Tag Archives: Piracy

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!