An integral part of the lore of pirate stories in the Caribbean revolves around the figure of the castaway or the marooned sea-fearer. These are generally crafty individuals who survive, against all odds, the trying circumstances they face as lone inhabitants of otherwise deserted islands. However, whether through shipwreck or banishment a constant feature remains visible in these characters, who invariably consider themselves superior to what they find in the new lands, and consequently rue their destiny to be confined to such islands, wishing above anything else to be able to return to civilization with whatever they can extract from the New World (generally a treasure).
In this sense, most castaways in pirate literature partake in some measure of the characteristics with which Shakespeare endowed his Prospero in the final play of his career, The Tempest. Prospero is, of course, neither a pirate nor part of a pirate story, but a few lines will be helpful to highlight the features to which I make reference: The Duke of Milan, Prospero is shipwrecked, through foul play, with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, in a remote island. However, unlike the later tradition of pirate shipwrecks, the island in which Prospero lands is not deserted. Thus, his arrival triggers a shift of power that sees the decline of the indigenous witch, Sycorax, in favor of Prospero, himself a sorcerer, who enslaves Sycorax’s son, Caliban, and recruits Ariel, a spirit whom Prospero saves from the cruel punishment of the local witch. In this manner, Prospero gains full control of affairs in the island and installs his rule.
Nevertheless, it soon becomes apparent that Prospero’s only purpose in life is to recover the fortune and fiefdom which have been unlawfully taken from him. This he will do through his daughter, whom he seeks to marry to Ferdinand, the son and heir of the King of Naples, who has drifted onto the island following a tempest conjured by Prospero’s powers. Prospero derides what he finds in the island where he is shipwrecked and for the following twelve years fails to build anything of value, outside the circumstance that will bring about the restitution of what is rightfully his, through the agency of his daughter. This restitution, however, also involves Miranda’s displacement from her island back to Italy, where she can live a civilized life – a life that is worthy of her.
This reticence to build a lasting and virtuous enterprise in the island allotted to him by luck is also evident in one of the most emblematic adventures of the Western world: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. While Crusoe is not a pirate as such, he is an adventurer, ready to sail across the world in his quest for experiences. Guided by the hand of Providence, Crusoe becomes a successful plantation owner in Brazil and he embarks on a trip to purchase slaves from Ghana to smuggle them into the Portuguese colony. Crusoe’s boat is hit by two hurricanes and eventually it is shipwrecked somewhere between Trinidad and the mouth of the Orinoco river. For 24 years, Crusoe lives on his own in this island, fashioning several “residences” with the help of utensils and goods he manages to save, with considerable luck, from his own boat, and from another shipwreck, over ten years later. Despite his good fortune, Crusoe considers his condition miserable, as he acknowledges to himself one day, when he catches himself giving thanks to the Lord for placing him on that island, only to scold himself for being hypocritical to the point where he would “pretend to be thankful for a condition which, however thou mayest endeavour to be contented with, thou wouldst pray heartily to be delivered from.”
While Crusoe grows more attached to his islands as time goes by, he never moves away from the notion of his condition as an imprisonment, from which he can only be saved by returning to civilization, i.e. England. This becomes obvious, of course, when Crusoe is presented with the possibility of sailing away, after saving the captain of a boat from a mutiny. After 27 years in the island, Crusoe is finally able to return to his homeland with his faithful servant, Friday, leaving behind a crew of mutineers and a bunch of Spanish castaways to further inhabit the place that he conditioned to provide him with the bare minimum necessary for subsistence.
Curiously, however, Crusoe is not in the least interested, or even tempted, to return to an island that he knows to be highly fertile, with generous supplies of water and minerals, and which he knows inside out. This stands in stark contraposition to his frame of mind throughout his stay in the island, during which he kept possessions that were useless to him in his condition as castaway, such as a small treasure of gold and silver coins, which he found in the two shipwrecks that were washed to the shores of his island (his own included), but which proved to be of great help once he was on his way back to the Old World. In this sense, Robinson Crusoe aligns himself with the figure of Ben Gunn in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, who spends four years marooned in Skeleton Island, thinking only of how to get back to England with his treasure. As a pirate, Ben Gunn is laughable to the point where even his dead spirit will not inspire respect among the thugs who are after Captain Flint’s buried treasure. Nevertheless, much like Crusoe, Gunn has managed to survive on his own for four years in a deserted island, and, what is more, he has been able to find the treasure, without so much as a map.
Had Gunn or Crusoe been willing to turn their guile and new-found riches in the direction of the islands that so generously offered them the means to stay alive, though isolated, for so long, they might have brought some people back with them from England and started a new colony. Crusoe himself might have been more receptive towards indigenous cultures, and might have established a small, independent state, even, integrating Caribs and Englishmen. I realize I digress, and fantasize, even. Naturally, these wouldn’t be pirate stories if they were about the efforts to colonize new islands by Gunn and Crusoe, and I wouldn’t even be writing about them in this article.
Nevertheless, I hope the last two entries of this column have highlighted the fact that there is plenty more than amusing clichés in pirate stories. Which is not to say there aren’t enough of those: Crusoe’s parrot, Poll, is a priceless asset to tales of piracy; and the pirate’s chest in Treasure Island, with its quadrant, its tin cannikin and its old Spanish watch, remains priceless; similarly, the images of Long John Silver, with his wooden leg, and Robinson Crusoe, with his long pair of Mahometan whiskers, have remained imprinted in the collective imaginary, not only of lovers of pirate stories. But beyond these details, literary texts also provide us with an insight into the attitudes directed towards the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries, which undoubtedly remain determining factors in the development of the region, then as now.
Which reminds me of a tale I was told sometime in the eighties, when I first came to Anguilla, and which might do well as a closing anecdote to this article: legend has it that in 1699, on his final voyage from Madagascar, Captain William Kidd made a stop in Anguilla, where he was made aware that his status had crossed the tenuous line from privateer to pirate, and that he was now wanted by the English. Captain Kidd then decided to head towards New York and deal with the claims, but not before hiding his treasure in a suitable place where only he would be able to recover it, should he need it as negotiating tool in the process. Captain Kidd sailed westwards from a bay on the southern shores of Anguilla, stopping at St. Thomas, Mona and Hispaniola before reaching New York. The way I was told the story in the eighties, his ship, the Moca Frigate, was substantially lighter, and his cabin almost empty, when he set sail from the tiny, remote and rather deserted place that was Anguilla at the time. Whether there is any truth in this, or whether it is as fanciful as Poe’s “The Gold-Bug,” I cannot tell – but I guess there is only one way to find out!
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2010.
READ PART I OF THIS PIECE: OF SEA-FEARERS AND BURIED TREASURES.