Daily Archives: 4 December 2006

English Pirates in the Mediterranean, 1600s

There were also Christian havens in the Mediterranean for English pirates with no desire to apostasise or live among the Turks. Foremost of these was Leghorn (Livorno), whose ruler, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, was intent on building up a fleet of Christian corsairs to sail under his flag and was more than willing to employ English sailors and vessels of dubious background to harass Muslims. ‘He receives, shelters and caresses the worst of the English, men who are publicly proclaimed pirates by the King.’ Nor was he alone in employing Englishmen to build up a private navy. The Duke of Savoy was also keen to join in the corsair game in this chaotic early seventeenth century and he too was to welcome pirates, making his ports of Nice and Villafranca ‘an asylum and refuge for all scoundrels, offering safety to everyone of whatsoever sect, religion, creed, outlawed for whatsoever crime’, as the Venetian ambassador in Savoy reported to his masters in 1613….

These English pirates of the Mediterranean were fairly short-lived in their impact on the shipping of the region, but they had a certain style. A captain might be described as ‘a person of some consideration in his way’ and many were indeed gentlemen dressed in the height of fashion ‘in purple satin’ or in ‘black velvet trousers and jacket, crimson silk socks’, a perfect model for the noble or gentleman corsair of later fiction. With the passage of the years their crews became fairly polyglot as men of the Mediterranean were added to their original English crews, especially Greeks who were the best pilots for the Adriatic and Levant where most of their prizes were taken. Most observers were impressed by the strength and armament of the English ships and by the fighting valour of their crews. They were also amazed by the pirates’ destructiveness as they ransacked prizes and by ‘the indifference with which they lose their ships’, both in wrecks and battles, characteristics which we will find again in the pirates of a century later. The English also had a reputation, shared with the Dutch, for blowing up their ships to avoid capture. In 1611, for instance, the Spanish Admiral Don Pedro de Toledo captured a Turkish pirate ship, but its English consort, ‘being wont to seek a voluntary death rather than yield, blew up their ship when they saw resistance useless’. Blowing up their ships or at least threatening to do so would become standard pirate practice.

SOURCE: The Pirate Wars, by Peter Earle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), pp. 29-30

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Coal Ships as the Royal Navy’s Nursery

By the time of the industrial revolution, Britain already had a relatively sophisticated transportation network. This was partly because of its accommodating waters, but partly because of its coal. As the heaviest and bulkiest of daily necessities, coal was the nation’s cutting edge cargo, the one that kept forcing it to find new ways to move things.

It was noted in the 1600s that “it is the great quantities of Bulksome Commodities that multiplies ships and men,” and commodities didn’t get more bulksome than coal. And so, as the coal trade grew in the latter half of the 1500s and in the 1600s, so did the nation’s shipping fleet. Already in the early 1600s, more ships were used to move coal than everything else combined. England would no doubt eventually have developed its shipping industry without the impetus of the coal trade; but London’s growing dependence on coal left it no choice in the matter, and surely accelerated the nation’s maritime investment. Once they had built the ships, the ports, the sailing fleet, and the skills required for the coal trade, the English found it much easier to expand their maritime trade to other commodities and other locations. According to one historian, “the coal trade may be regarded, in short, as a magnet which helped to draw Englishmen to seek their profit and their livelihood in ocean commerce.”

The expansion of England’s private fleet would prove vital not just commercially but militarily, too. Despite being an island nation, England had not always been a maritime power. Henry VIII built its first real Royal Navy, but it was not strong, and in times of trouble, the nation had to commandeer private vessels: Elizabeth I’s navy was more powerful than her father’s, but even so, it needed the help of dozens of armed merchant ships to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. England’s coal ships were particularly important for national defense, and by the early 1600s it was axiomatic that the coal trade was the “chief nursery” for English seamen. Although there were more vessels involved in fishing, they were smaller and of less use to the navy. The sturdier coal ships, with their larger crews, were a vital national asset and could be called up quickly when needed. And when called upon, there was no refusing; the coal ships and their thousands of crew members were pressed into service, by force, many times in English history. In fact, in times of war, those involved in the coal trade demanded additional wages because they ran such a high risk of being forced into the navy.

Paradoxically, the coastal coal trade was another reason a navy was so important in the first place. London and the south of England had become dependent on this fragile lifeline to the north, subject to attack by pirates and foreign powers. The navy was frequently dispatched to escort the coal vessels, in convoys, down the English coast. Still, the coastal coal trade was seen not mainly as a vulnerability but as a national asset, and it came to enjoy what one historian called “an almost superstitious reverence” as the source of England’s naval strength. There were even those in the 1600s who opposed trying to find inland coal supplies closer to London because it would have choked off the precious coastal trade.

SOURCE: Coal: A Human History, by Barbara Freese (Penguin, 2003), pp. 85-87

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