Scholars' insights on Lost at Sea

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This article offers modern scholars' insights of Stories from the Sea given as lectures in the summer of 2010 in conjunction with Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550–1750, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

Three Englishmen and an Island: Richard Hacklett, Samuel Purchase, John Smith and Bermuda

Map of America from 1625 Purchas his pilgrimes. Folger Digital Image 42091.

Alden Vaughan


Transcript: Adapted from a Folger Shakespeare Library event on June 29, 2010.

I first heard about this exhibit being put up through an e-mail from the Folger, and the title intrigued me: Lost at sea, the ocean in the English imagination. I hadn’t seen the exhibit yet; it wasn’t mounted yet. I had no idea what Carol [Brobeck] and Steve [Mentz] were going to select from the Folger’s artifacts to put on display in the Great Hall, but immediately I was intrigued and those three names popped into my mind. It just happened. As for the ocean in the English imagination, Englishmen and women got their imagination about the sea partly from living on an island, to be sure, but also through literature. Not many of them, after all, did go to sea. A very, very small percentage of the English people ever ventured out onto the high seas and so naturally they had to learn—all of them had to learn—by reading the account of others who had made the great voyages, accounts from not only Englishmen, but Spaniards and Portuguese and so forth, worldwide. And two men in particular brought that literature to their attention, made it available in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Reverends Richard Hacklett and Samuel Purchase, along with John Smith, who becomes sort of the third member of an odd trio. Because he’s nothing like the first two. The first two were lifelong clergymen, made all their livings through through church appointments, and perhaps a little bit of income on the side from their publications. But for the most part they did what an Anglican priest does. John Smith, by contrast, had his finger in every conceivable pie. Traveled everywhere, fought everywhere, went through every conceivable bizarre experience that an Englishman of that time could, and yet ended up his career as quite a scholar. He was quite a writer at any rate; a compiler of partly of his own experiences, partly those of others whose works he borrowed and sort of stitched together with his own to make reasonably coherent works.

The two clergymen, Purchase and Hacklett, in fact not only were not seagoing, they never went to sea at all. Richard Hacklett…the furthest Richard Hacklett ever went was Paris. He was secretary for awhile to the English Ambassador to France and so he crossed the channel a few times. His uh...successor in this endeavor, Samuel Purchase, admitted that he had never gone more than two hundred miles from his birthplace in Essex County. So these are men who are…we would call them armchair scholars. But they were mighty, mighty good. They, they did their work, sort of the old-fashioned way. They collected it, they waited for ships to arrive from an important voyage where there was…to the Mediterranean, or around the world or to the Americas, and then got a hold of the leading spokesman on each ship. Usually it was the captain, but there were others. Sometimes there was a scribe onboard who had kept a record of the voyage, and Hacklett and Purchase would say “I want, I want you to tell me everything. I want you to give me anything you have in manuscript and I’ll do my best to get it into print.”

Before I go on to talk about each of these men a little bit more, I want to—well, I want to put the first slide on. There’s our friend John Smith and perhaps you can read the inscription from there underneath. “These are the lines that show thy face, but those that show thy grace and glory brighter be. Thy fair discoveries and foul overthrows of savages much civilized by thee. Best show thy spirit and to it glory win, so thou art brass without but gold within.”

But my main reason for putting up this portrait other than it’s the only one we really have of John Smith, and there’s a version of it out in the exhibit, is to point out that Smith, though we think of him as primarily a soldier and to some extent a writer, his favorite title by the end of his life, was neither captain, nor governor of Virginia, but Admiral of New England. Notice on the left hand side of oval that he is identified as Captain John Smith, Admiral of New England. He took great, great pride in that part of his very varied career. He had gone to see…very early in life he had gone through everything one could possibly go through on the seas. He was on his first voyage to the Mediterranean when he was thrown overboard by the passengers and managed to swim ashore and save his life. But it was a grim start to a whole series of episodes. Coming back from his European expedition, he had innumerable ventures in Transylvania, and Turkey and Russia, and been a slave for much of the time and engaged in hand to hand combat and so forth. On his way back he got into a sea fight with a ship off of the coast of Africa. Several years after that, he was on route to New England and was captured by French pirates. So everything that you could think of that could happen to anyone on the high seas pretty much happened to Smith.

The, uh, the result of these non-travels by Purchase and Hacklett and the very real travel by John Smith nonetheless results in none of them ever having seen Bermuda. So you may wonder why I connect these three men with Bermuda, and it’s principally because I think Bermuda in some ways epitomizes England’s interest in the seas, at least their interest in the Atlantic Ocean. It was, after all, a most unusual island. Before 1609 Bermuda was empty, empty of inhabitants except the occasional shipwrecked crew. Anywhere from a few up to several dozen might get shipwrecked there and live to tell the tale. But it was essentially an island no one went to, no one wanted. If the winds blew you there, that was your problem and you might live to tell the story, but more likely you did not. After 1609 when England in a sense rediscovered, or discovered for the first time how wonderful Bermuda really is—and many of you I’m sure will nod in agreement with that, that Bermuda was worth having and adding to the British Empire. From then on, what had been a lost island out there in the Atlantic became a very special part of the British Empire. The people who found it, by the way, themselves, of course, were lost at sea and after they finally were saved by crashing into Bermuda, the rest of the world thought they still were lost at sea. And it was only in 1610—in fact exactly 400 years ago last month—part of the world, those that were in Virginia, learned that the sea venture, the ship that had crashed into Bermuda, that all the passengers had survived and it was the next month, from now, July, that the word got back to England. So it was more than, well over a year before the world knew that that lost at sea expedition in fact had been found and that Bermuda would henceforth, if they could move fast enough, would be part of the British Empire.

I’d like to spend a few minutes now talking about each of the…my three heroes, and begin with Richard Hacklett, who as a schoolboy in Westminster school outside of London had the opportunity to visit his older cousin by the same name. They're usually referred to as Richard Hacklett the elder and the clergyman as Richard Hacklett the younger. Anyway, the younger went to see the elder and the elder was very interested in worldwide geography. He had maps, he had charts, he had globes, he had documents that had been collected from around the world. Though an attorney, this was a hobby for him. He was not able to work on it full time. But he somehow convinced his young cousin that this was something to, that a student, beginning to learn, should think of in very serious terms. And so young Hacklett, after seeing everything his elder cousin showed him, and Psalm 107 which his elder cousin pointed out, which reads in part: "they which go down to the sea in ships see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep." And that made a deep impression on young Hacklett. He went on from Westminster school to Oxford University and there, while, in the long run running…uh earning his degrees to be a Bachelor of Divinity, he also read everything he could get his hands on about worldwide travel. He also, before he left the University, was giving lectures on geography and travel literature. He also was studying languages. Of course by then he had mastered German, I mean…excuse me…Latin and Greek. He would have to go through the Westminster school, and several years at Oxford, but he also paid plenty of attention to the Romance languages, so that he could read the account being written in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French. And as years went on and he began compiling his multi-volume accounts of travel literature, Hacklett himself, was the principal translator. He knew very well that if he was going to convince his countrymen to read this literature and to take up the cause of spreading England’s power on the seas and acquisition of colonies overseas, they would need to these accounts in print and in English. The first, could I have the next slide please? This is Hacklett’s first effort, 1582. It’s a small book, only 19 documents in it and a couple of maps. But it got him started and it got his readers started and expecting interesting information. Charters and not only travel accounts, in a narrative sense, but a charters to John Cabot by Henry VII to explore in the new world, a….Hacklett himself compiled a list of commodities in various parts of the Americas that were not yet controlled by any European power so that Englishmen who had an interest in international commerce might see that as the wave of the future. Seven years later Hacklett put out his first major publication, Next slide please…The Priniciple Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation made by sea or over land, and so forth. The type gets smaller and smaller and so forth. But uh, this volume of almost 200 folio pages included an immense amount of the kinds of literature that Hacklett had been pursuing for so long and was so inaccessible to most of the English Nation. Towards the end of this book, much of it, as I’ve suggested already, full of accounts that he had translated from other nations’ travels. But he put in some English at the end, including, for example, Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe which Englishmen were extremely proud of and now they could read about in the words of Drake himself and some others on his expedition. Also accounts of searches for the Northwest Passage which the English were forever doing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, trying to find a way around America to get to the riches of the Far East and thereby improve the wealth of the nation as well as satisfying their curiosity.

We don’t have a slide, I’m sorry, of the big, the major, work that Hacklett produced in the very end of the 16th century. He put out a revised edition of this book, but so revised that it took up three volumes. It’s mammoth. One volume came out in 1598 and another one in 1599 and the third one, which is of most interest to Americans because it focused primarily on the western hemisphere, came out in 1600. And as I say, it’s just full of fascinating material. One account, for example, in the 1600 volume, is by an Englishman named Henry May who had sailed in a ship to the East Indies for, largely for commercial reasons. On the way back, his ship was overhauled by, and defeated in battle by, a French ship which then managed to crash on the shores of Bermuda and the survivors got to...not all of them survived, many of them drowned, but they did get to shore and they built a small boat and managed to get in that small boat up to Newfoundland and from Newfoundland back to Europe. Some have said that there is a possibility for Shakespeare picking up the notion of ….ah...that would lead to The Tempest, but I think there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that if so, it was a pretty small nudge in that direction. Hacklett intended to put out yet another volume. The last one in 1600, and he lived on for another decade and a half, and he was collecting documents all the time. He didn’t succeed in doing that. He simply ran out of time, out of life time. He died in 1616 about 6 months after Shakespeare, was buried in Westminster Abbey, though nobody knows quite where. He’s probably in the poets’ corner, but it’s…the precise spot has never been discovered.

Anyway, fortunately for Englishmen especially and for those interested in the sea, Samuel Purchase was in a receptive mood to carry on where Hacklett had left off. They were not friends, but oddly enough, both Anglican clergymen and both interested in sea travel. The records of sea travel, not the experience, but Purchase managed to persuade Hacklett and his heirs to give or sell most of the documents that survived on Hacklett’s death over to Samuel Purchase, who began to put them into some semblance of order. He was nowhere near as skillful a man as Richard Hacklett, but he was certainly dedicated. He had already published a number of hefty volumes including Purchase his Pilgrimage in 1613 and subsequent editions in 1614 and 1617 which had a great deal of historical material in it, but also a great deal of religious material that Purchase found intriguing and some of his readers probably did too. Let me interrupt myself just briefly. If the pronunciation Per-Kiss grates on your ear, I can only say, that yes, the man’s name is spelled Purchase as the previous slide show…and I pronounced it Purchase for many many years and then in the...1990s the Hacklett Society—which is a major organization for putting out new editions of old travel accounts properly annotated and illustrated and so forth—published a two-volume Purchase handbook. A handbook of all sorts of material that…for us to better understand…they’d earlier done one...two volumes for Hacklett. Now they did two volumes for Purchase. The principal editor of the Purchase handbook said in his introductory essay that he had been convinced by somebody who had explored the issue at great length, that the…in the early 17th century it was pronounced Per-Kiss. So I tried to come on board and do it the way they did it back then, and I do, but there are lots who don’t, including scholars who don’t buy the argument. So, say Purchase, say Perkiss, whatever makes you happy, it’s the same man.

