Monday, August 4, 2008

Pirates versus…… earthquakes?

Memes are funny things—not always in the funny-ha-ha sense. Pirates versus ninjas, for one. Ok, that might be a relatively even match. What happens, though, when pirates run into something wholly out of their league, such as a force of nature?

For a span of years in the late 17th century, pirates essentially ruled the Caribbean and laid the Spanish possessions in Central and South America under the kind of threat of sea-borne raiders that had not been seen outside the Mediterranean Sea since the Viking age. Then, suddenly, it all came crashing down.

Piracy in the Caribbean started as the result of a conflict between Spanish selfishness, and everyone else's greed.

The Spanish empire had an extremely proprietary attitude regarding the New World. This is perhaps slightly understandable since, to their mind, they discovered it (although the Norse and Basque fishermen were probably the first Europeans to land in the New World). On top of that, the Spanish leadership, which was intensely imbued with the Crusading spirit of the Reconquista, generally regarded the New World as a gift granted by God. Pope Alexander VI (the infamously debauched Borgia pope) issued a series of bulls, later summed up in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), that granted to Spain all the lands east of an arbitrary line in the Atlantic Ocean (with a codicil that allowed the Portuguese to keep what they had discovered). This is how Spain wound up with virtual hegemony over the New World, save for Brazil and those cold and remote areas on the northern continent that Spain claimed, but did not assert effective control over, and which were encroached upon by the English, Dutch, French, and others and turned into New Amsterdam, New England, and New France.

The linchpin of Spanish foreign policy in the New World was the mantra "no peace beyond the line," with the line referring to that established by Alexander VI and modified by later agreements. Madrid asserted that since the entire New World was a Spanish preserve, land and sea alike, and that international peace treaties did not apply to the New World since, in effect, anyone west of the line without permission was trespassing on Spanish territory and could be dealt with unilaterally. Trade with outsiders was strictly controlled. This prohibition particularly applied to Protestants, with whom ultra-Catholic Spain had warred without letup ever since the Reformation began. Dutch, English, or even French traders seeking to do business in Spain had to retain a cargador metedoro, a well-connected local Spanish gentleman who would serve as a go-between, for a cut of the profits. Jews were simply not allowed to exist in the Spanish domain at all, let alone trade.

In that time of cameralist economics, this monopoly meant that the empire was notionally a closed-loop system, with the colonies trading only with Spain and other Spanish possessions. As was the case with Spanish colonial government in general, these restrictions were honored in the breach as often as in the observance. Something between one-third and one-half of all the wealth produced in the Spanish empire in the New World was smuggled out, embezzled by provincial governors or other officials, or simply lost. The remainder mostly stayed in Spain only briefly, before flowing out to the vaults of the Italian banks through which the sad, threadbare dynasty of Spanish Habsburgs financed their endless wars; sometimes an entire year's production of the silver mines went towards just the interest on centuries' worth of debts. The sheer volume of cash meant, however, that Spanish Pesos de a Ocho or 'pieces of eight' – lumpy, misshapen silver coins with a value of eight reales—were the most common and most trusted coin in the world for centuries, and remained legal tender in the United States until 1857. It eventually became common parlance in the US to refer to one-fourth of a US dollar as two bits, referring to two of eight reales; hence the phrase "shave and a haircut, two bits."

The Spanish Main, meaning the mainland of Central and South America, was vast but very thinly settled. The vast wealth produced by the silver mines of Potosi and the rest of two continents all flowed through perhaps a half-dozen major ports. Even major commercial centers such as Vera Cruz, Cartagena, the now-extinct town of Panama, and Portobello were remote and insular towns surrounded by a few miles of farmland in each direction, flyspecks of civilization in a vast and trackless jungle traversed by few roads and teeming with Indians and maroons. The problems of the Caribbean, which includes more than 7,000 islands of various sizes, only added to the difficulty in governing and protecting the empire. The sclerotic government in Madrid, meanwhile, had so thoroughly overextended itself over the past century of interminable wars that the government was virtually without resources to defend even the very source of its wealth. Even thirty years after rival powers began intruding into the islands, and ten years after the buccaneers became a major problem, the Caribbean was garrisoned by only a few thousand soldiers scattered among the myriad islands and mainland cities, and a meager handful of warships.

