The island of Sicily was conquered and settled by Muslim invaders from North Africa in the ninth century and was reconquered by the Normans of southern Italy in the period 1061-1091. Thereafter the island and various mainland territories came to form a kingdom that became one of the major powers in the Mediterranean region.
The Norman conquest was led by Robert Guiscard, duke of Apulia and Calabria, and his younger brother Roger. While Robert’s participation was important in securing the northeastern part of the island (1061-1062) and Palermo (1072), the conquest was largely conducted by Count Roger, and rule over the island was left in his hands.
Certain features of the conquest foreshadowed the First Crusade: there was sporadic papal encouragement, and contemporary chroniclers stress that this was a holy war on behalf of Christendom. Yet while Pope Gregory VII suggested to Count Roger (in 1076) that he “should seek to spread the worship of the Christian name amongst the pagans” [The Register of Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1083, trans. H. E. J. Cowdrey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 193], in practice many towns surrendered on terms that included the maintenance of Islamic worship and law, and the majority of the island’s population remained Muslim until the late twelfth century. Roger I created six Latin bishoprics and founded a number of both Latin- and Greek-rite monasteries, but Christian immigration was slow (and largely went into the east of the island), and conversion slower. Western Sicily remained largely Muslim until the 1230s, when Frederick II transferred many of the remaining Muslims to northern Apulia.
Detail of the mosaic with Roger II receiving the crown by Christ, Martorana, Palermo. The mosaic carries an inscription Rogerios Rex
The kingdom played little part in the early crusades to the Holy Land. Roger II, count (1105-1130) and then first king of Sicily (1130-1154), was primarily concerned with consolidating his new kingdom, particularly his rule over the southern Italian mainland. Once this had been achieved (by 1140), his forces conducted campaigns against Muslim North Africa (especially in 1146-1148) and Byzantium. Garrisons were established in several coastal cities in Africa, notably Mahdia (mod. al-Mahdiya, Tunisia), Tripoli (mod. Ṭarābulus, Libya), Gabes, and Sfax, but while attempts were made to attract Christian immigrants, the primary purpose of these conquests was to control the lucrative trade between Africa and Sicily. Given its involvement in these operations, the kingdom was unlikely to have resources to spare for involvement in the Levant. In addition, there were cordial diplomatic exchanges between Roger’s court and the Fatimids of Egypt, and indeed the reorganization of the Sicilian administration in the 1140s drew on Fatimid practice.
While there had been a substantial southern Italian involvement in the First Crusade, thereafter interest in the Holy Land appears to have waned. Roger II’s relations with the rulers of Outremer were poor. The marriage of his mother, Adelaide, to Baldwin I of Jerusalem in 1113 and Baldwin’s subsequent repudiation of her left Roger, according to the chronicler William of Tyre, with a mortal hatred against the kingdom of Jerusalem. His unsuccessful claims to succeed his cousin Bohemund II of Antioch after 1130 meant that his relations with that principality were equally hostile. Furthermore, his attacks on the Byzantine Empire in 1147-1148 also contributed to the failure of the Second Crusade in the East.
The Apulian ports, especially Bari, Brindisi, and Otranto, as well as Messina on Sicily, were key embarkation points for pilgrims to the Holy Land, but few southern Italians went there themselves. After a first flush of enthusiasm following the First Crusade, endowments to Holy Land churches in the kingdom of Sicily were relatively few, although the Church of St. Mary of the Latins at Jerusalem did have a wealthy dependency at Agira on the island of Sicily. The military orders established themselves in the kingdom relatively late and (at least at first) on a limited scale. The Order of the Hospital (of St. John) had established separate provinces for Sicily and Apulia by about 1170, but the Templars only established a local organization within the kingdom between 1184 and 1196. The kings offered protection to them and to some of the churches of Outremer, but little material endowment. During the reign of William I (1154-1166) revolts and internal dissension within the kingdom as well as the continued threat of attack from the hostile German Empire contributed to the loss of the Sicilian colonies in North Africa to the Almohads in 1158-1160.
It was only under King William II (1166-1189) that the kingdom started to take a more active part in the crusading movement. An alliance was concluded with King Amalric of Jerusalem to carry out a joint attack on Egypt, although after Amalric’s death (1174) the Jerusalemite expedition was abandoned and the Sicilians, forced to make the attempt alone, were defeated. The Sicilian fleet also attacked the Muslim- held Balearic Islands in 1182, primarily in response to Muslim piracy. However, Sicilian attention was then diverted once more toward Byzantium; a major invasion was launched in 1185 but miscarried, despite the capture of Thessalonica. This attack may well have contributed to the decision of the Byzantine emperor, Isaac II Angelos, to conclude an alliance with Saladin. However, the collapse of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187 revived interest in the fate of Outremer, and because of its geographical position and its powerful navy, Sicily was able to provide more immediate help to the embattled states in Outremer than other western kingdoms could. The Sicilian fleet (under Margaritus of Brindisi) played a crucial role in supplying and reinforcing the cities of Tyre (mod. Sour, Lebanon), Tripoli (mod. Ṭarābulus, Lebanon), and Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) in 1187-1188.
The Suppression of Piracy in the East Indies and the South China Sea, 1855–69
As trade between Europe and the Far East developed, so did piracy, on a scale that dwarfed the activities of the Caribbean buccaneers of the previous century. It has been suggested that the pirates of the East Indies, now Malaysia and Indonesia, and of the South China Sea, were simply fishermen impelled by hardship to seek a dishonest living. An examination of the facts, unfortunately, suggests that fishing was a last resort when their activities brought commerce to a standstill. The truth was that in both areas pirates operated in fleets large enough to intimidate the local authorities and were just as much a menace to their own people as they were to European traders.
In the East Indies the pirates’ favourite vessel was the rakish flying-prahu, 50 feet long and with a 14-foot beam. The prahu had a high poop and a long bowsprit, and was steered by two oars, one on each quarter. The bipod mast, mounted well forward, carried a jib and a lug-lateen mainsail, with a similar but smaller sail being carried by a mizzen. Usually, one or two heavy swivel guns were mounted fore- and-aft. While this does not seem particularly dangerous, the prahu was the fastest thing afloat and, acting with others in a pack, could easily run down a merchant vessel or escape from a pursuing warship. The pirates of the Indies were a notably savage lot who would willingly slaughter everyone aboard any vessel that offered the slightest resistance, regardless of age or sex.
Small wonder, then, that the appearance of prahu sails struck terror into every merchantman sailing the waters of the Indies. The Dutch, having extensive possessions in the area, strove to contain the menace, as did the Sea Service of the Honourable East India Company in its time, and, of course, the Royal Navy. The pirates quickly learned that even if they felt strong enough to challenge small warships their prahus were soon knocked to pieces by the dozen, with heavy loss of life, so they avoided direct contact as much as possible. The difficulty lay in getting at them, for their lairs lay in fortified villages up rivers too shallow for conventional warships to navigate. Naval landing parties therefore had to proceed upstream in the pulling boats, being sniped at from the jungle-covered banks the while, and sometimes being treated to a dose of grape or langridge from a cannon sited in a cleared fire-lane. As they approached the village, they might find the channel closed with piles and have to proceed on foot. Finally, they would have to storm the stockades of the village itself, supported by nothing heavier than the boat guns. This could involve heavy hand-to-hand fighting against invariably superior numbers. Generally, however, the pirates, more used to butchering helpless victims than confronting disciplined aggression, disliked the experience and took to their heels. Their village was then burned, as were their prahus, and their guns were taken out to sea and dropped into deep water, beyond hope of recovery.
While such punitive raids would put a pirate community out of business for a considerable time, other communities would gladly cash in on the vacuum so created, until they in turn were neutralised. Furthermore, it was inevitable that the landing parties would incur unwelcome casualties. However, the arrival of Crimean gunboats in the area accelerated the rate at which law and order could be imposed, as they could not only proceed further up rivers than conventional warships, but their impressive firepower often broke the enemy’s will before the landing parties could launch their attack.
As might be expected, piracy in the South China Sea was even more of a menace and much better organised. It was, in fact, very big business with long-term financial strategies and entire fleets at its disposal. During the early years of the 19th century a widow named Ching Shih became the most powerful pirate leader ever, having at her disposal no less than 800 junks, about 1000 smaller craft and some 70,000 men, organised efficiently into six squadrons which operated in designated areas. She was quite beyond Imperial control, any naval mandarin who fell into her hands being roasted alive or treated to the Death of One Thousand Cuts. In due course her squadron commanders fell out and came to blows. One, having offered himself and his ships to the Imperial government, was rewarded with the rank of naval mandarin. Others, including Ching Shih, seeing which way the wind was blowing, did likewise, until all the more prominent pirates became nominal members of the Imperial Navy.
That did not mean the end of piracy. Ching Shih’s fleet had simply outgrown itself to the point that it could no longer be sustained with adequate plunder or even sufficient rations. Thereafter, pirates continued to operate in smaller, more manageable numbers. Unlike their brethren in the East Indies, who sought immediate gain, the Chinese preferred to maintain the flow of commerce, charging junk owners protection money or impounding ships, cargoes and important passengers until they were ransomed. The difficulty facing the Royal Navy was that, initially at least, it was unable to engage even the most obvious pirate junk unless it was caught in the act of interfering with British shipping; nor could it mount punitive raids into sovereign Chinese territory in time of peace, despite the wishes of the local population and the mandarins’ inability or deliberate reluctance to tackle the problem themselves. The despatch of Commander E. W. Vansittart of the sloop Bittern, written off the mouth of the River Min on 1 March 1855, illustrates the point perfectly:
The neighbourhood seems infested with pirates; miserably poor boats followed the brig begging assistance; one village sent me a well drawn up petition; another a present of waste paper and joss sticks; fishermen, and passage boats, small traders, all telling the same pitiable story. Landing on Hootow, I was quickly surrounded by peasantry. Desiring the interpreter to ask them why so many fine looking fellows permitted strangers to molest them, they declared it was useless to resist pirates, and so whenever pirates came they, the villagers, ‘hid themselves and cried’. I could not offer any direct support, but trust good may arise indirectly. At various points along the coast we sighted small knots of piratical craft, but without information against them of their interference with our Flag, I could not act.
Having run up the river to within eight miles of the city of Wanchow, I learnt that a portion of the West Coast Pirate Squadron that had detained the English schooner Zephyr was still higher up. I detached the Second Lieutenant with four boats and a strong party to push past them with the flood tide in the grey of the morning, bringing them between the boats and the ship until I communicated with the mandarins. This was fortunate (as) the pirates were thrown off their guard although found with guns crammed and matches lighted. Three were captured without resistance; two escaped inland (i.e. up-river); the five or six others had put to sea shortly before our arrival. The Chief and many of the crews got away, but the 64 remaining Canton men were secured and will be delivered up to the authorities here. The Toutai and Chinese admiral at Wanchow were evidently so powerless that it appeared useless to remonstrate on the permitted outrage against a British vessel almost under their walls, but I thought it well to bring the point forward and was met with pretty sayings and civilities. They informed me that they had lately entered into engagements with these very pirates, on which I offered to hand them over. This the mandarins declined, saying it would be better to carry them to Foochow, and thanked me for taking them.