Purchase collected and collected and collected and finally in 1625 put out Purchase, His Pilgrims in four very large volumes and, no, we haven’t gotten…have that next? I think I’ve lost track of where we’ve gotten in the slides. Yes! Thank you. This is not the title page to the original, to the first volume. Excuse me: Not the title page to the first volume. The volumes themselves are broken up…it’s so big it had to be broken up into parts. It was the biggest printing project England had undertaken to that time. It took three years to print Purchase’s Pilgrims. So various parts came out at various times with various title pages. And most of them have along the top "Hacklettus Postumus", that is: Purchase’s saying “I’m carrying on for the deceased Richard Hacklett.” Sometimes though, it gets dropped and Purchase rises to star billing, but in a sense it is a continuation of Hacklett’s work, with a lot added by Purchase himself. A hundred and twenty of the documents in Purchase’s Pilgrims did come from Hacklett’s papers and some of them are of tremendous importance, and to bring Bermuda back into the story, one of the most important is William Strachey True, repertory of the wrack and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight upon and from the islands of the Bermudas. That’s that famous account of that famous episode that probably most of you are familiar with...I will do the shortest condensation of it I can, for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with the episode. But Virginia colony had been stumbling along for about two years in 1609, doing very very badly. Indian attacks, disease, poor leadership, poor followership. Everything seemed to be going badly. The population was dropping rapidly. Something had to be done, so the Virginia Company of London sent out a major fleet of nine vessels, 500-600 passengers and crew who were going...and tons, tons of supplies. And a new governor and a new charter and they’re gonna completely make over this little colony clustered around Jamestown in the Chesapeake Bay area. Everything was going fine until they encountered a hurricane. It dispersed the fleet—they were still several hundred miles short of the Chesapeake. The hurricane blew the ships in all directions. One went down, several others, eventually all the others except one eventually staggered into Jamestown. But the one that was missing was the flagship and on the flagship were the Admiral of the fleet, the new governor, the new charter. All the important people, dumb, dumb, dumb! All of the important people were in one ship. And it looked for a long time as though that ship was going to break apart. As Shakespeare says in Act 1 Scene 1 of The Tempest, we split, we split, we split. They really thought that the ship was going to tear asunder and they were all going to drown right there in the Atlantic. Miraculously after 48 hours of that, the storm abated a bit and the Admiral Summers, who was up on deck saw a bit of land and aimed for a couple of rocks that seemed give some chance of holding the vessel up without smashing it to pieces. And in fact it did: Sea Venture lodged between two coral reefs, held that position long enough for everyone to get ashore. They had their small boats still. They’d thrown an awful lot overboard during the storm, but they still had their small boats and they got ashore. 150 people approximately and found paradise. There was plenty to eat, birds would rest on their arms and wait to be just plucked off. Turtles just waiting to be rolled over and cut up. There were...Food was never a problem. The most abundant food was from wild hogs, which had either been set ashore purposely or had come ashore from shipwrecks, and they’re good swimmers, they can survive almost any conditions, they multiply rapidly. The island was covered with pork, and so the people feasted wonderfully for nine and a half months. And if it hadn’t been that they were conspiring against each other and bickering and plotting and a couple of murders, it all would have been, it would have been paradise. It was paradise until the humans came. But they eventually got…I have to mention at least two of the people who came ashore. They aren’t famous, but I can’t resist. One was John Rolf. And we hear of him later of course. John Rolf and his pregnant wife were part of the Sea Venture passenger list and his wife gave birth to a girl. They named her Bermudis. Unfortunately she and her mother died, but Rolf went on to Virginia later on of course and saved the colonies economy by experimenting with tobacco and finding a species of tobacco that would grow well in Virginia’s soil and produce a better leaf than the local Virginia tobacco, which sold very very poorly on the English market. And then, of course, he married Pocahontas in 1614 and thereby lies another tale.

Another man you’ve probably never heard of, Steven Hawkins, was on this ship. Hawkins was a troublemaker at one point he was condemned to execution but he pleaded his case before Sir Thomas Gates, and Gates had a moment of compassion and let him off. Steven Hawkins eventually lived through the episode in Bermuda, cut to Virginia, a little later took a ship to England and then later on decided, no he wanted to come back to America and did on the Mayflower. He’s got to be the only person, certainly as far as we know, who in a lifetime rode on the two most famous ships of the 17th century.

Now the one other person who experienced that Virginia, that Bermuda interlude, was William Strachey, who wrote an account of the storm, an incredible account of the storm, which he sent home from Virginia after they all got to Virginia. They built the two small boats and they did get to Virginia after about 10 months and Strachey’s account then went home with Sir Thomas Gates to England in July of 1610, but was not printed until Samuel Purchase put it in Purchase’s Pilgrims in 1625.

Now let me say a few words about John Smith and then I want to wind up with a little bit more about Bermuda. Smith, next slide I think, yes, Smith, in the late 1720s he had already written a very important history book about…called The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles. For awhile the English were determined not to call it Bermuda because that is the name that had come from earlier days of exploration and so they thought, they loved to play with words, and since the leader of the expedition that found the islands in 1609 was Sir George Somers, and since the weather was so summerlike, they repeatedly for a decade or more called them the Summer Islands. Either spelling it Somer for Admiral Somers, or Summer for the weather and they kicked that around for a long time and finally Bermuda won. So, Smith published that and then, let me go to the next slide because this is his first edition. The second edition, which came out just a year later is even better. The Sea Grammar. It’s a handbook for everybody who goes to sea. And it’s got the most incredible detailed information you can imagine. All about the rigging, all about how to build the ship, all about the ordinance to put on a ship, all about what each officer’s duty is, all about how to split up the booty if you capture an enemy ship and it’s got valuables on board. He even has, towards the end, a list of all the food you should bring with you and included is lemons (?) for scurvy. If you listen to the cell phone prompts out here, what’s the right word for them, cell phone information that the curator has provided for several of the exhibits, you’ll hear Steve Mentz talk about a book on scurvy for much later and complain that time and again scurvy was … the cure for scurvy, to prevent scurvy was reported and then ignored. And I wish some medical historian would sometime explain to me why… a disease so serious and so easily prevented was so readily uh, experienced in defiance of common knowledge. All you had to do was read John Smith’s book.

Now I want to wind up with four points about Bermuda: 1) it became very popular to the English after they acquired because of its strategic location. It’s a lot like any other island in the world really. Certainly not at the Atlantic. It is not, I repeat, not in the Caribbean even though there’s…my one gripe with the exhibit is that it has a section of the map display in which it’s listed with Jamaica and Cuba as a Caribbean island. No way it’s a…it’s just unto itself, it’s an archipelago sitting out there 800 miles due east of the North Carolina coast and is not near any mainland, and it’s not near any other islands. It is quite a cluster of islands itself; there were some 500 of them at the time. Many of them have since been removed, plowed up for various reasons. The airport of Bermuda has been made out of landfill and it joins several of the earlier islands together. So there are fewer, far fewer islands. It is more of a Bermuda singular. Sort of one place that was back in 1609 when you almost have to say Bermuda in the plural because it was so so many islands, many of which were inhabitable. But it’s small, only about 20 square miles, roughly the size of Manhattan. Secondly, for more than a century though, its discovery around 1505 maybe even earlier 1502 or so, down until 1609 it was unoccupied except by the mistakes, by the shipwrecked victims. Nobody wanted it. It was the isle of devils. To get too close to Bermuda was to invite being smashed to death on the submerged reefs. Even to this day, even to this day as many of you know, I’m sure who have been to Bermuda on shipboard, know that the only way you can legally enter Bermuda is to have a local licensed pilot come out to ship, get on board and pilot that into one of the several safe ports, and the same thing on the way out. The local pilot must take you through the reefs that, of course they have well charted by now. Every early map. I guess it’s not true of the, of perhaps of the map of 1609, but all of them thereafter, show rigging sticking out, masts sticking out of the water in a sort of circle around the islands, and these are the ships that have gone down. At the Bermuda Maritime Museum you can push buttons on a display and have them light up all of the shipwrecks. And a great many of them of course have been fully documented. So once England got this remote place, and this remarkable place. The island of devils turned out to be anything but that, England grabbed ahold as quickly as it could and if I could have the next slide please, now the one after that, we’re going to come back to that, but I’d like to go to the next one, yes. This was in John Smith’s general history and it shows the fortifications, there’s the map of Bermuda in the center and all of those forts the English had put up in a dozen years because they well knew that they had found something so valuable that the Spanish especially but virtually every other imperial nation wanted to take it away from them. They managed to build quickly enough that the defenses were adequate and one early attack by the Spanish failed and from that point on England was pretty much able to consider it its own without excessive effort. Let’s go back to the map now if I may, this is the map drawn by Sir George Somers on the islands in 1609, 1610. And it’s incredibly detailed, but one of the things, interesting things about Bermuda is that it never had a native population. It was unoccupied when all of the shipwrecked people got there. It was unoccupied when the English got there, it...that is confirmed by modern archeology there’s no evidence of aboriginal inhabitants. That makes Bermuda unique in the world. It’s the only place where imperialism could be benign. There were no people to displace, there were no people to kill off by war. There were no people to kill indirectly by disease. It really was an opportunity that they would have loved to have found elsewhere, but no other place fits that same mold. But of course by the same token, there were no Indians to thwart them. One thinks, for example, of Roanoke Island, where several efforts were in the 1580s and 90s and all of them exterminated probably by native neighbors who resented the English encroachment and it was true of the little colony up on the Sagetahawk River in 1607 destroyed largely by Indian resistance. It was true of Jamestown, Jamestown in, in a 1610 after the survivors from Bermuda go over to Jamestown, it was so hopeless. The people there were starving and their numbers had whittled down to 60. They were ready to give up and they did give up and they all got on board the ship and said, that’s it for Jamestown, Virginia. We’re going home, all of us. And three quarters of the way down the river, they encountered another relief expedition coming up, and they all turned around and opened up Jamestown again. And it has lasted ever since, but you could say that that as of 1624, Bermuda was the most successful colony in the British Empire. Now, my final point is a modification of the previous point. If there was no native population, there were presumably no American Indians on Bermuda during the Sea Venture survivors for the 9 ½ months there while they bickered and mutinied and so forth. So, there was no one, also no Indian also for Shakespeare to use perhaps as a partial model for Caliban if Shakespeare was so inclined. Right? Wrong, wrong. In fact we now know, we know...breaking news! We now know that there were two American Indians, we know their names, we know their tribal affiliation, two Indians on the island throughout this episode. Because they’d been on Sea Venture. Two Indians who had been in England on visits were on their way back to Virginia and there they were. They don’t appear in the, most of the accounts. We should have listened to John Smith all along. I’ve been trying to puzzle out where he could have gone wrong. But he does say in his General History that at the end, after explaining about the Sea Venture episode, he says; "There were two savages also sent from Virginia by Captain Smith, that is himself, The one called Namontack the other Matchums. But some such differences fell between them that Matchums slew Namontack and having made a hole to bury him because it was too short he cut off his legs and laid them by him. Which murder he concealed until he was in Virginia." Now that’s a pretty remarkable story since none of the other accounts indicate that there were any Indians there. Samuel Purchase did put it in a marginal note in Purchase's Pilgrims but Purchase and Smith were so close that we assume that Purchase got his information from Smith, so it’s not corroborative. Well it turns out that about a year ago the evidence came to light that absolutely does pin it down. There were those two Indians Matchums and Namontack, and ah…it comes from a Dutch historian’s account which remained in Dutch down to the 1960s in which Sir Thomas Gates, after he got back to England, was overheard by the Dutchman saying; “They lost only four men” during the stay on Bermuda, “they lost only 4 men of whom one was a Cassique or son of a king in Virginia who had been in England and who had been killed by an Indian, his own servant.” So there’s the same story, slightly more compact and coming from Sir Thomas Gates who was head of the whole operation. It has to be true.

