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Saturday, June 3, 2017

Pirates and Privateers of the Americas

Grifters Opportunists and Pirates

Anyone who thinks that Privatizing our roads, railroads and infrastructure. Or legalizing monopolies is a good thing, doesn't know the real history of piracy and monopoly in this country. As we brace ourselves for another round of privateering, it is important to outline some of that history.

Peg Legs and Eye Patches

When we think of pirates we think of peg legs and eye patches. That is because the people traditionally hung as pirates were usually veteran seamen who'd been wounded in battles fighting as parts of crews of pirate ships and "privateers." Successful pirates could become gentlemen, but most would find themselves poor and lost. Hung by the yardarm, or cast out crawling through the streets and begging in so me port city. Pirates are either outlaws or have a letter saying everything they do is legitimate. In between is a gray area.

An Ancient Tradition

And the kind we think of were outlaws in every way. Often they were more free aboard a good ship, where they practiced a kind of rough democracy, than at sea on a "Legitimate ship" or in any port. To get people to give their lives freely, you have to promise them a fair shake and some freedom.

Pirates and the Bronze Age Collapse

Actual pirates shared their loot with the crew. Piracy dates back millennia. It was known in the bronze age. In the middle of the Bronze Age Collapse (1700-1200 BCE) pirates and pirate fleets descended on coastal peoples and invaded Egypt. It is hard to say whether piracy was a result of or a cause of, the bronze age collapse.

Beware of Greeks Swindling Trojans

Piracy, Smuggling, slave trade, were all alternative means of gaining goods for exchange and creating wealth for coastal communities. The more isolated and on the edge of civilization, the more tempting piracy was. The Greeks of Homer's Iliad were probably pirates. So, probably, were the Trojans. Privateering is private warfare. In the age of chieftans and kings that was the only kind there was. And the story of the Trojan Horse shows that grifting has been part of the tradition from the beginning.


I don't think it's an accident that the Viking Age in Western Europe commenced with Charlemagne's invasion of Saxony & forced conversion of the Saxons. To the Vikings invading Western Europe the viking age was as much warfare as opportunism. When they couldn't trade, they'd steal. The Vikings inherited from an even older Iron Age tradition. The Romans had fought pirates along the coasts of Britain their whole period in the North Sea. The Saxons came as mercenaries, tradesmen and pirates at the end of the Roman period. If merchants hadn't kept their activities secret we'd probably know they most likely visited the Americas too.


Privateers weren't always "illegal" -- at least not from the Point of View of their Home Port. Privateers were warriors who were given a license to wage private warfare, take "prizes" from enemy merchants, raid towns, and to keep the loot. The best of them shared the loot. But they didn't always share it fairly.

A License To Steal

Thus the most fearsome of pirates hunt with a license, that makes all their thievery perfectly legal. Privateering was lucrative and it built the English, Scots and Welsh royalty, from an offshore backwater of Europe into an Empire. In a sense the British Navy was a Pirate Fleet, at least from the Point of View of Britain's opponents and rivals. And Privateers were the most effective of them. They had an incentive to steal and a license to kill.

Terminology of Piracy

Privateering gave us English terminology. The word "Tory" means a "pursuer" and referred to pirates and highwaymen. Tories came to power when Britain was at war and could inspire common folks to fight for them. They might call themselves "conservatives" or "liberals" but their tradition is piracy. "Filibusterers" and "freebooters" where pirates who often raided towns and cities. Later on they were a cross between mercenary armies and invaders. The United States, while officially at peace in the 1800s sent out Filibusterers like the Walkers to terrorize Central America. They learned this sort of piracy from their British Forebears.

Pirates of the East India Company

And the East India Company became the model for the modern pirate fleet. That Company, founded as a mission to the Mogul Empire, from the time of Thomas Roe, who reached the court of the Mughal Emperor in 1608, as the emissary of King James I, til the company was bailed out by a formal Lord Viceroy, the East India company pioneered all the methods of looting of modern privateering.

