Down the Malay Barrier 5.

Many different threads of history knot in the case of the steamship “Jeddah.”

First, there is geography.  On the one hand, trade between the Far East and anywhere to the West (the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, East Africa, Europe) must pass through one of two narrow gates: the Sunda Strait (between Sumatra and Java) or the Malacca Straits (between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra).  On the other hand, the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula, on the northern shore of the Indian Ocean, is a poor land called the Hadramaut.  It grows frankincense and not much else.  Then the River Clyde runs through southwestern Scotland.  Along its banks many shipyards grew up in the 19th Century.[1]  Clydeside became the heart of British ship-building.

Second, there is demography.  The Dutch held the Sunda Strait for centuries; in 1818, the English got the island and harbor of Singapore in the Malacca Straits.  They emphasized attracting Arab merchants already familiar with local people and trade.  It quickly became the hub of East-West trade.  At the same time, Hadhrami (people from Hadramaut) began emigrating to places all around the Indian Ocean.  Usually, they became merchants and sailors.  “Blood is thicker than water”: family networks were vital to success in long-distance trade.

Third, among the “pillars” of Islam, one is “Hajj”: the obligation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the birth-place of Islam.  In Britain’s “Indian Empire” (today India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), in Indonesia, and in the Philippines, there were many Muslims.  Many of them made the “hajj.” Sea voyages offered the least inconvenient route, but the small sailing ships commonly used for the journey were uncomfortable, slow, and sometimes dangerous.  A second “pillar” is “Zakat”: the obligation to give charity to the poor.

These threads came together when Syed Abdul Rahman Alsagoff, a Hadhrami, arrived in Singapore in 1824.[2]  He went into the spice trade, where he prospered.  His son and grandson followed the trade.  The grandson, Syed Mahomed Alsagoff, possessed great wealth and engaged in generous philanthropy.  In 1870, Alsagoff ordered construction of a steam-powered passenger ship to carry Muslim pilgrims to and from Jeddah, the port-of-entry on the Red Sea for Mecca in the interior.  The ship was to be named the “Jeddah.”

Fourth, British ships and British sea captains were the best in the world.  In 1872 a Clydeside shipyard[3] launched the “Jeddah.”   Alsagoff hired British officers to command the ship.  For eight years it plied its trade between Singapore and Jeddah.

On 17 July 1880, the “Jeddah” sailed from Singapore with 953 pilgrims aboard.  By 3 August the ship was approaching the Red Sea.  Then a terrible hurricane blew up.  The ship began to leak, lost most of its power, and began to list to one side.  On 7 August, believing the ship would sink, most of the officers abandoned the ship—and the passengers—in a lifeboat.  They survived and reported the ship sunk.  But the “Jeddah” did not sink.  The remaining officers and the passengers worked to save the ship, then were rescued by a French ship.

Fifth, Authority and Responsibility cannot be separated without disaster following.  It is an unwritten law of the sea that captains remain aboard until everyone else has been saved, or go down with their ship.  The officers had betrayed this duty and became outcasts.  Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900) imagines the terrible fate of one of these men.

[1] Also a great many distilleries, although you shouldn’t combine the “twa”—boat-building and booze.

[2] The term “Syed” indicates that he was a descendant of one of the Prophet Muhammad and was, thus, of high status among all Muslims.

[3] David Byrne grew up there.  See:

The Perils of Seafaring 2.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539-1583) had a lot of hard bark on him.  He was what is called in Britain a “West Countryman.”  That is, he came from the jagged bit of southwestern England that juts out toward the Atlantic.  It’s a poor country.  The farmland isn’t very good, the sea is all around, and boys—noble or common–often went to sea.  The better-off often went into politics as well.  His half-brother was Sir Walter Raleigh and his cousin was Sir Richard Grenville. All three ended up dead as the result of “mishaps” at sea. (But not before they had done stuff to make their names ring out on street-corners.)  He got the usual upper-class education, including—comically, given his behavior—a time studying law.  Being “choleric” (i.e. he ran hot), he soon abandoned the law for war in France and Ireland.

While young, he got a taste for overseas empire-building at the expense of the locals.  Essentially, his plan was to seize lands abroad; then to conquer, drive off, or kill the local inhabitants; and then to bring in English settlers.  First he pursued his project in Ireland in the 1560s.  The results were bloody in an extreme.  His ruthless success in Ireland brought him a knighthood, election as a Member of Parliament, and a wide range of important contacts in science, trade, and government.

