history as a mirror

Pirate MirrorHistory can never be a science. There is no such thing as objective history, but does that mean that all histories are equally biased?

Like any form of interpretation, historical narrative will reflect the worldview of its author. I think the best a historian can do is to make his biases explicit, and explain what theory he is applying (if any) to connect causes and effects. Even then, the narrative will tell us as much about the historian as it will about the history being narrated.

This idea of history as a mirror into which the historian casts his gaze is clear to me whenever I read any history, but it has been especially clear to me recently, as I try to learn about the "Golden Age" of pirates.

Two examples should suffice.

1. Is a privateer a pirate?

Here I think Wikipedia gets it exactly right:

A privateer is a private person or ship authorized by a government by letters of marque to attack foreign shipping during wartime.…

Historically, the distinction between a privateer and a pirate has been, practically speaking, vague, often depending on the source as to which label was correct in a particular circumstance. The actual work of a pirate and a privateer is generally the same (raiding and plundering ships); it is, therefore the authorization and perceived legality of the actions that form the distinction.

The Republic of PiratesColin Woodard, author of The Republic of Pirates sees a more clear-cut distinction. Pirates, he explains,

are distinct from privateers, individuals who in wartime plunder enemy shipping under license from their government. Some mistake Sir Francis Drake and Sir Henry Morgan for pirates, but they were, in fact, privateers, and undertook their depredations with the full support of their sovereigns, Queen Elizabeth and King Charles II.

Notice the assumption of legal positivism: the law is whatever the state says it is — a thief cannot be a thief if he has his government’s permission to steal. I wonder how Woodard would feel about state-sponsored terrorism. Would he explain that, unlike real terrorists, the IRA and the PLO had the approval and support of the Libyan government and therefore weren’t really terrorists at all?

An interesting example is the first one Woodard himself cites: Francis Drake.

Not only did Queen Elizabeth sanction his seaborne spoils with a royal letter of marque; she also invested very profitably in his piratical ventures and ultimately rewarded him with a knighthood — the ceremony performed aboard his ship, lest there be any doubt of the reason for the honor.

If anyone was a privateer, it was Sir Francis. But Spain saw things quite differently.

For one thing (and Woodard somehow fails to mention this detail), England and Spain were not at war when Drake pillaged the Spanish treasure ships. The two countries were not on entirely friendly terms. They may well have seen each other as rivals. But they were not officially enemies at the time. (Nevertheless, many English pirates targeted the Spanish for patriotic reasons. Greed plus nationalism trumps greed by itself.)

The Spanish government demanded that England punish the pirate Drake and return the stolen treasure to Spain. (Spain had earned it fair and square by plundering and enslaving the natives of the New World. I suspect they saw no irony in their righteous indignation to the English Crown.)

But whether or not libertarian property theory would recognize the stolen goods as legitimately Spanish property, Drake was clearly taking by force what did not belong to him. A letter of marque from the queen can’t change that. Even by the officially stated standards of the time, his actions against Spain were acts of war in a time of peace.

But let’s not get lost in the layers of Drake’s criminality and his queen’s complicity. If a monarch uses pirates against enemy ships, they are no less pirates for having been sent. If Woodard sees a principled distinction, he should argue for it, not just assert that such a distinction exists. I doubt he could present a principle that wouldn’t let some pretty monstrous war criminals off the hook. The best he has to offer is this:

Far from being considered outlaws, both were knighted for their services, and Morgan was appointed lieutenant governor of Jamaica.

2. Did the pirates exemplify democratic values?

The Great Ships - The Pirate Ships (History Channel) (1997)

I learned about Drake’s peacetime raids from a History Channel documentary. It was very good on the pirate-versus-privateer question (“Only a scrap of paper separated the two groups”), but at least one of the historians interviewed for the show had something very strange to say about pirates and democracy.

Above, I take issue with Colin Woodard’s treatment of the privateer question, but I’m very much enjoying his book overall, especially his revisionist thesis: while the phenomenon of piracy throughout the millennia (and continuing to this day) may be as simple to explain as any other form of banditry, there was a particular political context to the Golden Age Pirates (early 18th century). That resulted in some radical differences between the social and political structure of a naval ship and that on-board a pirate vessel. Woodard even argues that colonial Americans considered the pirates to be folk heroes and would eventually emulate their shipboard politics in the early American Republic. The popular model of the pirate captain as a tyrant and a bully, it turns out, is accurate for naval captains acting under government authority, but it is a complete misrepresentation of pirate captains, at least during this one era. During raids and in battle, the pirate captain acted with sole authority; he was the ship’s commander in chief. The rest of the time, the ship was run by policies explicitly endorsed by popular vote.

In the documentary, the History Channel’s narrator mentions the democratic structure of pirate ships, only to cut to Dr. Stuart M. Frank, Director of the Kendall Whaling Museum, saying that we shouldn’t make too much of the idea of pirate democracy.

The way pirates ran their ships “indeed [display] elements of democracy and egalitarianism and fair play,” said Dr. Frank. “But it has to be remembered that those elements went only so far as the pirate brotherhood itself. There was no such thing as the victims of piracy also being accorded the same respect and consideration.”

I was flabbergasted.

What model of democracy does he think he’s holding out for contrast with the brotherhood of pirates? What democracy has ever extended beyond its members? The idea is a contradiction.

Perhaps he has in mind some model of global universal democracy, but I somehow doubt he’d ever say, "We shouldn’t make too much of this idea of American democracy. It never extended beyond American citizens. The Iraqis were never accorded the same respect and consideration."

What Tom DiLorenzo has explained about his own interviews for these history shows is that they interview you for an hour and then use five minutes of cut-up and out-of-context sound bites , scattered through the show. Who knows what else Dr. Frank had to say about democracy, egalitarianism, and fair play? Maybe we have to pin the more-democratic-than-thou effect on the show’s editors.

But I find these two examples — the privateer question and the democracy question — to be typical in popular history. An author asserts a distinction to make sure the reader or viewer doesn’t conflate modern values with older values, but doesn’t follow through on his own logic, doesn’t apply the distinction to the uncomfortable cases to make sure it holds true outside of the immediate context.

The result is a kind of self-congratulation for the historian’s own culture or subculture, an insistence that we try to see the past through his preferred lens. What we see instead, of course, is the historian’s reflection.


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