This week’s terror attack on the NYC subway — thankfully, there were no deaths — should remind everyone that soft targets are a huge vulnerability in free and open societies like America. Our October interview with Adm. James Stavridis points out an especially terrifying one: cruise ships. Read it here.
Magellan may have done the circumnavigation first, but at least Sir Francis Drake was the first person to do it and stay alive. And he set sail from Plymouth, England on this day in history 1577 on his famous ship the Golden Hind (although it was still called the Pelican when he left port). But this was still the 16th century; the journey was going to be racked with suffering and misery galore. He began the circumnavigation with five ships plus a sixth captured from Portuguese merchants in the Cape Verde islands. Two of the original five ships had to eventually be abandoned as men dropped like flies crossing the ocean. In a haunting fashion, Drake also killed his co-captain — in a very ambiguous case of “treason” — at the very same spot, San Julian, in Argentina where Magellan had put to do death his own batch of mutineers 58 years beforehand.
Rotting wood took down the captured Portuguese ship. And savage Pacific weather in the Strait of Magellan took another two of the original English ships out of commission. But boy did he capitalize on his opportunity once he made it past the Atlantic. Drake captured treasure ship after treasure ship while sailing the high seas, plundering the gold, jewels, and precious metals shuttled back and forth between the Spanish possessions in America and the Philippines. From there is was off to the spice islands (where Drake, in true adventurer form, became chummy with a Muslim King of the Moluccas), towards the Gulf of Aden, down to South Africa, then the Ivory coast, and finally back into Plymouth almost a full three years after setting sail. Almost two thirds of his crew had died, but Drake had made his point to the Spanish and Portuguese about the abilities of Eizabethan England; he was promptly knighted by a French diplomate at the behest of the Queen (what better way to get a powerful player on the continent to endorse England’s moves against the superpower of Spain?). Sic Parvis Magna, or “Greatness from small things,” was the motto granted by Elizabeth to Drake, still at this point a commoner, in his own coat of arms.
Greatness from small things. It was an important phrase for Drake but just as much an emblematic phrase for the English empire as it grew from a spotty little kingdom north of France into a global empire with the bureaucratic and military organization to actually keep it all from falling apart at a moment’s notice. The Battle of Trafalgar secured British naval supremacy in Europe for the Napoleonic wars but fighting in European waters is one thing — fighting on the other side of the world is another; Drake certainly proved that when he went to the frontiers of the known world to challenge the Spanish, whose armada was busy sticking around elsewhere.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World tells the story of a riveting naval duel of wits in exactly the same sort of waters Drake was fighting in, except this time it’s the Napoleonic Wars and the English aren’t playing the part of the privateers but the victims. Captain Jack Aubrey of HMS Surprise, fantastically played by Russel Crowe, leads his men through thick and thin to find the French privateer Acheron. And will there be surprises! (In addition to woe worthy of the Acheron’s reference to Greek mythology). The film would have deservedly won a lot more awards if the Lord of the Rings had not dominated the box office in the very same year as Master and Commander’s release; take the journey then, and see just how many layers of pursuit this wild tale of the high seas has for us viewers to enjoy.
How long did it take exactly for the age of pirates in the New World to end? Long enough, apparently, to form the basis of a great English novel by Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica, set in the 1830s: even the Napoleonic Wars are over at this point. Steamships have made their way into a seascape that used to be dominated by flowing sails and choppy surf.
To quickly summarize: the lives of several young English and creole children from Jamaica are thrown for a few loops when they are kidnapped by Pirates en route to England. But children are impressionable, and it takes no real time for natural childhood dynamics to shift very disturbingly and essentially adjust to live aboard the pirate ship. A few budding, unexpected relationships take hold, and so do a number of very disturbing ones — to mention the crimes that end up committed. Lord of the Flies was lucky to have such a well-done book as a jumping off point in the wider discussion of what defines and breaks social mores. Who are these children who are forcefully taken with the pirates, and just how easily to they translate back into English society once the ordeal is over? As you read, it might just become clear that there is no to answer to these questions without losing at least a little bit of heart for what it truly means to be innocent at heart.