hunted near to extinction, that option was gone, and it was once again work for the shipowners or starve.

In 17th-century Virginia, the authorities imposed draconian penalties on any white or black man who went to live with the Indians. If such reversion to nature ever became common, the possibility of flight would make it too hard for the rich to control their laborers. It was imperative, for Virginia's would-be aristocrats, to convince their servants that Indians were savage heathens with whom no European or African could ever be at home. If men could flee into the great wilderness whenever they felt cheated or used, there would be no keeping them down. Because their own numbers had been decimated by disease, many Indian groups welcomed fugitives who were willing to learn the ways of their hosts. This had to be stopped; scan the letters passed back and forth between Indian chiefs and colonial governors, and you see that one of the main themes is the demand by the governors that runaway slaves and servants be returned.

But the example of colonial America shows the complexity of these interactions. The outcome of the New World experiment was, not freedom for all, but freedom for whites and slavery for blacks. The desire of colonial elites to become aristocratic landowners was extraordinary strong. When they found they could not dominate their own people, they brought in foreigners to rule over. By fanning racism and respecting the basic freedoms of poor whites, they kept the masses from uniting against them, built their plantations, and found their way to riches despite the availability of cheap land on the ever-moving frontier. And consider the effect of the Black Death in Europe. In the west, the sudden death of 1/3 or more of the working people led to a great rise in wages and the disappearance of serfdom. But in the east, the authorities were able to keep control of the situation, and they forced the surviving peasants into even more burdensome servitude. We are not sure why, but part of the reason is probably the availability of alternatives. In the west, town life was more fully developed, and migration from the country to the city was already a common thing. Peasants who did not like the terms of their tenements simply left, going to town or to other regions. In the east, towns were fewer, farther apart, and less welcoming of strangers, so movement was much more difficult. With no place else to go, and fewer men to fight against oppression, the eastern serfs could not turn their increased value into freedom.

I think the greatest achievement of the modern world is our creation of representative democracy. This marvelous system allows the teeming masses of our crowded nations to have some degree of freedom and some degree of control over our fates. Technological progress has kept economic growth ahead of population growth, so that our incomes have risen even as our numbers have swelled. But I do not think we have escaped from the tyranny of demography. Wages are still set by the laws of supply and demand, so more workers means lower pay. These equations are not simple, as the debate over immigration in America shows, but it still must be true that the wages of shirt-sewers and plastic molders are kept low by the enormous number of people in the world who could do the same work. In rural India and parts of Africa, population growth is fast undoing the gains of the "green revolution," and hunger is still a threat to millions.

As the low birth rates of the modern world, which have already spread across east Asia and South America, reach Africa and India, we may at last achieve something unprecedented in human history: a stable population not limited by famine and early death. The great race between population and food supply may finally end, and humanity enter a new era. There may be some loss of vitality in our world, as we are less in the grip of that living madness and less driven to live anywhere and do anything to stay alive. But I do not think we will ever find life boring -- we are made to live, and so we will. We may even find that without the press of ever-growing populations, we have the time and resources to build a more just and reasoned world. 

July 22, 2008 


szopeno said...

Great post. BTW ". If people have somewhere else to go, there is a limit to how much they can be abused" - PPolish popular history writer Jasienica (IIRC) wrote once that this was the reason there were so few peasant uprisings in Poland proper - because they just could leave their master and choose another, and in the worst case they could just escape to the Wild Fields.

David said...

"Betran de Born's zeal for war has a sadistic quality, but it still points toward the grim reality of life in an aristocratic society."

His poetry also has, it has long seemed to me, a defensive quality. Something is threatening what he loves, and/or someone is talking it down. Obviously war was not going away in the late twelfth century, but arguably it was become more institutionalized, professionalized, and monetized. Or perhaps what threatened Bertran was a growing tendency to resort to law instead of violence. Violence was certainly not the only road to freedom in the Europe of his day; charters were probably more useful. Some towns did rebel to establish their freedom, and many towns kept militias and walls to defend it; but smart ones also got plenty of sound charters (confirmed and reconfirmed at every opportunity) and good lawyers.

David said...

"We are part of this madness." That and the rest of this paragraph are simply not true of all, or even necessarily most, people. (Or, as they say, "Who's this 'we,' Kemo Sabe?") There are plenty of folks who are content, shy, retiring, or spend their energies in non-expansive things, such as fandom and obsessive-compulsive behavior, and loads and loads of folks who do not find pain and striving pleasurable. This seems simply obvious to me. It seems to me you may be projecting the qualities of a minority whom you admire onto the mass. A clever guest reviewer on Scott Siskind's blog remarked that the really remarkable thing about people is not how much we've done and how much we've expanded, but the fact that, for the first 200,000 years or so of our species' existence, virtually nothing changed or happened. The question is not, how did we come so far, but what took us so long?

There's certainly a drive among some intellectuals to focus overmuch on the activities of the most ambitious, driven, and energetic. You can see it in all those studies of ape alpha males and females. Perhaps we need a study of the mass of apes, who aren't on top, aren't hungry to be an alpha's follower, and are content to be among the many. Call the study "The Unambitious Ape."

Shadow said...

The Unambitious Ape,

That needs to be a book. I'm logging into Amazon to preorder.

David said...



John said...

The madness is not in individuals, but in the species. Consider that people live on the Arctic sea ice through the winter, and in horrible deserts. People live in cardboard shacks and 48-square foot apartments. They live through wars and genocides. They just keep going.

When the whales in the Atlantic Ocean were mostly dead, people didn't stop hunting them. They sailed to the Pacific. When the temperate parts of the Pacific ran short of whales, they hunted the Bering Sea and the far Antarctic. It never happened that people said, "the whales are too far away, and in places where it sucks to be, so let's stop hunting them."

It doesn't matter that many people want safe lives. The fact is that there is no place on earth so miserable and dangerous that some people don't live there. There is no work so dangerous and uncomfortable that people aren't doing it. No place where violence is so bad that people stop having children or stop going to work. In fact people in violent, terrible places have more children than those in safe, rich places; Afghanistan has one of the highest birth rates in the world. Our greatest art comes mostly from places with terrible violence and awful poverty; think what Italy was like in 1500, or the Maya kingdoms, or the Viking world, or Nigeria today.

Look at the war in Ukraine; it is awful, drone-guided artillery killing hundreds every day. But neither side has said, "this is too awful, I quit."

Nothing stops us.

David said...


But is all that the same as that being done with joy? Some may get joy or inspiration out of it. But I suspect many are doing it out of dull, dumb persistence, or spite, or, perhaps even more, rootedness, custom, habit, fear of change, lack of initiative, stupid hope that things will get easier, and often, (again) sheer numbness and a spirit of day to day getting by. I just don't think it's universal, or even common, to enjoy hardship, especially physical hardship, for its own sake.

Consider that, while people live almost everywhere, fewer of them live in the really difficult places. Southern England isn't densely populated because living there is a heroic, tooth-cracking challenge. And very few people are trying to immigrate to Afghanistan.

Part of my point is human diversity, and part is that I think very few people are so overtly heroic. Sure, some are heroes. But the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain" comes from somewhere in humans, too. Why should it be more important that some groups stick with whale-hunting than that others ask the famous question, "Why should we work when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?" Both are human--and I bet that in each case, the rock-bottom reason most of those involved do it is because that's what everyone else is doing.