Given the Imperial authorities’ apparent impotence, much of which can be attributed to piratical threats or bribes, it is hardly surprising that warship captains, free from immediate political restraint, began to take the law into their own hands. On 20 October 1858 Admiral Seymour received the following despatch from Captain Nicholas Vansittart of the Magicienne, following her return to Hong Kong:
I have the honour to inform your Excellency that I arrived at the port and anchored off the town of Swatow in HM ship under my command, on the 13th inst, finding there HMS Fury. Commander Leckie having informed me that he was in communication with the Chinese authorities, with Mr Barton, Agent to Messrs Dent, and Mr Sullivan, Agent to Messrs Jardine & Matheson, concerning 2200 bags of sugar that had been piratically seized on or about the 21st ult from the English brig Pantaloon by a large force from the town of Sow-ah-pow, a well-known piratical town some miles up the narrow channel on the opposite side of the town of Swatow, I requested Commander Leckie (as I was under medical treatment) to continue his inquiries and exertions towards the recovery of the sugar and that I would remain there in case it should be necessary to use force.
On the 15th inst the mandarin of the village near Sow-ah-pow having informed Commander Leckie that the pirates refused to give up the sugar and that he was unable to force them, on the next morning the 16th inst, the Marines and boats of this ship, with those of the Fury, started soon after daylight for Sow-ah-pow, but, although I went myself, I left command of the expedition under Commander Leckie as originally arranged.
Upon our arriving off Sow-ah-pow shortly after 8 a.m., not only was there no mandarin to receive us (information having been given that the boats were coming up to inquire into the transaction), but many hundreds of men, armed chiefly with matchlocks and some gingals, had come down near the water at Sow-ah-pow, which was 1200 yards inland, the men all in good position on the heights, under the lee of the dikes of the water courses, and in among the sugar cane. They immediately opened fire on us and jeered us to come on. The boats returning the fire for some minutes, orders were given by Commander Leckie for the Marines and a party of seamen to land, when the pirates kept up a continual fire, retreating and taking up other positions as they went.
Having taken possession of the heights, the other positions, and advanced to within 50 yards of the town, driving the enemy before us into the said place, Commander Leckie, Messrs Barton and Sullivan and also myself were of the opinion that a good bombardment, from the boats, would be more advisable and more likely to be the means of recovering the sugar than if we went in and set fire to the town. Orders were sent down to that effect, the force that was landing taking up a commanding position at 100 yards from the town. The bombardment was most successful, the shell firing from the boats being perfect, as was also the rocket practice. Another letter having been forwarded to demand the sugar, stating that if they still refused, a second visit would be paid and the town not spared, the expedition returned to their respective ships the same afternoon. The casualties on our side were two severely wounded, both belonging to HMS Magicienne.
Having remained at anchor off Swatow, until their answer should arrive, which I am happy to say is to the effect that they are willing to hand over the sugar and come to any settlement, I left the said anchorage on the 19th inst, leaving the further arrangements to Commander Leckie.
It took the British authorities in Hong Kong some time to discover that the proximate cause of much piratical activity lay right under their noses. One of the biggest of the Mr Bigs in the business ran a successful barber’s shop in the mercantile quarter of the city. There he picked up information regarding the sailings of valuable cargoes and their destinations, which he supplied to the pirates at a price. Other sources of income included protection, extortion and blackmail. It was difficult for Europeans to penetrate the local community, and informers from the latter, if discovered, received short shrift from the triads, the Chinese secret societies that existed to protect and advance sectional interests. To some extent, British registered shipping could be protected by sailing in escorted convoys, although the Royal Navy could not be everywhere at once. The pirate barber, however, was playing a dangerous game in which it was inevitable that he made enemies, and in due course he was obliged to leave the colony for the good of his health.
Rear Admiral Hope relieved Seymour in April 1859 and on 11 March of that year issued an order for a sweep against the pirates. The results of this were recorded by the senior officer involved, Captain Colville of the Niger, in his despatch of 16 March:
Acting on information received at Macao, the whole of the 12th inst was spent in searching for a fleet of piratical vessels cruising in the vicinity of the Tang Rocks, but failing to discover them I weighed towards evening and anchored late off Koolan, with the intention of visiting Tsu-chung, under whose batteries a formidable fleet of piratical junks was known to be lying, the depredators of several valuable cargoes, an owner and Master of two of the captured junks acting as pilots under the able and effective assistance of Mr Caldwell, Register-General.
Accordingly, at seven on the morning of the 13th, I proceeded with the boats in tow of the gunboats Clown and Janus and after a run of 14 miles came within sight of a large flotilla of heavily armed junks and row-boats hauled under the protection of what we subsequently discovered to be regular defences consisting of a water stockade with a double ditch and high stockaded embankment armed with 36 guns protecting the whole sea face of and flanks of Tsu-chung.
Directing Lieutenant Wells in the ten-oared cutter to examine a suspicious junk to windward whilst the Janus overhauled two others to leeward, I took the remaining boats directly in towards the central force of junks, leaving the Clown to cover our movements but with peremptory orders to fire only in case the shore batteries opened on the boats.
However, it soon became evident that the enemy were prepared for a determined resistance; the crews of the junks joined the villagers, who with violent ejaculations and waving white flags on which the character ‘Hoong-Kin-Wong’ (a triad king) was prominent, invited us on, at the same time a heavy fire of round and grape opened on our advance. Forming behind a knoll of land, insulated by 500 yards of shallow water from the left extreme of the stockade, leaving the pinnace to cover the landing, and much assisted by the very excellent shell practice of the gunboats, the storming party dashed waist deep at the stockade and receiving a fire of grape entered the embrasures of an eight-gun battery, bayoneting the defenders who crowded the inner ditch and appeared paralysed by the vigour of the proceedings! After a short hand-to-hand encounter they retired precipitately, and now was seen the extraordinary sight of sixty bluejackets and Marines chasing 500 armed men through brakes and narrow acclivities for nearly two miles in the rear of the works! In this movement great numbers of the enemy were killed and it had the effect of turning the sea defences thus rendered comparatively harmless.
The storming party were now joined by the men under Lieutenants Blake and Wells, who by a judicious detour to the right had materially assisted to the discomfiture of the pirates. Every house in the town was a magazine in which large quantities of arms and munitions were stored. I consequently directed the village to be burned, eight large piratical fighting junks and eleven fast boats shared a similar fate, their guns having previously been sunk in deep water. The thirty-six guns of the land defences were also destroyed. Considerable resistance was offered by two of the junks, the boats being repeatedly hulled.
When I bring to Your Excellency’s notice the very large force of men consisting of at least 1300 effectively armed, with a necessary perfect knowledge of locale and the determination they evinced in opposing our landing, I cannot but feel astonished at our good fortune – not a casualty occurred whereas the loss to the enemy could not have been under 180 men. After communicating with a mandarin junk force just arrived from Macao with the information that seven pirate junks were at anchor off Li-wan-mun opposite Moto, the boats returned to the ship at Koolan.
On the 14th, having despatched the Niger to await my arrival at Macao, I proceeded with the whole boat force to examine the numerous crannies to the west of Broadway en route to Li-wan-mun. In Sykee, a bay opposite Koolan, four piratical junks, with guns numerically formidable, were driven on shore and burnt by Lieutenant Villiers. In the largest an English Red Ensign was found. In a deep inlet to the north of Soochow three others were captured and destroyed.
Arriving at Li-wan-mun, I was informed that seven junks had slipped a few hours previously and run higher up the creek. The villagers in pointing out their position were graphic in their account of the barbarities they were committing and hailed our arrival with the most enthusiastic rejoicings. A hamlet had been sacked and a passage boat taken that very morning. Advancing until dusk, I anchored and prepared, by getting pilots, for prosecuting my search in the morning.
On the 15th we weighed at daylight and piloted by boatmen who had been robbed by these pirates on the evening of our visit, threaded the remainder of the tortuous reach connecting Broadway with a river running in a parallel direction. The piratical squadron were shortly discovered ahead using every effort to escape. When the sternmost mounting 24 guns was brought to, she proved to have been a rice boat captured in January from the Hong Kong Chinese merchant who accompanied Mr Caldwell. I caused her, therefore, having previously removed the guns, to be restored. Seven large passage boats were likewise released.
The gunboats were now unfortunately taking the ground. I despatched the boats to capture the remainder, a service I am bound to add most ably executed, the pinnace under Mr Blake, the senior lieutenant present, after a running fight of one hour and a quarter driving one of nine guns on shore, her crew being immediately pounced upon by mandarin soldiers. Another junk of 12 guns, after a vigorous resistance in which two stink-pots were thrown into the boats of Janus under Lieutenant Knevitt, was carried by boarding, and three others mounting respectively seven, nine and 22 guns were captured and burnt by Lieutenant Villiers with the two cutters in co-operation with the Clown.
Exclusive of the crew who fell into the hands of the mandarins, 21 pirates were killed on this occasion by the fire of the boats, and the guns, mostly 18- and 24-pounders of American manufacture, were sunk beyond means of recovery. I then returned to the ship at Macao, arriving at midnight, from whence I proceeded this morning to join your flag.
Given repeated hammerings such as this, the pirate menace would probably have been solved even earlier than it was, save that the débâcle at the Pei Ho River a few months later not only reduced the number of gunboats available but also demonstrated that the Royal Navy was fallible. The losses, however, were quickly made good. The replacements had conventionally shaped hulls and were thus less lively in heavy weather. They included several slightly larger barque-rigged gunvessels, up to 185 feet long with proper holds and improved accommodation, armed with one 68-pounder rifled muzzle-loader and four 24-pounder howitzers.
Once a gunboat had been sent to the Far East it was Admiralty policy that she should end her days there, with any necessary repairs being carried out at Hong Kong. Commissions lasted between three and four years, with replacement crews being sent out aboard transports or troopships. Service aboard gunboats was uncomfortable and so cramped that tall officers shaved with their heads through the skylight and their mirrors propped up on deck. The food was dreadful and the ships themselves notoriously bug-ridden. Nevertheless, the service was popular. It provided junior officers with a real chance to distinguish themselves, and it gave the crews a far more interesting life than they would ever have had aboard the spit-and-polish battleships of the Home Fleet. It did not matter whether a man was serving aboard a gunboat, a gunvessel or a sloop – being a gunboat man indicated a special state of mind involving the use of personal initiative and action, and that set him apart from the rest of the Navy.
Gunboat service could also be lucrative. Long before, the Admiralty had introduced an incentive known as Head Money, awarded as a bounty to crews in proportion to the number of slaves freed from captured slavers, and pirates killed or captured. For example, the crews of Niger, Clown and Janus shared £1600 for the actions of March 1859 described above. Once the Second Opium War was over, the gunboats returned to the suppression of piracy with a will. Kestrel, repaired after her battering at the Taku Forts, received £1400 for actions on 23 and 25 July 1860 and 18 November 1861. The gunboat squadron’s biggest earner was undoubtedly Opossum, whose crew received £1000 for nine actions between 29 October 1864 and 17 October 1865; £1000 for two actions in February 1866; shared £2000 with Osprey for an action on 18 July 1866; shared £1715 with Cockchafer, Haughty and Algerine for various actions between October 1863 and March 1868; and shared £2500 with Janus, Bouncer, Leven and Haughty for actions between May 1865 and June 1869. As a commander earned £301 per annum, a lieutenant £200, a mate or sub-lieutenant £66, a midshipman £31, and an ordinary seaman £23, these figures are impressive, especially when one takes into account the small size of a gunboat’s crew. Altogether, a total of £56, 238 was paid in such bounties between 1851 and 1869, indicating the scale of the problem, the principal beneficiary being the sloop Bittern which, prior to the arrival of the Crimean gunboats, earned £10,000 between June 1854 and March 1856. Complaints that the system was open to abuse by the over-enthusiastic may have been justified in some cases, but it produced results. By 1869 coastal piracy was all but dead, leaving the gunboats free to concentrate on maintaining order on China’s rivers, along which trade was steadily expanding inland.
