Thursday, June 7, 2007

Privateers and Ghazis

One of the points to come out of the comments on my last post is that while the outlaw life has a certain transgressive thrill in its own right, it works much better for Romance if pirates (or outlaws of whatever sort) aren't in it just for robbery, but for some higher cause as well - getting one back at the Evil Empire, or whatever. This also goes hand in hand with giving the pirate some social standing, even respectability.

Historical precedents are not hard to find. Piracy today is alive and well, but unrelievedly squalid. Yet a couple of hundred years ago true piracy, "against all flags," was just one end of a spectrum of sea-raiding that also included corsairing, privateering, and naval commerce raiding by official warships. (Corsair today is synonymous with pirate, but there was a distinction - corsairs were more or less selective in their victims, at least in theory targeting only Christians, or Spaniards, or whomever.)

Much of the glamour of piracy is a spillover from these semilegitimate forms of sea robbery - in Howard Pyle's wonderful illustration Attack on a Galleon (1905), the galleon is obviously Spanish, with a Catholic icon on her lofty poop - superstitious Papists, the lot of 'em - while the attackers are implicitly good English Protestants. You don't need Fox's Book of Martyrs to know which side to root for here.

It wasn't always that way. The ancient world had plenty of piracy (the word pirate is from Latin, after all), but so far as I can tell it had almost none of the semi-respectable variations, such as privateering.* For that matter, it did not even have naval commerce raiding - or at least, none that our sources saw fit to mention. In Thucydides, navies fight each other, and launch shore raids, but they don't raid each other's merchant shipping. Sparta had no merchant marine, but its ally Corinth did, and on the other side Athens certainly did. It's hard for me to imagine that Athenian triremes never nabbed Corinthian merchantmen, and vice versa, but it never made the papers.

Compare this to the great age of sail. Anyone who has read their Hornblower, or Aubrey and Maturin, or Bolitho, or any of that genre, knows that prize money was a leading preoccupation of naval officers and seamen. "For even Aristotle would be moved by prize-money," says Captain Aubrey to Maturin, early on - unaware, perhaps, that Aristotle never heard of such a thing. These characters are from the annals of Romance, not history, but history bears them out. Commerce-raiding, guerre de course, was an established naval strategy, and part of its appeal was that it could largely pay for itself - if not from the actual proceeds of looting, then from the eagerness of seafarers to fit out privateers.

This contrast might be laid to technical differences between sailing ships and galleys - galleys, with large crews and small holds, could not stay at sea for long raiding cruises. Yet medieval Mediterranean seamen had no problem using galleys for commerce raiding; the Barbary corsairs got their start that way. Earlier still, when the Genoese came up short against the Venetians in fleet battles they switched to commerce raiding in the next war and won that round. The continuum from naval commerce raiding through privateering and corsairing to outright piracy can be traced back in the medieval Mediterranean till it's lost in the haze around AD 1000 or so.

I have a theory about this, worth what you paid for it: that the culture of prize-money at sea was borrowed from Islamic civilization. From early on there was a Muslim tradition of ghazis, freelance holy warriors who lived on the proceeds of raiding the infidel - really, just timeless desert raiding, but now with a gloss of respectability since it was being done in God's cause.

The Barbary corsairs were in this business, but it wasn't peculiar to them, or to Muslims - the Knights of Malta were in effect Christian corsairs robbing Muslims, and Drake and the other English sea dogs were Protestant corsairs robbing Catholics. Yet the idea of combining good old plundering with fighting for a cause had to originate somewhere, since it was absent from the ancient world, and the ghazi tradition came into play at the right time to explain the difference.

So when you go to see Pirates of the Caribbean, remember to thank the Muslims for making a pirate's life glamorous, not just nasty, brutish, and short.

Which I suspect is not the only unwitting contribution that Islamic civilization has made to the Western tradition of Romance.

* The exception to prove the rule is Sextus Pompey's resistance to the Second Triumvirate, which included a raiding war at sea till he was defeated by Marcus Agrippa in 36 BC. (Admiral, architect - a talented guy was Agrippa.) Whether anyone in the late Republic's civil wars was fighting for a higher cause is doubtful, but this is the only classical instance I know of commerce raiding for any objective beyond plunder itself.


Winchell said...

This Link has a few notes about pirate republics and pirate Utopian values.

Kedamono said...

