Tag Archives: Maritime law

Pronouncing the city’s law: aldermen as judges

In pre-modern European cities the aldermen were not just members of a city council charged with deciding on city policies. Creating and maintaining policy in the more pregnant sense of daily law and order was one of their prime tasks. In many cities a number of aldermen sat regularly as the city’s judges. In the past years a number of archives has created online databases to search for cases and verdicts in the records of aldermen. Outside the cities schepenen functioned within regional and manorial jurisdictions. We will meet some of them here, too. This post aims at showing you a wide variety of online search possibilities and presentations. The main focus of my post are aldermen in the Low Countries, called schepenen or in French-speaking regions échevins, I will look at seven projects. The Netherlands and Belgium will bring most of the examples adduced here, but I am sure elsewhere more can be found that would merit as much attention as the cities mentioned here.

Pronouncing the law

Curiosity to find out about recent projects for the digitization of the records of medieval and Early Modern aldermen was my first reason to starting looking for online databases and other projects. I was surprised I did not encounter quickly somewhere a list of relevant projects, or at least some links to similar projects at the websites with a particular database. Unfortunately this might suggest such projects are developed in at least relative isolation, or in the worst cases in splendid ignorance or with complete disregard of similar efforts.

The first project I would like to present concerns the records of a number of villages situated in the very heart of the Rhine and Meuse estuary. The schepenen conveyed at Tuil, the village most to the west of the contemporary province Gelderland, now a part of the municipality Neerijnen. Tuil gives the project its name, De Hoge Bank van Tuil, “The High Court of Tuil”. Nowadays we say in Dutch parlance these villages are positioned in the Rivierenland, the Rivers’ Country. Geographically it is more sensible to say they are situated in the Tielerwaard, “The March of Tiel”, between the cities of Tiel and Gorinchem.

The website for the Hoge Bank van Tuil is a project of three historians, Peter van Maanen, Gijsbert van Ton and Marco Schelling. It presents transcriptions of some 1,300 records from 1335 to 1525, from 1631 to 1637, and a number of scattered records yet to be integrated. The team has used records from several archives and printed editions. For some records the transcriptions are accompanied by images of the documents. This project aims at a reconstruction of the activities of this high court by combining data from a large variety of resources. As for now the records are not yet part of a searchable database, but they can be searched with the normal web browser search function. It is one thing to bring these materials together, but the material still needs editing before it can become the contents of a database. Exactly the preparation of this step is probably the main hindrance to tackle for further research in these regional records. Consultation with for example the Gelders Archief in Arnhem, the Regionaal Archief Rivierenland, Tiel, and the Regionaal Archief Gorinchem will surely be most helpful to start preparing a new phase for this project.

The very beginning

The Hoge Bank van Tuil came first in my post because it presents in a nutshell a number of very real questions and problems you face when you start with a project for the digitization of the records of aldermen. What period do you choose? Do you aim at a full reconstruction of archival records concerning a particular institution or jurisdiction, in this case a schepenbank? Do you restrict yourself to the records from one resource, be it records kept at an archive or records surviving sometimes only in print? Do you prepare from the start onwards for the creation of an online database, or would you like to stick with simple web pages? Sometimes you have to wait for the creation of proper archival guides and finding aids before even contemplating a project… Cities and their archival services often choose themselves for the digitization of judicial records. In the case of the Hoge Bank van Tuil three researchers decided to combine efforts for their project.

Logo Scabinatus

The project that prompted me to write about digitized verdicts of aldermen is concerned with verdicts of the échevins in Liège. The website Scabinatus 4000 was launched last autumn by the Université de Liège. The actual database contains acts from the vast series of scabinal registers kept at the Archives de l’État in Liège dating from 1409 until 1797. Some 1,750 (!) registers exist with each around 400 pages, good for some 750 acts. The registers 1 to 67 could be searched online already at a website of the Belgian National Archives, but this website with registers for the period 1409 to 1510 was last updated in 2007.