Swindling the Emperor out of his Empire

They not only established trading missions, they convinced the Moguls to privatize tax collection, subverted or subsumed one local lord or king after another, and eventually reduced the Mogul emperor to a salaried figure head, who eventually was thrown out of power so that the British could rule directly. The British East India company also pioneered other forms of subversion, cultivating the opium trade with China, cultivating Poppies in it's India possessions and selling the opium to Chinese so they could penetrate the Chinese market and subvert it. British influence and rule of China led to both China and India losing valuable industries to cheap knock-offs mass produced in Britain. East India Company traders were adept at swindling people to give up real wealth for trinkets.

Once Sold, they never come back

The East India Company managed to take over from the Moguls by buying rights and privileges from them. Once something was sold to the Company it soon became a means of exploiting ordinary people and oppressing them. The East India Company went from trade stations to invading Afghanistan and pitting Moslems against Hindus to try to keep them in line and dependent on them. The British Empire was a pirate empire, and in many ways our country is too. Eventually India would revolt against the economic royalty created by the East India Company, including mercenaries, functionaries and elites. The Brits would leave, but much of the system they brought remains.

Benefits to the Few and fewer

Privateering made small numbers of British nobility very rich, turned some of the gentry into lords and peers, and produced a semblance of a middle class from functionaries and civil servants. People like George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling found their eyes opened to amazing cultures they otherwise might never have seen. And even after our independence Americans often served or fought with British pirates, I mean East India employees, in their Empire.


Pirate corporations would be pyramids. At the bottom would be the marks, locals, colonial subjects etc... in the middle would be folks acting as enlisted troops and functionaries and officers for them. And at the top would be layers of ever wealthier elites. In India most of the loyal troops of the East India Company were native Sepoys; Gurkas, Sikhs, as well as Hindus and Muslims.

Pirates of the United States

Our Country was founded by pirates. Sir Francis Drake and his followers like Sir Walter Raleigh, also were instrumental in creating the Virginia Company and founding colonies on our coast. Pirates in the English Navy would have children who were peers, if they didn't hang, and the younger children of British nobility would go to sea or emigrate to the Americas to find their fortune. The Pirate Tradition provided a means to upward mobility for commoners, into the gentry, with the hope that from the gentry they might rise even further. Mobility was limited. The Americas also became a refuge for people swindled out of land and resources in Britain and Europe.

The Real Tea Party

The USA was a place of Yeomen settlers, but also of gentry. When the Colonies rose in discontent, it wasn't because tea was expensive, it was because Tea was an East India Company monopoly and was dumping tea on our market to drive out any competition. Our merchants were afraid they'd soon be subject to the East India Company rule the way that it was starting to take over and loot the whole of India. We were revolting against a system of a predatory corporation that aimed at ruling our country as a monopoly.

Pirates of the American Revolution

When we fought the British, we built the largest "pirate fleet" ever to fight them. Robert Morris was one of our richest founders, partly from building and running this fleet. When the Continental Army complained of starvation and lack of weapons, this was because most of those weapons were going to private vessels so they could go out in search of wealth.

Robert Morris Privateer Navy

Robert Morris was styled a pirate captain. My childhood hero John Paul Jones is still reviled as a pirate along the West Coast of England and Scotland. He raided there during the Revolutionary war. He went to Russia when it was over because there was no need for a Navy once the war was done. In 1812, when the British raided up the Chesapeake, one of their targets was the Port of Baltimore, where the United States was mass producing Baltimore Clippers, small Briggs that were mostly useful for piracy. We have a pirate tradition too.

Corporations as Privateers

The earliest corporations that weren't towns, or religious orders, were ship companies. Ship companies were merchants, when there was something to trade, fishermen, smugglers and pirates when possible. A ships company was chartered to make money for the investors. How they did it was up to the Captain.

Triangular Trade

The British "Triangular Trade" was ordinary merchant behavior in Europe or other "civilized ports." The leg from North America to Europe, and vice versa, delivered trade goods & Rum to North America, and carried raw materials back to England. But the leg to the carribean and latin America was almost always a smuggling operation. From the plantations sugar, cotton, indigo, etc.... To the plantation, trade goods and slaves. In Britain they'd turn the sugar to rum, the cotton and indigo to clothing, and produce guns and gunpowder to maintain order and for the third leg.

