Sunken Ships

Scientists, Astronomers & Women:
Things You Didn’t Know About Pirates

When it comes to pirates, certain die-hard notions have little to do with the historical record, and romanticize what was essentially a brutal time, before, during and after the Discovery Era. For besides the pillaging and mass murdering attached to their lore, paid-for and generously rewarded by the crown to which they served, many a no-less sanguinary brute managed to leave contributions to the sciences and nautical arts that were obscured by their flashier feats.
Take William Dampier, who wrote about Galapagos almost 200 years before Darwin. Or, a century later, Capt. Cook’s detailed notes on the transit of Venus. What about Grace O’Malley, Anna Bunny and Mary Read, fierce female pirates who fought enemies and potential rapists with equal ferocity? With considerable delay, even the MIT got into the buccaneering trail, as it’s been issuing ‘pirate certificates’ for 20 years. And don’t let us get started on the so-called ‘last American pirate.’
To be sure, beyond literature and Hollywood’s caricatural portrayals of pirates along the years, most people have heard of some of real-life scourges of the sea, such as Blackbeard, Capt. Kidd, Barbarossa, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry Morgan, Calico Jack, and others, whose lives were alternately celebrated, persecuted, rewarded or simply sent to the gallows and bodies disposed at will.
Many were graced, officially pardoned, chronicled in verse and prose alongside their royal protectors but still, as was often the case and despite all of that, unceremoniously beheaded, either by their enemies, or by the crown they’d helped enrich.
Being a pirate transcended borders, and whether they were French, Spaniard, Portuguese, British or Otoman didn’t really make much of a difference: they all pillaged and conquered with the sole purpose of becoming rich and settled down as wealthy landowners. Few were able to achieve such a lofty goal and perished often in the hands of their own comrades.

There were a few exceptions to the stereotypical rule, though: the American (no, not that one) Stephen Decatur, a Navy Officer whose face was on the first $20 bills, didn’t venture much beyond the U.S.’s territorial waters, and remains a national military hero, albeit almost forgotten.
The U.S., by the way, learned fast to use the pirates’ firepower and sea knowledge to help ward off potential invaders of its increasingly vast coastlines. During the War of 1812, for example, ‘patriotic privateering’ was a lucrative business for American mariners as Congress issued Letters of Marque and Reprisal authorizing designated ships to attack and pillage enemy vessels.
Of course, with the end of hostilities in 1815 and peace restored, some of the privateers and their U.S. merchant partners simply would not give up the profits they were used to. As pirates had done and would continue to do so for many more decades, instead of acquiescing to the new law of the land, most went into open piracy and sought friendlier foreign ports to operate their trade.
The pirate way of life was, in reality, so absorbing that the fact that there were even a handful of women who led crews and became known for their bravery in this men-dominated world is truly remarkable. Male homosexuality was then an inherent aspect of lives spent at sea for long stretches of time, and many captains actually banned women from their ships for considering them bad luck.

Born in 1651, William Dampier was an exception himself. Having circumnavigated the world three times, traveling as far south as to become Australia’s first natural historian, it’s said that it was from his itineraries and copious notes that Charles Darwin planned his own trip much later. We wouldn’t have known words such as avocado, barbecue and chopstick if it weren’t for Dampier.
Unlike other pirates too, he died poor and indebted, and hadn’t it been for his books, would have been remembered mostly for landing in Australia much before its official discoverer, Capt. James Cook, and for having abandoned his crew and departed on his own to Thailand, from which he returned to London in 1691, penniless and in the company of a slave prince.

Capt. Cook‘s fame was due not only to Australia, near which his ship, the Endeavor, almost broke apart in 1789, at the Great Coral Reef. The main reason for his voyage was to reach Tahiti and observe the cyclical transit of Venus, which is visible crossing the sun every 120 years, to help to establish the ‘scale’ of distances between the planets and the size of the Solar System.
He succeed up to a certain point, and battling all along the real scourge of the sea, scurvy, the lethal illness that comes from lack of Vitamin C, which devastated many an entire ship crew during those times. His notations did help in the understanding of Venus, but the size of our system would have to wait another century to be established.
In the meantime, Tahiti did to his crew of crusty Englishmen what it’d do later to the painter Paul Gauguin: it seduced them all hopelessly, and helped singe the myth of the the beautiful and gentle savages on the contemporary society of a few centuries ago, living freely (and almost naked) in exotic lands of the South Pacific. It’s an enduring myth still luring foolish men to this day.
When Grace O’Malley was born in the first decades of the 1500s, Ireland was as independent and proud a land as no other, albeit already under the rule of England. Much wouldn’t change during her lifetime, but as far as her reputation was concerned, no other woman became as respected and powerful in the field of battle than O’Malley.
Her fierceness didn’t preclude her from having a few husbands and several sons who were either killed or turned against her, when times got rough, which was pretty much the normal at that time. She made a name for herself as an astute commander at sea, and a fearless foe in the field, qualities that apparently impressed Elizabeth I enough to grant her protection.
Anne Bonny was Irish as Grace and at first also had to pretend she was a man to make it into the tough world of piracy of the 17th century. That is, until she met Capt. John “Calico Jack” Rackam, who became her lover and with whom she sailed the world. It was in one of those trips that Mary Read, an English native that most thought was a man by the way she dressed, was captured.
The two women’s pasts were so similar that a natural kinship developed and they became inseparable. Known for fighting side by side in battles, Anne and Mary formed an unusual bond that followed them to their later years, regardless of their relationships with men. Scheduled to be hanged, fate had it that both were spared for being pregnant. In the end, being women once again saved the day for both of them.
To prove that fabricating a ‘historical’ tale is ever easier in the age of the Internet and YouTube, some history students at the George Mason University concocted a tale in 2008, about a supposedly forgotten American pirate, that many a graduate candidate may have used to enhance his or her thesis, and wound up ruining their academic future.
The tale of Edward Olwens, whose 19th century grave site was supposedly ‘discovered’ in Virginia by a group of pupils, who even posted a video on the Web, purportedly showing how did they come across the story. It became the centerpiece of a course taught at the university, Lying About the Past, which was exactly about that: proving how easy it is to be fooled by poor scholarship.
It’s a cautionary tale about the perils of too much data being thrown on the Internet, without the filter of research and documentation to distinguish it from mere fabrication. It’s also a brilliant way of demonstrating the shortcomings of having a generalist cultural approach to knowledge: anything may be truth as long as it resembles it (and there’s an eager, uncritical audience ready to absorb it).
The revered Massachusetts Institute of Technology is not known to jump into the bandwagon of what’s considered ‘sexy’ research, or fall into the trap of flashy disciplines, only to attract more students and funding. Nor it needs it. But the Piracy Certificates that it reportedly will be issuing every year may be borderline to just such folly. Unless, of course, the whole thing is yet another hoax.
It’s a good sign, then, that the MIT itself doesn’t seem to take the whole enterprise too seriously itself. The course is, after all, part of its physical education department, not of any of its cutting-edge research labs. And participants are required to excel at sailing on the “not-very-high-seas of the Charles River,” indoor target archery, fencing footwork, and pistol shooting.

It’s as silly as the Sept. 19 International Talk Like a Pirate Day is. In other words, nothing that some starving hordes of Africans need to know in order to pillage, as they do, multi-million dollar tankers on the treacherous waters off the coast of Somalia. Their saga is more in line with those whose misery, cursing, ignorance and drive were their only way to overcome incredible odds such a long time ago.

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