A roundup of many things piratical…
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1. Lionel Wafer, a Welshman, was born in 1640 and became a surgeon until around 1680, when he was convinced to “come aboard” as the medical officer for a privateer. Wafer was, thenceforth, a pirate surgeon. It was in this capacity that he found himself trekking through the Isthmus of Darien in Panama, where gunpowder in his pocket was accidentally lit and he suffered a serious burn to his knee.
Unable to walk, he was left behind to live with the Kuna, peoples indigenous to the area. They applied an herbal poultice to his knee, which healed, and Wafer lived with them for nearly a year. His life there was a strange contradiction: he adopted their dress, language, and cultural practices, but also tried to convince them of the the superiority of European medicine. The Kuna practiced bloodletting. So did Wafer, but he argued that the European way was better: “Perceiving their ignorance … I told the King that if he pleased I would shew him a better way without putting the Patient to Soe much torments.” (He also observed with fascination and mild terror their religious practices; he described them as “very expert and skillful in Diabolical Conjurations.”).
When the crew came back for him the next year, Wafer was adorned in the clothing of the Kuna and was unrecognizable to them. He later wrote a book, A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America, an ethnographic study of his experiences. I cannot recommend strongly enough these two articles: [1,2] about Wafer and his relationship with the Kuna, particularly focusing on the collision of two different ways of thinking about medicine and religion.
A few years later, Wafer was hired as a consultant for what’s called the “Darien scheme” but what might as well be known as “Scotland’s boner.” Scotland’s economic elite were looking to grow their coffers and make Scotland a global political power. So they put in motion a plan to settle the eastern edge of Panama, and link the Atlantic to the Pacific, making astronomical sums on rent and tolls. This plan worked…two centuries later, for the US. Scotland, in contrast, faceplanted.
The first inkling that things might go wrong was when England backed out as an investor, forcing Scotland to foot the bill alone. The first wave of 1200 Scottish settlers reached Darien in 1698, and it should tell you something that their first task on arrival was to dig graves for everyone who had died during the voyage. It should tell you something further that their encampment was armed with 50 cannon and no source of water. Malnutrition and disease ran rampant; what little food they had came from hunting giant turtles and trading with the natives, and they were constantly beset by Spaniards defending “their” territory. The 300 remaining survivors left in 1699—but since no news of the disaster had reached home, just as they left a second wave of 1200 settlers left Scotland. The second group had it just as rough.
So, the Darien scheme failed spectacularly. On top of the 1000+ casualties, Scotland had dumped somewhere between ¼ and ½ of their entire GDP into the endeavor and were nearly bankrupted. Less than a decade later, the weakened nation united with England. Some conspiracy theories hold that England had treacherously withdrawn their financial support to achieve precisely this end: ensuring the scheme’s failure and destabilizing their rivals. More on the Darien scheme here.
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2. “Roaring Dan” Seavey was born in 1865, and was a famous pirate of the high seas. And by high seas I actually mean Lake Michigan. Descriptions give you the impression that Seavey was a knave, a “colorful” character, a rapscallion. This is untrue: he was a degenerate.
Here’s a list of his “accomplishments”:
- As a low-level government lackey, bareknuckle boxed a suspect for hours before ending the fight by dropping a piano on his opponent’s head, killing him.
- Convinced horse breeders that a special kind of hay could yield faster, stronger horses, then made a killing by being the only source for the hay.
- Settled in Milwaukee with his wife and daughter, then up and left to join the Klondike gold rush, leaving them behind for good.
- When overzealous shore-town vice cops cracked down on houses of ill repute, transformed his 42-foot schooner into a floating brothel and tavern, subject only to the laws of the high seas.
- Was known for “moon cussing,” or modifying safety lights to cause other ships to run aground so he could steal their shit.
- Poached deer and make a fortune in the venison smuggling trade, which was a apparently a thing you could make money in in the early 20th century.
- In 1908, straight-up stole the Nellie Johnson by plying the crew with massive amounts of free booze, then tossing them overboard once they were suitably soused. He then stole off with the entire lumber-laden vessel.
The Nellie Johnson was eventually tracked down by a revenue service cutter, and while newspapers declared the end of the “pirate” Seavey, he was mysteriously indicted only for sedition and mutiny, but not piracy. He was never charged, and surviving records are so scant that there’s no accepted explanation for his strange evasion of johnny law. He lived the rest of his days in northern Wisconsin and Michigan, mostly off the radar, except for an injury in a “suspicious sawmill fire” in the 1920s. He died in 1949; check out his obit here, and a longer bio here.
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3. Some miscellaneous pirating notes:
- Julius Caesar was once kidnapped by pirates. Not realizing at first who they’d captured, they requested a ransom of 20 talents, which Caesar scoffed at, offering 50. He spent the next 40 days on their ship while waiting for the money, playing cards with them, and in general acting nothing at all like their captive. After the ransom was paid and he was released, he hopped in his own boat and tracked the pirates down, literally crucifying the lot of them.
- Caligula, in contrast, once declared war on the god of the sea, and ordered his military to attack the ocean with spears. He then claimed victory, and told them to collect shells as their spoils. OK, so it turns out that Caligula story is apocryphal, but still.
- Ching Shih (also known as Ching I Sao) was perhaps the most prolific Chinese pirate in history. At its peak, her fleet consisted of some 300 ships and, by some estimates, up to 80,000 crew. Eighty thousand. In fact, her militia was so powerful that she was able to simply retire with all of her booty, facing no consequences from the government.
- “Crimping” was the practice of kidnapping people and selling them to work on ships. Joseph Kelly was known as “King of the Crimps” for once selling, for $53 a head—and I swear I’m not making this up—22 men who had died after drinking embalming fluid. He absconded before the purchaser recognized the swindle. I cannot find any backstory on those 22 guys who drank embalming fluid. Kelly is also said to hold the crimping “record” for kidnapping 50 men in 3 hours. I’m sure it’s an official record.
- Jetsons: Invasion of the Planet Pirates was released for Super Nintendo in 1994. The Jetsons, I was surprised to learn, ran for only one season of 24 episodes in 1962-3, though 50 additional episodes were produced in the mid-1980s. I also learned that the family dog’s tendency to put an “r” in front of every word (“ruh roh relroy”) is, linguistically, known as consonant mutation.
- In 1989, disaffected and socially maladroit high school sophomore Mark Hunter began a pirate radio station, broadcasting anonymously from his Arizona basement. Promising to “Talk Hard,” he galvanized and united the various and sundry social cliques of his school, enraged parents, and exposed the corrupt school administration before being arrested by the FCC and…wait, that’s Pump up the Volume, certainly the best movie about a teen pirate radio station starring Christian Slater.