In 2003, Jerry Bruckheimer gave America (and much of the world) a vocabulary lesson with his movie “The Pirates of the Caribbean”. Not a history lesson, mind. Only as I’ve grown and obsessed and studied have I realized the historical inaccuracies of POTC. But not one man Jack of those who left the theaters or switched off their DVD players didn’t know what ‘accord’, ‘parlay’, and ‘savvy’ meant.
So when ‘parlay‘ was WordPress’s word-of-the-day prompt, I immediately thought: FRENCH origin, beautiful word, used to describe naval negotiations, I SHOULD TALK ABOUT MY FAVORITE HISTORICAL PARLAYS. But… then… which favorite to chose? The agony. Well, I guess I’ll have to talk about both.
Which leads me to two distinct subjects: pirates and patriots. Just about everyone on planet earth knows that there were pirates in the Caribbean, and they were (dashing, sadistic, swashbuckling, bloodthirsty, rebellious, freedom-fighting – pick an adjective which suits your view) rogues. Many of these buccaneers have household names: Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, “Calico” Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read, to name but a few. Some of the greatest fictions have depicted pirates, Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver, for a start.
My personal favorite pirate is only of moderate fame but extraordinary wealth: “Black” Sam Bellamy. His pirate flag is second in fame only to Jack Rackham’s. He flew the skull and crossbones.
The tale is one of rags-to-riches. Like… serious rags and massive riches. In one year, he went from penniless sailor out of Cape Cod to captain of a pirate fleet, and he raided from Nassau to New England. When the Whydah sank off the coast of Cape Cod in a horrible storm, she sank carrying 4.5 tons of Spanish silver. To put that in perspective, it makes him the wealthiest pirate in history with what would be now considered $125,000,000.
He sailed in consort with another captain – Jennings, and they used a secondary ship as a sort of floating booty cache. They kept meticulous logs and ran what was functionally a pirate credit union. Bellamy and his crew thought of themselves as Robin Hood and his merry men: they didn’t harm those who didn’t harm them. Cross them, however, and you would probably go down with your own ship. In flames.
A parlay with the Prince of Pirates might have yielded something like this, “I am sorry they won’t let you have your sloop again, for I scorn to do any one a mischief, when it is not to my advantage; damn the sloop, we must sink her, and she might be of use to you. Though you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security; for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by knavery; but damn ye altogether: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?” Check out his Wikipedia page for more interesting history.
Less than a hundred years later, an American forged in the fires of the First Barbary War in the Mediterranean sailed the Atlantic on a frigate called the USS United States, during the War of 1812. Stephen Decatur. At this point in history, America was just testing her ability to act like a nation. England still thought of America as a colony which might be regained. This misunderstanding sparked a war that America lost on land, schooled the British on the sea, and both countries called a draw when they signed the treaty at Ghent in 1814. All this to say, America really wasn’t in the mood for parlay. We were in the mood to prove our courage and conviction to the world.
So, dressed in an old straw hat and his seediest uniform, Stephen Decatur set his sights on victory when the HMS Macedonian (captained by John Carden) was spotted on the horizon some 500 miles west of the Canary Islands. The two ships engaged in a gun battle. Decatur had the tactical advantage, his men were extremely well-disciplined, and every man aboard was fighting for a cause they believed in. They hadn’t pressed into service, they had volunteered to fight for the fledgling nation, and that enthusiasm and sheer craziness led to some of the most remarkable naval engagements in history. See my previous post on the war of 1812.
After 90 minutes of warfare, the Yankee suddenly stopped firing. “In this sudden lull in the battle, all that could be heard on the Macedonian were the cries and groans of the wounded, the slosh of water through the main-deck gunports as the British frigate wallowed in the sea, [and] the creaking of the badly strained hull each time she rolled.”*
The United States backed off, repaired, and returned in an hour to claim her rightful victory. The Brits had over 100 casualties, the Yankees only 7 dead and 5 wounded. “Captain Carden’s trip to the United States was mortifying. Boarding the Yankee frigate, he could see that she was only slightly damaged. […] He noted bitterly that some fo the United States’s crew obviously had been British deserters. […] Captain Decatur’s appearance startled him. It was bad enough to have lost his ship, but now he was offended at having to surrender to an officer dressed like a farmer. […] Carden offered his sword to Decatur, who, as was customary with a stout enemy, refused to accept it. ‘I cannot receive the sword of a man who has so bravely defended his ship,’ said Decatur.”*
When Decatur informed Carden that he was the second British captain to strike his colors to an American frigate, Carden was cheered. At least he wouldn’t go down in history as the biggest failure of the war.
*Excerpts from The Seafarer’s “The Frigates”
Perhaps this little parlay between captains is a favorite of mine because it just seems like a microcosm of American diplomacy through the ages. America might not look like much, but, boy, do we have heart! Underestimate her at great peril. A consistent theme in our military is to rain hellfire down and accept surrender, but hand back the sword of an honorable adversary. Sure, the adjectives ‘crazy’ and ‘uncouth’ might both come up in conversation, but… we did win.
We have a puffed up pirate who wanted to fight fair and a humble patriot who was willing to pound the stuffing out of a Brit. Both of them were marvelous strategists and knew how to fight a war of the mind. What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall during those parlays…