Arr, me Hearties…

Piracy has been in the news a lot recently, mainly concerning blokes in Somalia armed with AK47s running around attacking cargo ships. However, as some regular readers of this blog (if such there are) may be able to guess from the subtle hints I regularly drop in, the pirate news I have been most interested in recently concerns Assassin’s Creed, and the recent announcement of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. This is the first AAA game that I’ve ever heard of set in the ‘golden age of piracy’, and so I thought a post on this period of time might be in order. Plus, I think a 200th post deserves a cool topic.

When people think of piracy, the mental image conjured up is always of Caribbean piracy during these days; swashbuckling men in fancy hats & coats, swanning around in large ships with flintlock pistols, cannons and oversized cojones. Captain Jack Sparrow, basically. Specifically, they refer to the situation in and around the Caribbean from around 1650 to the early 1800s, peaking during the first 30 years of the 18th century. These were the days of colonial wars in this area; 200 years earlier the Spanish-sponsored Christopher Columbus had discovered the New World and Spain, which was at the time the richest and most powerful nation on earth, smelt an opportunity. Newly unified into one nation after pushing out the Moors and uniting the powerful crowns of Aragon and Castile through marriage, 16th century Spain was finally able to utilise the great wealth that centuries of war had been unable to use productively, and swept across the Atlantic (and, indeed, much of the rest of the world; theirs was the first Empire upon which ‘the sun never set’) armed to the teeth. The New World offered them vast untapped resources of gold and silver (among other things) that the local tribes, had not extracted; these tribes were also lacking in gunpowder, and were totally incapable of dealing with the Spanish onslaught that followed. Even small raiding parties were able to conquer vast swathes of land, and Spain pillaged, raped and murdered its way across the land in a fashion eerily preminiscient of the ‘rush for Africa’ that would follow a few hundred years later. America was rich, it was untapped, it was (relatively, compared to, say, India) close enough to be accessible, and Spain got there first. Seemed like a great deal at the time.

However, cut to a couple of hundred years later, and Spain was in trouble. The ‘Spanish Golden Age’ was on the wane, and Spain found itself at near-constant war, either with France or from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, whose Barbary pirates (the first time piracy enters this story) would frequently trouble Spain’s coastal possessions. In the colonies, things were just as bad; Britain and France had established their own empires in North America and fought frequently, if not with each other, with Spain for its colonies in Florida and Central America, constantly attempting land grabs in and around the Caribbean area. Spain simply did not have the ability to maintain a military presence across such a vast area, especially when a succession war started and all parties started fighting over the future of Spain as a country and an empire, making the game of ‘who’s on whose side’ even more complicated. The whole area turned into one chaotic mess of sporadic fighting, where law was impossible to enforce,towns were frequentl either destroyed or changed hands, and honest trade such as farming became an unreliable source of income when your crops kept getting burnt. However, at the same time, there were still lots of goodies being sent around all over the place for trade purposes so the various  countries involved in the conflict could make some money out of the whole mess, wherever possible. So, let’s have a sit rep; we have large amounts of very valuable goods being shipped all over the Caribbean & the high seas, frequently alone since all powers had so few ships to spare for escorts, nobody is able to reliably enforce the law and we have a lot of men unable to make a living from practicing an honest trade. Rocking up in a large ship and stealing everything has never seemed such a productive strategy, particularly when some towns turned lawless and became pirate ports.

Interestingly, all the colonial powers at one time or another made some acts of piracy legal; ‘privateers’ were sailors (such as Sir Francis Drake) employed by a country to ride around all over the place and disrupt other countries’ trade. All the other nations, of course, considered them pirates and put ‘dead or alive’ prices on their heads, but these people are pretty boring when compared to some of the genuine pirates who terrorised the Caribbean. In many ways, pirates were the first professional celebrities; reasoning that the whole ‘piracy’ business would be a lot easier if everyone would just shit themselves upon sight of them and hand over all the gold without a fight, they put a lot of effort into building up their reputations so that everyone knew who they are. This is one of the reasons why pirates are so famous today, that and the fact that they were simultaneously mental and amazingly charismatic. Consider Blackbeard, probably the most famous real-life pirate and a man who spread rumours about satanic powers and would stick flaming sticks in his beard so he smoked like a demon. Consider Captain John Phillips, whose version of the pirate code (because even criminals have honour of a sort; Phillips’ is one of just four surviving) included an article stating that any man who kept a secret from the rest of the crew was to be marooned on a desert island with nothing but a bottle of water, a pistol, gunpowder and shot. Just to let everyone know who’s boss. And what about Charles Vane, a certified arsehole even by piratical standards whose three-year career netted him the equivalent of around two and a half million US Dollars, which is made doubly impressive by the fact that he never lead a ship with more than twelve guns. For a more expanded (and rather hilarious) look at a few pirates and their stories, I refer you here.