There’s a book for sale out here in the kiosk by a historian named Hobson Woodward. The title of the book is A Brave Vessel; the true tale of the castaways who rescued Jamestown and inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s a very good book, he did his homework. I had the pleasure of consulting with him during his writing of it. He’s absolutely persuaded me. He also, incidentally, noticed something that nobody else had. That was; there were two Canoes in Bermuda. Now, no Englishman’s going to make a canoe while marooned on an island, so it had to be made by these two native. The reason they weren’t mentioned, I hypothesize, the reason they don’t appear in Strachey’s account and the other eyewitness account of what happened in Bermuda in 1609-1610, is that these two Indians, not speaking very good English, we know that from other evidence that they went off by themselves. The 150 people pretty much scattered, so they would always be near a good food supply. If they lumped together then they’ve got to send people out to get food and so forth and squabble over whatnot. So they scattered. I’m virtually positive that Namontack and Matchems went off by themselves. That they were good hunters and fishers. They were good canoe makers. They did very well and had almost nothing to do with the rest of the people until it was time to go home, when, alas, only one of them was left. We don’t know why Matchem slew Namontack; it says that he, Matchems was the servant, perhaps he got tired of being the servant. Decided it was about time to be his own master. In any case, they they were there and one of them got home and that leaves us finally to think about Shakespeare.

If he was beginning in London in 1610 when the survivors got back to—many of them came back— to London. And he’s beginning to think about writing a new play about a ferocious storm and a magical island and scattered castaways. And he hears Thomas Gates or some other survivor tell of a murderous Indian named Matchems, and does he see in his mind’s eye a creature whom he would call Caliban, who plotted to slay Prospero? And was Shakespeare perhaps intrigued by reports of a half-covered Indian body with seemingly two extra legs which perhaps gave rise to the gabardine scene, especially the part where Stefano stumbles upon this creature and says, "do you put tricks on me with savages and men of ind. I haven’t escaped drowning to be feared of your four legs." So it’s a there are some interesting possibilities here. The returns aren’t all in yet. Stay tuned. Thank you.


Lost at Sea: At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean

Steve Mentz


Transcript: Adapted from a Folger Shakespeare Library event on July 13, 2010.

What pain is it to go down like Jonah, all the way. What do the waters want, what’s at the bottom. At the surface the world breaks, columns of air shatter into devilish brilliance and beauty. You’re out, then you’re in. No middle and no ground. First come the riches of the upper ocean. Boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat. Everything we love is here, flashing, tumbling, cradling bodies and refracting light. Here, Noah’s flood never subsides. Here is world without end or limit. All subtle and submarine. Look into the fish’s eye and you see nothing. No strange analogy to something in yourself. Passing five full fathoms colors darken and grow heavy. The ribs and terrors of the whale press down. Monsters swim fast and fearful. No place to stay. They wink up at us from the depths, skulls with begemmed eye sockets, wedges of gold, encrusted anchors, heaps of pearl. Fish gnawed men and what’s become of a thousand fearful wrecks. Treasures of the slimy bottom. Captives of the envious flood. What we’re looking for. What’s there? Not just gold and death fragments. Not even pearls whose price we spent long since. The sea’s floor hides a full awfulness. A universal cannibalism, a two stranded lesson. Here went Jonah ten thousand fathoms down, weeds wrapped around his head and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. Here Prospero’s book lies mudded. Here, God fugitives reach a place beyond rest. Two things, the real and final face of our world and the limit of what we can imagine touching. Bursting back to air and light we sing what we can and sell the rest remembering what we can’t salvage. No insular Tahiti.

That opening passage is one of the interludes in my book, and as some of you may have already recognized, it’s also a mash up of two famous literary passages: Clarence’s Dream of Drowning, and Shakespeare’s Richard III and Father Mapple’s sermon from an early chapter in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. What I’m trying to capture by bringing those, those two voices together and adding a little bit of leavening of my own, is something like the real facts of immersion. Of what really happens when we get pulled under. When we go into the watery world. What I’m trying to describe is a movement downward toward a treasure that we finally can’t get to, but as we get closer to that treasure, we move away from everything that’s familiar and comfortable. The insular Tahiti with which this passage ends, that I reject here, no insular Tahiti, is an adaption of a phrase from a different part of Melville’s novel in which Melville describes the Tahiti of the soul. A kind of perfect paradisical place. The place where 19th century whalemen like Melville himself used to desert when they got to the Pacific-realized that life on board a whale ship was extremely unpleasant and lots of hard work and not that much money.

But Tahiti was perfect. Tahiti was beautiful and warm. A kind of physical, spiritual and even sexual paradise. A kind of Club Med for 19th century whalemen. But as Melville knows, and as Shakespeare knows, that place, that landed beautiful garden space is very different from the waters that surround it. When Melville describes the insular Tahiti in Moby Dick he says, "you have to stay there because as soon as you push out on to the ocean, you lose it." What I’m going to try to do tonight in this talk, and what I’ve also tried to do, um, in a slightly larger form in the book, is to lay out something like an oceanic alternative to this insular Tahiti fantasy. I want to try to imagine how it would be to engage fully with an oceanic life. Acknowledging that human beings don’t, and can’t live on the ocean.

So in order to do this I’ll use some passages from Shakespeare, I’ll use some materials from the exhibition upstairs, and I’ll use a couple passages from my book, but I also want to point out at the beginning of the talk that this oceanic fantasy is not just a kind of academic exercise. It is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I mean in some ways I think that I’ve been thinking about this ever since I learned to swim as a child. But it’s also got a real new urgency for all of us this summer. Because of the hole in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. And I won’t talk at any length tonight, although we could talk about it later if people want to, about the oil spill, except to say, just at the beginning, that the relationship that I’m trying to imagine here between human beings and the ocean, is the exact opposite of what’s happening at the bottom of BP’s version of the ocean right now. What I’m going to try to offer over the course of this talk tonight, is some essential features of the ocean as human beings can partially understand it. And I want to suggest that this isn’t actually as strange and academic as it might seem. I want to suggest that this is actually the way we encounter the ocean when we go to the beach on vacation. We just don’t always articulate it. And so on the one level I’m trying to bring together some historical literary material, and I’m also trying to capture the feeling that we each have when we stand on the beach and we look at the ocean and we have that little feeling of difference or slight dislocation, of being in the presence of the largest thing on the planet.

So, I’m going to try to outline three primary features of the ocean as it, as it appears in a poetic or historical sense. First of all that the ocean is opaque and it resists our seeing through it. Second of all, and this is a phrase that I get from Shakespeare, that the ocean is hungry, and third, that the ocean is transformative. It transforms itself and it transforms us. And so to try to make these points I’ve got a few slides that will go with each of these points, and we’ll start with the first one on the opaque ocean. There we go.

So this is a slide from the exhibition upstairs. Its two pages from the 17th century atlas made by the great Dutch cartographer, atlas maker and maker of globes; Willem Janszoon Blaeu. Blaeu is actually very well represented in the exhibition upstairs. He’s got two atlases and two globes and um.. several other sort of one page objects in the exhibition. And this page, like all the great 17th century atlases that were made in Europe at this time have a kind of common object which is to take mysterious space of the deep ocean and make it legible. Make it practical. What the mapping of the sea does, is it turns the unknown world of the Americas, the New World, into a space which can be comprehended from the point of view of a study in Amsterdam or London or wherever this map might have been opened. What I think is particularly interesting about this particular page in the Folger’s copy was taken out of a large atlas and then hand colored at a later date and then in the exhibition upstairs it’s in a frame.

What’s interesting about it, is that act, the moving of it out of the atlas context and then coloring it in, turns it into an aesthetic object. And I wanted to talk just a little bit about the features of the anesthetizing of the ocean hear. Because what this map represents is a way in which we turn the ocean from the space of mystery and dislocation into a place of aesthetic appreciation. And so I’ll start actually with the framing devices that go around the three upper sides of the map. On the top, and you guys probably can’t see this from where you’re sitting, but you’ll, you might be able to get some of the outlines of it. At the top is a kind of greatest hits or tourist attractions of the New World. Places like Rio and Cartahegna, and um, the Mexico City, the city of Mexico, and it provides, again from the point of view, if we think of this as being viewed in a scholar’s study, or more likely a merchant’s study. A wealthy merchant’s study in a European city, this shows you the places that your merchant vessels are going. This is the world that is newly available to the maritime, expanding maritime nations like; Holland and England in the 17th century. Along the two sides we have pictures of peoples. Different versions of Native American peoples. Greenlanders, Mexicans, Virginians, um, a whole host of different, slight variations on the dress and culture and customs of the various Native American pictures, uh peoples. A kind of amateur ethnography. What’s interesting about these, I think, is that we see how clearly the artist wants to classicize the Native American peoples. That all of them, despite their various forms of exotic dress look like Greek sculptures. And one of the things that we see happening here, and this is something that almost all the early European illustrators of the New World did, is in order to make the New World comprehensible to a European audience, they analogize it to the historical past. In this case to the Classical past of Greek sculpture.

What both of these gestures do is they turn the sea from a mysterious space to a relatively knowable or legible space. A place that can be appreciated and understood. If you look at the depiction of the oceans themselves, both the Atlantic and the Pacific, there’s also one other, I think, particularly telling future of this which marks just how far the 17th century atlas makers had gone in making the sea comprehensible. And that’s if we count up the figures, in these wide oceans that fill up the empty space, we have a series of ships and a series of sea monsters. Both of which are traditional decoration for maps going back hundreds of years. But if you count them up, we have eight ships, relatively large ships and three sea monsters. That seems like a, you know, that it’s starting to go our way if you will. Go the way of the human subject. There are not quite as many monsters in this as we might expect from earlier maps or from medieval maps as well. There’s a sense in this map that Blaeu and his cartographic allies feel, at least at this point, that they have the the at least these parts of the Americas relatively well understood. If you look closely at this map we see that the northern parts of North America are actually the least well understood. They’re much better about the Caribbean and about South America.