Pirates were not the only problem facing the gunboats. Quite apart from its troubles with foreign powers, the Chinese Imperial government was engaged in a protracted and bloody civil war with the Taiping rebels, who wished to place their own candidate on the throne. Officially, the United Kingdom played no part in the conflict, but when British interests in Shanghai were threatened by the Tai-pings, Admiral Hope threw the Royal Navy’s weight behind the Peking authorities. On 10 May 1862 the Imperial army launched an attack on Ningpo, off which was anchored a small Allied naval force under Captain Roderick Dew of the sloop Encounter. Several Imperial junks deliberately placed themselves close to the Allied ships, so that the latter were also treated to some of the defenders’ fire. Dew, a fire-eater, promptly retaliated by ordering all his ships, including the gunvessel Ringdove, the gunboats Hardy and Kestrel and the French gunboats Etoile and Confucius, to open fire on the walls of the city, which were then stormed by the grateful Imperial faction. Taking the Hardy and Confucius with him, Dew proceeded up the Yangtse and began interpreting neutrality in his own fashion, forming a naval brigade which assisted an Imperial force in the capture of Kahding on 24 October 1862. For Whitehall, already embroiled in a dispute with the United States over the British-built and crewed commerce raider Alabama, this was one exercise in personal initiative too many, and Dew was recalled early the following year. Curiously, command of the rag-bag Chinese force, designated the Ever Victorious Army by Peking, was given to a seconded officer of the Royal Engineers, Major Charles Gordon, who we shall meet again.
No summary of gunboat operations in Chinese waters would be complete without mention of an unusual squadron known as The Vampire Fleet. This was nominally part of the Imperial Navy and consisted of seven former British ships, including the gunvessel Mohawk and the gunboat Jasper. The Vampires were commanded by Captain Sherard Osborn, now a Chinese admiral, but soon established a reputation for doing just as they pleased, which sometimes lay well beyond any recognised definition of law and order. One of his subordinates, Captain Hugh Burgoyne, VC, another veteran of the Azov Flotilla, went off to become a blockade runner for the Confederacy; returning to the Royal Navy, he lost his life when his ship, the experimental battleship Captain, capsized while on manoeuvres with the Channel Fleet on 7 September 1870. Osborn resigned command of the Vampires when Peking suggested his ships be placed under the control of local mandarins, believing that the latter would simply use them in their own petty squabbles. To prevent their falling into pirate or Taiping hands, the British insisted that they were sold outside China.
As has already been mentioned, the wooden Crimean gunboats had been rushed into service and obviously they would not last forever. Their bigger replacements, of composite iron and wood construction, began entering service in 1867. They had a barquentine rig and, depending upon their class, were driven by either single or twin screws at a speed of nine or ten knots. Armament consisted of two 64-pounder muzzle-loaders and two 20-pounder Armstrong breech-loaders; in the 1880s some were rearmed with 4-inch and 5-inch breech-loaders. New gunvessels also began entering service in 1870. Some, with twin screws, were designed specifically for work in Chinese rivers; others, with a single screw, were intended for ocean-going service. Their common armament was one 7-inch rifled muzzle-loader between the funnel and the mainmast, and two 68-pounder muzzle-loaders or two 64-pounder breech-loaders, one at the bow and the other at the stern.
In 1860 there were 24 gunboats and six gunvessels serving on the China Station. Thirteen years later there were only three gunboats and eleven gunvessels present, proof enough that the Chinese equivalent of the Jolly Roger had been driven from the seas, although the great rivers of China could never be regarded as being completely safe from gentlemen of fortune. They required constant patrolling by the gunboats of the Western nations but, by and large, a form of stability had been imposed that would last until the ancient empire was swept away by revolution.
In 1302, the Venetian government implemented a revision of ‘the corrections and additions’ to the Arsenal regulations.8 This action was necessary to encourage the full development of the technological revolution that would maximise the Republic’s naval potential. A short time later, between 1304 and 1307, the Arsenale Novo was created.9 By 1325 every sector of maritime activity had been reformed. The speed with which the authorities decided, the promotion of utilitas favourable to the public good, and a real will to innovate gave expression to a powerful movement toward a goal of dominating the sea. In 1301, the Senate declared that it was necessary to arm a permanent squadron for the protection of ‘the Gulf’ (the Adriatic Sea). The cramped port facilities in the lagoon led to a natural expansion with new basins in the Arsenale Novo.10 This expansion of facilities was completed by the creation of naval bases at Pola and Pore? in Istria. Until the final phase of renovation at the end of the fifteenth century, this naval establishment was the pride of Venice’s oligarchy. In 1435, the Senate declared, ‘our Arsenal is the best in the world’ and encouraged visits by the famous and powerful as they journeyed toward Jerusalem. This evocation of the labour, ingenuity, and efficiency of the seamen of Venice resounded all across Europe and flattered the pride of the subjects of the Serenissima. The myth of Venice, forged by the political powers around the Arsenal, helped to elicit respect, fear, and effective administration.11
It is necessary to pause for a moment to consider this assertion of a clever political will that quickly adapted to circumstances. In looking at the overall situation in the Mediterranean basin it is clear that by the late thirteenth century the Venetian position had weakened. In 1261, a Byzantine–Genoese coalition took control of Constantinople and a part of Romania that, up until that time, had been controlled by the Franks and Venetians. Meanwhile, the Republic relentlessly defended Crete, the coastal bases of the Peloponnese, and the important islands of the Aegean Sea.12 In 1291 the fall of Acre marked the final defeat of the Crusaders in the Latin States of the Levant. It appears that the Venetians had already begun a withdrawal toward the west when, in 1274, Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo prohibited investment in agricultural estates on Terra Ferma ‘to oblige the Venetians to take an interest in naval affairs’. A little later, in 1298, their perpetual rivals, the Genoese, entered the Adriatic to support the Hungarians with an attack on Venetian possessions in Dalmatia.13 Naval war within the confined spaces of the Adriatic forced the government to undertake a major reform effort to confront this threat from the enemies of the Republic. This was more than a territorial conflict. It was also an economic war that engulfed the entire Mediterranean basin. The desire to capture commerce and to dominate distribution networks for goods placed great importance on the ability to keep fleets at sea. The last phase in the creation of Venice’s magnificent Arsenal took place between about 1473 and 1475. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, fear seized the Venetians who dreaded a naval assault on their colonial possessions. The defence of the stato da mar was undertaken by reinforcing the defences of the system of naval bases. First, Negroponte and Nauplia, and then, the Arsenal of Candia, an important strong point on Crete, were completely renovated between 1467 and 1470. At home, in Venice, momentous changes in circumstances created a need to augment the Republic’s naval forces. Henceforth, fierce naval war against admirals in the pay of the Ottomans brought unaccustomed reverses. In this context, the senate asked Giacomo Morosini (called el zio, ‘Uncle’) to prepare plans for an extension of the Arsenal in 1473. With an additional eight hectares added to its area, it became the greatest shipyard in Europe and ‘the essential foundation of the state’.14
By demonstrating its undeniable concern for optimising the financial and technical resources devoted to naval construction, the government showed the way for the whole people. The authorities obtained indispensable support from all those social groups whose destiny was tied to the vigour of the city’s maritime activity. At the same time, the desires of those groups corresponded to the announced public policy of giving priority to the naval forces. It is not true that a permanent and effective naval force did not appear until the sixteenth century.15 A navy existed in Venice from the fourteenth century. As described above, the patrol squadron charged with policing the Adriatic was at the heart of that force, but there were other available units. First among them were the galleys armed by the port cities that had gradually come to be included in the stato da mar. In the event of conflict these Dalmatian, Albanian, Greek, and Cretan cities were required, by the terms of their submission to Venice, to provide one or more galleys for the naval draft due to the metropolis. There are many instances of these drafts. One example is sufficient to indicate their nature.16 During the conflict against the Turks during the 1470s, the Arsenal could not quickly provide the thirty galleys demanded by the Senate. All the subject cities of the Empire were required to contribute to the fleet. Crete provided eleven galleys, four came from the occupied ports of Puglia, two from Corfu, eleven from Dalmatia (three from Zara, two from Sebenico, one each from Cattaro, Lesina, Split, Pago, Arba, and Trau). Cadres of loyal ‘patriots’ known to Venetian administrators leavened the crews gathered from these various ports. Neither the ardour of these fighters from ‘overseas’ nor their fidelity to St Mark was taken for granted. The Senate did reward loyal commanders such as Alessandro de Gotti of Corfu, Francesco Chachuni of Brindisi, and Jacopo Barsi of Lesina.
The second Venetian trump card was the initiation of an unprecedented system for the administration of sea-borne trade. This system provided a formidable tool, designed to respond to the needs of la ventura, of commerce, laying a foundation for a dominating and expansionist people. These innovative procedures put in place by the ruling oligarchy were developed to take advantage of an exceptional organisation that would raise Venice into the first rank of Mediterranean naval powers. During the first twenty years of the Trecento, there was a period of maturation punctuated by different attempts to develop a system of navigation that eventually evolved into the galley convoys known as mude. Having achieved this objective with the consensus of all the participants in the financial and business world, it was then necessary to create an efficient system of management. Even if maritime trade was prosperous, it remained fragile and subject to unforeseeable risks. It was always possible that a major conflict with the Genoese or the Catalans, or even a brief outbreak of extreme violence due to piracy, might place the whole economic structure of the Republic at risk.17 Meanwhile, in the city of Venice as well as in the small island market towns of the lagoon, in the warehouses and in the tradesmen’s shops or the craftsmen’s booths, men pursued gain, but they did so without an overall plan and without looking for any really consistent method in their approach. Around the middle of the fourteenth century Venetian patricians came to realise the necessity of undertaking ambitious measures to surmount the major obstacles to a rational exploitation of the merchant fleets by making major changes in their organisation. Perhaps the terrifying War of Chioggia (1379–81) accelerated the rapid development of this concept. The patriciate instituted regulations providing for general communal equipping of merchant fleets to offset the disadvantages of the privately outfitted trading expeditions that had been paralysed during this long conflict. It is clear that the implementation of this new system affected all of the Republic’s economic and social structures. Progress toward fully implementing this model for the unique and exemplary management of Venetian maritime potential took place only slowly, but it was to dominate the Republic’s actions at sea up to the middle of the sixteenth century.18
The founding act of this state-controlled regulation was the Ordo galearum armatarum, decreed on 8 December 1321. It concerned both the galleys and sailing cargo ships. The experimental phase lasted until the end of the Venetian– Genoese war of 1379. The cooperation of several outfitters was needed for a merchant convoy so the galleys received collective financing. This innovative policy originated after the fall of Acre in 1291. The entrepreneurial merchants, far from pulling back from risky undertakings, soon became involved in the conquest of the Atlantic routes to Flanders and England. This rapid expansion encouraged new initiatives, sometimes hesitant and disorganised during the first half of the Trecento, then coordinated by the public authorities under the careful supervision of the city’s aristocratic patriciate. Opening navigation routes toward the west, along with intensification of maritime relations with the Levant, placed the keys to international trade in Venetian hands after 1350. They also profited from a remarkably favourable position in relation to the Alpine passes leading to northern Europe. By this time the system of auctioning the charters of galleys belonging to the Commune had been definitively established. To avoid a destructive confrontation between the authorities and the merchants (even though at Venice it is sometimes difficult to discern a difference between the two groups) the state asked that the Black Sea convoy be managed according to this new principle. After some years it was adopted for all navigation routes, to the general satisfaction of both groups. Besides the galley convoys, there was also a whole sector of maritime endeavour involving sailing round ships with high freeboard (naves). Sometimes their operation is described as free outfitting, because it was subject to fewer regulatory constraints. These naves transported necessary bulk products such as grain, all kinds of raw materials of high volume, construction materials, salt, ashes, and so forth. The primary purpose of the more strongly defended galleys was to transport costly cargoes of spices, silks and precious cloths, metals, and weapons. In the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Church lifted its prohibition of trade with the Muslims, the Venetians had a fleet ready to open trade once again with the Syrian and Egyptian ports of the Levant. In 1366, a sailing route involving both galleys and naves established connections from the lagoons to Alexandria and Beirut, beginning a promising trade. In the 1440s, nearly ninety naves and fifty-five galleys sailed for the Near East, and about thirty for Constantinople. The volume of the goods continued to increase, as did the pattern of massive investment and fiscal returns for the treasury. The reform of maritime statutes that had become obsolete, the creation of new work contracts that imposed a minimum wage, improvements in living conditions on board ships and a mariners’ residence in the city attracted a skilled labour force, mostly from Dalmatia, Albania, and Greece. These immigrants, originating from its overseas colonies, allowed the Republic to raise the banner of St Mark throughout the Mediterranean.19 The Senate, the real architect of this system, far from putting the system of private management in opposition to the one controlled by the Commune, took the best of each of the two systems and combined them. For that reason, some historians speak disparagingly about bureaucracy or state control to describe the Venetian system of trade.