After 1730, the age of the pirates was largely over; the Royal Navy in particular was exerting far more control over the seas and ports, and small pirate vessels were unable to sustain a living. The trade attempted to move overseas, but proved unsustainable in other colonies such as India. The law was finally organised enough to catch up with pirates, and they retreated back into history, leaving only their fearsome reputation and charisma behind. Pirates as we in the west think of them were many things; brave, violent, aggressive, borderline mental, and not the kind of people you’d want to invite to dinner. But one thing that they undoubtedly were, and always will be, is effortlessly, earth-shatteringly cool.

Poverty Changes

£14,000 is quite a large amount of money. Enough for 70,000 Freddos, a decade’s worth of holidays, two new Nissan Pixo’s, several thousand potatoes or a gold standard racing pigeon. However, if you’re trying to live off just that amount in modern Britain, it quickly seems quite a lot smaller. Half of that could easily disappear on rent, whilst the average British family will spend a further £4,000 on food (significantly greater than the European average, for one reason or another). Then we must factor in tax, work-related expenses, various repair bills, a TV license, utility & heating bills, petrol money and other transport expenses, and it quickly becomes apparent that trying to live on this amount will require some careful budgeting. Still, not to worry too much though; it’s certainly possible to keep the body and soul of a medium sized family together on £14k a year, if not absolutely comfortably, and in any case 70% of British families have an annual income in excess of this amount. It might not be a vast amount to live on, but it should be about enough.

However, there’s a reason I quoted £14,000 specifically in the figure above, because I recently saw another statistic saying that if one’s income is above 14 grand a year, you are one of the top 4% richest people on planet Earth. Or, to put it another way, if you were on that income, and were then to select somebody totally at random from our species, then 24 times out of 25 you would be richer than them.

Now, this slightly shocking fact, as well as being a timely reminder as to the prevalence of poverty amongst fellow members of our species, to me raises an interesting question; if £14,000 is only just about enough to let one’s life operate properly in modern Britain, how on earth does the vast majority of the world manage to survive at all on significantly less than this? More than 70% of the Chinese population (in 2008, admittedly; the rate of Chinese poverty is decreasing at a staggering rate thanks to its booming economy) live on less than $5 a day, and 35 years ago more than 80% were considered to be in absolute poverty. How does this work? How does most of the rest of the world physically survive?

The obvious starting point is the one stating that much of it barely does. Despite the last few decades of massive improvement in the living standards and poverty levels in the world in general,  the World Bank estimates that some 20% of the world’s populace is living below the absolute poverty line of surviving on less than $1.50 per person per day, or £365 a year (down from around 45% in the early 1980s- Bob Geldof’s message has packed a powerful punch). This is the generally accepted marker for being less than what a person can physically keep body and soul together on, and having such a huge proportion of people living below this marker tends to drag down the global average. Poverty is something that the last quarter of the century has seen a definitive effort on the part of humanity to reduce, but it’s still a truly vast issue across the globe.

However, the main contributing factor to me behind how a seemingly meagre amount of money in the first world would be considered bountiful wealth in the third is simply down to how economics works. We in the west are currently enjoying the fruits of two centuries of free-market capitalism, which has fundamentally changed the way our civilisation functions. When we as a race first came up with the concept of civilisation, of pooling and exchanging skills and resources for the betterment of the collective, this was largely confined to the local community, or at least to the small-scale. Farmers provided for those living in the surrounding twenty miles or so, as did brewers, hunters, and all other such ‘small businessmen’, as they would be called today. The concept of a country provided security from invasion and legal support on a larger scale, but that was about it; any international trade was generally conducted between kings and noblemen, and was very much small scale.

However, since the days of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, business has got steadily bigger and bigger. It started out with international trade between the colonies, and the rich untapped resources the European imperial powers found there, moved on to the industrial scale manufacture of goods, and then the high-intensity sale of consumer products to the general population. Now we have vast multinational companies organising long, exhaustive chains of supply, manufacture and retail, and our society has become firmly rooted in this intense selling international economy. Without constantly selling vast quantities of stuff to one another, the western world as we know it simply would not exist.

This process causes many side effects, but one is of particular interest; everything becomes more expensive. To summarise very simply, the basic principle of capitalism involves workers putting in work and skill to increase the value of something; that something then gets sold, and the worker then gets some of the difference between cost of materials and cost of sale as a reward for their effort. For this to work, then one’s reward for putting in your effort must be enough to purchase the stuff needed to keep you alive; capitalism rests on the principle of our bodies being X% efficient at turning the food we eat into the energy we can use to work. If business is successful, then the workers of a company (here the term ‘workers’ covers everyone from factory floor to management) will gain money in the long term, enabling them to spend more money. This means that the market increases in size, and people can either sell more goods or start selling them for a higher price, so goods become worth more, so the people making those goods start getting more money, and so on.

The net result of this is that in an ‘expensive’ economy, everyone has a relatively high income and high expenditure, because all goods, taxes, land, utilities etc. cost quite a lot; but, for all practical purposes, this results in a remarkably similar situation to a ‘cheap’ economy, where the full force of western capitalism hasn’t quite taken hold yet- for, whilst the people residing there have less money, the stuff that is there costs less having not been through the corporation wringer. So, why would we find it tricky to live on less money than the top 4% of the world’s population? Blame the Industrial Revolution.