At the same time as he pursued empire in Ireland, dreams entered his head of even bigger projects in America.  He had become one of the believers in the existence of a Northwest Passage across the top of America to China.  He planned to capture the key point of entry into that passage for Britain.  In practice, this meant establishing a colony on Newfoundland.  The colony would command the entrance to Davis Strait between Greenland and the Canadian mainland, and to whatever lay beyond.[1]  No one really knew.  Over-seas expeditions required ships, supplies, crews: in short a lot of money before they even left port.  Queen Elizabeth I did not oppose such efforts, so long as somebody else paid for them.  Gilbert invested much of his own wealth in the effort, then got some of his family-members to invest as well.[2]

His first expedition sailed into the North Atlantic in November 1578.  Storms kept it from reaching America.  Years passed before Gilbert could raise the money for another expedition.  Irish troubles continually demanded his attention.  He proposed a plan to settle English Catholics in America so that they could practice their faith in freedom, but it failed to win approval.

His second expedition sailed in June 1583, although short of supplies, and reached Newfoundland in August.  He took possession of the territory for England.  Sailing down the coast, Gilbert’s usual bad luck at sea returned.  His largest ship, with most of the supplies, went aground and sank.  Gilbert headed the two surviving ships for home, hoping to return before the winter storms.  In early September, they were caught in a huge, multi-day storm.  Gilbert sat in a chair on the stern of his ship reading a book.  When the other ship approached, Gilbert called out “we are as near to Heaven by sea as by land.”  That night his ship sank with all hands.

Today Gilbert’s dream of an American colony to control the Northwest Passage seems ridiculous.  It was a speculation founded on hope and ignorance.  However, the dream of a Northwest Passage wasn’t any more ridiculous than the beliefs that inspired Columbus to sail west for China.  Gilbert lacked Columbus’s skill as a sailor and his incredible good luck.  Therefore, his dreams and projects ruined him.

Still, the application of “Irish” methods to America, British control of the seas to give it control of world trade, and colonies for religious dissidents all came to pass by-and-by.

[1] See:

[2] Family and friend investing may seem strange today, but it once was common.  Families rose (or fell) together.

Bully Hayes.

I was in Hawaii on vacation. The wife was reading James Michener’s Hawaii. That reminded me that when I was a kid I read Michener and A. Grove Day, Rascals in Paradise (1957). One chapter was about the “blackbirder” Bully Hayes. Who was he?

William “Bully” Hayes (1827-1877) grew up the son of a tavern-keeper in Cleveland, Ohio, but ran away to sea (OK, the Great Lakes) while still a boy. He shipped from New York for the Far East in March 1853, but arrived in Singapore in July 1853 as the captain. Must have been an interesting voyage. He promptly sold the ship (which he did not own). Between 1853 and 1866, more frauds, voyages, criminal charges, escapes, a ship-wreck, the loss of an ear when caught cheating at cards, several marriages, and an extended tour as a blackface minstrel followed in Australia, New Zealand, and the islands of the South Pacific.

Hayes combined considerable ability as a ship’s captain with ruthlessness and a criminal bent. Oceania in the 1860s and 1870s offered opportunities to such a man. Far to the East, Chile and Peru were expanding the guano-mining industry. (See: White Lung.) In Fiji and in Queensland, Australia, the large-scale plantation of sugar cane and cotton had begun. These all were labor intensive industries under a tropical sun. Atlantic Americans had solved this problem by importing African slaves. Now slavery was being destroyed. What to do? Recruit “indentured servants” on remote Pacific Islands! Sail to some place, lure the locals on board with offers to trade, sail away to Fiji or Australia, force the captives ashore at gun-point, and collect a fee from the plantation owners. Repeat as necessary.[1] Brilliant! In the racist lingo of the time, this was called “blackbirding.” “Bully” Hayes excelled at it.

Between 1866 and 1877, Hayes made a series of voyages through the islands on a series of ships. He recruited labor all over, but also traded in copra and coconuts.   As before, narrow escapes from disaster followed Hayes like his shadow. Ships were wrecked in remote atolls, but he sailed away in home-made boats; he quarreled with business partners, but they disappeared under odd circumstances; British and American navy officers arrested him, but no crewmembers would testify against him; he talked a San Francisco merchant into buying him a new ship, then sailed away with the merchant’s wife still on board. Hayes became a legendary figure among the peoples of the South Pacific. Islanders used to threaten unruly children that Bully Hayes would come for them in the night. Europeans often regarded him as a charming rascal. His crew felt differently: he was called “Bully” for a reason. In March 1877, at Kosrae[2], one of them had had enough. He shot Hayes and threw his body overboard.