The first non-Spanish colonies in the Caribbean were founded in the 1620s, as part of the gradual overseas expansion of the Dutch, French, and English empires, and were born in a series of short, violent wars with the Spanish. These were all rough frontier places; at one point, the French governor of Tortuga (near Haiti) had over 1,600 prostitutes shipped in as an attempt to calm the island's population of wild frontiersmen and sailors down.

The worst of all was Jamaica. It was not established as a penal colony—in fact, the English Commonwealth run by Oliver Cromwell captured the island as a forward base for injecting Protestant fleets, armies, and missionaries into the Spanish half of the world-- but regardless of that it soon developed into a deep cesspit into which England could flush its demographic toilet. Disgruntled apprentices, petty criminals, indentured servants, deserters, or anyone else who got out of Albion one step ahead of Jack Ketch were drawn to Jamaica for a variety of reasons – it was a promising frontier with cheap land, without the grim Puritanism of New England or the plantation system of Virginia, and it was a relatively easy place to make any kind of a living if you could stand the weather, diseases, and hellish infestations of bugs.

Jamaica and many of the other islands, such as Barbados, Bermuda, Tortuga, had two things going for them. The first thing was the climate, which although it was horrible for Europeans, was excellent for growing sugar cane and other tropical crops for which Europe had developed a voracious appetite. The second thing was proximity to the most convenient trade routes between Central America and Spain, through which the vast but ill-spent wealth of the Spanish empire flowed. Since many of the islanders had relocated to the Caribbean in the first place because of their dislike for agriculture and other forms of honest toil, it was likely inevitable someone would give in to the temptation to plunder the rich but sparsely settled and lightly defended Spanish possessions. The result were the buccaneers.

These buccaneers were a little different from the pirate stereotype burned into the popular consciousness by countless movies, which is perhaps more influenced by stories of later pirates such as Blackbeard. They were a strictly localized phenomenon, operating out of Port Royal and a handful of other port towns, zipping back and forth across the Caribbean between their bases and their targets in ad-hoc fleets of small ships or even open boats. The buccaneers were generally useless at sea-fighting and their tiny boats would have been easy meat for an actual warship, so the watercraft were used as transport only, while fighting and raiding were done on land. The primary targets were not ships, but towns. Many of Captain Morgan's ventures, for example, saw him land his men well away from the town he intended to attack, after which they made a circuitous march inland to attack the town from the land side. This was a far better prospect than standing on the deck of a tiny sloop and trading cannonballs with a massive stone fortress. Once they got their plunder, it was back to Port Royal to spend it on drink, women, and anything else that took their fancy.

Nor did the buccaneers of that day see themselves as a band of irredeemable outlaws in the way that Blackbeard's crew did; perhaps the closest analogues would be the Cossacks of the Ukraine or the 'Borderers' who lived along either side of the Anglo-Scottish border—an anarchic but quasi-legal frontier society who served as an expendable meat-shield for civilization, or a means of discomfiting a neighbor while retaining plausible deniability. As was the case with the Cossacks, their governance was a sort of nasty democracy, radically egalitarian in its outlook—to the point of ripping out the cabins on pirate ships to remove the walls between officers and crew—and prone to drawing up complex contracts, contracts, and other agreements to govern the terms of a raiding voyage, but simultaneously anarchic and given to falling out among themselves. Pirates followed Morgan and the others because they got results, which meant loot, preferably in hard cash. No loot meant no followers, which meant no raids to lead, which meant no loot for oneself.

The largest group of buccaneers ever assembled on a single raid was about 1,500, which Morgan assembled for his raid on the town of Panama in 1671. This was probably the largest and most effective single fighting force in the New World at the time, and it was certainly enough to meet the defenders on equal or better terms in a series of pitched battles, but most pirate raids were far smaller. Ironically, for all that the sack of Panama was Morgan's greatest achievement, in terms of sheer loot acquired, it was also the beginning of his downfall; the large number of raiders among whom the loot had to be divided meant that each individual pirate wound up with a disappointingly small amount, and Morgan was soon hunted by accusations that he had embezzled the best of the treasure for his own, cheating his followers. The destruction of the town of Panama—which the retreating townsfolk actually put to the torch before Morgan's pirates could reach it—was also a trauma big enough to wake up even Madrid, who promptly put the screws to Charles II vis a vis the buccaneers. The governor of Jamaica put Morgan on the next fast ship to London, where he was clapped into the Tower of London.