On the new Scabinatus website the registers 68 to 153 have been added, reaching now 1558. You can search for particular registers, a particular kind of acts (e.g. approbation, arbitrage, wills and witness statements), toponyms, a particular date or period, the kind of goods at stake, names, professions and social status. The website of the National Archives offered drop down lists for the kind of acts and the kind of goods. The scale of this project is clearly staggering. The functionality of the search screen is very detailed, and you are thus able to conduct all kind of searches. Comparisons in activities over long periods become here possible and fairly reliable. However, this database does not offer the complete text of acts, but only a summary with a lot of details. You will need to view the original registers for further research. This project has clear limits in time and resources which seems understandable in view of the sheer number of records to be processed.

New roads to the records of aldermen

Logo Itinera Nova

At Louvain (Leuven) the municipal record-office has combined forces with a German partner, the Universität Köln, for its joint project Itinera Nova. The city of Louvain can boast a series of 1128 scabinal registers from 1362 to 1795. The project started in 2009, and more than one million pages will be transcribed by volunteers. 255 registers are now available online, mainly for the periods 1362-1460 and 1550-1590. Knowing the difficulties sixteenth-century handwriting can pose it becomes very interesting which role the transcribing software MONK, a tool created at the university of Groningen, has played here. The MONK website presents extensive word samples from the Louvain registers. The Itinera Nova project in cooperation with the department at Cologne for Historisch-Kulturwissenschaftliche Informationsverarbeitung involves crowd-sourcing. An online tutorial helps volunteers to start transcribing pages with a basic knowledge of palaeography. On April 25 and 26, 2013, Louvain hosted an international congress with the title Itinera Nova: Tools, People & History, The blog De Digitale Archivaris [The Digital Archivist] published a series of posts in Dutch about this congress. The website of Itinera Nova can be viewed in Dutch, English and French. You can browse at will and conduct general searches, and there is an advanced search option with drop down menus. You can also restrict a search to a particular register or period. From the transcriptions you can go directly to images of the original register. Registered users can get access to the annotation screen.

One of the major assets is a search interface for annotations. Compared to the project for Liège the texts of the records seems to be the focus and very heart of the project at Louvain. The Scabinatus project allows much more the serial analysis of similar acts, but the website does not bring you to the actual records, images or transcriptions. The approach for Liège seems to have been determined by scholars, the approach at Louvain is much closer to the general public. The schepenen of Louvain served as a court of appeal for other cities following the rule of hoofdvaart. Later in this post we will meet Den Bosch, one of the cities which went to Louvain for this purpose.

Dutch projects

For those readers waiting for a regular element of my blog, commonly known as the Dutch view, I will discuss next some Dutch projects. In March 2013 the Regionaal Archief Tilburg launched the Charterbanka charter database, the result of the combined efforts of archivists and visitors of the regional archive working together in a crowdsourcing community with its own website. The Charterbank contains some 450 medieval charters mainly issued by local schepenen from Tilburg and surrounding places. The search interface has fields for place, date, record number, inventory number, and persons adding their seal. In the result view you can enjoy images of the document, read the transcription in a rather small column, consult information about the seal or seals when present, and check for relevant literature and comments. This project focuses on the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period with a regional approach. Charters until 1312 from Noord-Brabant can be found online in the Digitaal Oorkondeboek van Noord-Brabant.

At ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), commonly called Den Bosch, the regional record office, with as its current name Brabants Historisch Infomatiecentrum, has created an online database with records created by both schepenen and notaries in small towns and villages in the present-day province Noord-Brabant. With some 180,000 records the harvest seems at first rich, but only in a few cases you can study a long period, mainly for Lith and Veghel. Resolutions of the Dutch Supreme Council for Brabant, the Raad van State in The Hague, from 1629 onwards, are also present in this database. In my view they constitute a very important source, but they are in a different class, even if they deal with the villages and towns of Brabant. The Dutch description of the database emphasises the possibility to search for persons in these records. Online projects with a genealogical approach flourish at this regional record office, and I could trace many of my own ancestors using the results of these efforts, but for dealing in real depth with other records this approach is narrow. Scans of many records are available, but you will encounter many items which surely touch upon history and legal history but do not strictly concern the activities of aldermen. The useful overview of processed records and items bears witness to the wide range of records deemed fit for inclusion. However, the word genealogie (genealogy) in its URL seemed at first telling. By choosing in the left-hand menu Gescande bronnen (“Scanned resources”) you can already search directly in a number of digitized registers of schepenen, by selecting the schepenprotocollen.