Most of what we know about Hayes comes from two sources.

Alfred Restieaux (1832–1911) was an English kid with a taste for adventure. He left England one step ahead of the law; had some adventures in Australia, Peru, and the American West, then “settled down” as a trader in the South Pacific. Here he knew Hayes. He kept a diary

Louis Becke (1855-1913) was an Australian kid with wander-lust. When he was sixteen, he stowed-away on a ship bound for Samoa. He spent the next fifteen years wandering the South Pacific, often working as store-keeper and trader on remote islands. Along the way he crewed for Hayes. Later, he returned to Australia to write short-stories and novels based on his experiences.

Once upon a time, the far Pacific was a frontier just like the American West: a land of opportunity for visionaries, thieves, and refugees from the boredom of ordinary life.

[1] About 60,000 Pacific Islanders were transported to Australia in this fashion.


The owl and the pussycat 2.

After Libya collapsed, power passed to the hands of various militia groups.[1] Politics soon merged with crime. Italian criminal organizations—the Mafia—struck a deal with many of the militia commanders to move people from Libya to Italy. Some 31 percent are refugees from the civil war in Syria. Some are refugees from Iraq, either from the earlier fighting following the American invasion or from the more recent disaster following the rise of ISIS. Most are “economic refugees” from the failed or failing states of Sahelian Africa. In 2014, about 170,000 illegal immigrants paid an estimated $170 million to reach Europe from Libya.

Responsibility for dealing with this problem fell first to the Italians. After 300 migrants drowned near the island of Lampedusa in October 2013, the Italian Navy and Coast Guard launched Operation “Mare Nostrum.”  Italian vessels collected about 140,000 migrants during 2014. The death toll fell from 300 in October 2013 to 56 in April 2014.

While this might be regarded as a remarkable humanitarian achievement, not everyone was best pleased. “Mare Nostrum” (“Our Sea”) cost almost $10 million a month at a time when Italy was trying to fend off recession and imposing a degree of budget austerity. Operation “Mare Nostrum” started to look like Operation “Tasse Nostrum” (“Our Taxes”). Northern Europeans weren’t happy with Italy serving as an open door for illegal immigrants. The Navy landed the immigrants in mainland Italy. Most of them then continued their search for better lives by heading for Northern Europe.[2] Britain argued that “Mare Nostrum” created a kind of insurance policy for the migrants: the boats might not be sea-worthy, but the captains could always hunt up a rescue ship soon after leaving port. Once they were “rescued,” the migrants were put ashore in a country that maintained no serious watch over their further movements. Inevitably, they flooded North. These arguments resonated with other EU countries. When the Italian government asked the European Union for financial assistance, the EU called on the Italians to stop giving the immigrants a free lift. “Mare Nostrum” ended with the return of winter weather to the Mediterranean.

In place of “Mare Nostrum,” the EU both strengthened its controls on land border and launched “Operation Triton.” “Triton” restricted the rescue zone of naval patrols to within 30 miles of the Italian coast. “Make it more dangerous. That’ll stop them.”   It didn’t.

By early 2015, perhaps as many as a million potential immigrants were waiting in Libya to cross the Mediterranean to Italy. In economic terms, Demand vastly outstrips Supply. There are critical shortages of vessels, crews, and competent captains. Older and smaller vessels are used, crewed by men working beyond their skill-level, and packed to the gun-whales with passengers. A ticket on one of these death traps has risen from $1,000 in 2014 to $2,000 today.

Over-loaded and under-ballasted vessels are top heavy. Even passenger movements can lead to a capsizing, but so can heavy seas or a collision with another vessel or taking on water. In the first four months of 2015, an estimated 1,750 people drowned from the sinking of boats carrying illegal immigrants from North Africa to Europe.

The appalling death-toll caused an up-roar and a belated response from the EU. Two realities present themselves. First, while an aging Europe needs immigrants, the cultural resistance to increased diversity is very strong. Second, the core problem here is the failure of many African states to provide security and prosperity to their citizens. Even taking the risks of crossing the Sahara, then crossing the Mediterranean seems preferable.

[1] “Europe’s migrant crisis,” The Week, 8 May 2015, p. 11.

[2] A further 45,000 reached Europe by other routes.

Tales of the South Atlantic 1.

