Saturday, March 29, 2008

What Happened to the Pirates?

you teacher used teach about Pirate Hawkins
you teacher used teach about Pirate Morgan
And you said he was a very great man
you teacher used teach about Christopher Columbus
And you said he was a very great man
you teacher used teach about Marco Polo, so

You can't blame the youth
You can't fool the youth
You can't blame the youth of today

In a recent radio program on Swedish National Radio, "Pirates and Money" (I have blogged about earlier) the leading lawyer with the Swedish Anti-Piracy Bureau, Henrik Pontén made the following statement:

"Engelskmannen var dem som besegrade piraterna till slut, med nya taktiker och nya fartyg lyckades engelskmannen besegra piraterna i 1700s."

(The English were the ones which defeated the pirates in the end, with new tactics and and new ships the English succeeded in defeating the pirates in the 1700s.)
Henrik Pontén, SR Radio "Media", 22 March 2008

I thought about this statement for a while after I first heard it, as it seems altogether too one dimensional and certain to accurately reflect 1. History, and 2. the mass of events, peoples and actions that became the British Empire. At the moment I am reading Niall Ferguson's Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, not by choice (I actually set some of it for reading on a course I am teaching) and I am critical of it (Mr. Ferguson chooses his examples well in a sort of Boys Own Annual meets The Economist). However, Ferguson writes well and much of his (carefully selected) source materials do have a significant bearing on how "an archipelago of rainy islands off the north-west coast of Europe came to rule the world" (xi) How this happened began with, and depending on who you ask continued for quite some time, with piracy.

This is where Henrik Pontén is mistaken in what he believes he is fighting, that is what has been come to be termed piracy today (aka file sharing over Internet). I believe the similarities are minimal with the violent acquisition of land, property and human life that was the practice and profession of the pirates to which Pontén refers to in the above quote. But he has drawn the parallel, and we should explore it somewhat. In Ferguson's book there are several references to pirates and piracy, which includes:

"The buccaneers called themselves the "Brethren of the Coast" and had a complex system of profit sharing, including insurance policies for injury. Essentially they were engaged in organized crime. When Morgan led another raid against the Spanish town of Portobelo in Panama, in 1688, he came back with so much plunder - in all, a quarter of a million pieces of eight - that the coins become legal tender in Jamaica. That amounted to to £60 000 from just one raid. The English government not only winked at Morgan's activities, it positively encouraged him. Viewed from London, buccaneering was a low-budget way of waging war against England's principle European foe, Spain. In effect, the crown licenced the pirates and 'privateers', legalising their operations in return for a share of the proceeds. Morgan's career was a classic example of the way the British Empire started out, using enterprising freehand as much as official forces." (2)

"Morgan's career perfectly illustrates the way the empire building process worked. It was a transition from piracy to political power that would change to world forever." (12)

"Once pirates, then traders, the British were now the rulers of millions of peoples overseas - and not just in India.[...] But if British rule in Bengal was to be more than a continuation of the smash-and-grab tactics of the buccaneers a more subtle approach was needed." (38)
The "new approach" was supposed to be the appointment of Warren Hastings as the first Governor-General of British India in 1773. In 1788 Hastings was on trial in London for, among other things "gross injustice, cruelty and treachery" as well as "impoverishing and depopulating the whole country of Oude". (49) As the British East India Company was what the Governor-General really managed it was "the state of near perpetual warfare" (44) waged by the Company in India (and their potential profits) that had resulted in it being taken over by the British Government under the new India Act of 1784. According to the Act:

  • the work of trading had to be separated from the work of ruling India

  • a six-man Board of Control from the Privy Council, headed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was to be appointed. This meant that the Board of Control would change with the government.

  • the ministerial board was to have sight of all the papers of the Company and was to issue orders to the directors of the Company which they were bound, in practice, to obey. The Board of Control could, in case of emergency, transmit the orders direct to India.

  • the appointment of offices in India was retained by the Company subject to the king's over-riding power to veto or remove

  • the Governor-General in Calcutta and his council was given absolute power with regard to foreign policy over the other presidencies in Bombay and Madras

  • the Governor-General had the power to over-rule his council (this came with an amendment in 1786)

  • British subjects were made responsible to English courts for wrongs done in India. All returning "nabobs" were to declare their fortunes

  • It was never the case, as Pontén hopefully supposes (repeatedly), that Britain simply "defeated the pirates in the end, with new tactics and new ships the English succeeded in defeating the pirates in the 1700s." Rather it was a complex series of moves and counter moves, where the actions of pirates were used to the advantage of the British government when it suited. The pirate/privateer Morgan himself ended up becoming Lieutenant Governor Admiral Sir Henry Morgan of Jamaica in 1673. Those pirates that went against what was expected of them or began getting too independent, such as Edward Teach (Blackbeard -who bought a pardon once from the British Governor Charles Eden of North Carolina but then abandoned settled life and the offer of subsequent pardons), met with violent deaths at the hands of their former business partners.

    My own Great Great Grandfather in 1859 was part of an expedition that left Sydney and sailed up the east coast of Australia with 12 muskets and a cannon in response to "The New South Wales Government [which] in 1859 has posted a reward of 2000 pounds to anyone who discovered a suitable harbour north of Port Alma (near Rockhampton)." They found one, Port Denison at Bowen and while they did not get the reward the township of Bowen was founded by Captain Henry Daniel Sinclair, his partners James Gordon (my ancestor) and Benjamin Poole in 1861. From 1861-1866 the area around Bowen was closed to Aborigines, with none allowed to enter its boundaries. Today the area is a vibrant tourist location and source of primary produce. It began as a 'claimed' territory in the tradition of all great piracy.

    If history is to be our teacher in regards to the debates around file sharing and intellectual property, I diverge considerably from the position of Henrik Pontén. I think the Swedish Anti-Piracy Bureau should be offering jobs to those involved in the Pirate Bay, BitTorrent, Pirate Bureau and so on. It is the only hope they have of solving this problem if the lessons of the past still hold true today.

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