Pirates in past and present

Searching for subjects to write about on this blog and looking back at the themes I have chosen until now it might seem I prefer the sunny side of legal history. My post on the inquisition can be regarded as an exception. The question of themes is more poignant when I consider what I can write about or add to subjects like slavery, genocide, discrimination, child abuse and abuse of political power. Do these themes not also have a substantial importance for today? Is it not very justifiable to show connections between the past and the present in the field of legal history?

Just when I wanted to ponder this question in more depth I found a subject that nicely shows two sides of the same coin, the perennial attraction and fascination of a subject, and its very real importance for the world’s economy and the international legal order. Who has not been all ears and attention when reading about pirates or seeing a movie about them? Every generation finds in books and on screen its own image of the age of piracy. No doubt a lot of Dutch readers share with me the memory of Paddeltje, de scheepsjongen van Michiel de Ruijter by Johan Been, and some might remember my favourite, Pieter Straat, scheepsjongen van De Halve Maen by Anthony van Kampen. Cabin-boy Paddeltje met both the Dunkirkers and the Barbary corsairs. Pieter Straat sailed aboard the ship of a pirate captain who could have been the archetype for the Flying Dutchman. Of course the subjects of intellectual property and radio pirates could make their appearance here, but let’s stick here with the original pirates.

Digital collections and pirates

When I blogged in December about early editions of works by Hugo Grotius I mentioned De iure praedae, Grotius’ commentary on booty from 1608, however without any comment on the practice of pirates, privateers, buccaneers and filibusters nor paying attention to the fine distinctions between self-made pirates and those privateers working with letters of marque, not to mention the regional variants. The pirates of the Caribbean are a different stock than the pirates who thrived in the Channel or the Mediterranean. Doing research on them is not made easier by the way their names differ radically according to the language one speaks and reads.

Bringing texts and materials together in different languages is the great merit of the digital library on piracy trials presented by the Library of Congress. The world’s largest library has digitized not only accounts of historic trials of pirates before 1923, but also a number of juridical books on piracy and maritime law against pirates written in English, French, German and Dutch. The accounts of the trials are almost all in English. Where can one find more materials? For Dutch maritime history my thoughts turned to the project Maritiem Digitaal, a digital portal to the collection of eleven Dutch maritime museums, among them the Maritiem Museum in Rotterdam and the Nationaal Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam. I felt rather disappointed when their websites yielded only a few meagre results. However, the 2010 yearbook of the Maritiem Museum focuses on piracy, Kapers & piraten, schurken of helden?, edited by Joost Schokkenbroek and Jeroen ter Brugge (Zutphen 2010) .

The Memory of the Netherlands with over a hundred digital collections brought me at first only to the radio pirates of the sixties! Searching for kapers instead of piraten (pirates) is the easy solution to find more here. The British National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has rich holdings in books on piracy, but there are no books in their digital collections which do bring you to many interesting objects. The Europeana digital library yields better results, but clearly they stem not from institutions for maritime history. A nice harvest of images featuring pirates is to be found in the digital gallery of the New York Public Library. The online catalogue of the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum is called Corsair after Pierpont Morgan’s yacht, and this library has indeed materials concerning or mentioning pirates. The Morgan’s image database with 15,000 images from medieval and renaissance manuscripts accompanying Corsair brings you to just one medieval image of a pirate.

It is no coincidence that the imagery of pirates conveyed by images and movies succeeds in attracting my attention. The Library of Congress, too, definitively realized this when launching a three-dimensional presentation of one of the classic books on piracy, De Americaensche zee-roovers by Alexander Olivier Esquemelin (Amsterdam 1678) under the title The Buccaneers of America. The portraits of pirates in this volume are so wonderful, the accompanying translation so useful and the way of turning over the pages so enticing that I almost did not notice one does not have here a digitized version of the whole book. The presentation is part of a larger online exhibition on Exploring the Early Americas with books and objects from the Jay I. Kislak collection. More items on piracy from this collection are featured in an interesting online exhibition from 2002 at the Miami-Dade Public Library System entitled Reefs, Wrecks and Rascals: The Pirate Legacy of the Spanish Main.

The multinational digital libraries for the Caribbean might be a first port of call for digitized books on the history of pirates in this region. Alas the Digital Library of the Caribbean contains only a few titles on this subject. Manioc yields more books, and this library in French on the Caribbean, the Amazone regions and the Guyanas, cleverly searches also in the Digital Library of the Caribbean and in Gallica. My search attempts in the Réseau francophone numérique, a project of fourteen national libraries, and in the Pacific Rim Digital Library, a project in which 25 libraries around the Pacific work together, brought me only few results.

