Provocative essay compares software pirates to seafaring pirates. “The decaying corpses of executed pirates were chained to trading posts from Ghana to Virginia as warnings to others. Brutal examples were set. And so it goes today.”
Once the heroes of nations, pirates went from being state-sponsored champions to tolerated annoyances to the basest sort of criminals. Henry Morgan was knighted after plundering Panama in 1674; fifty years later hundreds of pirates were dangling from the gibbet at remote trading posts along Africa’s Gold Coast.
The change wasn’t so much what pirates did as the context in which they found themselves: a global market economy with England at its head. England went from a plucky backwater to a capitalist empire in a century, and as its fortunes changed – or more specifically, as the way it made its fortunes changed – so, too, did the way the state treated piracy.
It was one thing when looted Spanish gold filled the Queen’s meager treasury; it was quite another when pirates threatened to disrupt the increasingly disciplined circulatory system of
the Atlantic Ocean, which had become the center of the British economy. Sugar, tobacco, slaves – these commodities needed to move and be exchanged as smoothly as possible. Pirates represented a dual threat to the Atlantic Ocean factory of early capitalism. They were not only thieves; they were also free.
Being a sailor has never been easy, and it was particularly tough in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To maximize profits, sailors were forced to eat rotten food and bunk in cramped quarters, and were paid on credit – you didn’t collect until you had completed your one-, two-, or three-year bid. And even then, you might not collect. You could die, of course. Or you might be pressed into military service, or forced to work an extra few years on another ship, or forfeit your wages as a punishment for insolence. It wasn’t uncommon for sailors to go a decade without seeing a shilling. Ship captains had absolute authority over their crews in order to enforce discipline. Any complaining or shirking could be deemed “mutinous,” and punishment could range from whipping to hanging to being dangled over the side of the ship to have your brains bashed in.
Pirate ships were different – they were under democratic worker control. Captains weren’t absolute rulers, but elected leaders who commanded only during battle. Day-to-day operations were handled democratically by the entire crew. Loot was divided equally and immediately, and pirates ate – and drank – better than their law-abiding contemporaries. This was the major reason pirates were feared: it was easy to convince exploited sailors to join up with them. And join up they did.
Pirate crews were a polyglot, multiracial multitude (this isn’t Hardt and Negri; this was the word used at the time) that included oppressed Irishmen, escaped slaves, French heretics, and members of Caribbean indigenous groups. Pirates hailed from all over the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and included a high proportion of blacks and mulattos, who often had leadership roles. Marcus Rediker notes in Villains of All Nations that sixty members of Blackbeard’s crew of one hundred were black.
Pirates didn’t just plunder ships; they enforced their own brand of justice across the Atlantic. Upon boarding a ship, pirates interviewed the crew to determine how their captain commanded. If he were said by his crew to be cruel, the pirates might beat or execute him; if he were fair, they treated him well and sometimes they sent him off with a bit of money of his own. Sometimes their justice was poetic, such as when pirates commandeered a slaver, armed the captured Africans with knives, then sent the hapless captain back on his merry way. Pirates also held grudges, assaulting trading posts and towns where authorities had executed their comrades. After a fellow pirate captain was executed at a Portuguese slave fortress, Walter Kennedy stormed the castle, captured it, and burned it to the ground. Not for nothing did so many pirate vessels contain the word “Revenge” in their names.
Media piracy, the now-mundane practice of streaming a TV show or downloading an mp3, seems a far cry from the life-or-death struggles of buccaneers on the high seas. But the history of media piracy in the US is similar to that of seafaring pirates. In the early days of the republic, lacking international copyright treaties, the US government encouraged pirating of British literary classics in order to promote literacy. Authors like Charles Dickens complained to no avail; not until American literature caught up in quality and appeal could authors like Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe persuade the US government to enforce copyright. By their time the US had become a scientific and cultural powerhouse in its own right, and it sought to protect its advantage by enforcing property rights more strictly than it had before. The book publishers who once flooded the continent with cheap copies of the great works of literature had to go legit.