While a great deal of attention has focused on the “Mayflower Compact” as a foundational text in American government, historians have paid much less attention to the many pirate compacts.[1] In the first half of the 18th Century, there were an estimated 2,500 pirates at work in the Atlantic and Caribbean at any given time. Most were single men in their twenties who had “run” from a conventional merchant ship or the Royal Navy.[2] At the beginning of any voyage, the pirates drew up agreed terms of service. These defined who had what authority, how the profits of a voyage would be divided, and how discipline would be enforced. As piracy became more dangerous and less profitable as the 18th Century wore on, it seems likely that many men drifted back into the conventional merchant marine. The seaports of British North America—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston—were filled with sailors who resented hierarchy and hated the “press gangs” of the Royal Navy. Did the experience of some of these men with drafting agreements for an egalitarian management of a “wooden world”[3] filter into the rhetoric of shore-bound pamphleteers and tavern table-pounders?

People trying to escape oppression are easy to understand. It’s a little more difficult to comprehend those who find themselves hunted by liberty. Nevertheless, such people do exist. His beliefs made Zephaniah Kingsley, Sr. an outcast in his adopted land, America.[4] A merchant who had migrated from England to Charleston, South Carolina, Kingsley was both a Quaker and a Tory. When the American Revolution ended in British defeat, Kingsley and his family rebuilt their lives in Canada. Eventually, his son, Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr. (1765-1843) took command of the family merchant ship trading to the Caribbean. In 1802 the experienced merchant captain embarked on the slave trade. This turned out to be a very dodgy decision. In addition to the perils of disease to be encountered on the African coast, Europe was at war. French or Spanish navy ships or privateers savaged the British merchant navy. Slaves were a precious cargo, for they might be sold as readily in Haiti or Cuba as in Jamaica. Once the Napoleonic Wars had ended, British reformers began to press for an end to the slave trade. Kingsley took refuge in Spanish Florida, where both slavery and the slave trade remained legal.

Along the way, Kingsley bought an attractive Senegalese slave named Anna Jai, freed her, and made her his common-law wife. Kingsley recognized her intelligence and ability, so she became his business partner as well as life partner. They added plantations to their other trade and prospered.

However, in 1821 Spain transferred Florida to the United States. As a Tory refugee turned Spanish Catholic, Kingsley didn’t like his prospects. American laws would not recognize his children’s rights of inheritance. Moreover, Kingsley, while a slave trader and slave owner, was not a racist. He criticized segregation laws for imposing “degradation on account of complexion.” In the 1830s he founded a colony in Haiti, the only free black country in the Americas and a source of terror to American slave-owners. He sent manumitted slaves to start the colony and employed indentured free workers.

Like many another thing in Haitian history, Kingsley’s colony came to a bad end. He died before it had taken root. His son died at sea. The Civil War ended slavery.

[1] Marcus Rediker, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Slaves, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail (2014).

[2] See B.R. Burg, Sodomy and the Perception of Evil in the 17th Century Caribbean (1983).

[3] I stole the phrase from N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (1986).

[4] Daniel L. Schafer, Zephaniah Kingsley Jr. and the Atlantic World: Slave Trader, Plantation Owner, Emancipator (2014).

The Perils of Seafaring 1

The Portuguese had pioneered the sea voyages to the Indian Ocean.  Along the way they had constructed fortified trading posts on the coasts of Africa and on the key entrances to thee Indian Ocean (Straits of Hormuz, Malacca).  This gave them control of the spice trade.  (See: “We’ll be rich as Nazis!”—Montgomery Burns.)

In the 17th Century the Dutch desired to challenge the Portuguese for control of this trade.  They short-circuited the Portuguese control of the sea lanes by building ships that need never touch land before they reached the East and by selecting routes that took them well out of the established shipping lanes.  The course followed by their ships ran down the central Atlantic, then ran east across the lower end of the Indian Ocean, in the belt of high winds known as the “Roaring Forties.”  They were many months out of sight of land.  (See: green drinking water; see: biscuits with weevils; see: stir-crazy.)  With their advanced navigation systems, the Dutch East Indiamen were the 17th Century equivalent of the space shuttle.  Still, as with the space shuttle, accidents do happen.  (See: Insurance, origins of.)

In 1629 the ship “Batavia” left Holland for the East Indies, carrying a rich cargo and over 300 passengers and crew.  While qualified officers operated the ship on a day-to-day basis, the ship was commanded by Francisco Pelsaert, a merchant.  His chief assistant was Jeronimus Cornelisz, a psychopathic pharmacist.  (See: CVS.)  On the long voyage eastward he plotted a mutiny.  He hoped to seize the ship and turn pirate.  (See: any little boy.)  However, one night the ship struck a reef off the western coast of Australia.  Once daylight came, about 200 passengers were ferried to a little island nearby.  Pelsaert and some others soon set off in the ship’s boat to try to reach the Dutch colony in Java.  Pelsaert left Cornelisz in charge of the shipwrecked passengers.