Very much city-centered are the efforts at the Stadsarchief Den Bosch for the analysis of and access to the series of aldermen’s charters and registers starting with the famous Bosch’ Schepenprotocol. In this massive series running from 1360 to 1811 the schepenen of Den Bosch dealt with matters concerning voluntary jurisdiction, passing acts on the purchase and sales of real estate, probate inventories, acts concerning guardianship, etc. I must strike a harsh note: to my surprise there is here no online database. The information for a database concerning the criminal jurisdiction has been assembled in the project Dataschurk (“Data Villain”). You can download all relevant inventories, an inventory of criminal dossiers and summaries of the dossiers themselves, and there are indexes on record number and name.

Decades of painstaking research have resulted in a rich harvest of materials. The Bosch’ Schepenprotocol itself can be consulted on microfiches. It will certainly take courage to create a workable database which brings all information together and makes them accessible in a most reliable way. Luckily archivist Geertrui van Synghel can guide your research with her guide Het Bosch’ Protocol: een praktische handleiding (‘s-Hertogenbosch 1993), and her study “Actum in camera scriptorum oppidi de Buscoducis”: de stedelijke secretarie van ‘s-Hertogenbosch tot ca. 1450 (Ph.D. thesis Leiden 2006; Hilversum 2007) with a cd-rom containing 5735 scabinal charters and acts written by the city’s secretaries until 1450. The Bosch’ Schepenprotocol transcends the city borders with the letters of surety enabling the confinement of psychiatric patients, even at institutions as far away as Liège. In his comment Christian van der Ven (Den Bosch, BHIC) announces that preparations for a digital version of the Bosch’ Schepenprotocol are in a final phase.

Making choices about periods and subjects

Logo Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Last week The Guardian included the city archives of Amsterdam in a survey of Europe’s best free museums. The building of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam is surely imposing, but the reason for being featured here are the archival records kept here and the way their contents are disclosed more and more online. When I look at sources with a relation to legal history you can choose from a substantial variety of resources. The example I present here is restricted to a particular class of verdicts, those concerning “averij grosse“, general average or in German “Grosse Haverei”, cases in maritime law in which either a ship, a cargo or both had suffered unavoidable damage in emergency situations, and costs thus made or yet to be made or recovered had to be divided in an equal way [Archief van Schout en Schepenen, nos. 2806-2924, Vonnissen terzake van averij grosse, 1700-1810]. A separate chamber of the schepenen for “Assurantiën, Averijen en Zeezaken” dealt with relevant affairs.

Two splendid overviews of the history of European private law, Helmut Coing’s Europäische Privatrecht, I: Älteres Gemeines Recht (1500 bis 1800) (Munich 1985) 554-555, and Reinhard Zimmermann’s The law of obligations. Roman foundations of the civilian tradition (Oxford 1996) 406-412, provide you with basic information about the legal principles at stake, the role of the Lex Rhodia de iactu (D. 14.2.2), and references to important commentaries, including those issued in the period of the Roman-Dutch law. Zimmermann gives the date of publication of the first edition of Quintyn Weytsen’s early treatise in Dutch on general average as 1651. According to the information in the Short-Title Catalogue Netherlands this can be corrected to a first appearance in print in 1617 as an appendix to Cornelis van Nieustad’s Curiae Hollandiae, Zelandiae & West-Frisiae decisiones (…) Item een tractaet van avarien gemaeckt door Quintijn Weytsen (…) (Leiden 1617), and a first separate edition in 1631 [Een tractaet van avarien, dat is Ghemeene contributie vande koopmanschappen ende goederen inden schepe bevonden (Haarlem, 1631)].

Quintyn Weytsen (1518-1565) became a councillor in the Court of Holland only in 1559, and in 1561 and 1562 he was also charged with hearing accounts in the province of Zeeland, information easily gathered from resources such as the Dutch Biografisch Portaal and the Repertorium van ambtsdragers en ambtenaren 1468-1861 (The Hague, Huygens Instituut). Some of the later editions of his work, specifically Adriaen Verwer’s Nederlants see-rechten, avaryen, en bodemeryen (editions e.g. 1711, 1716 and 1730) contain also two ordinances concerning general average from 1551 and 1563 which no doubt prompted him to write his treatise. The lapse of half a century before a printed edition was published is remarkable. The 1617 edition gives no introduction at all for Weytsen’s text, and therefore his short text (from p. 226 onwards) might have been circulating already in manuscript – or perhaps a much read pamphlet? – long before.

