“Motley Crew at the Helm” by Michael Fathers. A review of the book, “Outlaws of the Atlantic” by Marcus Rediker. The Wall Street Journal, 8/22/2014.
One of the main uses I found for my Nexus tablet is the dictionary app that I keep handy whenever I am reading. Most words I look up are familiar words that I normally skim over, sort of understanding the meaning, but not really. A recent example was “motley crew.” What, exactly, does “motley” mean?
“Motley,” I found, is the parti-colored (another word to look up) costume of a jester, and, hence, any diverse, incongruous mixture of people or things, with a large implication of disparagement.
The book being reviewed discusses life aboard the sailing ships of the 1700s as lived by slaves, pirates, and the motley crew of sailors. Some things I learned (from the review) are:
- Slaves jumping overboard to their deaths were a problem for the captains, but was considered a salvation by the slaves who commonly believed they would return to their native land in the after-life, which explains why funerals on plantations were often joyous occasions. Dead slaves pulled from the water were sometimes dismembered and their limbs left on deck as a warning to others. A hunger strike by the slaves was an effective challenge to the captain’s authority because of their value.
- Life aboard a pirate ship was much more harmonious than aboard a typical merchant or navy ship. Most of the pirates were in their 20s and single. Married pirates were thought to be prone to desertion. Before setting sail, a social compact was drawn up listing the rights and responsibilities of each pirate, spelling out the assignment of authority and distribution of booty. Pirate ships rarely used the lash as punishment, unlike other sailing ships. Fighting was prohibited and disputes were to be settled ashore. Troublemakers were simply dumped off on deserted islands.