Pirates are a fascinating topic, and pirate stories have long been part of popular culture. Their daring exploits, coupled with their anarchic—and democratic—organization, provide fodder for books, movies, poems, and paintings. Their history of conflict with law and government—where they are regarded as armed robbers on the seas—is the background against which the popular stories play.
The “great age of piracy” is said to have been the late 17th to the early 18th centuries. David Cordingly, author of “Under the Black Flag,” a notable history of pirates and piracy, says pirate activity on the Atlantic colonial trade routes reached a peak around 1720, with some 2000 pirates on the seas. He provides detailed tables of ships, captains, guns, crews, dates, and locations to bolster this conclusion. He also provides details about the pirates' government adversaries, focusing particularly on the British Royal Navy.
Cordingly says that the “great age” of piracy was brought to an end by the concentration of royal naval power. His tables support this, showing that during the 10-year period of 1716 to 1726 there were 37 pirate attacks by 21 captains. The largest pirate ship carried 40 guns and 300 crew, the smallest four guns and 25 crew. The majority of pirate ships carried 12 to 20 guns and 100 to 150 crew members. In contrast, their pursuers, “His Majesties Ships and Vessels in Sea Pay,” aka the Royal Navy, counted 19 ships in the year 1715 alone, with an average of 26 guns and more than 100 crewmen each. In 1720, the Navy fleet of 14 ships included three ships with 40 guns and crews of 190, and a 60-gun ship with 320 crew.
The story of pirates is intertwined with the story of Atlantic colonial trade. Pirates sought booty in all forms of that trade, but primarily in its major components: slaves, gold, and silver. As Cordingly notes, at the time of Pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts' raids along the African coast, “around 36,000 Africans were being transported across the Atlantic each year from the various trading posts.”
Potosi was the largest source of silver in the “New World.” And, in the 16th century, this area was regarded as the world’s largest industrial complex. The total value of gold and silver shipped back to Spain was, in Cordingly's word, “astounding”: In just four years between 1596 and 1600, Spain imported treasure from the New World worth 34,428,500 pesos. In 1995 dollars (the year Cordingly's book was published], that was equivalent to $774 million. Potosi silver financed the Spanish Empire and fueled economies and wars among the Christian powers.
I was struck by the fact that Cordingly doesn't deal with the Native side of the silver mining. His discussion of the slave trade assumes the reader's familiarity with that vicious form of economics. But he provides no discussion of the operations of the mines, other than to say—in an egregious understatement—that “hundreds of native Americans were drafted in by the Spanish” to do the work. Anyone who has read the accounts of Spanish writers—especially Bartolomé de las Casas, the friar and social reformer, knows that the “draft” of Natives was every bit as horrific as the African slave trade: It was a subjection and enslavement of Native peoples to colonial and imperial greed.
It was Cordingly's silence on these matters that caught my attention and prompted me to write this column. How might our views of piracy change if we understood that the victims of the pirates—the colonial authorities and merchants—were themselves engaged in a form of piracy? When historians like Cordingly—who is actually quite knowledgable as the former curator and head of exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England—describe the rise and fall of piracy, they present the story as a conflict between outlaws and the law. They do not critique the forces of law as forms of robbery.
The English laws against piracy targeted not only robbery on the high seas, but also “felonies, robberies, and murders committed in any haven, river, creek, or place where the Lord High Admiral [has] jurisdiction.” But what about the felonies, robberies, and murders committed by the colonial authorities and their agents? These acts the law did not target, because the law was aimed at preserving the fruits of these acts for the government and the merchants.
Here is where the colonizing law needed a colonizing jurisprudence, and it found that in a colonizing religion. The Spanish Requerimiento is the most infamous expression of this, with its promise and threat of destruction to any and all Natives who did not acknowledge their inferiority to the Spanish Crown and the Pope. A colonizing religion provided the philosophical basis for treating Natives as less than human, in the same way that Africans were treated who were bought and sold in slavery.
A major difference in the subsequent history of the two forms of slavery—Black and Indian—is that the colonizing, dehumanizing religious foundation has been stripped from the law for Blacks, but has been preserved in the law for Indians. The United States discarded the legal basis for Black dehumanization in two phases: first, as to outright slavery, in the Civil War; second, as to the remaining manifestations of legal discrimination, in a 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. For Indians, the old religious foundation has never been renounced. Indeed, the Supreme Court affirmed it in a 1955 decision, Tee-Hit-Ton v. United States, upholding the old doctrine that Indians do not own their own lands because they were “heathens” who were “discovered” by Christians.
The United Nations has provided an international law framework to do away with all forms of dehumanization and discrimination against races and peoples. In particular, the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples supports the freedom of Native Peoples from oppression by any government, colonial or otherwise. This framework is still so new that we cannot yet say whether and to what extent it will be effective.
We can say that the struggle of Native Peoples against the old doctrine embodied in the Spanish Requerimiento continues. Just this month, November 2013, the residents of Kanehsatà:ke Kanien'kehà:ka Territory gathered to oppose the expansion of gas mining on their traditional territories. They cited the UN Declaration statement that “all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.”
Fascination with the history of pirates will likely continue, especially since piracy continues in various parts of the world. We should take this as an opportunity to study the history of colonialism, which, in different disguises, also continues to deny the free, prior, and informed consent of Native Peoples in their own territories.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.