The pages on general average at the website of the municipal archive of Amsterdam were launched in Autumn 2013. They offer a succinct introduction to the doctrinal side of things, and introduce you to the procedure before the bailiff and schepenenOne of the important things stated is that both the Dutch East India Company and the West India Company did not use the services of this court, because the administrators took care of freighting and transport. Statements confirmed on oath before Amsterdam notaries about cases of avarij formed the starting point of the procedure; you can find them using an index of these scheepsverklaringen (PDF), some 5,400 cases. The hint to check the Amsterdamsche Courant for its notices about shipwrecks and averages in its scheepstijdingen is most useful. You can check this newspaper in digital format at the new Delpher portal of the Dutch Royal Library. Do reckon with variant spellings such as avarieavary, avarij and averij! The suggestions to look in other record series for further information are most helpful. In the database of the Amsterdam city archives you find a digital version of the index created in 1980. The search interface allows you to search for the names of shippers and ships, harbours of depart and arrival, and dates. Two examples of cases from 1726 and 1780 help you to prepare your specific search actions. A search action leads you to further information on a particular case, often supplemented with thumbnail images of the documents.

Can I mention anything negative about this project in Amsterdam? With just two titles about general average this information is rather to short, and the reference to the article by Ivo Schöffer lacks the page numbers (pp. 73-133). Elsewhere on the website a treasure page has been dedicated to the case of the vessel St. Antonio di Padova which was attacked by pirates off La Spezia in 1704. The ship commanded by Jan Lens suffered a lot of damage during a four-hours fight. Repairs were made in Genua. The page shows a part of the notarial statement on this case. Somehow the section on general average does not link directly to this showcase, the only relevant page translated completely into English. In view of the international standing and importance of this archive the maIn point to criticize is alas the absence of a page-to-page translation into English of its marvellous website. The Amsterdam city archives ask people to pay for full-scale images of scanned documents, but before deploring this you must realize they offer a very rapid scanning on demand service.

Different situations, different approaches

In many fields awards and prizes are given yearly for the best project. Is it possible and sensible to do this for this group of six random picked projects? In a bird’s-eye view we saw:

  • transcriptions from the Rivierenland in the Hoge Bank van Tuil
  • large-scale indices and an analytical approach in the Scabinatus 4000 project for Liège,
  • crowdsourcing, transcriptions and images, with even an annotation tool for Itinera Nova at Louvain
  • images and transcriptions of charters at Tilburg
  • indexes for both scabinal and notarial registers, and a growing number of scanned registers for the province of Noord-Brabant
  • inventories, indexes and finding aids concerning the wide judicial functions of the schepenen of Den Bosch – with a printed guide and a cd-rom of the earliest records but without a database -
  • finally the verdicts from Amsterdam concerning maritime law from a distinct period, with an online searchable index and scanned images which have to be paid for.

If you put these seven projects into a grid you can probably more easier see which qualities they share or lack. What makes these projects successful or not? I cannot predict what visitors of these websites will want to know nor what they would like to have at hand on the screen of their computer or tablet. Some researchers might want to start making grand analyses as quickly as possible and therefore applaud transcriptions and online indices, others prefer painstaking transcriptions of the originals or of images provided by an archive. The pioneers for the Rivierenland have not yet reached the phase of building a database. One archive, the city archive at Den Bosch, does not provide a database, and I suppose this is a policy decision, because so much energy has already been put into the resources in question during more than twenty years. For other cities printed critical editions of the verdicts of schepenen exist, and thus the need for an online database might be less urgent.

Even though this is a rather long post I still feel I have treated all projects presented here rather briefly. It is wise not to judge their qualities too quickly! A stronger objection is the choice of examples which is very much personal, but at least also for a part guided by the lack of an easy overview of relevant digitization projects for this particular kind of resource. I would not feel ashamed if this post serves as a stepping stone for more and better.