8 F. Melis, I mercanti italiani nell’Europa medievale e rinascimentale , ed. L. Frangioni
(Florence, 1990), 9.
9 E. Concina, L’Arsenale della Repubblica di Venezia (Venice, 1984), 26 ff.
10 Ibid., 28, and E. Concina, ‘Dal tempio del mercante al piazzale dell’Impero: l’Arsenale di Venezia’, in Progetto Venezia (Venice, n.d.), 57–106. Originally the ‘gulf ’ or ‘Gulf of Venice’ referred to that part of the Adriatic north of a line between Pola and Ravenna. As Venetian control of the Adriatic expanded, so did their definition of ‘the Gulf’. See F. C. Lane, Venice: A Maritime Republic (Baltimore, 1973), 24.
11 E. Crouzet-Pavan, Venise triomphante, les horizons d’un mythe (Paris, 1999), 122.
12 B. Doumerc, La difesa dell’impero, in Storia di Venezia, dalle origini alla caduta della Serenissima, vol. II, La formazione dello stato patrizio , ed. G. Arnaldi, G. Cracco and A. Tenenti (Rome, 1997), 237–50.
13 B. Krekic, Venezia e l’Adriatico, in Storia di Venezia, III, 51–81 and P. Cabanes, Histoire de l’Adriatique (Paris, 2000), 191.
14 Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, mar, reg. 15, fol. 14 for example, and S. Karpov, La navigazione veneziana nel mar Nero (XIII–XV sec.) (Ravenna, 2000), 12.
15 J. Meyer, ‘Des liens de causalité en histoire: politiques maritimes et société’, Revue historique, 614 (2000), 12.
16 A. Ducellier and B. Doumerc, ‘Les Chemins de l’exil, bouleversements de l’Est européen et migrations vers l’Ouest à la fin du Moyen Âge’ (Paris, 1992), 163; Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, mar, reg. 15, fol. 161.
17 B. Doumerc, Il dominio del mare, in Storia di Venezia, IV, 11; A. Tenenti and U. Tucci, eds, Rinascimento (Rome, 1996), 113–80.
18 D. Stöckly, Le Système des galées du marché à Venise (fin XIIIe–milieu XVe) (Leiden and New York, 1995), 158; F. C. Lane, Navires et constructeurs à Venise pendant la Renaissance (Paris, 1965).
19 E. Ashtor, Levant Trade in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton, 1981), 381; J. C. Hocquet, Voiliers et commerce en Méditerranée, 1200–1650 (Lille, 1976), 442; B. Doumerc, Venise et l’émirat hafside de Tunis (Paris, 1999), 172.
Henceforth, the state owned the merchant fleet, chartering galleys to merchants who operated them. The operator was the highest bidder in the auction for charters. Only nobles were allowed to participate in this auction, an exclusive privilege that gave them control of the financial and commercial operations of the fleet, in return for which they were expected to respect rigorously the specific terms and conditions of the charters. After 1420 all merchant galleys were constructed on the same model according to the plan of the ‘galley of Flanders’. This was a vessel of 250 tons burden, delivered as a bare hull (a ‘barebones charter’) for which the operator furnished all the necessary equipment – sails, cordage, oars, and maintenance materials. The Commune thus freed itself completely of the need to invest in those lesser items. On the other hand, the merchant, knowing that the necessary capital for naval construction was provided by the state, could keep most of his financial resources free for the commercial transactions that were the goal of the expedition. In addition, the winning bidder who took charge of the galley (called the patrono) got priority in loading the most precious goods and a monopoly in the transportation of these goods at fixed prices. These incentives earned the merchants’ approval because they no longer dreaded aggravated competition amongst themselves, the law was the same for everyone, the costs of transport were fixed and conditions on board were identical for all galleys.
There is often a feeling of modernity about a state when its economic functions predominate. This would make Venice of the Quattrocento a real laboratory of modernity.20 The economic stakes involved in these operations were very high. In 1409 a muda to Flanders carried in its holds merchandise worth 460,000 ducats, equivalent to a tonne and half of gold! In the 1430s, cargoes of spices and drugs loaded on galleys voyaging to Alexandria were often valued at more than 150,000 ducats. Figures like these justify the care taken by the authorities to supervise such transactions, which, after all, provided the bulk of the state’s tax revenues.21 This was remarkable for the time since surely a patrician merchant, following his own bankruptcy, would not have turned to the communal authorities expecting financial assistance. On the contrary, it was to improve competitiveness and to establish its supremacy that the government accepted a transfer of power to merchants even while introducing a measure of coercion into the process. The organisation of the maritime economy took on the characteristics of a mixed economy, promoting private interests while safeguarding the public interest. This was the strength of the Venetian system.
Consider two examples of constraints freely accepted by the operators of merchant galleys. The first concerns the financing of the expeditions. As was mentioned above, it was necessary to invest a considerable amount of capital. At the end of the fifteenth century, the cost to charter a merchant galley for one voyage was 9200 ducats (33 kg of fine gold). Not only was it necessary to pay for the charter of the galley but also the cost of operating the vessel during a voyage of five to eleven months – depending on the destination – including victualling and salaries for a crew of a hundred and fifty rowers and some twenty specialists and officers. The Commune required that a company be established to manage the operation of the galley so that a complete bankruptcy caused by insolvency of any of the partners might be avoided. A magistracy, the avogaria di Comun, supervised all financial commitments proposed by the patrono. The total amount of the estimated cost for the operation of the galley was divided into twenty-four equal shares (carati) as was the case for the purchase of a ship. The value of a share varied according to the actual length of the voyage, any unforeseen expenses, and risks at sea. An adjustment was made when the convoy returned to Venice allowing the distributed operating expenses to be deducted from the profits of the voyage. Merchant literature is full of descriptions of these temporary companies aimed at limiting each partner’s financial risk, because the cost of operating a galley exceeded the investment potential of a single entrepreneur. Such associations were indispensable, and since the objective was to verify financial investments and the quality of commercial transactions, the patrono’s family played an essential role. In these cases, the family enterprise was preferred above all other options, especially the fraterna , which created a core of investors around the brothers of the patrono.22 Little by little during the fifteenth century, the circle of the financial partners was limited to the members of a single family. This cut down considerably on the number of shareholders from an average of twelve in the 1450s to, in many cases, as few as two by the beginning of the sixteenth century. Under these conditions the prevailing commercial regulations benefited certain participants who were henceforth free to set sale prices as they wished because they had the advantage of a transportation monopoly. This perversion of the incanto system eventually caused its demise and its being denounced by Marino Sanudo in his Diarii.
The second constraint imposed on merchants engaged in the state-controlled sector concerns the presence of a capitanio, an agent of the government elected by the members of the Great Council and paid by the Commune. The capitanio of the galley convoy supervised the activities of the patroni of the individual galleys, enforcing adherence to the terms of the charter to maintain regularity, speed, and security during these long voyages.23 It was also the responsibility of this state representative to decide, in accordance with the merchants, to change course or to shorten a stay in port when circumstances warranted. As guarantor of the common interest, he had to limit the ambitions of entrepreneurs who would not hesitate to compromise the interests of their rivals if, by so doing, they could increase their personal gain. Disagreements were numerous and litigation frequent, but in the event of a serious breach of the rules of the incanto, a patrono could be banned from participation for a period of several years.24 The role of the capitanio was essential to the regulation of this complex mixed management system and crucial to the smooth operation of the voyages. The reports read in the Senate upon return of the muda were complicated because of the difficulties encountered by these agents of the government as they confronted the representatives of capitalist enterprise. Despite it all, and this was part of the miracle, the collusion of interests maximised profits for both individuals and for the enterprise as whole.
This system of managing the merchant galleys hid a little-known aspect, which was in fact the keystone of the success of the Venetian thalassocracy in the Mediterranean during the closing centuries of the Middle Ages. Until now, historians have placed the Venetian system of navigation only in a context of maritime transport and trade. In fact, the political decision by the Senate to manage maritime commercial expeditions of the merchant galleys directly by organising them in convoys was exemplary and innovative in more ways than one. First, the government avoided maintaining a naval patrol squadron outside of the Gulf. It would have been a vain hope to eradicate the plague of piracy in the waters extending from the Channel to the Aegean Sea. Instead, the captains of the mude were ordered to intercept and to neutralise any pirates that they met and sometimes to engage in hot pursuit, even if it meant diverting from their planned course. However, the Republic did not supply letters of marque or of reprisal to ships’ captains hoping to participate in the guerre de course. To maintain control of these high-risk activities that might put the vital interests of the state at risk, the Senate almost always preferred to entrust them to meticulously organised expeditions, avoiding any improvisation with the attendant possibility of dangerous and harmful consequences25 Often, the communal galleys of the cities of the stato da mar participated in these operations to police the seas but, on the whole, this tactic did not produce satisfactory results. Second, another lesser-known aspect of Venetian policy must also be taken into consideration: the requisition of merchant galleys. After having encouraged the development of regular convoy routes, which may have seen as many as fifty great galleys in service, the Venetian government in 1465, forced to react to an unfavorable military situation, found that its fleet, as a whole, did not contain enough warships.26 Social concerns regarding the employment of a large number of seamen on board the ‘man-eating’ galleys, and fiscal considerations resulting from the fixed pricing of the noli (charters) and the control of cargos which this facilitated, concerns which were as important as worries about the defence of merchant ships, led to the galley becoming a privileged instrument of Venetian maritime expansion. The choice of the Venetian authorities in favour of convoys of merchant galleys (mude), however, must have been somewhat detri mental to the profitability of the unarmed naves that remained in private operation.
The security of trade relations was the source of all profits, so an argument was put forward that the companies of the wealthiest aristocrats should be favoured by making them the only ones authorised to organise the profitable mude. Over the years this point of view became a determining factor in the evolution of the place of the galere da mercato in the complex whole of the Venetian maritime economy, reviving the basic debate, which set in opposition the objectives of the private managers of the voyages and the objectives of the government. The great network of navigation routes favoured the noble entrepreneurs who collaborated with the authorities within the system of the incanto. Whenever an accident of circumstances threatened the regularity of the voyages, the state encouraged the mude, sometimes forcing independently equipped and operated ships to remain inactive in port. This transfer of activities worked to the profit of the galleys as demonstrated by the creation of the route to Aigues Mortes in 1415 and then to the Barbary Coast in 1436 in response to the problem of maritime insecurity. Indeed, the senate announced that it was preferable ‘in any case to fit out two galleys on the Aigues-Mortes route for one alone does not seem safe’.27 Here is the heart of the debate: the Venetian muda was a merchant unit but also a combat unit and it is necessary to consider that it made a permanent contribution to the naval forces placed at the disposal of the government’s military commanders. These galleys were armed ‘for war and for trade’ and the terms of their charter agreed to after the auction provided that the government could exercise its right of requisition at any time. During the fifteenth century this procedure was often used. This was the third element of Venetian maritime supremacy.