The Third leg, Slaving

And The third leg was always a mix of merchandising, filibustering and smuggling. European Traders traded for, attacked and captured, or bought slaves. There really wasn't much difference between a privateer ship's company doing smuggling and one that was a pirate, except the pirate was an outlaw to be hunted down. A ship involved in commerce had to be "respectible," if they captured a "prize" that they weren't supposed to, they'd have to kill the crew so that "dead men would tell no tales." Pirate if got caught. Honest merchant if not. After the Revolutionary War, the United States outlawed slavery. We'd have American Warships off the coast of Africa, trying to catch American pirates carrying slaves from Africa. We also developed a slave trade of our own, "breeding" slaves in the "border states" and shipping them to our deep south to work our own plantations. New Orleans and Washington DC were trading stations in this piratical business.

Pirate Bankers

Successful pirates would use their loot as collateral to issue notes that acted like Checks or notes of indebtedness. They'd loan that to others, or pay for goods with it. They'd also invest it in companies. A wealthy man could use his paper as money. Private banks would loan money against deposits of gold and silver. Sometimes they'd take the gold and silver and split town. Then people would come to the business and demand their gold back. That became a traditional means by which some would make money and everyone else would lose their shirts. This was known as a "run on the bank."


The folks who would engage in graft and theft, would leave town. The term for that became "grafter" + "drifter" or grifter. To this day Grifting is a term for the swindling pirates who convince people to give them their money.

It is no accident that John Pierpoint Morgan claimed to be a descendant of Henry Morgan. A list of the captains with Henry Morgan or Sir Francis Drake maps to later British nobility. Trump inventing a coat of Arms is not a new thing. Successful modern pirates become bankers.

Anything Goes to China

The pursuit of profits led sailors to travel to the far corners of the earth seeking loot. Most of the time they needed trade goods to get that loot. I already described how the Brits developed opium as a trade good. Why? Because, until the Brits developed quality knock offs, the best dishes and plates in the world came from China, hence the name China. Americans entered the China Trade in the 1800s. By the 1840s they'd developed the most amazing sailing ships in the world to reach China in some semblance of a good pace. These Ships "Clipper Ships" were large, beautiful, deadly to sailors, and lucrative. Some would sail the world long past their lives. Some would serve as smuggling ships during the Civil War.


And modernization drove change. People in the United States and Britain started trying to behave in a more civilized manner. They began lighting their streets. What did they need for this? Whale oil. Americans and Brits built whaling ships. Whaling ships sailed the entire world hunting whale oil. They nearly exterminated many species in the process. An entire Whaling fleet was lost in Alaska in 1871 when the weather changed suddenly. Smuggling, whaling, whatever brought in the profits. Eventually the whaling fleets ran out of whales they could get to. They nearly drove them extinct. We seem to have a tradition of exploiting goods til they are gone. Our logging pirates denuded entire mountains and regions of the country of their forests. Extractive piracy leaves people broke, dispossessed and destitute. It is piracy of a particularly vicious sort - just usually legal or legalized by corrupt politicians and officials.

Pirates of the Civil War

The oil business transformed piracy. Coal and Oil created better weapons, repeating riffles, machine guns, riffled cannon. It spread the influence of piratical corporations and made smuggling more lucrative. Warfare became larger scale and more lucrative. Pirates no longer needed to risk their own lives, they could manufacture and sell the lethal goods for fighting. They learned from slavers in Africa that selling guns was more effective than carrying them into battle themselves. Piracy thrives on conflict and mass murder, epidemics, conflict and hatred provided an endless stream of opportunity for modern pirates. Where once they had to ride camels or sail ships, ironclads and accounting giants took their place. Black Slavery ended in the 1860s in a horrible civil war. But vast fortunes were made by Northern & Southern Pirates. And those fortunes would be reinvested in industrializing the country and building railroads everywhere.

Coal and Rails

Coal extraction enabled railroads. It also enabled the Bessemer steel production system that produced high quality steel and built better quality locomotives, bigger bridges and enabled modern cities. Railroad barons would swindle Congress and the entire country, in the 1870s, and bring down the entire economy in the process. People got used to using a paper currency issued by the Government. Railroad barons and weapons manufacturers convinced the government to give much of that paper to them, they used it to swindle investors into buying paper and then bought expensive homes or hoarded gold and silver to protect the value of their virtual wealth. After the fraud of the Credit Mobilier scam was revealed in 1873 the entire world had a major depression. The Gold bugs blamed the Greenbacks papers. But it was private paper and private money that had brought the economy down.


