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Outlaws of the Atlantic

Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail

Table of Contents

1. The Sailor’s Yarn
2. Edward Barlow, “Poor Seaman”
3. Henry Pitman, “Fugitive Traitor”
4. Under the Banner of King Death: Pirates
5. A Motley Crew in the American Revolution
6. African Rebels: From Captives to Shipmates
7. “Black Pirates”: The Amistad Rebellion, 1839

Excerpt — From Chapter One: “The Sailor’s Yarn”

In 1724 Captain Charles Johnson, a man who knew about things maritime, made an important observation about the global circulation of knowledge. He wrote that mathematicians and geographers, “Men of the greatest Learning,” seldom travel further than their private studies for their knowledge and were therefore not qualified to give accurate descriptions of peoples and places around the globe. Such knowledge was beyond their experience. These learned gentlemen were “obliged to take their Accounts from the Reports of illiterate Men” — that is to say, from sailors. “It is for this Reason,” Johnson solemnly concluded, “that all our Maps and Atlasses are so monstrously faulty.”

Captain Johnson was wrong, in my view, to blame faulty mapping on sailors; he was also wrong in saying that sailors were illiterate. (About two-thirds of the common seamen of his day could sign their names.) But in another, more profound respect he knew exactly whereof he spoke. Learned gentlemen – not only mathematicians and geographers but philosophers and statesmen and writers among others — had gone long gone down to the docks to talk to, and learn from, sailors, who occupied a strategic position in the worldwide division of labor. In the age of sail, the workers of the wooden world were themselves, in their minds and bodies, vectors of global communication. This is one of the great discoveries made by maritime historians over the last generation and one that is highly relevant to understanding of the history of the planet. If we are to understand human community in the age of sail, we must understand another concept with the same root: communication.

If the port city was the world’s most cosmopolitan place in the eighteenth century, the waterfront was the port city’s most cosmopolitan place. The several blocks by the ocean, sea, or river were where the commodities of the world market were shipped and transhipped, loaded and unloaded by as motley (that is, multi-ethnic) a collection of humanity to be found anywhere on the planet at the time. From the decks of the ships, to the wharves and the streets, to the warehouses, the grog shops, the taverns and public houses, the waterfront was a “cultural contact zone” of the first and most formative order. These places constituted the material setting of a “proletarian public sphere,” the importance of which has rarely been recognized. It had its own means of communication and sailors were central to them.

That sphere, that zone, those places, and those cosmopolitan maritime workers are the subjects of this chapter. The sailor’s “reports” in the broadest sense — his stories, more specifically his yarns — helped to create cosmopolitan community in the age of sail. It is a very big subject and in some ways an impossible one, even for someone who has been studying sailors for more than thirty-five years as I have. I therefore begin this volume by offering an essay in the original meaning of the term: “a first tentative effort in learning or practice.” The sailor’s yarn is a key to understanding how the world worked when men on tall ships connected the oceans and continents.

The Storyteller

On my voyage to understand the genesis and meaning of this elusive thing, the sailor’s yarn, I have found a good shipmate in the German-Jewish writer and critic Walter Benjamin. In a famous essay entitled “The Storyteller” Benjamin explains that historically there have been two essential types of tale-tellers: those who traveled, those who have “come from afar” with stories to tell, epitomized by the roving sailor; and those who “stayed at home” and worked the soil, those who know the local tales and traditions, epitomized by the peasant. Late in the essay he adds a third type, which combines aspects of the previous two and is based on yet another kind of labor: the artisan, whose workshop (the storytelling venue) contained within it both the sedentary master craftsman and the mobile journeyman. Benjamin thus creates a storytelling typology, and something of a circuit, among workers in the countryside, in the city, and on the ocean. These types combined “the lore of faraway places, such as the much-traveled man brings home, with the lore of the past, as it best reveals itself to natives of a place.” Benjamin anchors communication in workplace experience.