July 12th, 2008 Headsman
On this date in 1726, an obscure boatswain who had mutinied for the liberty of piracy succumbed but did not submit on the gallows in Boston.
Fly overthrew (figuratively and literally — they both ended up in the drink) a tyrannous captain and first mate on a British slave ship in May, reconstituting it Fame’s Revenge, and in a northward journey from North Carolina to New England captured a few less-than-lucrative ships in a month and change.
A minor character in the annals of seaborne pillage. So why should historian Marcus Rediker devote the opening chapter to his Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (review) to this man?
[T]he early-eighteenth-century pirate ship was a world turned upside down, made so by the articles of agreement that established the rules and customs of the pirates’ alternative social order. Pirates “distributed justice,” elected their officers, divided their loot equally, and established a different discipline. They limited the authority of the captain, resisted many of the practices of capitalist merchant shipping industry, and maintained a multicultural, multiracial, and multinational social order. They demonstrated quite clearly — and subversively — that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal Navy.
Rediker’s sympathetic but unromantic work treats the radical, doomed sphere of resistance pirates offered to the enormous cruelty of the developing Atlantic economy: grinding exploitation of white sailors in the service of the black slave trade under the iron hand of the empire (British, in this case, but hardly exclusive to Old Blighty.)
Fleeing from hideous “benefits” of Imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance, from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the plantations, the Buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted to the “state of Nature.” Having declared themselves “at war with all the world,” they sailed forth to plunder under mutual contracts called “Articles” which were so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the Captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares. Flogging and punishments were forbidden — quarrels were settled by vote or by the code duello.
Certainly many men (and women) turned to piracy for many different reasons. Rediker’s work on the systematic brutality in the guts of the imperial economy and the pressures of resistance and coercion they spawned finds an outstanding individual exponent in this day’s victim.
Fly walked indifferently to the gallows; to the astonishment of the spectators, he upbraided the hangman’s poor knot and remade with his own hands the instrument for his own neck — one last use of his seaman’s proficiency with ropes.
On Fly’s turn upon that fatal stage, he would not read from the classics — not cower before his executioners, not salute the majesty of the crown that hung him, not enjoin the mob to straighten up and sail right, and certainly not be cowed on the cusp of the eternal by officious colonial holy roller Cotton Mather’s vain personal bid to convert the corsair:
When the time came for last words on that awful occasion, Mather wanted Fly and his fellow pirates to act as preachers — that is, he wanted them to provide examples and warnings to those who were assembled to watch the execution. They all complied. Samuel Cole, Henry Greenville, and George Condick [three of Fly's crew], perhaps hoping for a last-minute pardon, stood penitently before the crowd and warned all to obey their parents and superiors and not to curse, drink, whore, or profane the Lord’s day. These three pirates acknowledged the justice of the proceedings against them, and they thanked the ministers for their assistance. Fly, however, did not ask for forgiveness, did not praise the authorities, and did not affirm the values of Christianity, as he was supposed to do, but he did issue a warning. Addressing the port-city crowd thick with ship captains and sailors, he proclaimed his final, fondest wish: that “all Masters of Vessels might take Warning by the Fate of the Captain (meaning Captain Green) that he had murder’d, and to pay Sailors their Wages when due, and to treat them better; saying, that their Barbarity to them made so many turn Pyrates.” Fly thus used his last breath to protest the conditions of work at sea, what he called “Bad Usage.” He would be launched into eternity with the brash threat of mutiny on his lips.
“Bad Usage.” Rediker later defines it as “the violent disciplinary regime of the eighteenth-century deep-sea sailing ship, the ordinary and pervasive violence of labor discipline as practiced by the ship captain as he moved the commodities that were the lifeblood of the capitalist world economy.”
The resistance to a pattern of savage floggings, cheated wages, and the whole spectrum of rough and arbitrary authority on a shipboard dictatorship might be spontaneous and individual in the instant … but it was thick with the stuff of solidarity, and the fraternity of outlawry could make people equal across the boundaries of national rivalry and institutional racism — “Villains of all Nations,” as the title goes.
And the obdurate, like Fly, could every now and then move the pastors who were sent to thunder hellfire at them rather than the other way around.
As it happened, the “stupid” and “impenitent” pirate [Mather uses these words to describe Fly elsewhere] was able to convince the self-righteous minister of at least one primary cause of piracy. During his execution sermon, Mather made it a point to address the ship captains in the crowd, telling them in no uncertain terms that they must hereafter avoid being “too like the Devil in their Barbarous Usage of the Men that are under them and lay them under Tempations to do Desperate Things.”
After the hanging, William Fly’s body was gibbeted as a warning on Nixes Mate, a barely-there speck of an island at the mouth of Boston Harbor. For Rediker, this date marks the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.
Although the full book is worth the buy, a paper Rediker wrote on the subject prior the book’s publication is available free online.
Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.
Also on this date
- 1833: Frankie Silver, Morganton legend
- 2006: Rocky Barton, suicidal
- 1916: Cesare Battisti and Fabio Filzi
- 1537: Robert Aske, for the Pilgrimage of Grace
Tags: 1726, book review, boston, boston harbor, british empire, cotton mather, economics, hakim bey, july 12, labor, marcus rediker, mercantilism, nixes mate, pirate utopia, slave trade, slavery, taz, temporary autonomous zones, utopia, william fly