Digital archives and piracy: letters at Kew and sites for the VOC

The digital collections of archives seem to bring us closer to the history of piracy than digital libraries. At Baltic Connections you can search in the finding aids of archives with holdings on the Baltic heritage between 1450 and 1800. From the seventeenth until the nineteenth century English privateers captured many Dutch vessels, their cargoes and luggage. Part of the loot now preserved at the National Archives in Kew in the archival collection of the High Court of Admiralty are some 40,000 letters in Dutch. They form a mine of information on life at sea and on the development of the Dutch language. The project Brieven als buit (Letters as loot) at Leiden University aims at studying and publishing this collection of sailing letters in cooperation with the Dutch Royal Library. Roelof van Gelder’s report from 2005 on these letters informs you about the rich variety of sources at Kew awaiting  further exploration.

The Institute for Dutch History in The Hague has created the database Dutch Asiatic Shipping with information on more than 8,000 voyages by ships of the Dutch East India Company (abbreviated as VOC). A first search in this database brings you to the story of six voyages on which encounters with pirates happened, but here surely more can be retrieved. The Atlas of Mutual Heritage presents thousands of images on the history of the Dutch East and West India Companies, including pictures of ships. On the Tanap website one can search in VOC documents, in inventories of archival collections concerning the VOC and in documents of the Cape of Good Hope, the supply station of the VOC. More websites on the VOC are listed at the VOC site.

Digital exhibitions

Some online exhibitions merit your attention as well, and even if some of them are rather small, their quality counts. Peddlers, Privates and Prostitutes. Subaltern Histories of Southeast Asia, 1800-1900 (Cornell Southeast Asia Program and Echols Collection, Cornell University Library) brings you to a journal kept by a pirate, On the Water (Smithsonian Institution) has a section on pirates in the Atlantic world, and Spoils of War. Privateering in Nova Scotia (Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management) presents digitized log books of three privateers. Written on Water. Literature of the Sea in the Age of Sail (Lilly Library, Indiana University) presents a small section on piracy with images of the first English translation from 1684 of Esquemelins book. Bucaniers of America gave birth to the English term buccaneer. The Lilly Library has a much larger online exhibition on Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. The National Geographic has created an online exhibition with further links on the wreck of the Whydah, a ship of pirates sunk in 1717. Piraten: Die Herren der Sieben Meere is an online exhibition of the Übersee-Museum in Bremen with navigation using a treasure chart which shows this site aims mainly at children, but the information is sound.

Songs about pirates

Since letters show up already in this post, literature and music should not remain behind. The popular imagination of pirates was not only propelled by images and stories, but also by songs. In particular popular ballads featured pirates. At Revolution and Romanticism, a private collection of street literature held in Edmonton, Alberta, you can find a parody on Lord Byron’s The Corsair. The English Broadside Ballad Archive (University of California at Santa Barbara) contains ballads from the Pepys collection of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and the Roxburghe collection of the British Library; as for now I found already some ballads about pirates. I did not find yet anything relevant in the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads database. The Dutch song database of the Meertens Institute for Etnology and Folklore in Amsterdam contains at least ten items on pirates (kapers). One post cannot contain everything, so let me just remark in passing that when you search for pirates in image databases such as the one for French emblem books at Glasgow you should use the Iconclass code 44G56 to find your corsair or pirate.

Further sailing with pirates…

It’s time to end this voyage and to find harbors with more information on the history of piracy, both archival records and books. The Louisiana Digital Library attracted my attention with their records and documents on several pirates. The digital collections of the State Library of North Carolina contain among other documents a letter of marque from 1776; note also the collection of links. Stories that fired the popular imagination were printed in books with various titles commonly referred to as The Newgate Calendar. Trials of pirates supplies a nice number of piracy stories. There exists also a digitized version of a five-volume compilation of the Newgate Calendar edited in 1926, but the link to this edition at the Tarlton Law Library of the University of Texas at Austin has recently been removed, hopefully just temporarily. CityArk is a project of the Medway Council Archives Service which brings you to gifts by the Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral to victims of the Barbary corsairs in the eighteenth century.

And now piracy in the present: the Digital Library of the Combined Arms Research Library in Fort Leavenworth offers not only digitized books and reports on modern pirates, but also on the history of piracy. The International Chamber of Commerce has established a piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the International Maritime Bureau. When finishing this post it was not by chance but really fitting to find a piracy research guide at The Competitive Edge, the blog of Cornell Law Library. That post mentions books and articles, something I did not include here, and I gladly refer you to it.

Since its launch in August 2010 many blogs have mentioned the digital collection of piracy trials at the Library of Congress , but I only noticed it this week at the Dutch forum for archives maintained with such zeal by Eric Hennekam. Not every item of interest for legal history is tagged at this forum, and thus I had overlooked it. I found a book review at the Steamthing blog of Caleb Crain very interesting, also because of his well stocked blogroll. After such a long post it is good to know the Dutch television broadcasts tonight one of this century’s favorite pirate movies!

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