But this is a fantasy of looking at the surface of the ocean and feeling like despite its opacity we know what it means. But it also conceals some problems underneath the depths. And so when we turn to the second phase of the oceanic features that I’m outlining today, the hungry ocean we’re going to see something that’s a little bit less comfortable. Can I have the second slide. [Laughs] Yes, less comfortable. Particularly ….this poor guy whose got his foot in the shark’s mouth. Um, this is a manuscript drawing done by Edward Barlow, a 17th-century English soldier who also collected a wonderful huge manuscript journal which still survives at is in the Maritime Museum in London. This particular image is not in the show upstairs though reproductions of three other pages from Barlow’s journal are, so you might want to look at them if you have time afterwards. What I love about this image is its way, the way in which it captures the human experience of being in the ocean. The human experience, of course being extremely unfriendly and difficult, but even more than that, I think one of the things that’s fascinating about this image is it’s strangely impersonal. If we look at the man and we look at the shark, and you guys probably can’t read Barlow’s caption, but the caption actually describes just the shark, “the most ravenous fish that swims in the sea,” and the pilot fish on the bottom there that goes along with them. The caption doesn’t mention the human. In a weird way this is a impersonal, unemotional picture of violence underneath the waves. The sense that we have from Barlow’s image of being in the ocean, is that it’s an unfriendly place, a painful place, a destructive place, but not a place that cares very much about human feeling or human emotion. The hunger of this ocean is impersonal. And so I want to connect this to a moment in Shakespeare from which the phrase the “hungry ocean” comes. Which is the second quatrain of “Sonnet 64” in which Shakespeare is describing the action of the surf on the shore through, excuse me, the metaphor of hunger. But also, I think, providing a comparable image of the ocean as an impersonal or abstract force that doesn’t allow itself to be analogized to human emotion or human feeling. So Shakespeare writes in “Sonnet 64”; When I have seen the hungry ocean gain advantage on the kingdom of the shore and the firm soil win of the watery main increasing store with loss and loss with store.

The connection that I want to draw between this poem or this fragment of the poem and Barlow’s drawing is precisely this sense that the ocean is a place that doesn’t care very much about you and me. It doesn’t care very much about human bodies. It’s a place that we need to accommodate ourselves to because it won’t accommodate itself to us. There’s an emphasis, an emphasis in both the drawing and the poem on oceanic hunger and oceanic movement as impersonal voracious and also cyclical. I think in Shakespeare’s poem especially the kind of patterning of the language and the sense of the exchange between the shore and the ocean suggests that we can’t comprehend the ocean. We certainly can’t resist the hungry ocean’s gaining of advantage on the kingdom of the shore, but we can come to accommodate ourselves to, or to accept the movement that the ocean produces in our world. That’s a pretty tentative accommodation and it certainly isn’t going to do this poor guy much good. Um.. His foot or his leg is still going to be in relatively bad shape if he makes it out of this drawing at all. Um, and in fact I think that one of the things that both Shakespeare’s poem, and in a weird way, Barlow’s journal, or this particular moment in Barlow’s journal, doesn’t acknowledge, is just how much it hurts to be in the ocean. How threatening and painful it can feel to be in the situation that this man is in. So the second part of the hungry ocean is going to be a different image that gives us a much clearer vision of the emotional content and the feelings associated with, with immersion. And so, can I have the next slide.

This is a big beautiful oil painting done by Peter Paul Rubens around 1605 and 1606 when he was traveling in Italy. It’s the story of Hero and Leander. Leander is the hero, the man at the center here, whose lover Hero as you may remember in the story, Leander lives on one side of the Hellesponte, Hero lives on the other. He swims over at night to visit her until one night when he doesn’t make it across. What Rubens has done in this painting is collapse three different moments toward the climax of this story. The moment at the center where the young man has drowned and you see the kind of shocking pallor. It doesn’t come through on the reproduction, but the shocking deathly whiteness of the man’s skin. Um, indicating of course that he’s drowned. The second moment occurs when the Nereids, sea nymphs who surround the body, are wafting him over to shore to present the corpse to his desolate, um, desolate lover Hero. And then the third moment you can just barely make it out on the right hand corner of the, of the image, the grief-stricken Hero then throws herself into the sea to drown and to meet him in depth and in death. What this painting does, and I think this makes it an interesting supplement to Barlow’s image, is provide an image of just how insufficient the human ability to survive in the ocean is. It provides a direct encounter, a direct visceral and emotionally powerful encounter with the deathly potential of the sea.

With the threat that the sea poses to every swimmer, whether you’re in the Hellesponte in the Mediterranean, whether you’re on a beach vacation, or, you know, whether you’re at the pool on the weekend. Now this also connects to a slightly different passage in Shakespeare. Um, this is a speech from the end of Part 3 of Henry VI an early play in which Queen Margaret is reflecting on having lost the extended civil war in that play. And she analogizes the situation of having lost the war and being about to be, in her case banished, and in the case of other members of her party, put to death, to swimming. That swimming for Margaret is... always takes place under the shadow of drowning. That it always takes place knowing that you can’t swim forever. Excuse me. And so this is Margaret’s speech from the third part of Henry VI; “Say you can swim, alas ‘tis but awhile. Tread on the sand, why there you quickly sink. Bestride the rock, the tide will wash you off or else you famish and that’s a threefold death. This speak I Lords to let you understand that there is no hope for mercy more than with ruthless waves. With sand and rocks. Why courage then? What cannot be avoided to our childish weakness. To lament or fear.”

Margaret uses the ocean here to describe the situation of political failure and an absolutely merciless enemy, but the image that she uses is of the ocean as an inhuman and inhospitable world. It’s the ocean that Leander has found himself at the bottom of in Ruben’s painting. It’s a place in which no matter how young and powerful we might be, no matter what our political ambitions as in the case of Margaret, no matter what we want as human beings at a certain point we can no longer put off what cannot be avoided. This image of drowning, both in Margaret’s passage and in Rubens’s painting, is the ending which always sort of hovers alongside sea stories. Even if so many heroes of sea stories make it to shore, the experience of Leander, the experience that Margaret describes always shadows this kind of experience.

Alright, well that looks pretty bleak. Um, and I have to say that the first time that the first time I looked at this painting, um there’s one copy of it in the Yale art gallery in New Haven and then another in Germany, um, I was just shocked. I was searching for it and couldn’t believe how emotionally powerful it is just to look at that, at that dead body at the center. But I don’t think that we have to stay exclusively in this, in this kind of bleak and depressive point about the human encounter with the ocean. And which is why I’m going to turn now to the third and final of the three versions of the oceanic experience that I’m outlining tonight which is that the ocean is transformative. And I’m going to make this point in order to suggest ways in which the ocean can become a resource for our imaginative lives, as well as a um, as a cautionary threat. So can I have the next on?

O.K., This one, and actually the last two, both come from the exhibition upstairs. In this one the first one describes the public and historical experience of oceanic immersion as a way to create history. Providential history, and a way to understand the expansion of European culture into a watery world. This is the frontispiece to a book called A Token for Mariners, as you can see along the top there. And this is a book of maritime theology. Prayers and sermons that were designed especially for use on board at sea. One of the other ones contains a… this prayer you’re supposed to say when you’re worried about a tempest in fact. What this does in this image, and this is also the image we used for the cover of the brochure if anybody had a chance to grab a brochure on their way in or wants to grab one on the way out. Um, it provides a kind of three part view of the providential experience of the corporate human body, and particularly of the English nation going into a maritime world. The upper level provides the image of the eye of providence, the eye of God looking down and organizing the scene, seeing everything and knowing everything. The middle section is the ship itself beset by lightening from above and waves from below. It’s probably hard to see from where you guys are sitting, but there’s some broken masts and broken spars. The ship is looking like it’s in relatively bad shape. And then the third level the individual experience is the three castaway figures clinging to little bits of the wreckage on the bottom. And again it’s a little bit hard to see, but you can probably just about make out from where you are the middle figure who is sort of astride a piece of, a piece of wreckage there has, um, you know, little, I mean it’s not a terribly detailed image, but the eyes are looking directly at the viewer and it’s a very um, uh, it’s a sort of extraordinary appeal in that little tiny face. What these three things together combine, ah provide, is a vision of providential futurity which suggests that going to the ocean is dangerous and it’s deadly but there is a future that gets produced from it.

It’s a future that’s very partial, as the text on the bottom tells us this particular ship was from Dublin bound from Virginia and of the 26 souls on board, 7 were miraculously preserved. In other words there is a way through the ocean here if you happen to be part of the lucky 7 as opposed to the unlucky 19. And certainly for James Jennaway who put this book together, I think the proper response, the doctrinaire response is to think about, you know, the miraculous preservation of those 7, and about the plan which providence and God have for those 7 who will make it to Virginia. I think for us, if we look at this picture as a..from the point of view of the early 21st century and we think about the historical experience of European culture embarking on the great waters, um the eye and the organizing vision of providence becomes a little more complicated. As a Shakespearean I look at that eye and I think about Prospero and The Tempest who basically stands in for, impersonates if you will, the theological position of providence, controlling the storm and running the plot over the course of that play.

And then I also, and I remember talking with Carol [Brobeck] and Caryn [Lazzuri] about this when we were putting the show together. Whenever I look at this image, ah… it might be a legacy of too much time spent with fantasy novels as a young man, but, or watching movies with my kids, but I think of the eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings and I think about the kind of sinister sense of control that the eye can have. That’s a kind of resistant reading. But I do think that what this image in total presents for us is a fantasy about control, and I think in the 21st century we have some anxiety about fantasies of control that someone like Jannaway might have not either not had, or not wanted to admit to very much.

Part of the reason I think that in the contemporary culture that we’re a little bit anxious about these images of corporate or totalize in control, is because of the turn to the, ah, focus on individual experience, so this is the last slide which is a slide about, there we go, a slide about the individual experience of being at the bottom of someone’s ocean. This is an early modern diving bell, a relatively crude machine designed to put one person whose feet we can see but not his head, um, you know relatively far down to the bottom of the ocean, or the bottom of the sea. This is a 17th-century book of physical experiments made by a Scottish professor and mathematician. What I really like about this is it documents for us the desire to reach the bottom of the ocean in the 17th century. And it suggests that the thing which really is, which you really want, is to get there yourself. To experience it, to experience physically having your feet actually present on the bottom of the ocean, and to explain this I’m going to have to reach a little bit far…, a little bit forward in history from this time into the 18th century at which point the craze for swimming and the desire to go to the ocean, which we, I think, take as a relatively natural thing to do, particularly on a hot summer day. Although it may be a hot summer night with a rainstorm now.

Um, that the desire to go to the beach is more or less something that gets culturally invented in the 18th century, and it begins initially as a medical phenomenon. The idea is that the beach and the ocean, immersion in the ocean can cure your physical ailments. One famous literary example of character who seeks this out, although doesn’t actually get it, is the always complaining figure of Elizabeth Bennett’s mother in Pride and Prejudice who despite all her flutterings and palpitations says at one point in the novel that “a little sea bathing would set me up forever.” What she’s referring to there somewhat elliptically is something that a French physician name Dr. Hugh Maret elaborates much more explicitly in a book that he wrote about ocean bathing a little bit earlier than Pride and Prejudice. Maret writes that when a person goes into the ocean and actually puts their body underneath the water like this person, a prodigious upheaval occurs throughout the whole body. The soul, surprised by such an unexpected event startled from the fear of disunion from the body that it thinks is close at hand, lets the reins of government over the body, which it presides, drop. So to speak. What Maret describes there is a fantasy about the ocean as a place of freedom, a place of the physical feeling of liberation. And it’s the physical feeling of liberation that is caused by the opacity and hostility of the ocean. It’s caused by the fear of death which shadows the moment of immersion.