A postcript

In his comment Christian van der Ven of the BHIC at Den Bosch stresses the actual cooperation of Dutch archives for this kind of projects. I have taken over his factual corrections, and the important information about online access to a number of registers of schepenen already avaiable now at the BHIC, and the appearance of the Bosch’ Schepenprotocol in digital form in the near future.

Sailing letters, the sequel

Logo Sailing Letters

A year ago I wrote two posts about the history of pirates both from Antiquity onwards and nowadays. One of the projects related to the history of piracy I mentioned briefly in 2011 is the joint project Sailing letters: letters as loot of the Dutch Royal Library, the Dutch National Archives, the National Archives at Kew and Leiden University. Last year the Dutch television made a series of documentaries about these letters which were detected thirty years ago in the archives of the High Court of Admiralty. On Thursday April 5, 2012, the Dutch KRO television started a second series featuring stories around selected letters, called Surfaced letters (“Brieven boven water”) (TV 2, 20.25 h.). The new series is worth attention. As a matter of fact some links in my 2011 post have changed, and this is an opportunity, too, to present the new links, and to expand on this international research project.

An unexpected letter collection

Britain and the Dutch Republic fought a number of wars during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. English privateers got letters of marque, licences from the High Court of Admiralty to capture Dutch vessels and everything aboard. The American War of Independence was another pretext for this looting activity. The High Court of Admiralty, more specifically its Prize Court, had to judge whether the capture had been done rightfully. Appeals from this court were heard by the High Court of Appeal for Prizes. The privateers were especially keen on getting log books and letters with information that might be of use to fight the Dutch enemy. The National Archives have created a fine research guide to the materials held in the archives of the High Court of Admiralty, including a very useful glossary of selected terms.

After the verdict on the cases the letters remained with the High Court of Admiralty, where some 38,000 letters gathered dust. A scholar in the field of maritime history detected the collection in the early eighties. In 2005 Roelof van Gelder started making an inventory of the letters. His report from 2005 – with a summary in English – has vanished from the Royal Library’s website, but can now be found at the website of the Dutch National Archives. Van Gelder published the book Zeepost: nooit bezorgde brieven uit de 17de en 18de eeuw [Seapost. Undelivered letters from the 17th and 18th century] (Amsterdam 2008; third edition, 2010) with a general introduction to the letters and a number of letters (in modified Dutch). The progress of the project and news are documented in the Nieuwsbrief Sailing Letters.

15,000 letters deal with private matters, and in particular these letters are used by the project team to study the development of the Dutch language, and to get a much more detailed insight into the language used by ordinary people. On the project website – both in Dutch and English – every month a letter is put in the spotlight. A number of books have appeared with either letters around a particular theme or studied from a specific angle. At Leiden a webpage of the project contains an overview of these publications. The National Archives in The Hague have put together a more recent list of relevant literature.You might check for more in the Digital Bibliography for Dutch History. The database for the sailing letters has recently moved from a server at the Dutch Royal Library to a server at the Dutch National Archives, in The Hague literally located next door to each other. A selection of remarkable letters is presented and commented on online.

A television series around captivating letters

Both series by KRO television are presented by Derk Bolt, in my country known as the anchorman of a very successful program in which he helps people to find lost relatives and relations. Almost inevitably something of the somewhat romantic – at its worst sometimes outright melodramatic – atmosphere of that program is present in both historical series, too. This is reinforced by the choice in the program to try to deliver the letters to present-day relatives of the original letter writers or addressees, and to trace their lives. The main objective seems certainly to bring in a way a historical version of the contemporary program. However, it is to the credit of Derk Bolt that he remains as calm and clear as ever. The drama is in the eyes and mind of the public. If you have missed the two installments of the 2011 series or the new series, you can view them at the KRO’s special website for the program.

In the first installment of the 2011 series the very discovery of the letters in 1980 by S.P.W.C. (Sipke) Braunius is briefly narrated. Braunius did research on the history of corporal punishments as a part of maritime law. Looking for documentation about the cruel punishment of keelhauling on Dutch navy vessels he went to the Ashridge Estate near London, where he found an immense unordered mass of letters, some of them damaged but for the most part still unopened. A few years later this find was transferred to the National Archives. Thus a legal historian was responsible for finding materials which are viewed mainly as the dream of linguists, a centuries spanning corpus of primary materials for the colloquial use of a language.

