I was born in the hospital that served our largest stone and last remaining moat-encircled bastion, Fort Monroe, Hampton Roads, Virginia. A stone’s throw away, 235 years earlier, the head of the most infamous pirate of colonial waters, Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard (1680-1718), was skewered on a pike at the mouth of the Hampton River. Blackbeard’s fearsome reputation, enhanced by braided beard and lit fuses worn into battle, was well-deserved, belying Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling in The Seahawk or portrayal of Rafael Sabatini’s film-eponymous Captain Blood. In fact, most corsairs and buccaneers, however romanticized in fiction, were cutthroats destined for gruesome, inglorious ends. Captain Kidd, for instance, was hanged twice (the first time the rope broke) and his bodily remains gibbeted dockside at London. Without a privateer’s commission, no punishment was too severe for freebooters flying the “Jolly Roger.”
Even temperate renegades had bounties on their heads, making them targets. A teetotaler and Sabbatarian, Welshman Bartholomew Roberts, or “Black Bart,” easily the most successful marauder of his day, had been an underpaid law-abiding seaman 30 years before plundering both sides of the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Salvador, capturing an estimated 400 merchant vessels. Originator of the black flag “skull and crossbones” and egalitarian pirate codes, he was an imposing figure, flamboyantly displaying conspicuous wealth, especially in combat. In the Battle of Cape Lopez (February 10, 1722) off the coast of Gabon (West Africa), Roberts, bedight in red-feathered hat, crimson damascene silks and wearing a diamond-studded cross, was the archetypal pirate. He was also a superb sailor and strategist in naval engagements. Using an approaching tropical storm to outmaneuver the Royal man-of-war HMS Swallow, Roberts 52-gun Royal Fortune, though raked by a broadside,was about to escape with hands and masts intact when the ship becalmed in the eye. That gave pursuers ample time to come about, size up the helpless vessel, and press the attack. Grapeshot from a swivel gun on the approaching Swallow’s bow tore past Black Bart’s elegant attire, gashing his throat and severing his spine.
While Robert’s death, combined with enslavement or execution of his crew, effectively marked the end of The Golden Age of Piracy, not every looter of note met their demise at ends of ropes or cutlasses. The vicious French pirate Francois l’Olonnais was burned alive and dismembered by indigenous Kuna after running his ship aground near Panama. Anne Bonny and Mary Read, captured with Calico Jack, were given stays of execution by “pleading the belly.” Spared dockside gibbets because they were pregnant, Read died of fever while imprisoned, and Bonny was eventually released, living the remainder of her life either in Nassau or Port Royal in the Caribbean. Henry “Long Ben” Every, known for his brutality had a two-year piratical career of raids in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans during the mid-1690s. His cumulative hauls, preying on trade between England and the Mughal Empire of India, were the richest plunders in history, leading to the first global manhunt in history and posted rewards by the Privy Council of England and East India Company. Still, Every remained at large, changing his name, perhaps even hiding in Britain. Long Ben was never arrested or killed in battle, and his treasure was never recovered.
As murderous and cruel as some pirates were (e.g. Edward Low and l’Olonnais in particular), England in its conflicts with Spain was not averse to green-lighting high seas picaroons to seize vessels, steal cargoes, kill and pillage as privateers. Privateers were mercenaries, operating as government-sanctioned plunderers, who were encouraged to raid enemy ships, foreign ports and settlements in exchange for keeping most of the loot. The most celebrated privateers, of course, were Sirs Francis Drake and Henry Morgan. Captain of the Golden Hind, Drake was the most famous seaman of the Elizabethan era and an accomplished explorer. He and his crew, in fact, were second to circumnavigate the globe from 1577-1580. As an English vice admiral, Drake and his naval commander cousin Jack Hawkins (both early promoters of English involvement in the Atlantic slave trade) were instrumental in defeating the Spanish Armada. Like Hawkins, Drake’s intermittent slave-trading precipitated run-ins with Spanish authorities. One such confrontation with a Spanish viceroy’s naval forces in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua nearly cost both men their lives. The incident enraged Drake with a deep hatred for the Spanish crown, resulting in a privateer’s commission from Elizabeth I. From Panama to the Pacific coast of South America, Drake raided Spanish shipping and coastal settlements throughout the Anglo-Spanish War.
Remembered as the greatest of the privateers, Henry Morgan (1635-88), another Welshman, fought the Spanish in the Caribbean with intensity comparable to Drake’s. Although he made numerous raids along the Spanish Main, his three most daring and successful were the 1668 sack of Portobello, raid of Maracaibo in 1669 and attack of Panama in 1671. Morgan amassed a huge fleet, the Brethren of the Coast, which became a scourge of Spanish sea lanes. It operated out of Port Royal, a Jamaican pirate-haven and 17th century Sodom and Gomorrah hailed “wickedest city on Earth,” where Morgan served for a time as Lieutenant Governor before buying a sugar plantation. Morgan’s gravesite and two-thirds of Port Royal eventually sank into the Caribbean after it was engulfed by an earthquake and subsequent tidal wave June 7, 1692. Barring similar natural disasters, however, as distinctions between pirate and privateer narrowed, even the most ruthless and powerful could walk away unpunished from Seven Seas crimes. A Cheung Po Tsai, who commanded 50,000 men and terrorized Guangdong province on the South China Sea, was given amnesty in 1810 to serve as a Qing dynasty naval officer. His spouse, Cheng I Sao (or Ching Shih), considered the Queen of Pirates, commanded 80,000 outlaws and 1,500 ships, beheading anyone who disobeyed her orders. She, too, was offered and accepted amnesty, only to return to former enterprises like smuggling, gambling and running a brothel.
