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The Fort of Jewels by Nigel Roth

First, I'd like to introduce you to Reis Mourad the Younger.

Mourad, whose real name was Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, was a Dutch pirate, one of the dreaded Barbary corsairs.

He’d converted to Islam, after being caught by one of the Moorish states, probably as a way to escape a fate worse than religious conversion, and ‘turned Turk’ as the original saying goes, before sailing the high seas with the other Salé Rovers.

As well as sailing between innocent ship and outlaw bay, and causing mayhem on the way, Mourad helped found the Republic of Salé, a city state within present day Morocco, where he and a group of Moriscos, Muslim people and their descendants whom the Roman Catholic church demanded convert to Christianity, before giving up on that plan and expelling them completely, lived, loved, and traded in slaves.

Next, I’d like you to meet the gentle people of Baltimore.

Baltimore, or Dún na Séad, meaning ‘fort of the jewels’, was a small village in County Cork, in the southernmost parish in Ireland. The real name of Baltimore was Baile an Tí Mhóir, which has nothing to do with jewels, and means the ‘town of the big house’. The big house, in this case, was the O'Driscoll castle, named Dún na Séad, hence the jewel connection.

These two entities - Mourad and Baltimore - came together in 1631, with terrible consequences.

The inhabitants, consisting mainly of immigrant English fisherfolk leasing land from Sir Fineen O'Driscoll, didn’t see the fleet of ships approaching through the morning fog, and so went about their fishy business unaware of the doom that lay ahead.

It was unfortunate for Baltimore that one of the ships heading their way was being captained by Irish pirate John Hackett, who’d won his freedom by promising to steer the piratic horde into the comparatively quiet region of and safe waters off Baltimore.

What happened when they landed we’ll come to in a second.

Pirates, a term that encompasses despots like Mourad, as well as privateers like Captain William Kidd, who were employed by governments to capture enemy ships, until the enemies became friends, and the privateer became a pirate while he was unknowingly peeling his mangoes.

They were an odd combination of barbaric tyrants and sensible inventors.

For example, many wore a patch over one eye, even though they had two perfectly good working ones, because closing one helped them navigate more quickly between the bright deck and the darkness below.

If they lost a leg or an arm in a fight there was a workers compensation plan that offered a fair amount of money for the missing limb, and, if the pirate then decided to retire from service altogether, a retirement plan would see him carried safely to a more congenial and less chaotic life along the coast of the Americas.

Far from being out-of-touch on the high seas, pirates managed a very sensible mail system, shared by all, and which kept them in frequent contact with family and friends, sons, daughters, and the bowling club, as they plowed the waves and plundered the wavers.

They were also equal opportunity employers.

Buccaneer’s like Jeanne de Clisson and Mary Read, and Ireland's own Grace O'Malley and Anne Bonny, and the American pirate, Rachel Wall, who was hanged at twenty-nine for her chosen life and its associated crimes, were equal among their peers.

The Chinese commander Madame Ching Shih, led the Red Flag Fleet of over three-hundred ships with around forty-thousand hands, before using her vast treasure chest to open a gambling house, and live in landed peace until she was almost seventy.

Many pirates were also patrons of the arts.

Books and maps were highly valued, and helped endure months at sea and relieve the doldrum doldrums. The buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp, who enjoyed a stretch of pillaging on the Pacific Coast of America, was so ecstatic at capturing an extremely rare map that he printed a version of it for William of Orange, the then king of England, with whom he shared a birth year and a death year.

When books didn’t suffice, they turned to the onboard band and the ship's theatre company.

The Welsh pirate John Bartholomew ‘Black Bart’ Roberts made sure musicians rested on the Sabbath as a right aboard his four-hundred-and-seventy ships, including the Royal Rover, Fortune, Good Fortune, Royal Fortune, Ranger, and Little Ranger, names which would have confused me entirely and provided me my piratical pseudonym.

As long, that is, as all were tucked up with a book by a reasonable time, to be refreshed for plunder early next morning, with “the lights and candles to be put out at eight o'clock at night,” and in hammocks that rocked optimally with the ship’s movement ensuring a good night’s sleep.

Pirate welfare was important to commanders, from a thoughtful diet of long-lasting cured meats and fermented vegetables, and well-tended livestock to provide milk, eggs, and fresh meat, to regular payment and shares of the plunder, which afforded many a far better standard of living than had they joined or remained in the Navy.

Pirates, and in particular their democratically-elected captains, were some of the best marketers that have ever sailed the open seas terrifying innocent people.

While they all lived by the ubiquitous pirate code, their individuality was expressed in elements like their flags, which were full of symbols like skeletons and blood, skulls and bones, and more blood.

And, of course, when pirates came ashore, they came to spend their plunder, like the single haul of two-hundred-million dollars that Captain Henry Avery managed to take in one rather fruitful night, and boost the local economy, bringing wealth and employment opportunities to deprived towns up and down the coasts.

Which, I suspect, the Baltimore fishermen and women would’ve hoped for had they seen the ships approaching that June evening, with over two-hundred Barbary corsairs aboard baying for booty and booty.

But they didn’t.

Mourad and company launched a surprise attack, burning the cottages, and taking one-hundred-and-seven villagers with them on the long voyage back to the human markets of North Africa, where they inevitably died, as slaves or concubines in the harems of Sultans.

Only three of the captives were ever heard of again.

Why exactly Reis Mourad the Younger chose Baltimore as a target is somewhat of a mystery.

It may have been just John Hackett’s recommendation of an undefended town, with shore access, and all the fresh fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and minerals, that they could eat. Or, it may have been the dastardly plan of rival landowner Sir Walter Coppinger, who’d been eying Baltimore for himself for a long time.

Either way, one thing is sure.

Pirates had two very different sides to them, and if you’re going to name your town anything, the ‘fort of the jewels’ is probably not the best choice.


photo by Mark Neal

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