It is necessary to see the activities of the mude in another context as well. The galleys provided the state with a very efficient naval potential for general tasks aimed at preserving the supremacy of the Empire. From the beginning, the Senate specified that the patroni of galleys had to accept some missions ‘in the service of the Signoria’ in return for the numerous advantages from which they benefited.28 What did this mean? A few examples make the Senate’s intention clear. The least coercive of these requirements concerned the transportation of officials designated by the government, baili and ambassadors, as well as colonial administrators. These voyages were always made aboard communal galleys protected by the flag of St Mark. Sometimes the captain of the merchant convoy played the role of government representative in dealings with local authorities in Tunis, Alexandria, or London. In 1438, the Senate asked the captain of the Aigues Mortes convoy to agree to the request of the Grand Master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem who wished to travel from the great Provençal port of Marseilles to Rhodes. The clamour of protest from the expedition’s investors had no effect on the Senate’s decision and for several weeks the galleys remained far off their planned course. Another kind of requisition for peaceful missions concerned the transportation of funds or strategic materials destined for the administrators of the cities of the overseas empire. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the mude of the Levant carried a considerable quantity of oars, yards, and cordage, as well as timber and cut stone in order to renovate the arsenals of the Peloponnese and Crete. In the middle of the fifteenth century, these requisitioned services were frequent because it was then necessary to add the transportation of troops and the repatriation of refugees resulting from an expansion of the area of hostilities.29 In addition, the capitanio was often assigned to inspect the strongholds of the colonial domain to provide an objective report on the needs, genuine or not, put forward by the rectors ‘of our overseas possessions’. During the Venetian–Genoese war in the 1430s, and then again during the one against the Turks in the 1460s, the mude participated in naval actions under the orders of the Captain General of the Sea. The dramatic break in ranks at the defeat of Zonchio in 1499 revealed the reluctance of the crews and merchants to assume the task of national defence. Strikes broke out among crews ‘who refused to fight so often’ and demanded a salary increase of 30 per cent. The investor’s mistrust was often in evidence, putting the effectiveness of the government in peril.30
The only mission willingly accepted by the patroni of the galleys was to hunt for corsairs. This service of policing the seas was profitable to their private activities since they were all owners of cargo vessels operating in the unregulated shipping sector. Be that as it may, the government had succeeded in reducing unproductive investment in a permanent naval squadron. The evolution of international political conditions among the countries along the coasts of the Mediterranean requiring increasing participation by the merchant galleys ‘in the service of the state’ had grave consequences for the peace of mind of the entrepreneurs. Indeed, the threat of a requisition always hung over every departure and the meagre and consistently tardy indemnities from the government discouraged the sailors as much as the ship-owners.
20 B. Doumerc, Il dominio del mare, 123.
21 J. Day, ‘Les Instruments de gestion du monde’, in Venise 1500, la puissance, la novation et la concorde: le triomphe du mythe (Paris, 1993), 142–56.
22 B. Doumerc, C. Judde de Larivière, ‘Le Rôle du patriciat dans la gestion des galères marchandes à Venise au début du seizième siècle’, Studi veneziani, 36 (1998), 57–84.
23 B. Doumerc, D. Stöckly, ‘L’Evolution du capitalisme marchand à Venise au XVe siècle, le financement des mude’, Annales H. S. C., 1 (1995), 133–57.
24 B. Doumerc, ‘La Crise structurelle de la marine vénitienne au XVe siècle: le problème du retard des mude’, Annales E.S.C., 40 (1985), 605–25.
25 A. Tenenti, ‘Venezia e la pirateria en Levante: 1300–1460’, in A. Pertusi, ed., Venezia e il Levante fino al secolo XV. Atti del i convegno internazionale di storia della civilta veneziana , 2 vols. (Florence, 1973–4), I, 705–71.
26 B. Doumerc, ‘Le Rôle ambigu de la muda vénitienne: convoi marchand ou unité de combat’, in Histoire maritime: thalassocratie et période révolutionnaire, Actes des 114e et 115e Congrès Nationaux des Sociétés Savantes (Paris, 1989; Avignon, 1990; Paris, 1991), 139–54 and R. Cessi, Storia della Repubblica di Venezia (1968), 191.
27 Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, misti, reg. 53, fol. 29, and Antonio Morosini, Annali, extraits de la chronique de Morosini relatifs à l’histoire de France (Paris, 1898), I, 374.
28 B. Doumerc, ‘Les Flottes d’état, moyen de domination coloniale à Venise (XVe siècle)’, in M. Balard and A. Ducellier, eds., Coloniser au Moyen Âge (Paris, 1995), 115–29.
29 Doumerc, ‘Le Rôle ambigu’, 152. 30 Marino Sanudo, I diarii (Bologna, 1969), vol. I, chapter 30.
The War of Breton Succession, which took place at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, is referred to by Klausmann, Meinzerin, and Kuhn as the “War of the Three Jeannes” due to the women at the center of the action: Jeanne de Montfort, Jeanne de Clisson, and Jeanne de Penthièvre. In particular, two of these Jeannes fought for their family’s right to the throne—by land and by sea. These women proved themselves to be extraordinary fighters who fiercely defended what they felt was theirs. Their lives and legends serve as a bridge, connecting the Viking women who came before them with the Barbary corsairs who followed them.
To fully understand these women, a brief history of the conflict is necessary. Brittany, a province on the west coast of present-day France, was its own state during the Middle Ages, ruled by a duke. Parts of Brittany were loyal to the English while other parts swore allegiance to the French, but the majority of Bretons considered themselves Bretons first and foremost. Their culture, unlike English and French culture, was uniquely and healthily dosed with Celtic and pagan traditions as well as the more modern Christian ones. They were loyal to the Duke of Brittany over the kings of England and France; they would not be united with France until 1532. In short, the duchy was important to the Bretons, and the fight to figure out who had a rightful claim was something over which they were willing to wage a war. Both England and France were invested in the outcome, given that the Breton duke usually made alliances with one country or the other. As the Hundred Years’ War started, both sides knew that Brittany could be a powerful ally in their struggle.
John III was Duke of Brittany in 1341 and died childless. Originally, he had named as his successor Jeanne (or Joan) de Penthièvre, his niece. Joan was married to a powerful nobleman, Charles de Blois, who was related to the French king, Philip VI. Unsurprisingly, the French backed Joan’s (and Charles’s) claim to the duchy. However, before John III died, he reconciled with his long-estranged stepfamily and named a new heir, his half brother John de Montfort. John was the English choice for the duchy. These two houses—House of Blois and House of Montfort—both felt that they had the right to the throne, and both were prepared to fight for it.
John de Montfort’s biggest asset in this fight was his wife, Jeanne de Montfort. She is also known as Joanna of Flanders, due to her Flemish parentage (her brother was the Count of Flanders). She married John de Montfort in 1329, and the couple had two children together. Much of what is known about her originates from medieval French author Jean Froissart, whose Chronicles are important texts in medieval history. He had only good things to say about Jeanne, claiming that she had “the courage of a man and the heart of a lion.” Other sources have said that her story may have inspired another famous Jeanne: Jeanne d’Arc.
Despite all of Froissart’s coverage, there are still gaps in history’s knowledge of Jeanne de Montfort. Froissart is happy to educate the reader on Montfort the soldier and warrior but is mum on the details of Montfort the woman. It is not certain, for example, what her relationship with her husband was like. Did she pursue the duchy so fervently out of love, or out of a desire for power? Although there is more historical documentation around de Montfort than there is for many of the other women pirates, there are still many things a reader might want to know. Froissart’s records, although sympathetic to de Montfort, do leave out many things that would enrich the story.
When the duchy came up for grabs in 1341, de Montfort and his wife knew that the French would most likely side with the House of Blois, given that the French king was a cousin of Charles de Blois. They therefore decided to get a jump on the competition and start ruling right away as if John were already the duke. The de Montforts went to Nantes, the Breton capital, and gained a fair amount of fans among the people of Brittany. It seems that if there had been a popular vote, the de Montforts would have had the duchy sewn up. However, it was a matter to be decided not by the people but by the Court of Peers in Paris.
John de Montfort was summoned to Paris to appear before King Philip. On his way, he traveled to England to pay homage to the English king, Edward III. Once de Montfort arrived in Paris, Philip was unimpressed with the argument that he was nearest of kin to the late Duke of Brittany and thus had the stronger claim. The French king called for the Peers to hear and judge both claims, and he forbade de Montfort from leaving Paris until after the hearing. John was no fool. He knew that there was little chance the Peers would vote for him and that if he stuck around, imprisonment or worse was likely, so he took off in the night and returned to Nantes and his wife.
And who was his rival, this Charles de Blois? Reports of his character are conflicting, with some of them declaring him a saint, while others paint him as a sadist and extremist. He was said to hear Mass several times a day, put pebbles in his shoes, and beat himself black and blue while praying. He was actually canonized as a saint, but his sainthood was revoked in the late 1300s and not restored until 1904. Despite his piety, he was known for his cruelty and brutality in battle. No matter his personal inclinations, his wife’s connection to the late duke and his own connections to the French throne made him a powerful contender for the duchy.
In September 1341 the Peers declared the House of Blois as the rightful heirs to the duchy, as John de Montfort had predicted they would. De Blois marched to Nantes and captured Montfort, imprisoning him in a tower at the Louvre in Paris. De Blois probably thought that with his rival in prison, his claim to the throne was secure and his troubles were over. What he had not counted on was his rival’s wife, who was not about to be put out of the fight just because her husband was in jail. No, Jeanne de Montfort would not back down from her family’s claim, even if she had to do all the fighting by herself.
One can imagine the scene when Jeanne received the report that her husband had been captured. How would she have received the news? Perhaps she felt shocked at first and needed a moment to let the information sink in. This was not a scenario the couple had planned for. What was going to happen now? Would de Blois come for her and her children? Jeanne would have been aware of de Blois’s reputation and could only imagine what awful fates he had planned for her and her young daughter and son.
Someone, either a friend and advisor or Jeanne herself, came up with the plan to claim the duchy in her son’s name. As long as her male child was alive, the House of Montfort still had a chance. Jeanne had to finish the fight her husband had started if she had any hope of seeing him again.
According to Pierce Butler, Jeanne gathered her remaining loyal friends and soldiers and showed them her little boy, named John after his father. She exhorted the crowd, “Ah! sirs, be not cast down because of my lord, whom we have lost: he was but one man. See here my little child, who shall be, by the grace of God, his restorer.” She promised them riches aplenty if they would remain with her. Jeanne took this show on the road, traveling from garrison to garrison and giving out cash and weapons wherever she went to ensure that everyone was happy, well paid, and above all, loyal to her family. After she had secured her troops, she took her family to the fortress of Hennebont. She would await de Blois’s attack from there.
It is Jeanne’s conduct during the siege of Hennebont, more than any other episode in her history, that endears her to readers. When de Blois and his men arrived, Jeanne herself donned protective gear and rode on horseback all over town, exhorting people to fight bravely with everything they had. She had a special command just for women—to tear up their skirts, pull up cobblestones from the streets, and chuck them at the attackers . . . and if they happened to have some spare pots of quicklime, pour that on them too. From a tall tower, she watched the enemy’s camp. When de Blois’s men had all ridden out into the fields to ready for the assault, leaving the camp empty except for a few young boys, she made her move. She herself rode out, along with about three hundred of her men, and set the whole camp on fire. Her attack destroyed much of the enemy’s provisions, as well as their living quarters. As de Blois’s men ran back from the fields, furious, Jeanne and her men snuck away to a nearby castle and sought shelter there until they could return home safely. This daring and effective plan by Jeanne earned her the nickname “La Flamme”—French for “the flame.”
