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Piracy: More Politics Than Buried Treasure

March 11, 1987|NANCY REED | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — Plundering pirates who pursued loot in exotic locales have survived as legends in books, movies and fast-food stores. The long-dead marauders once free to strike fear into merchant mariners' hearts now fuel the romance of lawless adventure.

The romantic notion dies hard, but according to historian and author Robert (Roy) Ritchie, there is no buried treasure, and the life of a pirate was more grim than glamorous. As he explains in his book, "Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates," the idea of burying booty on a tropical island would have seemed lunatic to men interested in quick money.

Ritchie, a professor of history at UC San Diego, debunks pirate myths in the book.

Using Kidd as a vehicle, Ritchie tells readers about daily life as a buccaneer, the transformation of the European world economy in the 17th and early 18th centuries, and the political machinations that both supported and crushed the golden era of piracy.

"I try to capture what it was really like to go on a voyage to the Indian Ocean, to live in Madagascar for six months," he said. "I think the reality of it is much more fascinating. It is a book about ordinary people who for some part of their life led a fabulous career in a risky operation."

Although some pirates chose the high seas to escape conventional society, an equal number of men embarked on voyages to earn money before returning home to their wives and children.

Their lives were fraught with pestilence, disease, malnourishment and the threat of dismemberment by violent marauders. And they worked under the rule of "no prey, no pay."

"Life was conducted at a very desperate edge," Ritchie said.

Overcrowding on departing voyages bred lice and depleted supplies. Contrary winds often steered ships away from towns ripe for plunder, or worse yet, the winds were fair, but hostile ports prevented their landing.

Placing many men on relatively small ships creates problems. "You can only store so many supplies," Ritchie said.

Yet the overcrowding was intentional. The marauders often relied on the element of surprise and the power of numbers to overwhelm their victims.

"In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were cannons that could seriously cripple a ship, but they were big and expensive," Ritchie said. "You were not going to rely on cannon fire for a capture. Ultimately, you put men on the deck. They would scare the other ship with sheer numbers, screaming bloody murder and telling what they were going to do when they got their hands on you."

In some cases, a ship would arrive at its destination with only a handful of men. "There were ships that sailed from Holland to the Cape of Good Hope loaded with 180 men, and only four were available to handle the sails when they got there," Ritchie said.

The legend of the empty ghost ship was actually a case of poor health care.

"You have a lot of humanity packed in one place," he said. "You have insect crud, scurvy, tropical fevers and epidemics. Ships totally without a live person on them were ships swept by a very powerful disease. The sick couldn't get any help."

Ritchie also explores the social and political makeup of the pirate community. Despite the extreme hardship, organization existed to keep each seagoing venture afloat. "They were floating democracies. They had workmen's compensation," Ritchie said.

Kidd survived the high mortality rate of the high seas but wound up a political pawn who was executed for his exploits.

"Kidd is a very interesting vehicle for talking about the phenomenon of piracy and the politics of empire, and how a little man gets caught up in a big machine and gets crushed by it," the author said.

"Kidd gets a commission from patrons to go out and attack pirates. Then he becomes one. He hopes to make a quick killing in the Indian Ocean and come back home before anyone knows anything about it."

He thought he was protected by powerful politicians.

"The problem is, his patrons were losing power, and he becomes a club with which their opponents can beat them over the head," Ritchie said.

Relying on exhaustive research, Ritchie charts the life of Kidd, the politics of Whigs and Tories in London, and the New York mercantile community that flourished during the era.

"There have been a lot of books written about Kidd, and one theme is that Kidd was a victim. Yes, he was, but the fact of the matter is, he was a pirate. Let's not shilly-shally around here. The guy was guilty," Ritchie said.

"I feel sorry for him--he was put in a squeeze, and at his trial there was evidence that was kept from his defense."

Ritchie first came across references to Kidd when he was researching his doctoral thesis and his first book, "The Duke's Province: the Study of New York Society in Politics," in London nearly 20 years ago. Later references to pirates led him to the Kidd book, which Ritchie said is a good deal "sexier" than his first. It was published in November and was the Editor's Choice of the History Book Club in December.

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