It took Pelsaert a month to reach the port of Batavia in Java, 2,000 miles away over uncharted open seas.  (That works out to 2.5 miles per hour, with no iPod or PS2.)  It took another month for a ship to rescue the survivors.  In the meantime, the demented Cornelisz established a reign of terror on the little island that they had come to call “Batavia’s Graveyard.”  He and the followers he had recruited for the mutiny they had planned before the shipwreck killed off 125 of the 208 surviving passengers.  Their intention seems rather like building a cult: people had to identify with the group in order to stay alive; once they had participated in a killing they had no choice but to continue supporting Cornelisz.  (See: fraternity/sorority.)  His plan was to capture the rescue ship and turn to piracy.  In the meantime, they would reduce the number of mouths that had to be supported from the limited supplies of food and water.  (See: Darwin.)

When the rescue ship finally arrived, a few of the survivors managed to warn the crew about Cornelisz.  He and the ring-leaders were arrested, tried, and hanged.  (First they chopped off Cornelisz’s hands with a hammer and chisel.)

You can read about this story in Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny. (New York: Three Rivers Press. 2003.)

Avast me Hearties!

Piracy is a story about the importance of policing in crime suppression.  Piracy abounded when there were rich cargoes afloat, but no one to protect them or pursue the criminals.  Piracy withered when the navies of imperial powers (British, French, American, Dutch) went around making the world safe for peaceful commerce.  “Blackbeard” famously ended up with his head nailed onto the bowsprit of a British warship.  Still, piracy never ended in some parts of the world, notably in parts of East Africa and Southeast Asia.  After the end of the Second World War, the retreat of the European navies from “Eastern Waters” began to take the lid off of piracy.  Post-colonial governments were just as ill-equipped to fight piracy as to do anything else.

Consequently, piracy has increased from fewer than one hundred reported attacks on ships in 1997 to two hundred reported attacks in 2007.  In such attacks during 2006 15 seamen were killed and 188 taken captive; $15 billion in lost goods is a fair estimate of the material cost.  “Reported” is key here: lots of shipping companies would rather not report the attacks because it will only drive up their insurance costs without getting the generally dysfunctional governments of the countries from which the pirates operate to solve the problem.  The same goes for fighting back against a pirate attack.  Kill one of the sea-borne bastards and the pirates-in-suits ashore will be slapping injunctions all over you at your next port of call.

So, who becomes a pirate these days?  Pretty much the same people who became pirates in the Caribbean in the 17th Century: local poor people who know something about boats.  Dockworkers, fishermen, and beached merchant sailors provide much of the crew for pirate attacks.  Occasionally they are government coast guard units run amuck.  Many of these pirates call Indonesia or Somalia home because shipping must pass through narrow straits, rather than being able to stand well-out to sea.  Oddly enough, there is a “pirate season”: the Indian Ocean is tossed by great monsoon storms in early Fall and early Spring, so pirates tend to stay ashore during these seasons, chewing khat and bothering the wife.  Only when the seas calm do they return to their trade.

Rather than sailing the Seven Seas under the Jolly Roger, however, they operate in speedboats from ashore.  Photographs taken from merchant ships under attack often show the pirates driving high-powered outboard boats and armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and grenade launchers.

Somalia is the Promised Land of modern piracy.  There hasn’t been a real government in twenty years; everybody has guns and is dirt-poor; and oil tankers from the Persian Gulf pass by on their way to the Suez Canal.  In April 2010 Somali pirates captured the “Samho Dream,” a South Korean supertanker.  In November 2010 the owners paid a LeBron Jamesian $10 million to get the ship, cargo, and crew back.  Each pirate got $150,000, minus whatever the pirate-boss had fronted him for rice and beans during the intervening seven months of gastro-intestinal catastrophe.

Lest anyone see this as a silver-lining-to-a-black-cloud story about impoverished Third World villagers getting together to cut through the red tape accompanying foreign aid, the pirate crews appear to be operating at the behest of local crime lords.  In places like Somalia, the pirate-bosses use the ransom money to buy weapons so that they can set up as local war lords.  Having hijacked ships, they’re now thinking about hijacking countries.  (See: Normans.)  Then some Paki scientist probably will sell them nukes.