Being taken by surprise by this upstart woman enraged de Blois, and he redoubled his efforts to take Hennebont, but his band of men continued to suffer heavy losses every time they engaged with de Montfort’s forces. It seems that, army for army, he was not going to capture this prospective duchess at Hennebont. He took a large portion of his men and set his sights on taking nearby Auray instead. The forces he left behind to torment Hennebont did a much better job than de Blois himself had done, and many of Jeanne’s advisors urged her to surrender. She refused, insisting that the English forces she had sent for long ago would finally arrive and rescue them. Some accounts claim she prayed to the lords of Brittany that they stand by her and send English help within three days. Once she declared that England was coming, she would not budge despite constant pressure, and she remained posted at the window looking out to sea. On the second day, she spotted the English ships and cried out, “I see the succors of England coming.” English forces had indeed come to offer backup, although they had been long delayed due to bad weather.
Despite Sir Walter Manny’s arrival and assistance, Jeanne and her troops were losing ground against de Blois and his men. They held onto Hennebont but lost Auray, Dinan, and other cities. She knew that she would not last much longer at this rate and she had to appeal to a higher power—the king of England, Edward III. She sailed to England to make her plea in person.
Eventually, Edward granted her request, and she sailed back toward home with a fleet of ships commanded by Robert d’Artois. Before they could make it back to Brittany, they were attacked by Sir Louis of Spain, who had joined forces with de Blois. Off the English coast, the two fleets fought a fierce naval battle. Reports claim that Jeanne had a small sword that she bravely wielded and fought the Spanish forces hand to hand. After an intense day of fighting, a massive storm came up and blew all the ships in various directions, effectively ending the battle. The French and Spanish ships wound up near the English Channel while Jeanne and her forces landed near Vannes, a once-friendly city that they were able to take back with a small effort. Whether fate, God, or Jeanne’s own superior sailing skills led the English ships to a safe harbor the world will never know. Somehow, Jeanne escaped a mighty naval battle after just one day of fighting and found herself not too far from home, which allowed her to safely return to Hennebont.
In 1345 Jeanne’s husband, John, escaped from the Louvre and obtained a fighting force of his own from Edward III. He returned to Brittany but was killed in battle. It is unknown whether husband and wife ever saw each other again before his death. Now, Jeanne was truly on her own in the fight for the duchy. She continued to fight for nearly twenty years until 1364, when Charles de Blois was killed in the Battle of Auray. Jeanne de Penthièvre was forced to sign away her claim to the duchy and content herself with being Countess of Penthièvre. With the House of Blois out of the way, young John of Montfort was finally awarded the duchy and named the rightful Duke of Brittany, a title that he held until his death and then passed on to his son.
Some accounts say that Jeanne did not get to enjoy her son’s reign, for which she had fought so long and hard. Several stories claim that Jeanne was mentally ill and confined in England to a castle with a caretaker, never to return to Brittany. She probably died in England around 1374. Some suggest that she was not in fact ill but simply a political prisoner of Edward III, who wanted to ensure that Brittany remained an English ally. Although mental illness can afflict anyone at any time of life, it does seem suspicious that a woman who led a successful military campaign for over twenty years and showed no previous signs of illness would suddenly succumb so dramatically that she would require constant care and confinement. It seems more likely that Edward, knowing what the woman was capable of, did not want to leave her (and Brittany’s) loyalty to England to chance. If that is true, Jeanne de Montfort’s story had a remarkably unhappy ending—betrayed by a man who used her for his own political ends under the guise of helping her. Hopefully she took comfort in the knowledge that at least her battle was not in vain. Even though she might not have returned to Brittany herself to see her son on the throne, she could die secure in the knowledge that the man she considered the rightful heir to the duchy, her son John, was ruling Brittany. Against impossible odds, this woman waged a war and came out on top. The Montforts remained in control of the duchy of Brittany until it ceased to exist when Brittany unified with France in 1547.
Despite her possibly ignominious end, Jeanne is fondly remembered in history. Philosopher David Hume called her “the most extraordinary woman of her age.” She is considered the poster child for the fighting woman of France—despite the fact that she fought against the French—and is, as previously mentioned, said to have been an inspiration to Joan of Arc. But was she a pirate? Well, she was definitely a warrior, which is a good start. She also fought battles at sea, including her infamous battle against Sir Louis of Spain, even going so far as to engage in sword combat during the battle. Her true piratical pedigree, however, comes from her “theft” of the duchy from the House of Blois, the official pick of Paris. With her cunning maneuver at Hennebont (which recalls the cleverness of Artemisia’s sacking of Latmus), she managed to steal the duchy from de Blois’s grasp, and that makes her a pirate—not a textbook example of a perfect pirate, to be sure, but clearly worthy to stand up among her sisters in the pirate pantheon.
Jeanne de Clisson was born Jeanne de Belleville in Belleville-sur-Vie, a castle and fortress on the western coast of France. Her parents were wealthy nobles, and she most likely enjoyed a bucolic childhood on the grounds of the castle, which she would eventually inherit. She was called “one of the most beautiful women of her day” by historian Richard Bentley. Her childhood did not last long, however, as she was married off at age twelve to a Breton nobleman. The couple had two children together before he died in 1326.
Jeanne remained a widow for four years before she took her second husband, Olivier de Clisson, a very wealthy nobleman with whom she had five children. By many accounts, the match was, if not exactly a love match, at least a successful mutual partnership. By age thirty, Jeanne had two husbands and seven children under her belt. What would she accomplish next?
When the War of Breton Succession came, Olivier chose to back his friend Charles de Blois in his claim to the duchy. It seems that he fought loyally for the House of Blois, but Charles de Blois became convinced that de Clisson was a traitor and had defected to the English side. Exactly why he believed this to be true is unclear. Some legends claim that when de Clisson was captured by the English at Vannes in 1342, the ransom demanded for his return was, to de Blois, suspiciously low. This led him to conclude that de Clisson had not fought as valiantly as he could have and was perhaps not as loyal to the House of Blois as he claimed to be. Other versions of the story say that de Clisson actually did switch sides, although these accounts are much rarer. In any case, de Blois was no longer certain that his old friend had his best interests at heart. This would not do. During a truce in the fighting in 1343, de Blois hatched a plan with the French king, Philip VI, to have him killed. Olivier and some other Breton lords were invited to France under the guise of a friendly tournament. When they arrived on French soil, however, de Clisson was arrested, carried off to Paris, and tried as a traitor to France. He was convicted and sentenced to death. After he was killed, his head was put on a pike and sent back to Brittany’s capital, Nantes, to be displayed as a warning to other would-be defectors from the French cause.
King Philip’s actions shocked the public. Olivier’s trial did not present any public evidence of his guilt; it only claimed that he had confessed to being a traitor. Furthermore, displaying of a corpse was usually done only when the criminal was common or lower class. People felt that King Philip had gone too far and possibly murdered an innocent man. And nobody was madder than de Clisson’s widow, Jeanne de Clisson.
When she found out that her husband had been tricked into going to France and then killed without cause, she sprang into action. If the French were no longer allies to her husband, then she would not support the French any longer. She severed all ties with the House of Blois and devoted her life to making the French pay for what they had done to her family. But first, some sources say, she took her sons to Nantes to see their father’s head.
To a modern reader it seems a bit puzzling, to say the least, that Jeanne would choose to expose her young sons to such violence. No doubt the boys were already devastated by the news of their father’s death; it seems redundant at best and cruel at worst to traumatize them further with the actual evidence of his murder. But Jeanne was not looking to shield her boys from pain. She knew now how hard and pitiless the world could be— even innocent men could be killed by kings. Jeanne chose to educate her boys on the harshness of life in order to light a fire of hate in them, twin fires to the one that now burned in her breast. In her world, there was no time for sorrow, only revenge.
After her trip to Nantes, Jeanne set about raising the money she would need to mount an army to terrorize the French. Much of her lands had been confiscated by King Philip due to her husband’s “crime.” She sold what she had left, including her jewels and furniture (and some accounts claim she sold her body as well) in order to outfit an army. Her goal was to kick the French out of Brittany completely. Stories of places she attacked are varied and lack detail, but nearly all accounts agree that whatever locations she did take, she took bloodily. She would massacre every occupant of a place save one or two, leaving them alive to report to France exactly who had committed the deed.
The path Jeanne chose after her husband’s murder seems almost unthinkable, but it may have been preferable to the alternatives before her. Whether they were rich or poor, most medieval women could not be said to have pleasant lives. They had two role models: Eve, the fallen woman, and the Virgin Mary (the original manifestation of the Madonna/whore dichotomy). Doubtless many women felt themselves somewhere in between the two icons. They did not have access to education. Life expectancy was not long. Ironically, many scholars claim that after the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, the status of medieval women briefly went up due to the dearth of people left alive. Surviving women could receive better wages due to better-paying jobs being available and thus delay marriage, increasing their chances of survival. Childbirth was a specter that haunted all married women. An estimated 20 percent of all women in the Middle Ages died in childbirth, 5 percent during the birth itself and another 15 percent due to complications after labor. Things that today are minor issues were often fatal during this era. The presence of midwives—one of the only trades open only to women—helped to make birth safer, but a dizzying variety of complications could kill an expectant mother. Jeanne had survived childbirth numerous times; she might have felt that she had cheated death and could therefore slay Frenchmen at will, sending them to death in her place.
With her husband gone, Jeanne would have had the option to enter a convent. Nuns’ lives were marginally easier than that of the average married woman. For one thing, there was some access to basic education in the convent. Nuns did not have to fear death in childbirth. They still participated in domestic labors, cooking and producing things for the convent in addition to the many hours spent studying and in prayer. Nuns could advance up the religious ranks—the only position with any upward mobility for women during the Middle Ages. The leader of a convent, an abbess, sometimes advised not just the nuns in her care but also the monks in an adjoining monastery. Other than being a queen, an abbess was probably the highest office a woman could obtain during the Middle Ages. But Jeanne was not interested in a sequestered religious lifestyle; she sought vengeance. And so to the sea she went, forging a new path.
Jeanne decided that she preferred naval fighting to land fighting. She was still going to make the French pay, but she would do so at sea. With her remaining cash, she sailed to England with two of her sons in order to assemble a small fleet of three ships. Where her other children were during this time is unknown. Some accounts say that on this journey, one of her sons died of exposure. She then allegedly sent the other surviving son to live in the English court with young John de Montfort, who would eventually become the new Duke of Brittany. These details about her sons are only occasionally present in Jeanne’s legend. Whether she had her sons with her or not, and regardless of how many of them survived the journey, Jeanne soon had her fleet of ships, which was called the Black Fleet. These ships Jeanne painted black, and she dyed the sails blood red. She was not interested in subtlety or subterfuge. She wanted the people who saw her coming to know what fate awaited them. Her victims would not be taken by surprise, as her husband had been.
Jeanne and her Black Fleet sailed up and down the English Channel, preying on any French ship she could get her hands on. Her plan was the same as it was on land: murder everyone except a messenger or two. Soon, legends of her brutality spread all over Europe, and the “Lioness of Brittany” became a feared pirate. Some accounts claim that she was officially a privateer for England, but the English would have had to overlook her personal penchant for beheading every French nobleman she captured, since that was not exactly privateer protocol. Nevertheless, she may have kept the English forces stocked with supplies during various battles with the French. Her service to the English seems to have been an afterthought, though—much less important to her than the destruction of the French forces. It’s unclear if she had any particular love for the House of Montfort, but her hatred of the House of Blois ran deep and was clearly to the de Montforts’ benefit.
