Much has been written about the evils of pirates and privateers, the latter being those hired guns whose sole purpose was to wreak havoc on another country’s enemies. But one of the best kept secrets about these men of the sea is that they were pivotal in the birth of the United States.
You’ve heard of John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, but you’ve never heard their names mentioned in the same breath as pirates and privateers. Yet without the daring bravery and audacity of privateers with tactics perfected by pirates, the name of the United States might only be a minor footnote in the annals of history.
Glance at a map of the original thirteen colonies, and it becomes apparent almost all bordered the ocean, bays, and rivers ripe with ports for trade. And as the saying goes, “Where there are seas, there are pirates.” Or privateers. Throughout history it often becomes hard to distinguish between the two, but it’s worth noting a few distinct differences. To become a pirate, all you had to do was get a ship and crew and raid till your heart’s content. Or till you were caught and hanged.
Privateers, on the other had, though they shared a likeminded attitude towards raiding, faced several restrictions. For example, privateers had to obtain a letter of marquis from the government they worked for. They usually had to put up a bond as well. They also agreed to attack only certain ships. In the case of the colonies, British ones. Finally, they agreed to bring back the plundered booty for sharing. Aarrrgh!
From New England to South Carolina and beyond, ports with generous harbors abounded, and when things heated up between Colonial America and Britain, so did the activity of privateers. As you can imagine, when the colonies declared their independence, Britain not only amassed large armies on its shores to suppress the rebellion, but sent her finest ships commanded by her most able sea captains to blockade the ports. This was particularly true from Boston to the Mid-Atlantic states.
Without goods coming in or out of the colonies, defeat was all but inevitable. With a stranglehold on needed supplies from countries like France, the war against Britain was destined to become nothing more than a miserable failure. But Congress and state governments granted at least nine hundred letters of marque to privateers authorizing them to do what pirates have always done best. Raid ships, harass the captains, steal cargo, and cripple trade and commerce both on the seas and in port.
It’s the birthday of Mel Fisher this week. Born August 21, 1922, Mel will always be remembered as one of the greatest treasure hunters that ever lived. This is quite an accomplishment for a lad who grew up in the hinterlands of America, far from the sound of the ocean murmuring on a sandy beach.
Raised in Indiana, Mel became a humble chicken farmer. He eventually made his way to California where, as the Beach Boys say, “All the girls get so tan.” Mel fell in love with the sea and opened up California’s first dive shop. But there was one beauty who stood out from the rest of those tanned beach girls, and that was Dolores Horton. Deo not only became Mel’s lifelong business partner and wife but was an accomplished diver in her own right. Eventually, Mel moved to the East Coast where more opportunities to dive wrecks abounded.
For Mel it was never really about the money. As a kid, he read Treasure Island and would be possessed his whole life by the dreams of diving and finding sunken treasure. Mel turned his eye to the Florida Keys where the Nuestra Senora de Atocha waited to reward that one persistent treasure hunter who didn’t know how to quit. The Atocha became Mel’s Holy Grail. It was a quest that called to him even in the darkest hour of his soul when he lost his son, Dirk, his daughter-in-law, Angel, and his dear friend, Rick Gage in a terrible accident on the site.
With the help of family, friends, and investors, he searched sixteen years before discovering the mother of all shipwrecks July 20, 1985. Mel Fisher’s dream was realized.
Then the vultures came. Other treasure hunters. The state of Florida. The United States government. Even the government of Spain. All laid claim to the booty Mel and his coterie of friends, family, and investors sacrificed so long and hard for. Beleagured by a hundred legal battles, Mel, like the heroic Odysseus, stood his ground. Eventually, the Supreme Court came down on Mel’s side, noting it was Mel Fisher and his team who labored for years and invested millions of dollars to retrieve the treasure. Nowhere to be found during that time was the state or federal governments.
For anyone who has heard the story of Mel Fisher, the lessons are clear:
… Every dream has a price and you must be prepared to pay it.
… When it seems darkest, don’t quit.
… When the storms blow, don’t run for cover. Run for your wet suit.
… Mel redefined the meaning of persistence, attested to by sixteen years of relentless searching.
… Mel was also the master of laser focus. He would not allow himself or his crew to be distracted by anything.