It is clear the letters shed lots of unexpected light on daily life from the second half of the seventeenth century until the end of the eighteenth century, but it is also possible to combine them with the records about the captured vessels. The detective work needed to accomplish studies using both these letters and the fate of the ships, their crews and cargos is surely a challenge, but it is so much more rewarding than viewing them only as a source only of interest for linguists and genealogists. They are right to rejoice about this massive collection, but others have every chance to get their rewards from the use of these sources.

Legal historians wanting to go this path will have to make themselves familiar with maritime law and history, and to find the way in the particular journals and monographs of these disciplines. I will not try here to present a guide to Dutch maritime law in a nutshell, but the least I can do is point you to the online catalogue of the materials in eleven Dutch maritime museums at Maritiem Digitaal. At this portal you will also find links to three blogs on maritime history. The links selection on this website with an interface in Dutch, English, French or German is very generous.

A postscript

On April 12, 2012, the second installment of the new television series did redress the balance a bit between the focus on genealogy and the context of the people at sea. The second part of this installment featured the story of Martinus Bruno, crew member of the ship Het Wapen van Hoorn, whose deposition in 1672 for the High Court of Admiralty was commented upon by Anne Goldgar (King’s College London). Bruno stayed in England. The second tv series consists of six installments (Thursday, Nederland 2, 20.25 h.).

A second postscript

On October 8, 2012 the Meertens Institute for Dutch Ethnology (Amsterdam) launches the website Gekaapte brieven, www.gekaaptebrieven.nl (Looted Letters) with a few thousand transcribed letters. Dr. Nicoline van der Sijs, a renown linguist, has guided 110 volunteers in transcribing the letters. The online database and images will also facilitate research for legal historians. Interestingly, not only letters in Dutch will be published online. Letters in English, German, Danish, Spanish and Italian are announced as well.

Pirates, a sequel

You could have placed a bet on it: a post on pirates mentioning pirate movies inevitably will get a sequel! Just creating a postscript to last week’s post would have been a possibilty but for the length of that post. Here I offer only some additions to restore a certain imbalance and to bring some information about a few obvious gaps.

  • Esquemelins De Americaensche zee-roovers (Amsterdam 1678), the first edition in Dutch of this classic book, can be consulted online at the library of the University of Virginia.
  • Spanish resources were scarcely mentioned in my post. Using for instance the Hispana portal to digitized sources from the Spanish cultural heritage brings already substantial results. Old and modern books on pirates are abundantly present in the Biblioteca Digital Hispánica of the Biblioteca Nacional de España.
  • Pirates have different names in European languages. In English one encounters for example privateers, buccaneers, filibusters and pirates. Germans write about Piraten and Kaperei. The Barbary corsairs are in German Rifpiraten. The French words corsaire and piraterie come as no surprise. The Dutch word kaper stands also for a kind of cap, a rather different thing. When searching in the Memory of the Netherlands you will meet both kind of kapers. You will find these caps also in the database for Dutch probate inventories between 1600 and 1900 of the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam.
  • I did not at all mention pirates in classical Antiquity. Fik Meijer, not only a renown historian of antiquity but also a maritime archaeologist and an avid diver, writes in De Middellandse Zee. Een persoonlijke geschiedenis [The Mediterranean, a personal history] (Amsterdam 2010) also about piracy. Meijer is also one of the editors of the 2010 exhibition catalogue Sail Rome! De koopvaardij in de Romeinse tijd [Sail Rome! Naval commerce in Roman times] of the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. Medieval images of ancient pirates, in fact medieval views of pirates, are for example present in manuscripts at the Dutch Royal Library and the Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum, both in The Hague. Their combined image database can be searched using Iconclass. You will find for example an image in a manuscript with Plutarch’s life of Pompey. Manuscripts of both institutions can also be seen at a second manuscript website.

Writing about illuminated manuscripts and their digital presence  is tempting, but you can find wonderful online guides to them. Clearly much more can be said about pirates: more is present online, more can be found in print, but let’s leave the pirates for today. Good luck in following the traces of pirates in history!

A postscript

Karen Tani points at the Legal History Blog to a review by Bruce Buchan of several recent books on law and empire, among them Daniel Heller-Roazen, The Enemy of All: Piracy and the Law of Nations (New York 2009).

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!