King Philip VI’s death in 1350 did not put a dent in the Lioness’s pirating. She continued to wreak havoc on French ships in the English Channel for another six years. Sources estimate that Jeanne’s piratical career lasted for a total of thirteen years. Instead of seeing the war through and ensuring that her candidate won the duchy in the War of Breton Succession, she retired eight years before the conflict’s conclusion and married an English deputy of King Edward III.
This action of hers, and the historical coverage of this action, leaves many questions unanswered. Why did she choose to marry a third time? If she was so useful to the English forces, why didn’t she help them finish the war? How did she meet Sir Walter Bentley, her new husband? Perhaps this action proves that she was not truly in the fight to back de Montfort but instead simply to cause damage to de Blois and King Philip. But then why not retire at Philip’s death? Maybe she ran out of money to maintain her Black Fleet. Maybe the lonely widow fell passionately in love with the English lord. Maybe she just got tired of sailing. Maybe, after so many captures and beheadings, her lust for revenge was one day finally slaked. All that is certain is that she married Sir Walter and left her pirating days behind her. King Edward had bestowed on Sir Walter several castles and lands for his services to England. Some accounts claim that Sir Walter was given control of English territories and interests in Brittany. Stories differ on what properties were given to the Bentleys and when, but most legends agree that the couple eventually settled down back in France in Hennebont Castle, the very same castle that was such a pivotal part of Jeanne de Montfort’s story. Jeanne de Clisson died a few years later, sometime around 1359.
Pirates often sailed vessels other than ships. For example, the dugout canoe was one of the most common of pirate vessels. In the late seventeenth century, buccaneers and filibusters used them for raids up rivers on the Spanish Main, towed them astern or carried them aboard their larger vessels, and often began their piratical careers aboard them, working their way up from canoe to small merchant bark to barcalonga, tarteen, or sloop, and finally—sometimes—to frigate, small or large, the smaller vessel capturing the larger. And sometimes they fought barks and small ships with canoes, as the buccaneers at Perico did. Sometimes they even fought great ships, such as the four- or five-hundred-ton “hulk” of the Honduras urca, a large-bellied flat-bottomed cargo carrier. Famous cutthroat pirate François l’Ollonois captured a hulk this way.
In the late seventeenth century, the barque longue, or in Spanish, barcalonga, the common bark, and the sloop were the most common vessels among the pirates of the Caribbean. A barque longue was a long, narrow, open-decked vessel with shallow draft. It carried one or two masts and one or two sails, although some carried topsails as well. The sails of Spanish barcalongas, and perhaps those of some of the French barque longues, were lugsails that could be easily changed from side to side for tacking. The best pirate craft were those that could escape to windward (toward the wind). Pirate craft in the Caribbean also needed to be able to sail against the prevailing trade winds, and the lugsail made this easier.
However, the sloop deserves the most fame as a pirate vessel, especially the sort called “Bermuda,” named for its place of construction, although in fact it had originated in Jamaica. Sloop builders shifted to Bermuda after the timber ran out in Jamaica. These sloops were swift vessels, built of cedar, with hulls well tallowed and chalked for speed, fore and aft rigged with an enormous mainsail, and in the eighteenth century, with a tall single mast raked strikingly aft and a long bowsprit thrust piercingly forward like a Spanish rapier. You could not miss recognizing one, even at a distance. As Jamaica sloops they were popular in the second half of the seventeenth century, and as Bermuda sloops grew even more so in the eighteenth. There are only a few significant pirates who never sailed a Jamaica or Bermuda sloop at one time or another.
By chance, we have an outstandingly detailed description of a pirate sloop, whose short story is in itself a fascinating one. In early 1718, Captain Charles Pinkethman set sail from Jamaica aboard the sloop Nathaniel & Charles, intending to make his fortune upon the Spanish treasure wrecks in the Bahamas. Unfortunately, his dreams of salvaged silver were short-lived. He died en route, leaving the sloop’s master, suitably named Tempest, to take his place. At Walker’s Cay, in the Abaco Islands of the Bahamas, they put their African or Native American divers to work, but to little profit. Weighing their anchor, they sailed with another sloop to Bimini and worked a wreck there, but it, too, held little profit.
A mutinous sort named Greenway commanded the consort sloop. Failing at treasure hunting, he had sniffed the air and caught the whiff of piracy. Bad fortune had discouraged Tempest’s crew, leaving them vulnerable to the temptation of piracy, now beginning to flourish in the Caribbean and Americas. Greenway lured them with golden dreams, assuring them that piracy was far more profitable than hunting for treasure on sunken wrecks.
Under the influence of Greenway, Tempest’s crew mutinied, “took possession of this sloop and all the arms, and threatened to shoot Captain Tempest and all that would not go with them under Greenway’s command.” Yet in spite of the threats, Tempest and more than a dozen steadfast seamen refused to join the pirates. Relenting eventually, the pirates transferred some of them to another sloop and let them go. But they didn’t release all the seamen. The new pirates forced several to remain behind.
West now the sloop sailed, to Florida to fish for silver—a curious way to begin a pirate cruise that was instigated by failing at fishing for silver—but Spaniards on the shore welcomed them with volleys of lead. Sailing north, Greenway brought his sloop into an inlet south of Charlestown, South Carolina, and fitted her with a new mast. At sea again, they captured and released a small sloop, ran from a twenty-four-gun French merchantman, and sighted the Spanish treasure fleet but ran when they realized a Spanish man-of-war was lying in wait for them. So much for “plucking a crow” with Spanish galleons! Near Bermuda, they captured two sloops, kept one, and forced a few men to join the pirate crew.
Pirates of the early eighteenth century often forced freemen, seamen, and fishermen to join their crews, unlike the late seventeenth-century buccaneers and filibusters, who forced only slaves and the occasional Spanish pilot. Thirteen of these forced men wanted to be rid of their captors. All they needed was an opportunity; a chance to maroon themselves ashore would be ideal. But they got better than they could wish for.
On July 17, 1718, the pirates sighted and gave chase to a ship. Ranging up close, the pirates hoisted their black flag, fired a cannon and, for emphasis, a volley of muskets at the ship. Immediately, the merchantman lowered her topsails, lay by in the trough of the sea, and waited to be boarded. Captain Greenway, greedy as ever, clambered into the sloop’s boat, along with his gunner, doctor, and a few other officers, leaving the pirate crew and forced men behind.
Suddenly, the wind filled the ship’s sails, which were balanced against each other as she lay by, and pushed the ship down upon the sloop, smashing into her quarter. But rather than worry about the accident, the pirate crew leaped aboard the ship, rabidly looking for plunder. It was every man for himself. They ran about the ship, pillaging as they could and paying no attention to the sloop they had just left nor to their captain. After all, pirate captains had absolute authority only in battle. Just a few pirates were left aboard the sloop.
The forced men seized the moment. Richard Appleton, one of the few to be armed, took the helm and ordered John Robeson below to secure the stores. He shouted to the black men aboard—slaves probably, but possibly freemen, perhaps even divers—to hoist the sails. Immediately, a pirate realized what was happening. He seized a musket, aimed it at Appleton, and “snapped it,” as pulling the trigger was known due to the sound of the flint striking steel.36 But it misfired, and again so.
Swiftly, he reversed it in his hands and swung the butt at Appleton, cracking it over his head. Appleton went down. But the black men aboard had no more reason to want to be with the pirates than the forced white men did. One of them shot the pirate in the belly with a pistol, and another shot him in the leg. Quickly they trussed up the pirate and seven of his fellows, all of whom were mostly drunk, put them all in a canoe, and set them adrift. To Philadelphia the pirate prisoners—the “forced men” from Tempest’s crew—and their black comrades sailed and gave themselves up, where all—at least the white seamen—were “well used and civilly entreated for the service they had done.”
Thankfully, the council at Philadelphia kept a detailed inventory of the sloop, probably the most detailed we have of a pirate craft of the Golden Age. She had a full set of sails, including a jib, a flying jib, and a spritsail, plus three anchors, and tools, lumber, tar, and other sundries for making repairs. For navigation, she had three compasses; for maneuvering in calm or light airs, a set of oars or sweeps; for feeding her pirate crew, thirteen half barrels of beef and pork; for cooking, a kettle and two iron pots; for treating her sick and wounded, a doctor’s chest; for tricking the prey, a pair of false colors and pennants, and a jack; and for intimidating the prey, a black pirate flag and a red “no quarter” flag.
More important to her purpose, she mounted ten cannon of small caliber, along with two small “swivel guns” that loaded from the muzzle, and nine patereros (a form of small swivel cannon) that loaded from the breech. But six of the patereros were old and may have been unserviceable. She also had ten “organ” barrels belonging to a small bit of rail-mounted artillery known as an organ: a sheaf of musket barrels made to fire together, more accurate than a common swivel.
The sloop also carried two hundred round shot for her cannon, which is really not all that many, four kegs of scrap metal for loading in canvas bags and firing in a murderous hail at men, and thirty-two barrels of gunpowder. She carried fifty-three grenades, vital for boarding a ship under fire, and thirty muskets, just as vital for attacking a ship. Muskets were used to suppress enemy fire and often made the difference even when ships were fighting with their great guns broadside to broadside. In fact, the musket was the principal weapon of the pirate.
Sloops like this were the most common seagoing pirate vessels of the Golden Age, and the ones we should most associate with pirates. Certainly the most common was not the galleon, which by the eighteenth century no longer really existed except in name; only a handful of real galleons, known by the design of their hulls, still sailed. Even so, many pirates did sail ships and other three-mast vessels. Most were small frigates, usually of only one or two hundred tons and of ten to twenty guns of two- to six-pound caliber, often with as many swivel cannon mounted on the rails. But some pirates captured large merchantmen or slave ships, converted them to pirate ships, and sailed the seas with ships of forty or even fifty guns. These ships were often slow compared to their prey, or at least no swifter, and slow compared to pirate hunters. Further, they were expensive to maintain and required a lot of maintenance—and pirates were generally a lazy lot.41 Most of the time, pirates preferred lighter, swifter vessels—fast enough to overtake prey and run from a pirate hunter and armed well enough to make a stout fight if it came to that. Often large pirate ships were accompanied by light, swift craft, as we have already seen in the case of Blackbeard’s pirate flotilla.
Historians have been particularly interested in the fact that on two occasions during our period great empires provided security and a market for luxuries in different parts of the Indian Ocean world. The huge trade between China and the Abbasid empire has been linked to the rise and florescence of the Abbasid state after 750, and a similar situation with the T’ang dynasty in China from 618–907. The Fatimids in Egypt, the Colas in South India, and the Song in China produced the same effect in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
There certainly seems to be some connection between flourishing trade and stable empires, albeit one hard to quantify. Such empires usually got most of their revenue from the land, not the sea, and prevailing norms were usually hostile, or at least indifferent, to sea trade and merchants. Yet merchants did provide customs revenues, and perhaps more important brought curiosities and preciosities to the court. More generally, a strong, stable empire obviously has advantages for economic activity in general, including sea trade. Some states were actually quite interventionist. Srivijaya controlled the straits of Melaka for some time. In the early eleventh century the Cola state in south India responded to this with devastating raids. Thirteen ports in the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and the Nicobar Islands were attacked by Rajendra Cola.