Arr... I'd love to see someone do a music video of the Saskatchewan river pirates. :-)

But more to the point, I'd think that a Rocketpunk Space Pirate would be far more doable than a Realistic space pirate. In Rocketpunk, you can hide a spaceship by painting it black.

Would a RP space pirate have the same je ne sais quoi as pirates of the Caribbean in Romantic literature? I'd think that they would. In fact, space pirates would be far more segregated into different roles than a traditional pirate crew on board a sailing ship would be.

Technically, any pirate on the deck of a sailing ship could fill any role needed.

On a space ship, that's not the case. In fact, the roles are very segregated into the bridge crew, the gunners, the marines, the black gang running the engines, and a few able-bodied spacemen.

This would change the dynamic of how space pirate ships operate. As a member of the Black Gang, do you get just 1 share, or 2 shares, like the marines who actually board the target ship? Are these ships run democratically, or are they run more traditionally, with the captain and his bridge crew at the top of the pyramid?

(And let's not forget traditional pirate punishments: Keelhauling is always fatal, as you pass into the jets of the ship at the end of your journey along the hull, and walking the plank is a quick trip into the airlock in you birthday suit...)

Anonymous said...

I still don't see where you're going to _get_ these pirates from in space. Where's the population of able-bodied but idle space crews? Why don't they have real jobs?

I'm voting for _robot_ space pirates. And if that ain't rocketpunk enough for you, I don't know what is!


Kedamono said...

Arr, matey, they come from the same place most pirates come from: Mutinous crews, what take over their ship and what space the captain!

OK, most of them stick him in a lifepod and send him drifting to Mars, but you get the point.

Then it's off to that Tortuga of the spacelanes: Vesta! The old Vesta Mining Company, you will never find a more retched hive of scum and villiany. Pirate ships are tied up in port, while makeshift docking tubes, that are only airtight thanks to judicious use of chewing gum and duct tape, link them together.

One entire end of Vesta is dotted with greenhouses, where, under the merciful care of a small cadre of rogue horticulturists, food crops and necessary oxygen is produced. These pirate gardeners are the true masters of Vesta, without them, the rest would die slow, horrible deaths.

The Space Patrol would like nothing better than to clear out this den of thieves, but the Solar Council forbids them from doing anything of the sort. To rub salt into the Patrol's wound, a Vestan pirate sits on the council, silently thumbing his nose at them.

This sounds like a great background for adventure... Maybe I should write it up. :-)

Rick said...

Winchell - I don't know about Utopian values, but there was an element of rough-and-ready democracy in pirate ships' articles. Actually this was just a holdover from older maritime tradition, in which for example the crew had to agree to put to sea. (So much for the common belief that the captain's absolute authority was an inherent necessity of seafaring.)

Kedamono - almost all the fun stuff is easier in rocketpunk. You don't even really have to paint the ship black - the Vastness Of Space does most of the work. "Everyone sees everything" only if you have automated sky search that never gets tired or complacent as human lookouts do.

Did you leave out a word in your comment on space piracy? You seem to argue that space pirates wouldn't have the spirit of traditional Romance pirates, because of the technical demands of the job, e.g., specialized functions.

Which is really just one instance of the broader question of how much spacefaring really fits the maritime images we tend to attach to it.

Cambias - robot space pirates! Performing assigned missions, or free citizens sailing "on the account?" Presumably the latter!

Kedamono, again - yes, you should write it up. I like the gardeners, and the Vestan on the Solar Council.

Kedamono said...

Rick, I guess I am saying that. Part of the romance of being a Pirate was the fact that you could do anything, from firing a canon, climbing the rigging, to captaining the ship.

With RP pirates, if you're in the Black Gang, you will always being the Black Gang, your skills will be around making the ship move. And that's due to the choice of vehicle. A space ship, even in the RP universe, has to be run by trained and dedicated crew.

Look at modern day pirates: they don't use big boats, they use small vessels that anyone can run or fill in for anyone else. You don't find many of them running a small warship.

So, unless you have the equivalent of a skiff our dhow that anyone can pilot, you're going to have dedicated crew for the different positions aboard the ship. And they will change the dynamic of how a Space Pirate ship will operate.

Gimli said...

You are right it will be less about piracy as we know it today (and yesterday and the 1700's) and more about privateering for a lord of country.

Rick said...

Welcome to the comment threads! Nice to see an old thread suddenly come to life ... also tend to agree with your point.