Especially, this is in the 18th century, very often the people who were going swimming or who were hurled into the water by their doctors were not trained to swim, so they’re relying upon a much more shocking sense of the ocean than we have perhaps when we’re a little bit better equipped to take care of ourselves in the ocean. What Maret describes though, and I think that this image and many of the other image in “Lost at Sea,” as a kind of prehistory to it. Is a sense that the ocean can transform us physically and individually if we will go to it. That bodies feel differently when they go into salt water. I was thinking about this yesterday as I was swimming in Long Island Sound, that there is a constant sense of difference whenever you go into the ocean. And that because of that difference the ocean, the underneath space, the underwater space in the ocean is a place that we will always want to go even if we quite… can’t quite get there.

And so the last thing that I want to talk about today is some ideas about why it is in the contemporary world we might want to get there. What might we get out of embracing this desire to be in the oceanic space. We have much better diving bells than this one made by George Sinclair. We have all sorts of technologies that’ll get us into the ocean, and keep us there for slightly longer than we ordinarily could stay. And so the last passage that I’m going to read for you guys is a slightly compressed version of the call to arms with which I end my book. Which is thinking about how the ocean can provide us with an ecological model that will help us make sense of contemporary experience. Um, so the last little mini chapter in the book is called Toward a Blue Cultural Studies and I’ll try to explain a little bit what that means here and I’m going to give us just three separate little pieces of it. One that’s about the Gulf Stream, one that’s about poetry and one that’s about the ocean itself.

So, the first part. From a certain point of view, the dominant actor in Anglo-American history for the past several thousand years has been the Gulf Stream. This torrid river of hot water in the sea, heats on one end the British Isles to a fairly comfortable temperature and making it possible to live and grow crops in that northern… rocky northern island. And on the other end, the southern head of the great Gulf Stream steams out of the Caribbean through the channel between Cuba and Florida and up the east coast of North America. The Gulf Stream’s nutrient rich waters were one of the primary contributors to the growth of the great massive biomass of North American codfish up in the North Atlantic on the Great Grand Banks, which for over a millennium fed North American peoples on both sides of the Atlantic massive amounts of protein before being exhausted by factory trawlers at the end of the 20th century. The Gulf Stream current comprises an important part of the North Atlantic Gyre which is a clock wise rotating marine highway consisting of prevailing winds and current that crosses the Atlantic from southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa across into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico back out up the east coast of North America and then across to Europe again. Early European expansion into the Caribbean and the Americas simply followed these oceanic pathways, at least until sail technology changed a little bit in the 18th century. Living on land we sometimes forget how much the sea’s physical structures control our physical and cultural histories. We should remember.

Second part. It’s true that poetry can’t keep oil out of the Gulf, or protect low lying cities from tropical storms, but it’s also true that language is one of the basic tools that our culture uses to grapple with our unstable ocean drenched environment. Shifting away from the supposed stability of land will cause us to abandon certain kinds of happy fictions and replace them with less comforting narratives. Fewer insular Tahitis and more shipwrecks. But, and this is really my key point, both in the talk tonight and the exhibition outside, and also in the book. We already have these narratives. We just don’t always put them at the center which is where they belong. The trick going forward will be to replace the tragic narrative of humanities failed attempts to control nature with less epic, more improvisational stories about working with an intermittently hostile natural world. We need stories about sailors and swimmers and divers to supplement our over-supply of warriors and emperors. These stories are already there, Odysseus swims to shore from his wrecked ship, Ishmael survives the destruction of the Pequod, Robinson Crusoe thrives on his island home. In Shakespeare Marina, Ferdinand, and Viola all survive immersion even if Othello, Timon and Lear do not. These are stories we can use.

Part Three. When we look for the sea we see it. It’s always there. We may not understand the waters, but we know where to find them. The sea’s overwhelming presence in our physical and imaginative worlds gives us reasons to reread Shakespeare and Anglo-American history with salt in our eyes. Think about how our fears of flood spill into semi-opaque affirmations and transformations. Because these stories unfold the rich and strange history of our imagined relationship with the biggest thing on the planet, Shakespeare’s ocean and the oceans in Lost at Sea are shifting symbols whose meanings are never exhausted their unreachable bottoms conceal treasure and promised death. Reading Shakespeare for the sea thus launches the vast and slightly quixotic project that I call Blue Cultural Studies. A way of looking at our own terrestrial culture from an offshore perspective. As if we could align ourselves with the watery element. What we will find is a painful and joyful history of coming to terms with a world of flux. Shakespeare and Lost at Sea ask us to read as if poetic narratives and the poetical imagination can help us embrace and endure ocean driven disorder. Whether we can always imitate Shakespeare’s shipwreck survivors or Melville’s whalemen or Robinson Crusoe isn’t certain, but as our world goes bluer and less orderly, these stories have something that we need. And then just in conclusion just to connect this even more explicitly to our current experience of ecological crisis, blue cultural studies asks us to use the ocean to help us imagine a way of living inside a crisis moment with joy pleasure and utopian vision. It asks us to focus less on the accounting of things like sustainability or even growth than on a mobile engagement with a constantly changing and unstable world and it also makes an explicit argument for the value of literature and the humanities for understanding how we should live in an era of ecological crisis. Thank you.


Steve Mentz is Associate Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City. He is the author of At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean (2009), two additional monographs, and numerous articles on Shakespeare, ecological criticism, maritime culture, and related topics. He was the recipient of a short-term fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library which, he reveals in his book’s acknowledgments, “contains more real salt than many think.”

Sea Dogs, Buccaneers, and Corsairs: Piracy Then and Now

Virginia Lunsford


Transcript: Adapted from a Folger Shakespeare Library event on July 27, 2010.

We know who this pirate is! And I actually teach a whole course at the Naval Academy on “The Golden Age of Piracy: Myth and Reality” it’s called and I get all these midshipmen who think they’re gonna watch Johnny Depp movies all semester and that’s not the case, but I had to put him up there because I think everyone loved pirates before but certainly this Disney franchise has really, um.. enlivened a lot of interest among the general public. So we’ve got, in our popular culture, now we’ve got Johnny Depp, and who’s Jack Sparrow of course. Next. And we see pirates also for marketing purposes. Now here we are on Capitol Hill, maybe when you’ve gone out to happy hour you’ve met Captain Morgan whom we’ll talk about in a more serious vein a little bit later. But, next please.

Early modern piracy, surprise, surprise, was actually not like these sort of smiling, colorful happy characters. It’s a very different story, and it’s really part and parcel of that whole early modern European ambivalence that um, that Europeans had with the sea actually. On the one hand, not yet, go back please. Well, that might be too much. We lost the Breughel. Well, if you had noticed on that image, that was a ship that dated from the 1560s and it was a beautiful armed ship, a merchantmen’s ship actually and you could see the gunports that had been cut into it and on the one hand what you have in this period of European expansion and colonialism, was the tremendous blessings that maritime expansion brought. And the vehicle for that was of course the armed Western sailing ship. It brought trade, it brought new prowess in naval warfare which gave European states the ability to flex their muscles against one another in ways they hadn’t before, and against non-western powers. This is actually a painting of a Portuguese battle in which they subdued a confederation of Indian regimes along the western coast of India, and actually gained control over that coast using naval warfare. On the other hand, here’s this vast world. Here is a map that’s done by Abraham Ortelius who’s an Antwerp cartographer, 1570. Here’s this great vast world that will now be opened to Europeans with the oceans as a conduit, and they had a deep ambivalence for all the bounty it brought. It…And as the exhibit will show you also, there’s sort of a duality. There are the instruments and the knowledge that they gained to understand this space, but at the same time sort of the dread and the fear that going into this vast unknown inspired. So for example, at the same time that you have Breughel’s armed warship which is a thing of beauty in its technological sophistication and its means to convey people and goods to points unknown, you also have a fervent belief in sea monsters which Sebastian Munster illustrated for us in 1552. And if we think, or we admired Ortelius’s cartographical ability to represent this New World in sort of mathematical precision, notice here, I’m going to use my laser pointer, he’s got these sea monsters. And here we are, you’ve left the con.. the boundaries of recognition… of what would be sort of comfortable Europe. This is Iceland, and right beyond you’ve got sea monsters lurking. And people really did believe in this. As you’ll see on Ortelius’s later map of Africa in 1584, here is the sort of the duality. Here you’ve got your Western, your Portuguese carracks that are doing the Indies route, bringing the bounty of the Indies back to Europe. And you’ve got these scary creatures who await any wayward mariner. You often…this sort of um, fear and dread makes its way into some painting as well. Um, the Cutch in particular have a sort of wonderful school of maritime dread paintings. And this is, and it makes a lot of sense. I could talk for a whole hour and more about the Dutch Republic, but I won’t. But this is a wonderful painting by, just in terms of the mood in conveys, by Joos de Momper “The Storm,” 1568. Again very co-terminus with that same image you saw very fleetingly of the Breughel merchantmen, you have this monster that’s about to swallow this ship and here on the horizon is comfortable Europe, or comfortable home, the spire of a church or a town hall and yet the waves are taking this ship away. And next, here’s another example, Bachausen from 1690. We’ve lost the sea monster but we still have the same sense of precariousness and danger and peril. And next 1700, Van de Velde, the same type of motif, and there are a… there are many many, many paintings like this.

Piracy actually occupied this sort of ominous face of the sea. There was nothing adventurous or romanticized or um, swashbuckling, which is always the adjective. Have you ever heard that adjective used with anything but piracy? It’s always used in piracy. I looked up swashbuckling once and I mean you, I,… you never hear it, but then you think but piracy. But not in the early modern period at all. Piracy was a terrifying activity. A piratical capture or raid was an ominous, frightening event for the victim. The pirate was a source of fear and this one… something I really underscore with my students, a source of disorder. As Europeans are creating this new global order and they are making a new global order. Um, he epitomized and indeed personified fear and disorder and therefore he was a scourge that had to be eliminated. Unless he was on your side of course, and we’ll go into that.

So next, oh- and here, I should have had this quote while I was sort of lecturing there. This is a quote from 1609, Andrew Barker who was captured at sea, and he tells you… and he italicized. …. It’s not my italics. “It was long and it was cruel and it was forcible and therefore fearful” and then he goes on and talk about this dreadful experience he had at the hands of Captain Ward in 1609. Next, alright, this is very typical. This you don’t see, see the, the, the… Jack Sparrow. This is a source from 1615. This would be more typical of what you would see if you were a denizen of the 17th century. This is actually a woodcut that is advertizing the prosecution and the execution by hanging which was the execution of choice for pirates. Almost always, at the hands of um, the Dutch. It says, “The sentence of Hugo Clerk, captain of the pirates who with his accomplices was prosecuted and hanged in Amsterdam the 24th of January 1615.” So this is what an early modern person thought of when they think of piracy. As criminals and they were the worst sort of maritime criminals. They were the worst sort. It was always a punishment, I mean a crime, that was punished by death.