The decline of empires usually produces much confusion, and this may be detrimental to trade, though on the other hand as an empire declines it will release hoarded wealth with which to defend itself, thereby increasing liquidity. Some notable episodes in the decline of these empires no doubt did impact on trade. In its last few decades the T’ang dynasty was less stable, and Guangzhou was sacked and foreign merchants massacred in 878 by a rebel army. At this same time, in 868–83, the Zanj slaves in lower Mesopotamia rebelled, and this is considered to have contributed to Abbasid decline. Later, the coup de grâce for the Abbasids, that is the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, may have disrupted trade, though this claim is open to doubt. The other great example of politics intervening in the ocean in our period is the cessation of Zheng He’s voyages in the 1430s as a result of a change in Ming policy. The precise reasons for this shift have been much debated, but certainly these expeditions were terminated by the court, and foreign trade greatly restricted. However, this coincides with the rise of Melaka, and it is a ‘chicken-and-egg’ matter as to whether the rise of Melaka meant the great expeditions were no longer needed, as compared with the rise of Melaka being to fill the gap left by the end of the voyages. In any case, the whole matter of this connection is difficult indeed to prove. Perhaps the point to keep in mind is that there were much more constant and important matters which affected merchants engaged in sea trade, namely did their imports meet local demand, and were prices high?
In the early 1340s Ibn Battuta was happily sailing along the west coast of India when his ship was attacked by pirates:
the infidels came out against us in twelve warships, fought fiercely against us and overcame us. They took everything I had preserved for emergencies; they took the pearls and rubies that the king of Ceylon had given me, they took my clothes and the supplies given me by pious people and saints. They left me no covering except my trousers. They took everything everybody had and set us down on the shore. I returned to Qaliqut and went into one of the mosques. One of the jurists sent me a robe, the qadi a turban and one of the merchants another robe.
Apart from again reminding us of how he could gear in to Islamic networks at need, this passage introduces the matter of piracy in the Indian Ocean in our period. Interestingly, Marco Polo had more or less the same problem, and we may note that Polo only slightly predated Ibn Battuta, for he died in 1324, a year before the latter set out from Morocco on his first hajj.
Polo wrote that on the west coast of India
there go forth every year more than a hundred corsair vessels on cruise. These pirates take with them their wives and children, and stay out the whole summer. Their method is to join in fleets of 20 or 30 of these pirate vessels together, and then they form what they call a sea cordon, that is, they drop off till there is an interval of 5 or 6 miles between ship and ship, so that they cover something like an hundred miles of sea, and no merchant vessel can escape them. For when any one corsair sights a vessel a signal is made by fire or smoke, and then the whole of them make for this, and seize the merchants and plunder them…. But now the merchants are aware of this, and go so well manned and armed, and with such great ships, that they don’t fear the corsairs. Still mishaps do befall them at times.
With the King’s connivance many corsairs launch from this part to plunder merchants. These corsairs have a covenant with the King that he shall get all the horses they capture, and all other plunder shall remain with them. The King does this because he has no horses of his own, whilst many are shipped from abroad towards India; for no ship ever goes thither without horses in addition to other cargo. The practice is naughty and unworthy of a king.
What these two unfortunate travellers are describing is either piracy or corsair activity. Whichever it may be, it is crucial to distinguish this from actual naval activity from port cities or other political entities, for at this time there were virtually no navies in the Indian Ocean, the exceptions being perhaps Zheng He’s voyages, and the activities in Sri Lanka, the islands, and the Malay world of the Colas. The real danger was from pirates and corsairs, the former to be seen as acting autonomously of any political entity, the latter connected, at least loosely, as Polo wrote, with a local ruler. Pirates were the most prevalent. Yet we need to keep in mind that some piracy is in the eye of the beholder; the so-called pirates could see themselves very differently.
Ibn Battuta had more than one skirmish with these predators, who were quite prepared to attack even very large ships. He set off from the Gulf of Cambay on an official mission from Muhammad bin Tughluq to the emperor of China. The mission had several ships, and one of them must have been a good size, as it carried seventy horses. Battuta’s own ship had fifty rowers and fifty Abyssinian men at arms: ‘These latter are the guarantors of safety on this sea; let there be but one of them on a ship and it will be avoided by the Indian pirates and idolators.’ Chinese accounts of the straits of Melaka, then and now a haven for pirates, complained that the locals ‘are very daring pirates. If they meet upon a foreign ship, they get into small boats, a hundred in number, and approach the enemy for several days. With a fair wind he may be lucky and escape. Otherwise he will be intercepted by them, and his goods will be plundered. Travellers who float around on the sea should guard against these robbers.’
Some pirates seem to have set up almost state-like structures. Ibn Majid south of Calicut found that the pirates there, operating out of the Kerala backwaters, were ‘ruled by their own rulers and number about 1000 men and are a people of both land and sea with small boats’. So also in the Gulf near Hurmuz in the twelfth century. The island of Kish was more or less a pirate state, or so the hostile accounts available say. These men raided up and down the Indian west coast, and across to East Africa. In 1135 they became very daring. They wrote to the ruler of Aden demanding a part of the city as protection against being raided. This was refused, so the pirate Amir sent fifteen ships, which entered Aden harbour and waited. They had no intention of landing: rather they wanted to capture merchant ships on their way back to India. Finally, two ships belonging to Abul Qasim Ramisht of Siraf, in the Gulf, appeared, but helped by troops from Aden they were able to beat off the pirates.
The Portuguese were the first European mariners to enter the Persian Gulf in force in the modern period. They dominated the Gulf from the early 16th century until the arrival of the British and Dutch in the early 17th century. With help from the East India Company, Shah Abbas of Persia drove the Portuguese out of their stronghold on Kharg Island in 1622. From that point onward, British commercial interests grew in importance even as Portuguese fortunes declined. But the Persian Gulf remained a strategic afterthought to British policymakers for almost 200 more years.
During the late 18th century, particularly after the death of the Shah Karim Khan in 1779, Persia lost control of the Gulf. The result was increased competition and conflict among the various coastal tribes of the Persian Gulf. That conflict devolved into raiding and, in British eyes, piracy. Arab corsairs based on the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula ranged far out into the Indian Ocean, threatening British shipping there as well as in the Persian Gulf.
The increase in piracy negatively impacted British trade in the region. Since the East India Company’s trade in the Persian Gulf was relatively limited, it made no effort to suppress piracy in the Gulf. But independent British merchants, known as “country traders,” were affected. These country traders developed fairly substantial and lucrative trade relationships in the Gulf. They exchanged British manufactured goods for pearls, Persian silks, and specie that were used in the China trade. Even though the Arabs normally left the well-armed East India Company vessels alone, they sometimes attacked the smaller, more vulnerable country traders. British merchants, of course, condemned such transgressions and pressed both the British Government and East India Company to take action.
The strategic outlook also changed at the beginning of the 19th century. Because the Persian Gulf was one of the primary mail links between the United Kingdom and India, the pirates impinged on official Britain when they attacked British mail ships. Even more important, the French expedition to Egypt (1798-1801) and France’s short-lived alliance with the Shah of Persia (1807-1809) raised the threat of French invasion through India’s northwest territories. British policymakers began to view the Persian Gulf as a buffer zone, protecting India’s western flank.
The death of the Sultan of Oman in November 1804 led to further aggression against British merchant shipping in the Gulf. At the time of the Sultan’s death, the British were actively pursuing an alliance with Oman. East India Company leaders realized that Oman, because of its location at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, was perfectly situated to restrict French and Dutch access to the Gulf. But Britain’s relationship with Oman put it at odds with one of the tribes most involved in piracy. The al-Qawasim were nominal vassals of the Sultan of Oman, but when he died, they reneged on their allegiance and broke away from Oman. Britain became a de facto enemy of the al-Qawasim. But that circumstance had distinct advantages since suppression of piracy in the Gulf not only would appease merchant and shipping interests in Britain but also would enhance Great Britain’s strategic relationship with Oman.
All three conditions that facilitate piracy are readily apparent when considering the Persian Gulf. The al-Qawasim were ideally situated geographically to perpetrate acts of piracy. The tribe’s territory included some 25 coastal towns on the western side of the Arabian Peninsula from the tip south to Dubai. Its main port was Ras al-Khaymah, which is located some 50 miles from the northern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. At that point, the Strait of Hormuz is only about 30 miles wide. Thus, the al-Qawasim could easily control traffic entering or leaving the Persian Gulf. The decline of Persian control of the Gulf and the death of the Sultan of Oman led to political turmoil, which facilitated piracy in the Gulf. Furthermore, since the United Kingdom was fully involved in the Napoleonic Wars, the British lacked the resources to aggressively respond to piracy in the Persian Gulf. Since the al-Qawasim depended on the sea for their existence, whether by trading, harvesting pearls, or raiding, there was considerable land-based support for their piratical activities within their territory as well.
The attacks began in the last quarter of the 18th century. In December 1778, six al-Qawasim vessels attacked a British ship carrying official dispatches. After a running battle that lasted 3 days, the British ship succumbed and was taken to Ras al-Khaymah as a prize. Encouraged by their success, the al-Qawasim assaulted two more British vessels the next year. The most significant incident occurred in October 1797 when the al-Qawasim stormed the East India Company cruiser Viper while in port in Bushehr. Although the company ship drove off the attackers, Viper suffered 32 casualties out of a crew of 65.
After they broke away from Oman, the al-Qawasim began levying tolls on all shipping entering or leaving the Gulf. When the British refused to pay the toll, the al-Qawasim retaliated by raiding British shipping. They captured two British ships in 1804 and attacked a 24-gun East India Company cruiser in January 1805. There was a short respite after the Omanis, led by the British Resident in Muscat, blockaded the main al- Qawasim fleet in Ras al-Khaymah and forced them to submit.
The truce did not, however, last long. In the meantime, the al- Qawasim continued to consolidate their power. By 1808, the al-Qawasim fleet numbered some 63 large vessels, 810 small dhows, and 18,000 to 25,000 fighters. In April 1808, two al-Qawasim dhows attacked another East India Company ship, the Fury (6 guns). Once the summer pearling season ended, the al-Qawasim resumed the war against the United Kingdom. The violence quickly escalated. When they captured the East India Company schooner Sylph (8 guns) in October 1808, the pirates killed 22 crew members. Only the captain survived. Wounded when the Arabs took the ship, the captain hid in a storeroom below deck and was rescued when the HMS La Nereide (38 guns) recaptured the Sylph as the raiders sailed her back to Ras al-Khaymah. The next month, some 40 al-Qawasim dhows entered the Indian Ocean and wreaked havoc on British and Indian shipping. Within a short time, they captured 20 merchant vessels and shut down commerce along the western coast of India.
This proved too much for the East India Company to accept so, in September 1809, a combined land and naval force was dispatched to the Persian Gulf to deal with the pirates. The force included 2 Royal Navy frigates, 8 East India Company cruisers, 1 East India Company bomb ketch, and 1,300 soldiers, half of whom were Europeans. Its primary objective was Ras al-Khaymah, which was assaulted and captured on 13 November 1809. Company soldiers sacked the town and burned 60 dhows trapped in the harbor. Later, the British force attacked two al-Qawasim strongholds in Persia: Linga and Luft.
British operations against the al-Qawasim pirates demonstrate the difficulty of trying to eliminate piracy using primarily naval forces. Although the British inflicted a substantial amount of damage on the al- Qawasim, the impact of the 1809 expedition was limited. Once the British returned to India, the al-Qawasim quickly recuperated. By the fall of 1813, al-Qawasim dhows once again hunted for prey off the coast of India. Further pirate cruises were conducted in the spring and fall of 1814. The al-Qawasim acted even more aggressively in the Persian Gulf, attacking two American, one French, and three Indian ships. In 1816, the British sent another expedition to punish the pirates, but it was even less effective because the naval force limited its actions to merely bombarding Ras al- Khaymah. During the 1817-1818 trading season, the situation was so bad that convoys were used to mitigate the risk of attack.