The whaling industry gave way to a hunt for oil. Filibustering pirates descended on Pennsylvania and other places where oil could be found to dig it, and refine it into kerosene, which became a substitute for Oil. Soon a few pirates, like John D. Rockefeller, realized that organizing the oil industry was more lucrative than digging for oil. Rockefeller created a standard product of kerosene. He called the company that made it "Standard Oil." And following the path pioneered by companies like the East India Company, began working to integrate the oil business, trade and finance into what became the Standard Oil Company. Standard Oil would eventually feud with the Railroads, build pipelines to undermine their monopoly, replace that monopoly, and in the process wreck the economy. This occurred in the late 1870s.

There would be so many cycles of booms and depressions that it seemed there was no way to control them until reforms were made in business in the 1930s. We then had a period without massive depressions that lasted until those reforms were dismantled. Modern Privateers add Graft to their pirate tricks.

Modern Privateering via Accounting

Nowadays, pirates wear Armani Suits, carry brief cases and operate out of 100 story shiny Office Towers. But in their hearts the same lawlessness still dominates. Japanese, Chinese & European Pirates may have put away their Swords but pens and accounting ledgers are just as lethal. They can fund religious fundamentalism while being freebooting atheists in their hearts. The World is dominated by Grifters, Opportunists and Pirates, even more than in the Bronze, Iron or "Modern" Ages.

I was (and still might) make this an entire books with illustrations and details. But I wanted to summarize the subject because it comes up again.

Accounting Money as a form of Piracy

Privatizing has been popular because those with reserves of Gold or Silver, or pretend to have such reserves, offer themselves out as paragons of virtue and promise quick returns if people will give over their goods and services to them. They usually don't deliver. We built canals, that sometimes were never finished because the contractors building them absconded with the pay for their workers, or that were neglected when the profits weren't great enough. We replaced canals with turnpikes, that were usually so neglected they went bankrupt and then were taken over by the State. Then Stagecoaches. Then we built railroads, with similar results. We've subsidized privateer after privateer, usually with post office revenues, only to have any commerce that is successful monopolized by some pirate company. After the railroads came the airlines. Look at what is happening.

Boom Bust driven by Swindled Money

Pirates build roads, railroads, communications networks and pipelines --> and then either abandon them or neglect them. Pirates still prefer quick profits, booty and swindle over hard work and progress. The pirate tradition is the darkside of modernity. It is also a grifter tradition. Pirates long ago learned they could get loot faster by swindling people than shooting them. Pretend money used to trick people into giving over their real resources and hard earned earnings, and then somehow the scams always burn off in such a way that they'd foreclose on the poor rubes who trusted them to "borrow" accounting entries from them. The basis of banking is an old swindle, that happens to work to get everyone working except the grifter, until the grifter flees or something goes wrong.

Stretching an Analogy

On the other hand people labeled as pirates have given us democracy, concepts of universal rights and principles of common-wealth. Tom Paine Got many of his ideas on Democracy from serving on privateers that were captained justly in the 1750s. He got some of his opposition to tyranny from another privateer. I'm using piracy as a metaphor for some really evil human behavior. The analogy gets attention and it also works. Our problem is pirates and pirates who are too greedy to share the loot with their crews. And the other part of the problem is our notion that wealth = gold and silver. It = ships, men, homes and families, food and clothing; and the tools with which we make our lives easier.

Don't turn our infrastructure over to Pirates

The key lesson here, is that if you listen to the grifters and turn over your public goods to pirates, they will swindle you out of them. The way that the East India Company destroyed the Mogul Empire. And it is why we don't have passenger trains in the United States. It is not "supply and demand." It is public policy. Sell them our infrastructure and they will take wealth from us for decades and we will never get it back. Selling our infrastructure creates Oligarchy. But that is another topic.

Related Posts:
GOP=Grifters Oligarchs and Pirates
Origins of East India Company Pirates

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