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‘The Sword of the Law’
November 1890, Howard Pyle, Wilmington Delaware
“Why is it that a little spice of deviltry lends not an unpleasantly titillating twang to the mass of respectable flour that goes to make up the pudding of our modern civilization?”
So begins Pyle in his 41-page introduction to “The Buccaneers and Marooners of America.”
This is a compilation of works written in Dutch, English, French and Spanish between 1684 when the “honest Dutchman” John Esquemeling first wrote his account of his life as a pirate in the still quaking aftermath of the Reformation, which saw religious war on the high seas. On both sides of this doctrinal divide there was agreement that slavery was the norm of man’s lot, and that agonizing torment, torture and marooning [being left to starve alone in a tropical hell] and execution would be his miserable end. In such guise was loyalty to the earthly masterclass paid, so that one cannot be surprised that the certain death which awaited the pirate—even the pirate executed as a scapegoat by his own king for the deniable crime of serving him against a rival king—was a preferable price to pay for a real man, for a brief spasm of human achievement beyond the bounds of servile misery.
Pyle reminds the reader that the buccaneers, pirates and marooners were the “off-scourings of the French and English West Indies,” who began as marooned sailors and runaways on the Island of Hispaniola curing stolen cattle on barbecue racks after the Indigenous fashion for sale to ships captains seeking provisions. He does mention that it was normal for such men to have been sold across the Atlantic into bondage and leaves the reader with an undeclared assumption that the majority of these men worked their way free, when most died in bondage and many escaped, and hence with a life sentence of hard labor on their head, tended to opt for what appeared to be a suicidal battle against the combined navies of France, England and Spain.
However, when one realizes that the fate that awaited them in chains: to be tortured to death by the Spanish Inquisition, worked to death in the bowels of a French or Spanish galley [the fate of many a man echoed in the late 19th century novel of antiquity Ben Hur] or worked to death under the whip of a cruel master in the English Plantation system, there remains no wonder why the pirate of Plantation America more often than not chose the road of Spartacus.
Indeed, many an advertisement for the recovery of a spirited runaway in Maryland and Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s, after the end of the Golden Age of Piracy that came to a close circa 1729, indicated that the runaway could be expected to be heading to a port town to take ship under some captain. Indeed, a 1741 edict by the British Admiralty would warn all ships captains against taking on runaways. However, this practice remained so common among captains after the Age of Piracy had officially ended, that individual advertisers would continue to threaten ships captains in print if they should give sanctuary, passage or even a cruel term of service aboard their merchantman or man-of-war to the advertiser’s terrestrial and possibly sea-bound property.
The “highwaymen” of the seas would provide one of the two brackets of high-risk freedom beckoning to the runaway slave of any of the many races cast into bondage in Plantation America, the other being the equally hazardous life of the beleaguered Indian tribesman or hillbilly clansman.
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