Next, alright, so what we call this Golden Age of piracy. What I sort of teach in my class, you’re gonna… you’ve always had piracy and we’re probably always going to have, you may have little eruptions of piracy or robbery at sea, although in the modern world those have very distinct definitions. And we have piracy after 1730 to be sure, but what we have from 15…about 1530, it really starts a little earlier, but to do it in two centuries like that it’s easy to remember, 1530-1730 are these multiple waves of piracy that involve Europeans. Now we’re going to…at the same time and afterwards we’re going to have movements in non- quote “non-Western” parts of the world, or by non-Western peoples and those are fascinating and I wish I could get into all of it, but I’m trying to sort of get at the piracy that I think people stereotypically think of when they go see a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Also this piracy affected Western states to the point of causing crises, so there had to be some sort of state response.

Next, causes. I’m not going to go through all these. I put it up there so you can read, because, you know, we don’t want to have death by Powerpoint as midshipmen put it. But, ah, and believe me that can happen, and we’ve all been there, haven’t we? But, I do want to underscore, and this doesn’t actually include all the causes, but these are sort of the major causes when we think about early modern piracy. And of course the major ones you want to think of are European expansion and colonialism, the fact that these states are competing so virulently and they, actually all of them, even the ones who are most free-market and capitalistically oriented such as the Netherlands and England and then Britain all practice restrictive economic policies that exclude one another. And so raises the stakes and creates more competition. Um, you also have, I should say something that is very important, and that is this existence of privateering. That’s a very important part of naval warfare at the time, and we’ve touched on privateering. I can very briefly just, um, define it for you and then we can come back to privateering in the Q&A if you’re interested. A privateer was a private armed ship that was given a license by a government to go and capture ships at sea. The license was called a letter of marque or a letter of commission. In order to privateer it had to be during a time, usually, a time of war. Sometimes it could just be during sort of what we call…you know, undeclared war. Very heightened hostilities. But, and the commission had to be given, the letter of marque, the capturing had to be done of this government’s adversary or enemy. So it’s not a free-for-all license to go out and pillage anybody. And actually pillaging isn’t allowed. It had to, the riches, or the cargo, the treasure, the booty. Midshipmen love it when you say that, the booty. Um, they all twitter, sometimes I say it, just if I’m bored. I’ll go, you know, “Booty,” and they’ll all laugh. Um, bring it back to the home country where it was adjudicated to declare it a legitimate prize, and then if it was legitimate then it would be sold at auction. Um, the fact that privateering existed in the early modern period is really important. Because there’s a slippery slope between privateering and piracy and because, as I said before, one, you know, one person’s pirate could be another person’s privateer. So this is very, very important and we do have some surplus population.

Next, alright, here are the competing Western powers. Um, I could give you the chronology of who’s important when, but we won’t get into that. I can give you there is sort of a bifurcation here. You got the Iberian powers on the top. Everybody else is out to get them. Especially Spain. And you almost feel sorry for them. I mean, they’ve got their World Cup victory now which is great, but you almost feel sorry for them except they’re so brutal also. It’s a brutal age. It is such a brutal, violent age and the Spanish are really dishing it out a lot but boy are they getting it back. From everybody. So when I go through these next groups, the common denominator between almost all of them is: “We’re gonna stick it to the Spanish.” And that makes it OK. Everbody… it seems to be some sort of a conspiracy, we’ll all go get the Spanish. Um, so ah, and the Portuguese, Portugal is absorbed into Spain from 1580-1640, and so a lot of times when they’re sticking it to Spain they’re also sticking it to Portugal. So, it’s ah, the Iberian powers really lose out in this piracy deal.

OK, next, please? Alright, here’s our first group, the French/Huguenot privateers who are active from 1520s to 1560s and if you remember when I said the golden age starts around 1530, this makes us… They get to be our inaugural group. They’re the ones who kind of started the big piracy party. And with causality I noted religious tensions as being important and right away here you go. They’re Huguenots meaning they’re Protestants. And so that’s a very key part with, of some of this tension with piracy is um, Reformation and Counter-reformation tensions that carry over. Catholic and Protestant tensions that carry over and with this first group that’s certainly the case. Ah, you have from the 1520s to about 1560 political conflict between Spain and France and so letters of commission are issued by the French to go out and go after the Spanish. And everyone’s sort of, you know, aware the Spanish have discovered something interesting. Across, you know, this vast unknown that was the Atlantic. Next please? Here is the extent of the Spanish Empire in the 16th century. Pretty amazing isn’t it? Now remember with the causality I said one of the problems though, was, of course, lack of state control over, I called it the fringe. Actually it’s a lot of it. There’s no way Spain could control all of this. Even though they have the most proficient and sophisticated military in the 16th century and navy actually, up until 1588. The Armada attack which is a catastrophe for them. Um, but here is this vast empire and um, as it turns out we all know they’re going to be bringing back a lot of very expensive stuff. So there was a privateer, now he’s, this is like a lottery ticket for him, named Jean Fleure, who was hovering around the coast of Portugal in 1523, captured a couple of Spanish ships, and guess what was in those Spanish ships? Next. Montezuma’s gold that Cortez was sending back to Spain. Well hot damn, you think that that’s that—we’ve started the Golden Age. Because now you’ve got all these privateers who jump in and immediately are going to start targeting Spanish shipping, and most Spanish ships weren’t carrying that kind of gold. Jean Fleure had really hit paydirt until a couple of years later the Spanish actually caught him and executed him. Um, but that starts a wave of French/Huguenot privateering that going to last until the 1560s. Next. Um, it really will escalate in 1545 when the Spanish discover, um, it’s a mountain in what is today’s Peru called Potosi, and it’s basically a mountain of silver, and so if they weren’t bringing back wealth before, that they had um, really appropriated and stolen from indigenous peoples and what not, they now are um, going to be mining silver in vast quantities. So, we always think of sort of gold doubloons connected with pirates in the West Indies and there’s some of that, but the pieces of eight was, was what was more accurate because they discover Potosi in 1545 by this point they’re already minting um, coinage in Mexico City and they will eventually set up a mint in Potosi, so they’re actually sending back, sort of ready currency, to Spain, to Seville actually was the place where all of this went.

Next. So we really have, now this is unfortunately about a century too late, I don’t have an image of Havana from the 1550s, but in the 1550s what you have are these Huguenot privateers who have really escalated their attacks and actually start a…have gone over to the West Indies and star attacking major Spanish settlements. This is Havana. Next. Same thing happens with Santiago de Cuba which never really recovers fully. So the Spanish realize that they are going to have to do something. And they set up the convoy system. The beginnings of it really as early as 1530, they start to develop it. It is really sort of in place by 15… in the 1560s. and I don’t want to belabor this too much, but it’s pretty important to understanding the marauding activity that takes place in the West Indies. [It] says from Spain, all roads led to Seville, Seville is where everything went. Once a year you had the fleet that, my pointer’s not working, that… kick it right? Let’s see if that works. I’ll probably blind myself, then I’ll be like… the one-eyed pirate expert, I’ll just need my patch. Um… well it’s not working, we’ll see if it will decide to. It’s being a rebel. It would come… the fleet would leave Seville, and um, as you can see right here you would actually have a split. One would go to Cartagena, one half of the fleet, and the other half would go to Veracruz.

Now, what the Spanish did was actually set up certain cities, or settlements within the West Indies that they called treasure ports. And those ports were heavily fortified and they had garrisons of soldiers there and they had naval assets usually there, if resources permitted, and that is where the really expensive stuff was deposited, before it would make its way back to Spain. So the treasure ports, and again this is where I need my pointer, um, were Cartagena, this is the main one on the Spanish Main, as we call it, Panama, Portobello, which was earlier called Nomede de Dios and then had a name change. Veracruz, and most important really ended up being Havana which was so heavily fortified that after the um, attack in the 1550s by the French Huguenots, no one was ever able to do anything with Havana. You can see this purple line, what do think that means? The purple line. Now it’s like I’m teaching a class. What do you think, because we have the two fleets that have come from Seville, and then what’s coming from Peru? All that silver that’s being mined in Potosi. That’s exactly right. So it comes up the coast of South America. Remember, there’s no Panama Canal, so it’s taken overland by mule train to Portobello. It’s moved from… some of the fleet would actually stop at Portobello, but ideally it would be shipped from Portobello to Cartagena. That’s where the Tierra Firma fleet would pick it up and then they would go to Havana. And then they would wait for the other half of the fleet to come which is going to go pick up all the different goods that have come in from Mexico, they’d go to Veracruz, and you know what else is in Veracruz, is all of the goods that have come in from the East Indies from the Philippines which is also a Spanish colony.

So those galleons have made their way across the Pacific to Acapulco and then moved overland to Veracruz, picked up by the fleet, they all join up in Havana and then as one big large mass. It’s a large fleet, makes…transits the Atlantic back to Seville under very serious naval escort. That’s the Spanish system. And you know what? It worked! It largely worked. Now there are going to be a few penetrations of that system to be sure, but, um, amazingly it held up and I’ll tell you that once they create this fortified treasure fleet it’s going to take tremendous resources to really penetrate.

Next, OK, so that brings in our next group. The Sea Dogs. Now the French Huguenot privateers, the plug gets kind of pulled on them. Both because inconveniently enough for them Spain and France make peace and then um, France erupts in its own religious wars. So they’ve got other fish to fry and other problems. Right, sort of um, sort of taking over the job of lead sort of pirate group then, will be the Sea Dogs. Who are English, so what an appropriate place, you mentioned Drake in your opening remarks. Drake is the most famous of the Sea Dogs. And what precipitated their eruption? 1558 you have the accession of Queen Elizabeth I to the throne and that’s going to start a time of sustained hostility with Spain for lots of reasons. That you can ask me about in Q&A if you want. I won’t get into it now. So starting in the 1560s we’re going to have English “privateers.” I put in quotes because sometimes they have letters of commission and sometimes they don’t. Francis Drake himself, sometimes had a letter of commission, often did not have a letter of commission. So when the Spanish would get really outraged and I can imagine their faces turning all red and saying “But he is a pirate!” And they were right, he was. And they do end very definitively in 1603 and that’s when James I acceded to the throne in England and he said, “No more of this, I don’t want any more problems with Spain.” And so he pulled the plug on our Sea Dogs. But we’ll look at just a couple a…Next, please.

Alright, there is a not very good quality portrait of three of our Sea Dogs. Sir John Hawkins is sort of the father of the movement if you will, Drake himself as a young man, and Thomas Cavendish. Next. This is a… this gives you a taste of… you know Drake is an interesting man for lots of reasons, and very beloved by his men, which speaks well of him actually. Um, that, what’s… I think most interesting on this map is that third voyage that the green, if you see the green line, um, he actually did succeed in raiding some of the mule trains that went overland across the Panamanian Isthmus. And then had intercepted some cargo. So he’s starting to interfere with the system so to speak. Um, he’s done something really interesting, now you see the blue line, Drake is actually the first person to circumnavigate the world. Magellan is given the credit because his expedition did it, but Magellan himself died on route. So Drake is the first to actually do this and he starts with a with a squadron of six ships and only one makes it. Um, it’s quite an amazing accomplishment aside from what he’s doing piratically. What do you think he’s doing here that is outwitting the Spanish, if you look at this? See if you can guess. Sometimes the midshipmen have trouble with this. Yea, well, he doesn’t actually do it in the Philippines, but you’re on the right track. He avoids the Caribbean entirely. That’s exactly right, and what’s moving along that um, that western coast of South America all that Peruvian silver. And the Spanish have not had to worry because the only person who had ever been there was the Magellan expedition. Right, no one’s been there.

