While selfish gain had much to do with going on the account, it was rarely as simple as to get rich. There were more compelling factors that lead men to piracy.
Turning pirate might be seen as the lesser evil or a means to freedom. People rarely rose above their caste. Individual freedom and human rights did not exist and justice was not universal nor always fair. Most people in Western Europe, whether rural or urban, lived in extreme poverty. Hard work didn’t equal high wages and jobs were scarce, especially for those without a skill or education. Good people were forced to become thieves to survive. Many turned to the docks for better employment opportunities.
Signing on to work a merchant ship brought wages and men might learn a trade, such as carpentry, at sea that could give them greater chances for employment on land. Unfortunately, conditions at sea were harsh and pay not guaranteed. Men worked excessively long hours on under-crewed ships and were often cheated by unscrupulous merchants should voyages not be profitable enough.
Joining the navy wasn’t much better. In fact, it could have very well been worse, even if enlisting kept a man out of debtor’s prison. Just as with most ships, conditions on board were brutal and wages might not ever be paid. The British Royal Navy had difficulty finding willing men to recruit and had established the Impress Service. This organization was little more than a gang of rough and tough wharf laborers authorized to forcibly press men into navy service. Scores of men and boys were kidnapped, tricked, beaten, shackled and dragged, and otherwise press-ganged, onto naval ships. No able-bodied male was safe. Not even in their own homes. Not even the men that made up the Impress Service.
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Pirates, for the most part, offered a democracy, equal pay, revolving work hours, fair judgment and punishment, workmen’s compensation for injuries, and a voice. It did not matter the class, race, religion, they were treated the same. This gave men freedom that they probably wouldn’t have had otherwise, on land or sea. And freedom is a powerful reason.
Some pirates started out as lawful pirates called privateers. These men were commissioned by their governments (with letters of marque) to attack enemy ships or ports during times of war and shared the gains with their investors. But war between any given nation was sporadic. If news of peace hadn’t reached a privateer, an attack on an enemy that had suddenly become an ally would mean an act of piracy. At any rate, if the profits were good, privateers would have been hard to persuade back into legitimate commerce. One such famous captain who had been a privateer accused of piratical deeds was Captain Kidd. Kidd was captured, tried, found guilty of piracy, and hung.
[Side note. Becoming a pirate wasn’t always a choice. As an example, some men were forced to join the crew, and usually for their skill. Carpenters, navigators, and surgeons were among the experienced spared and/or snatched off an overtaken ship.]
No, the allure of piracy wasn’t always for fortune, but of circumstance or a way out of oppression.
Pirate Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart, said it best.
For I have dipped my hands in muddied waters, and, withdrawing them, find 'tis better to be a commander than a common man.
He also said:
In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto.
About the Author
Jennifer Bray-Weber is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.