… And to ward off discouragement for himself and his team, he kept a sign over his desk, reminding everyone of the need for faith and hope. TODAY’S THE DAY! became his mantra. You see those words everywhere today, but it was Mel Fisher and his crew who lived by those words in the face of uncertainty.
You may not have dreams of discovering treasure at the bottom of the sea, but no doubt your dreams involve untold treasure just the same. When you awake tomorrow, chart your course, set your sails, and check your compass. Your dreams are like the North Star. Follow them and you’ll never get lost. And when you climb into bed at night and every bone in your body aches, you can drop off to sleep contented, knowing you’ve come closer to realizing your dream.
The Atocha site still yields treasure. To learn more about it or to dive the site yourself, go to http://www.melfisher.com/ . Or better yet, stop by Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum and Gift Shop at 1322 Hwy US 1 Sebastian, Florida. When you’re in Key West, check out the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum at 200 Greene St.
I think those who object to pirates generally do so for two reasons. First, they point to pirates as nasty, evil men and women who made travel on the sea a precarious and dangerous adventure. Some, indeed, were downright diabolical as can be testified by the ilk of Francis L’Ollonais, Edward Low, and Henry Morgan. Yes, that Henry Morgan who straddled the fence between pirate and privateer quite adeptly. At one point, Henry wasn’t above using nuns and monks as shields when he attacked the fortress at San Geronimo. Clearly these men were sadistic and evil, taking no small pleasure in seeing men and women brutalized for their own personal gain. But not all pirates fit that profile. Many pirates who have been demonized for centuries were not always the vile, murderous figures history has portrayed them to be. One only has to read Colin Woodward’s stellar book The Republic of Pirates to realize many were victims of circumstances. Richard Zacks’ in his revealing book The Pirate Hunter convincingly discounts the myth that Captain Kidd was the world‘s most wicked and notorious pirate. Whatever you can say about pirates and those with a pirate heart, one thing is true. Each is motivated by his own dreams… and whatever they are, a real pirate is willing to lay down his life for them. It’s too bad more people today don’t have that kind of passion.
The second reason pirates make some people feel uncomfortable is that few want to admit we all have the seeds of great good and terrible evil in us. Which ones we water determines what we become. Given the proper circumstances only God knows who among us would have gladly sailed under the jolly roger. Today we tend to romanticize pirates perhaps because we recognize that there is something within them that resonates in our own hearts. The history and literature of the world is filled with stories of men and women both fictional and real who rose from oppression and boldly struck out on their own to follow their dreams- consequences be damned. Their environment may have been landlocked fiefdoms instead of the high seas, but these heroes and heroines had a pirate heart just the same. Joan of Arc, Socrates, Thomas More, The Lone Ranger, Zorro, Davy Crockett, Julius Caesar, Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman. It’s why we root for pirates despite David Cordingly’s solid job of debunking a host of pirate myths in his book Under the Black Flag.
To us, Pirates were the good guys who in some way strove to throw off repression and cruelty inflicted by unfair governments and social castes. We see something of ourselves in them. We recognize unfairness and injustice when we see it and stand and cheer when someone bucks the system and fights back. We’re not just cheering for a pirate that knows how to sneer Arrgh. We’re cheering for ourselves because we too have known what it’s like to be oppressed by an insensitive boss or been bullied by an HOA or mistreated by a surly clerk or abused by an unfair insurance adjuster. It’s that part of the pirate we love.
Those with a pirate heart always challenge mainstream thinking and because of it risk becoming outcasts and paying the price. To be sure, we despise men and women who would readily cheat us of our possessions or deprive us of our lives. We spurn and despise the Bernie Madoffs of the world just as quickly as we eschew the pirates that plague the waters off eastern Africa. Yet we admire any soul who courageously breaks from the status quo to pursue his dreams.
The person with a pirate spirit today has a lot in common with the pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy. He stands tall, willing to push back on anyone and any power who would rob him of what is rightfully his. Namely, his life and his dreams. In those quiet moments, you can hear your dreams call your name. What plans are you forming to make them come true? What are you going to do today to reclaim your life out there on the high seas of Life? May God Speed, and may you always have the wind at your back and following seas. See you out there on the high seas of life. Aarrgghh!