So all of a sudden here comes Drake popping out, and they just hated this guy. And they… actually I shouldn’t say “this guy” and this… I should have said this with my earlier remarks about sort of pirates being seen as sort of symbols of dread. Often the language you’ll see in early modern sources about pirates is that they’re beasts or they’re demons. They’re sort of monstrous. And in fact that is how the Spanish referred to Drake. They thought he had almost magical demonic qualities. How could he have, you know, anticipated meeting up with this silver ship, which is indeed what he does. And so this is one of his very famous events. Is that he captures um, he raids along the coast of Chile and then he intercepts a Peruvian treasure galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepción which had 80 pounds of gold, a very ornate golden crucifix, lots of jewels, 13 chests of silver plate, and 26 tons of silver. And he.. that’s just one ship. That shows you the kind, the kind of commodities the Spanish were moving. Um, he takes all of that and he brings it, he circumnavigates his way back, takes sort of the long way back to Europe and presents it to Queen Elizabeth who’s quite delighted at this and bestows a knighthood, a title upon him. Um, next.

We see in this later portrait which is 1591, shortly before his death. There is his coat of arms, there’s his sword, there’s the globe referring to his feat of circumnavigation, um Drake is an interesting person. He will go back to the West Indies in 156… um, 1586 with a fleet of 21 warships and 2300 soldiers. Some of whom Queen Elizabeth has actually donated for the cause, and he will um, attempt to take Santo Domingo. That doesn’t work so well but does successfully raid Cartagena. And then he’s also involved in the repulsion of the Spanish Armada in 1588. So he’s our most famous of the Sea Dogs. Um, very beloved in England despite his legal status as a pirate often. Very much loathed and feared by the Spanish.

Next, here’s our next group. Now they are co-terminus, sort of happening the same time as the Sea Dogs and those are the Sea Beggars and I wouldn’t have expected you all to have necessarily heard of them before because they are Dutch and for whatever reason a lot of people don’t know about them. But the Dutch, um, if I could, I’m not going to try to go backwards, but remember that map I showed you of the Spanish Empire? Um, we didn’t go through all the different little parts of the world that were belonging to Spain, but if you’d notice in Northern Europe, what we call the Netherlands and Belgium, was part of the Spanish Empire. In 1568, for various and sundry reasons, the people of the Netherlands declared independence more or less. Um, they called it the Apology. “We’re sorry, we just can’t live this way anymore.” They were sort of kind of trying to have an amicable divorce which Phillip II, King of Spain does not do amicable divorce. Um, and so hence began, henceforth what is called in Dutch history the 80 Years War. Can you imagine fighting for your independence for 80 years? Um, which um, the war lasts from 1558-1648, um the Dutch don’t have a navy, you know navies are extremely expensive and time consuming to begin, to start, and to establish. Very much a maritime culture, but these first, what you have is sort of their first naval force or these sort of maritime insurgents who are called the Sea Beggars. Now, from a Dutch point of view, they’re usually privateers who are trying to give them some sort of often… not always, some sort of letter of commission. The Spanish don’t recognize the commission. It doesn’t come from a sovereign nation. Alright, this is the same problem Confederate privateers had, I mean, if you weren’t coming from “a sovereign nation” it’s not a letter of…a valid letter of commission. So according to the Spanish they’re utterly and totally pirates. Um, they end in 1609 because there’s a truce in the 80 years war and when the war starts up again in 1621 the Dutch have really, ah.. much more established a very formidable navy that takes on sort of a lot of the role.

Um, but it’s worth saying, since we mentioned the World Cup, and we had that… I was, as an early modernist, I was like, this is like the dream World Cup. You’ve got the Dutch and the Spanish. It was like, because this is the thing, you all wouldn’t realize this, that the national anthem of the Netherlands is the Sea Beggars song. It’s called the Wilhelmus and it has the lines in it like: “Oh, we killed the dirty Spanish.” So I was hoping the Dutch could win in a way just, but of course the Spanish had their moment, they won! Which maybe they love because of course they’re going to lose this war against the Dutch after 80 years. Um, here are the Sea Beggars, next please. Um, this just shows you sort of… and they’re, and they’re, ah, considered the Fathers of the Country I should say. If you ever go to the Netherlands, the Sea Beggars are um, especially William of Orange, who was a Sea Beggar, and was they’re first dock holder as they called it, um, they’re.. um, he’s the father of the country. Next. Um, very typical. These are the types of images. The Sea Beggars were initially starting um, in the Netherlands trying to repel the Spanish navy and the army, actually, believe it or not. Because, you know what they would do. They’d cut the dikes, and they would flood because everything, it’s the Netherlands, it’s below sea level. So the Sea Beggars would come sailing in and cut the dikes and it would flood the Spanish soldiers and the Spanish would have to run away, and um, the Sea Beggars would be there on their ships cheering. There’s lots and lots of Dutch images like this. Um, so, but then they actually take the war farther afield and they go to the West Indies.

Um, next. I can’t remember what I have. Alright.

Now I’m jumping ahead in time um, and it’s worth saying; even though they do a lot of successful raiding, um, sort of up until 1609, but what you have is, once the war resumes in 1621, the Dutch still have their sights on the Spanish of course, and by then they’ve really targeted the West Indies. And I have to put this in there because I just told you how um, successful the Spanish defense system, the convoy system was. Who do you think are the ones who the one time, its, its, they, the ships are captured? It’s the Dutch. Of course. Now if I had my little pointer I could point to the guy in the upper left hand corner who is Piet Hein, who in 1628 as a privateer captured the Spanish silver fleet in Havana harbor and took it back to the Netherlands. Can you imagine? Because that’s all the Spanish silver that’s the goods for the year. Um, that were taken back to the Netherlands. Talking about a good day for the war effort if you were Dutch! Um, next. And that’s just the example of the type of sort of hagiography if you will. That, this is all over and there’s an unofficial national anthem in the Netherlands. Piet Hein, Piet Hein, his deeds, his name is klein, his name is small, but his deeds were great. And people still know this song in the Netherlands. Next. So he wasn’t a Sea Beggar, but you still have a very um, fervent tradition of privateering in Holland against the Spanish, up until 1648.

Alright, Barbary Corsairs. A lot of people have heard of them because of the Barbary wars, um, the US Navy fights in the early 19th century. Um, they actually start in 1510. Notice how late they last. 1830. Now, this is, we were talking about movements that Europeans are involved in. The Barbary Coast, as Europeans called it, is the north, is the coast of North Africa. But we had lots of Europeans who actually ended up getting involved. Um, and participating in um, the Barbary Corsairs. Next.

Here’s your map, unfortunately I don’t have my pointer, but what you had were several courts or city states, Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, um and then Morocco. Actually there were two that developed on the, um, Atlantic coast. Salay and Momora, that became prominent in the 1600s, in the 17th century. These were your three, these were called the old courts. And the way that they started was, you all probably are familiar with the Rey Conquista of Spain when Spain actually retook the Iberian Peninsula and evicted, um, Jews and Muslims and that was completed in 1492, and so you have a kind of diaspora of um, Muslims and Jews who go to North Africa and elsewhere. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that the Spanish kept going and they invaded North Africa and they invaded Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli. Um, in 1510. So what you have is a… definitely we have religious tensions. I mean it’s Rey Conquista spillover. You’ve got big religious tensions. And you also have actually sort of a collision between the Ottoman and the Spanish Empires because with the Ottomans did, basically sent some emissaries to these cities and said “Hey, you’re in quite a predicament. Do you need some naval help?” and they said “Well yeah, we sure do. We’ve got these crazy Spaniards you know, all over us.” And so, next, please.

The Ottomans supplied they’re,…I mean and this was, the galley was the vessel of the Mediterranean and of Mediterranean warfare, but the Ottoman sort of exported their naval traditions, institutions, their tactics to these cities and that was the beginning of Barbary Corsairing and it continues for a very long time. They,,. That’s another case where they consider it to be “privateering” now they had a different form of, system of laws than the Europeans did. The Europeans see it as sheer piracy. The way to keep them at bay was either to pay them off which was famously called tribute, or to engage with them navally. Next. Next. Slide please, there we go.

This is very typical. This shows you what you’d face if you were a Western merchantman and you went down into the Mediterranean. Um, these uh, armed, um galleys would approach a merchantman. They would board, take it over more often than not, take the ship and the goods back to whichever North African port sponsored them and the goods were great and the ships were really good, because we’ll see that as the… as we get into the 17th century they’re actually going to learn how to sail these ships, um, and I should add here too, remember we had the Sea Dogs who were finished in 1603, and the Sea Beggars who finished in 1609. When the plug got pulled on them, guess where a lot of them went? Down to North Africa. So you have the ships and you have this, you know, all these Europeans who go down there and teach them how to work these ships. But what is it they’re really after? Next slide please.

It’s the people. So what you had was a very um, sort of, um fervent trade in slaves. And this just horrified the Europeans. This shows you, this is um, an image from 1684, um showing how the slaves are going around the city of Algiers. Next please. This is one of the slave markets. This was the slave market in Algiers. It says the manner of how the captured Christian slaves are sold in Algiers. Next. And this is also from, now this is. Look at this, this is like Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus of sadistic horror. You’ve got sort of a triptych of these three images going and it says sort of horrific cruelties or tortures which the Turks make the slaves suffer. The slaves are always understood to be Christian slaves. Um, and you’ve got, I mean you name it, you’ve got it here. You’ve got the impaling, you’ve got the castration. This person’s going to…being dragged. This person’s been buried. Lord knows what’s going to happen to him. This one’s doing a jig with his hair on fire. These people always crack me up because they look like “You want to go get a beer after all this?” What’s this guy? Um, these guys are being um, burned, and those people are being, they’re alive and they’re thrown onto these hooks on the city gates, impaled. And those city gates really, I mean those hooks really were on the city gates of Algiers. So there’s some truth to this. You wouldn’t have like constant torture and cruelty going on, but Europeans knew enough, it’s just, they were just horrified by this. Um, and very desperate to buy these captives back. So there was a lot of ransoming that went on.

Next. Um, or, the other choice is naval action. If you had a powerful enough navy that’s what you could do. This is a Dutch image from 16…um I’m trying to remember, 1615 … whose gone down and it says that he’s captured um, they’ve captured a bunch of ah Barbary Corsairs and they’re hanging them from the yardarm and in view of the city and then binding them back to back and throwing them into the sea to try to exert some pressure on the Algerians authorities.

