This was one of my favorite scenes from The Great Muppet Caper:
I recently polled some of my students and gave them choice between a) Boredom, and b) A mild amount of physical pain, almost all of them chose the latter. This might surprise us until we ask ourselves the same question. Boredom can be excruciating, and physical pain would at least give us something on which to focus our attention.
In the poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” C.P. Cavafy describes the hustle and bustle of a city in late Rome preparing for barbarians to menace them. In the end, however, the barbarians for an unknown reason depart, leaving the people more confounded than relieved. Cavafy concludes the with,
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
Cavafy wrote this work originally in 1898, though it was not published until 1904. He speaks with a macabre prescience, for one can detect a latent nihilism in Europe at this time. Many in Europe welcomed the arrival of war in 1914 though today historians endlessly debate the cause of the war, which seems elusive. What exactly were they fighting for? Perhaps the answer is more mundane. Perhaps they preferred pain to boredom.
William Lee’s book, Blackbeard: A Reappraisal of his life and Times, raises some similar questions. His book gives some interesting detail and good stories of the notorious pirate. Lee attempted to write with precision and has an impressive bibliography of original colonial sources. But what stood out to me most was that Lee could not quite help himself but admire the man. Of course many in Blackbeard’s own day felt likewise. I blame Lee for this, but not too much. We have always had a hard time knowing what to do both physically and psychologically with men like William Thatch/Teach/something else (a.k.a., “Blackbeard”). Pirates remind us of our tenuous relationship with civilization itself. St. Augustine’s City of God and his anecdote about Alexander the Great bring this home:
Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride,What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.
As mentioned, Lee can’t quite help himself. Blackbeard obviously had a certain dash and strong leadership skills. We can admire his bloodless appropriation of supplies and medicine from the city of Charleston. When we compare life in the colonial south and the life of pirates, we find that the pirates ran their organizations far more democratically than many of the colonies. Ethnicity and religion counted neither for or against you on a pirate vessel, only achievement. Add to that, officers could be subject to votes of “no confidence” from the crew at almost any time, and indeed some captains found themselves removed in this way. We can even find ourselves winking at some of his vices, i.e., he couldn’t stop “marrying” various women in the various ports he frequented. Lee also points out that many of the stories of Blackbeard’s cruelty surely exaggerated for effect.
Blackbeard’s eventual death also raises questions on the rule of law and the nature of civilizations. Pirates essentially made the claim that, “the sea is my kingdom, the land is your kingdom. Who has the right to deny us?” What right, indeed, can anyone claim to control or rule anything? If we believe that might does not make right, does consent? There seems no ultimate reason why it should.
Blackbeard enjoyed hiding out near North and South Carolina waters for a few reasons. First, the Outer Banks area posed many hazards for bigger ships with deeper draughts. These same shallower waters and hidden inlets provided ready-made hiding places for pirates. Secondly, these colonies had less organization and money, and thus posed less of a possible military threat to Blackbeard. But eventually Governor Spotswood of Virginia had enough, and sent a fleet south secretly to do battle with Blackbeard and kill him. Their success raised legal questions about jurisdiction and the legality of force. Such questions soon quieted down, however. After all, Blackbeard was a dangerous nuisance, and Virginia had taken care of him. Just as in the case of the pirates, nothing speaks quite like success.
They had many reasons for looking the other way with Virginia’s encroachment. Blackbeard clearly possessed a streak of violence and random cruelty. He himself admitted to randomly shooting his 1st mate in the leg because, “Otherwise no one will talk about me from henceforth.” In other words, he had to keep up his reputation. No one disputes that he marooned most of his crew on one occasion in order to maximize his profits from a particular voyage. He remained a violent, unpredictable man even with Lee’s generous treatment (which I suppose goes to Lee’s credit). Of course everyone in Blackbeard’s own day knew this, and yet they had a hard time knowing what to do, despising, fearing, admiring, and possibly even envying him in equal parts.
In his Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt has an excellent treatment of the history of terrorism to begin the book. He talks about the golden age of piracy and describes that it survived so long mostly because they piggy-backed off of the prevailing political ideology of the time. In the age of absolute kings, monarchs had no real territorial limits on their claims to rule. States in that era defined power not by contiguous territory but by the extension of one’s person. After both the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), western states redefined power in terms of physically occupied territory. The earlier understanding fit the pirates perfectly–the sea has no boundaries, and the pirates could extend their power with their personal presence, just like any other king. Especially after Utrecht, this logic no longer applied and European governments had a much easier time now defining them out of existence and executing combined military action.
Bobbitt’s brilliant analysis sheds important light on the problem of piracy, but for all its insight, I don’t think it fully explains the problem.
As much as modern democracies may hate to admit it, consent-based societies have a problem when it comes to authority. We base our civilization on the idea that we consent to it via a social contract of sorts, when in fact we do no such thing. Most of us did not choose to live here, we were simply born here. And all of us, from time to time, may disagree with particular laws or whole movements of society. We lack a good rationale as to why we should go along with the crowd when we have a deep disagreement, other than perhaps, “this is better than the alternative–agreeing to disagree makes things easier and more profitable for you in the long run.” But piracy found a fairly easy way to profit far more by not agreeing to disagree. I find it curious that the golden age of piracy began just as social contract/government by consent idea started to emerge, and as mentioned above, most pirates ran their organizations more democratically than any other colony or country.
Of course piracy is not only a byproduct of the idea of consent. Piracy existed long before such ideas. My suggestion here is that the idea of the social contract may have created fertile ground for its resurgence. And this leads to perhaps the root reason for most pirates throughout time. Many have pointed out that those who are often most attracted to violence are not so much the poor, but the bored, and we can recall the fishwives of Paris in 1790 as an example of this, or the myriad of failed artists at loose ends in Weimar Germany that later comprised the bulk of Nazi party leadership. It may not be coincidence that the Roman gladiatorial games expanded dramatically at a time when Rome had no more wars to fight, either abroad or at home. Under the emperors they couldn’t even argue about politics anymore. Boredom, our failure to dwell with ourselves, perhaps even one could say, our aversion to ourselves, may lead us to take out our frustration on others.
When the holy Abba Anthony dwelled in the desert, he was beset by boredom, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts will not leave me alone. What shall I do in my affliction? How shall I be saved?
A short while afterwards, Anthony saw a man like himself, sitting at his work, then getting up again to pray, then sitting back down again to plait a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct him. “Do this and you will be saved.”
At these words Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and was saved.
– From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.