The buccaneers also often operated under a sort of legitimizing legal fiction, though it was often stretched to the breaking point. One of the more common aspects of naval warfare at the time was the institution of privateering, by which a government could grant licenses to plunder the enemy's shipping. While no substitute for an actual navy—as the United States learned at a steep cost in the early 1800s—it had two advantages. Firstly, it was cheap and, since people bought the letters of marque that made them privateers and owed the government a cut of the take, potentially profitable. Secondly, it also allowed the government a legal and political fig leaf. If Spain objected to the pirates' depredations (and it did) London could claim that it was not responsible for damages because the pirates were beyond London's control. This fig leaf was very welcome to Charles II of England, whose foreign policy was closely tied to the Catholic France of Louis XIV, not least because Louis had essentially bought Charles and the rest of the Restoration establishment lock, stock, and barrel by subsidizing the entire English government in hard cash, and Charles thus had to dance to the Sun King's tune when it came to matters touching on Spain.

Henry Morgan, after whom the Captain Morgan brand of rum is named, started out as a junior officer on the Royalist side of the English Civil War, shipped out to Jamaica on the Commonwealth's invasion fleet, and eventually worked his way up to be the most influential pirate leader in the Caribbean. Morgan saw himself not as a pirate, however, but as a gentleman-adventurer fighting on behalf of his country, and regardless of the atrocities he committed and the profit he derived from hit, his ultimate goal appears to have been legitimacy. After a brief imprisonment in the Tower of London in 1674, he was quickly rehabilitated, knighted by Charles II, and accepted the post of lieutenant governor of the colony. He spent the next five years ruthlessly hunting down, jailing, and executing many of his former comrades, before retiring as a wealthy landed gentleman and dying of dropsy brought on by immense drinking. He is, perhaps, atypical—he got what he wanted—but his life can be a synopsis of the buccaneers and their age.

The greatest of the pirate bases was Morgan's hometown of Port Royal, located at the end of a narrow peninsula at the southeastern end of the island of Jamaica. At its peak, Port Royal was the largest non-Spanish town in the New World, larger than Boston, New York, Quebec, or Charleston. By 1690 the town covered 55 acres, included 200 buildings (44 of which were taverns), was defended from land and sea attack by six modern fortresses, and had a population of 6,500. As could be expected of any town that could list piracy as one of its major industries, Port Royal was a wild place; it was frequently referred to as "The Sodom of the New World" or 'the wickedest city on earth,' among other appellations, and some preachers even went so far as to proclaim it the place where Satan himself had set up his throne in preparation for the Last Days. Given that drunken buccaneers generally thought nothing of blowing through their entire share of an expedition's plunder (sometimes up to thousands of pieces of eight) in a week-long binge of drinking, gambling, and whoring, spiced up with occasional fights and murders, these descriptions may not be unwarranted. It also made Port Royal the most cash-laden city in the world, and subject to tremendous temporary inflation when silver-loaded pirates were in town. Even after the heyday of the buccaneers ended in the late 1670s—due more to London's need to placate Madrid than to anything else, q.v. Morgan's sojourn in the Tower—Port Royal simply transitioned its economic focus from official privateering to unofficial outright piracy, supplemented by sugar and the slave trade, both of which retained a decidedly rough cachet at the time. Everything Port Royal did was naturally supplemented by the service industries, namely drinking, whoring, and gambling. In turn, whenever the city was threatened, the pirates would swarm around it like maddened bees defending the hive; Morgan actually justified his raid on Panama as part of a preemptive strike against a Spanish force supposedly assembling to attack Port Royal.