Next. OK, the buccaneers. These guys are amazing. I have to tell you. Buccaneering is used in modern American language to be synonymous with piracy, but this is a very specific group of people who were um, a subculture, who was in the Caribbean from about 1600 to about 1700. Next. Um, this is, I don’t have my pointer unfortunately, um, they’re based on two islands. Um, they were born initially, do you see, you see where Cuba is, right to the right of it was the island of Hispaniola, and if you look right north, a little island to the north of Hispaniola is Tortuga. That’s where buccaneering was born. Um, buccaneers originally the base, I mean it’s a polyglot society, um, but the most heaviest influences are the French and the English with quite a few Dutchmen thrown in and everybody else as well. But that was a French held colony, Tortuga. Now when I say that, the Spanish, they think, the actually had a papal decree that all this belonged to them and no one else was allowed to be there, so they’re outraged anybody’s there, but. Um, And then you had after 1655 when the English took Jamaica, you had buccaneering based on Jamaica as well.

Next. This is a wonderful text. Um, which is that very rare thing, a primary source about piracy that’s written by a practitioner, and by a man named Alexander Exquemelin who describes what it was like to be a Buccaneer. They’re a fascinating group. If you notice there’s nothing swashbuckling here, there’s a lot of torture and destruction and mayhem going on. They’re incredibly violent, I mean it’s pretty great when you can get a group of kind of, you know, macho midshipmen to be, you know, thinking, “Oh, these guys are really over the top.” They are. They’re really over the top. Extremely violent, um, very effective in terms of the pressure they could exert against the Spanish. They start out just committing some coastal raids, get involved in some squadron warfare and before you know it, they’re engaging in full- on raids of cities and inland settlements. Um, their numbers grow up to the largest raid had 2000 men and that was under Henry Morgan when he attacked Panama which is really, I mean, a very large force for the colonies in particular.

Next. Um, this, I’m going to just show you two of the famous captains. This is Rock. He’s called the Brazilian, he’s actually a Dutchman. Um, we won’t go into why, but just to give you… He was based in Jamaica and um, here’s a quote from the text just to give you a sense of what he was like “Rock acquired great renown and made all Jamaica tremble. He had no self-control at all, but behaved as if possessed by a sullen fury. When he was drunk, (which was, I think, you know they were, when they were in town, they drank a lot, these guys, they worked hard, they played hard) he would roam the town like a madman. The first person he came across he would chop off his arm or leg without anyone daring to intervene for he was like a maniac. He perpetuated the greatest atrocities possible against the Spaniards. Some of them he tied or spitted on wooden stakes and roasted them alive between two fires like killing a pig.” Right. That’s very typical and he’s a Dutchman, that’s you know, he may have some of that animosity between the Dutch and the Spanish playing out.

Next, alright, there’s our Henry Morgan. Remember, we looked at Morgan’s and said… that’s Morgan of Morgan’s rum. Um, Morgan is a Welshman. We don’t know as much about his background as we would like. He was, his family were um, soldiers and um, he probably came to Jamaica as part Cromwell’s invasion force that went down there. He, for whatever reason, he ends up with the buccaneers and he becomes a captain. And this just, this is an illustration from that same text that shows you what it was like when Morgan came rolling into town with his people. So let me read to you just some sample quotes of how they treated the Spanish captives. “They returned with thirty prisoners. Men, women, children and slaves. (and I hate how, as a mother of four, I hate hearing about how the children are treated). The prisoners were promptly tortured in the usual manner.” So this, I told you, his usual manner. “One was strappadoed and beaten. Another was spread-eagled with burning fuses between his fingers and toes, another had a cord twisted so tight ‘round his head, his eyes protruded like eggs.” Um, strappadoing, I don’t have my pointer. Do you see in the upper left hand corner? That sort of big device that looks like sort of a lever there. The way strappadoing would work, is you’d bind the hands behind the body, um, bind the wrists and then they would jerk violently so that the shoulders would become dislocated. All in a day’s work if you’re a buccaneer. Um, o.k. To be cont…here we go, we’re continuing. “Some they hung up by their genitals until the weight of their bodies tore them loose.” That, that… you want to see a group of male midshipmen in particular blanch and wince, you read that quote to them. They all go… that really gets them. “Then they would give the wretches three or four stabs through the body with a cutlass and leave them lying in that condition until God released them from their miserable plight by death. Some poor creatures lingered on for four or five days, others they crucified with burning fuses between their fingers and toes. Others they bound, smeared their feet with grease and stuck them in the fire. They were put to death when there were no further torments that could be inflicted upon them.”

So, um, next slide. This was— this was a campaign that they had a few years ago and I read that as an early modern person knowledgeable about buccaneering that had a… If you said that to early modern people they would just freak out—um, “The Captain was here.” They would be… they’d be hanging up by their genitals and bleeding, you know, they wouldn’t be doing that! So, look how happy he is. Yeah!

Alright, next. Alright, last but not least because I feel bad because I’m talking too long. The deep sea pirates. Um, these are the stereotypical Jack Sparrow pirates I think everyone has in mind. These are the ones who are not attached. Now the four groups I’ve talked about before, remember, they’re all targeting the Spanish, and they all had, I should say with buccaneering, there was some times, there was largely not legality about what they were doing. But notice like, when I said they were on Jamaica, they’re being harbored by the English to some extent. Sometimes they’re being given letters of commission, usually not, every once in awhile they are. Um, the deep sea pirates—all bets are off. Everyone dislikes them. They don’t help anyone. They attack everyone. Um, these are the ones that are the stereotypical sail around in a, in a, in a, ship and capture other ships and, you know, fly the Jolly Roger. Um, these are the deep sea pirates and they are active from 1690 to 1630 and they’re…

Causes for why they arose are complex and if you’re curious we can get into in it in the Q&A. Um, 1730, they end more or less because the English, who are the British by this point, declare in 1717 a war against piracy. Which, in international law, is the precursor against the war against terror, um, because it is a war against a phenomenon rather than a state. And so this war against piracy that begins in 1717, it’s really hard with historians always to sort of measure out causality, but it really does appear to have been effective. And it’s a sort of multi-pronged effort that they take to go after these pirates. Who numbered as much as… we think… it’s really hard, you know we don’t have a, pirates don’t fill out census forms. It’s hard enough to get law-abiding citizens to do that, can you imagine? Pirates don’t do that and they’re largely illiterate anyway, and they were drunk and whatever and they’re not going to incriminate themselves. But, um, we think there might have been upwards of even 2000 of these deep sea pirates who were not really based in any one place. They tried to kind of base themselves, they were no longer allowed to be in Jamaica or Tortuga. They’re kind of… they’re some of them who kind of base themselves on Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, which is where they sort of start.

Next. And oops, and it’s the Jolly Roger, and the deep sea pirates were the ones who flew that flag. And they had variations of it, but that was a, that was real. I know we all sort of, I live in Annapolis so, you know, you see people flying this from their sailboats and drinking their Captain Morgan’s rum, and you think, “They have no idea.” Um, but this was, people love the Jolly Roger. That was real, different pirates… Captains had different standards.

Next. Um, but that is the bad end of Captain Kidd, who was one of the, in this early wave of deep sea pirates he was active in the Indian Ocean. The English captured him. Earlier he’d been a privateer. They don’t… gonna suffer his privateering anymore, and he is found guilty of piracy and they make a big, big display out of him. You see the English are… they haven’t declared their war against piracy yet, but they’ve already got the kind of PR campaign going. And they actually hang him and then tar the body and put him in this contraption and hang him out on the Thames for months. He’s in that iron contraption so that when he decomposes he won’t fall apart. Um, and they display the body, which they typically did.

Um, next. That’s, I think. Don’t you think he’s probably the most famous of these characters? This is Blackbeard. Everyone knows Blackbeard. And he’s not that interesting to me, actually. The one I think is the scariest is Edward Blow because he would make people, like captives, do things like cut off their lips and eat them, or cut off their ears and eat them, although he’d let them use salt, tell them to use salt and pepper, and then eat them. He’s really violent and very sadistic. Um, but Blackbeard is active um, after 1713, through 1713 to 1718. That period. The war against piracy will get him. Um, this comes from the other really important primary source that comes out… it’s 1723, The General History of the Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson.

Next. And you see he just makes a big impression on everyone. He understood marketing himself. He did have the black beard, hence the name, and he would tie ribbons in the beard. He grew the beard very long and tied ribbons in it and then he would stick burning fuses, as they said, behind his ears so that smoke would come up. So it looked like when he was, you know, boarding the ship, he looked like all smoky and crazy. And everybody though he was sort of a demon. Um, but the war against piracy will get him in the end. 16… um, next please?

Where am I? Alright, so here we are in the modern age. And this is, you know, this is what my midshipmen know. And this is what they’ll be going to participate in. And this is, this, I mean, look at that. That is undeniably an image of strength on the high seas. Ah, next. But what, and this is a Friedrich painting from 1809 so of course this isn’t painted now, but what Friedrich seems to be saying, I think, in this painting, and what is still very much true, um, is that we don’t… and what this exhibit actually gets to also, is that we don’t really have mastery of the seas. Of course we do much more than early modern people did, um, but we, we… it’s a vast space that we don’t really control.

Next. Hence we have piracy, and this is why I think people are shocked. How can we have pirates? I mean it would be quaint, except it really is a problem. Uh, next. You had Somalia. I don’t have my pointer, but here we are back on the continent of Africa, next, um, and here we… is um, sort of the, the country of Somalia, the country it’s very much a place in trouble, um. Most of the piracy is based in, if you look at that northern province called Puntland, and you’ve had a failed state there since 1991. The piracy has really taken off, um after 2000, but I remember when I was talking about contemporary piracy, Somali piracy wasn’t that big a deal until you get to about 2004. 2005 and all of a sudden it really skyrocketed. The straits of Malaga used to be where you had a bigger problem. Um, now we really do have a big problem in Somalia.

Next. Here are just some images, you know we don’t have a… these are actually some wonderful images a French photographer took. Um, they are, if you want to look at pre… marginally, I mean piracy in and of itself is a violent act and I certainly wouldn’t want to be captured and held against my will for really months on end. Ah, but, this is marginally, it’s not the type of violent piracy that I was just reading to you about. What they want are, of course, captives. Uh, the captives and to some degree the ship which they’re holding ransom. Next. Alright this,

Next. Really using small arms and, um, it’s pretty basic stuff actually. Next, Although, it is growing more sophisticated. And they’re using small boats like this to go out and intercept larger shipping. Next. Alright. This just gives you…I’m not going to read all of this, but I knew people would want some statistics so that gives you a taste and we can come back to that in Q&A. Um, I think it is interesting to note.. you see the attacks escalate ah, from 2008-2009, of course we’re still you know, midway through 2010. The attacks, it’s hard. Do you measure attacks or do you measure sort of the monetary value, because the ransoms have increased vastly? And I should say that 2008, that $30 million is the most conservative figure. There are some estimates up to $150 million. We don’t know because the private shipping firms don’t necessarily divulge what it is that they are paying. But the highest ransom to date that we know about happened in January 2010 which ranged somewhere between $5 and 9 million dollars, in terms of what was paid to secure. And of course we do have two task forces that the US Navy participates in off the coast of Somalia. One of which is dedicated purely to policing piracy. But the problem is, if you notice statistics sort of bullet number 4, the Gulf of Aden alone encompasses 1.1 million square miles and actually Somali pirates are going further afield now. Even further out. So that would increase even more.

So we’ve got ourselves a sort of old-fashioned early modern problem in the Gulf of Aden.


Virginia Lunsford is a naval history professor.