Pirates, of course, still exist today, and the most profitable ─ Big Oil and Pharma, banks, car dealers, communications providers and insurance companies ─ hourly eclipse career hauls of Black Bart and Long Ben combined. Piratical profit margins and corsair boardrooms victimize us all. At a time when most people are buckling under rising costs for food and fuel and ravages of climate change (i.e., dangerous heat, water shortages, wildfires, flash-flooding, bad harvests and failing crops) Big Oil again made record profits, using most of this quarter’s windfall, not to recapture carbon or seal methane leaks, but to buy back stocks. On August 3rd, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres rightfully accused the oil and gas industry of “grotesque greed,” labeling them “immoral” for making outlandish profits from the energy crisis, much of it engineered, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At massive cost to the climate and poorer, hard-working communities, ExxonMobil reported $17.6 billion in profit this quarter, while Chevron was $11.4bn in the black, figures representing more than 200 percent increases for both corporations over the previous year. Shell reaped $11.5bn and BP $8.5bn. Since June, prices at the pump have dropped significantly due to the Biden administration and investigations into price-gouging by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Anthropause” reduced prices for a time by lowering demand and topping-off reserves. Gasoline prices skyrocketed, however, because U.S. oil refineries processed less oil than before the pandemic despite increasing demand. And, clearly, that premeditated gambit to raise gas prices by shrinking supply had nothing to do with Keystone XL or prohibitions against drilling in ANWR. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and other savvy congressmen, who’ve introduced the Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax, recognize highway robbery when they see it. Unfortunately, as long as we’re dependent on fossil fuels to meet the bulk of energy demands, consumers will be vulnerable to market volatility and capricious price hikes by insatiably greedy oil executives.
Banks are another proximate cause of America’s debt peonage. In the 1970s, while inflation was impacting the buying power of American families, rate ceilings of 7 1/2 percent and higher on deposit accounts encouraged thrift, prudence and saving. Richard Nixon’s influence on the Federal Reserve had a great deal to do with that. In his message to Congress on August 3, 1973, Nixon warned that events of the previous decade had “revealed significant defects in the operations of our financial institutions,” adding that “the consumer-saver was denied a fair market return on his savings” at the same time banks were sticking it to borrowers trying to meet business needs. We all know that financial institutions profit when rates on money they lend is higher than rates of interest paid to depositors. For years, however, because the Fed kept interest rates miniscule, traditional banks, no longer needing to attract depositors for money to lend, weren’t motivated to pay decent yields on savings. It’s gotten so bad many savings accounts, in addition to paying next to nothing from the start, actually pay lower rates of return for deposits exceeding $1,000. Not only should these privateers, masquerading as financial institutions, be professionally bound to fly the Jolly Roger, their practices contribute to inflation.
Usury was a crime punishable by death before capitalism’s agrarian and industrial antecedents gained footholds as economic systems in the Late Middle Ages and mid-18th century, respectively. And although debt peonage was outlawed in America in 1867, credit cards and other ways of borrowing money to purchase what consumers technically can’t afford is now an undesirable economic mainstay. Purchasing something without resources to pay for it upfront and actually own it (or at least defer payments by layaway) drives up the cost of those commodities for everyone. Buying on credit and advertising, by keeping demands artificially high and tacking-on interest charges to boot are patently inflationary, adding cost but not value to any item purchased. Inflation, after all, is reduced by decreasing demand and encouraging saving. Otherwise, prices will rise until consumers can’t pay them. Healthcare is much more expensive in the U.S. than anywhere else because Adam Smith’s free market “invisible hand” doesn’t work for medical services. Americans will pay anything for procedures and pharmaceuticals deemed necessary to prolong their lives or lives of loved ones, even to the point of personal bankruptcy. And when consumers don’t prudently wait for prices to drop, even borrowing money to pay higher and higher prices, sellers keep jacking-up fees, making everyone walk the plank. Because health insurance is privatized and profit-driven (Medicare and Medicaid being exceptions), premiums, deductibles and co-pays inevitably balloon.
Corporations are today’s privateers, preying on global trade routes the way Drake and Morgan looted the Spanish Main when France, England and Spain fought for control of 17th/18th century colonial mercantilist economies. We’ve seen what happens when boardrooms go rogue, making unconscionable profits. Ripple effects of expensive fossil fuels immediately drove up prices of food and other commodities. When acts of piracy proliferate, corporate heads should be punished. Granted, this isn’t 1718 when connotations of deterrence and justice were markedly different. But isn’t it tempting to trim the shores of Hampton Roads and Chesapeake Bay with a pole or two, adorned with some cephalic baubles?
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.