As wealth streamed into the island in the pockets of the buccaneers, merchants, and slavers, those who profited from the trade had indulged in building brick townhouses and stone churches of the sort fashionable in London. There was one problem with this that was apparently overlooked in the slumgullion of riotous living and easy money that was the first forty years of Port Royal's existence. The town was located on a finger of land that stuck out into what would later be named Kingston Harbor; the settlement was originally located there because it had a good harbor and the peninsular location made it easy to defend from land attack.

The peninsula was, however, nothing more than a vast sandbar, a mass of loose, poorly consolidated and thoroughly soggy sand that generally rose no more than a yard above mean sea level. Everything below the waterline was saturated with salt water hydraulically connected to the ocean. This is, needless to say, not the best sort of soil on which to build large, heavy, permanent buildings such as warehouses, townhouses, or fortresses.

Hans Sloane was a Scottish physician, natural philosopher, and Fellow of the Royal Society who spent fifteen months in Jamaica as the personal physician of the island's governor. An inveterate note-taker and collector of oddities, as well as the man who introduced cocoa to England, he left among his papers an amazingly detailed first-person account of the destruction of Port Royal. Dr. Heath, pastor of the town's Anglican cathedral, likewise left an eyewitness account of the disaster.

A massive earthquake struck Port Royal at about quarter to noon on June 7, 1692, beginning with a series of violent wave-like ripplings of the earth. There is a rather recondite engineering term, thixotropy; it refers to the tendency for substances to change their physical state when subjected to stress, much as ketchup will act as a solid or immobile thick liquid when not agitated, but spurts readily when struck sharply. When sand of the sort Port Royal sat on is subjected to tremors or other stress, the tenuous mixture of soil and water is thrown out of joint, and the soil basically liquefies—what was once solid ground is now soup. Most of Port Royal's buildings immediately collapsed, and many of the denizens sank without a trace. Geysers erupted in the streets, blasting salt water scores of feet into the air. Some of the survivors later told amazing stories of being sucked down into the ground in one place, only to be carried along in some sort of underground current and blasted back into daylight a great distance from where they had been.

The earthquake was followed directly by three tidal waves, the first of which measured at least three stories high, and which completed the destruction. The frigate HMS Swan was left sitting atop a row of townhouses.

Most of the buildings on the island were flattened, and a substantial part of Jamaica's geography was rearranged— thousands of acres of farms and forests dropped into the ocean, while whole new areas of seabed were lifted up. One farmer, known to history only as Hopkins, claimed that his entire farm had been moved half a mile from where it belonged. Most of Port Royal was completely gone, including four of the forts; what had been a thriving town, albeit a den of iniquity, was now mostly twenty or more feet under water. Roughly half of the town's population died in the earthquake, the tidal waves, or in the epidemics that followed.

Map of the changes in the coast.

At the end of it all, Dr. Heath was amazed to find his own neighborhood had survived the catastrophe virtually intact, down to the very panes of glass in the windows.

Piracy continued, but it had to evolve—no longer was it an organized, paramilitary enterprise with a defined enemy and a network of bases, but a scattering of disaffected thugs sailing the Pirate Round to India and back until the mid-1700s. A brief resurgence flickered in the early 1800s, following the collapse of Spanish control in the region, but it was crushed by the combined weight of the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, who have maintained a strong presence in the region ever since.

Spain's New World empire did not thrive for long after Port Royal collapsed beneath the waves—within a few years the Spanish Habsburgs were effectively extinct, the New World money machine had ground to a virtual halt, choked by its own inefficiency and corruption, and the Spanish empire as a whole had rotted away to the status of a contemptible third-rate power. By the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1715, Spain had even been force to sign away the asiento, the government contract to supply African slaves to the New World, to a British consortium, and grant chunks of the Central American coast to British interests as trading outposts.

Jamaica continued to be a troubled island; for the next century and a half the island was essentially one vast plantation for coffee and sugar cane, fueled by the labor of hundreds of thousands of slaves, and after that it was essentially the same, but run on the backs of free but horribly oppressed black laborers.

Dr. Sloane went on to become a well-respected natural philosopher, physician to the Royal Family, secretary of the Royal Society, and one of the founders of the British Museum, as well as a happy family man.

No comments: