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March 10th, 2012

Difficult Words No 4: Hydrarchy

BY Christian Ford

In the year 1401, on an island in Elba River, the pirate Klaus Störtebeker made a deal just before his execution.  “Line up my men,” he bargained with the Mayor of Hamburg, “and however many I can walk past after you cut off my head, let them live.”  A deal was struck, a sword was swung and the headless Störtebeker took eleven paces.  Eleven men saved.  But the mayor ordered them killed them anyway.  So much for negotiating with the power structure.

Like those of his death, the facts of Störtebeker’s life are of uncertain reliability.  Depending on the source, Klaus Störtebeker was either a serial criminal or a folk hero.  But this we do know.  Störtebeker was an enemy of the most powerful commercial organization on earth and the fleet of pirates he commanded went by the name of the “Victual Brothers.”

Victual is a Roman word.  It derives from the Latin vivo, as in life, and it means food for humans.  Now, if you’re thinking that “brothers who bring food” is an unusual moniker for blood-thirsty cutthroats, I’d have to agree.  But strange things were afoot in the fifteenth century.  Strange, and yet oddly familiar.

The Victual Brothers got their start working for their eventual enemies, the Hanseatic League.  The League was an alliance of cities along Germany’s northern coast.  What was special about “the Hansa” was that their alliance was not political, but commercial.

The entire enterprise was built on a foundation of salt and fish.  The city of Lübeck dominated the rich herring fishing grounds near Sweden.  The city of Hamburg had great reserves of salt, essential for preserving the fish.  Together, they could export that preserved fish, and so they did, beginning what became a massive enterprise, with more cities joining and together controlling the crucial trade routes through the Baltic and North Sea, connecting the Russian and Scandinavian hinterlands (raw materials, grains) with the wealthy markets to the west (France, England.)

How powerful were the Hansa?

They had their own soldiers.  They had their own ships.  They negotiated with sovereign kings as equals. They had their own compounds in other nations, where the laws of the host countries didn’t really apply.   Does any of this sound familiar?  They were the multinational corporations of their day, and their day went on for hundreds of years.

The Hansa were one of the first practitioners of hydrarchy.  An arcane and archaic term, it first makes its appearance in 1631.  The archy part means “the rule of” as in patriarchy (rule of men) or monarchy (rule of one, namely a king or queen) or anarchy (rule of no one).  Hydra means water.  So hydrarchy is the rule of water, which was certainly the Hansa, both ruling the waves of their Sea, and just as importantly, ruling through the instrument of water.   He who ruled the Baltic, ruled the trade, and he who ruled the trade, dominated Northern Europe.

It seems that you can’t rule without waging war, and the Hansa did that, too.  During one these wars, the Hansa city of Stockholm was besieged by the forces of Queen Margaret I of Denmark.  Inside the island city, food was running low.  So the Hansa did what any self-respecting corporation would — they outsourced.

They commissioned privateers to bring food into the besieged city.  This is a little fuzzy.  Bringing food into a besieged city suggests something like blockade running.  But a “privateer” sails around in his armed warship, falling on merchant vessels and taking both vessel and cargo.  If this sounds to you a lot like piracy, you’re not wrong.  However the privateer has one thing that the pirate does not — a get out of jail free card.  Specifically, he has a Right of Reprisal, a government document which says, “Yes, yes, this looks like piracy, but these men are doing this on behalf of His Royal Highness, etc, etc.”

So, the Victual Bros, chicken & egg.  Were they privateers first, already working for the Hansa and then given this humanitarian mission?  Or were they given the mission and the Right of Reprisal as a package — “go bring food to the starving Stockholmers, and by the way, take that food from our enemies, first.”

We’ll never know.  But whatever the specifics of their job, they must have done it well, because Stockholm never fell.  In fact, the siege went on so long that political circumstances changed and the Hansa finally traded the city to their enemies.  The Victual Bros were laid off.

But they’d learned something during their employ.  As the hands that operated the engines of the Hansa’s machinery of control and commerce, the Victual Bros learned how trade and money moves, and they saw the power and wealth of the Hansa.  Brought together to serve the needs of the Hansa hydrarchy, the Victual Bros then made their own hydrarchy.

It was the inversion of the Hansa’s.  It was bottom up, and the Victual Bros weren’t working for or taking orders from the Hansa.  In a late medieval world where the only democracy known belonged to long dead Greeks, the Victual Bros ruled themselves, charted their own course.  What they chose to do, was to exercise that right of reprisal on the Hansa.

This exact set of circumstances would repeat itself 300 years later.  Then it would be England, at war with Spain over the riches of the New World, who commissioned the privateers and let them do the fighting for them.  When the war was over, the privateers were abruptly out of job.  But they, too, had seen hydrarchy first hand, and they too knew how trade and the control of the seas was the engine of empire.

It’s inescapable that they, like the Victual Bros, understood just what their role in hydrarchy was — to work, oftentimes to die, with wretched food, in dangerous conditions, under the constant threat of extreme violence from their superiors, for laughable pay that came years late, if it came at all.  And if you were maimed in the course of your work, you could look forward to a short life as a beggar.  Sam Johnson was simply stating facts when he said “being in a ship is only being in jail with the chance of being drowned.”

The dispossessed privateers responded exactly as the Victual Bros had done before them — they turned pirate.

This was the Golden Age of Piracy, the one cartooned by movies.  Golden Age Pirates are such a cultural staple that it’s very hard to understand what was actually going on back then.  While Disney and the movies have gotten the yo-ho-ho and the rum right, just about everything else is wrong.  For one thing, it wasn’t about treasure.  It certainly wasn’t about getting rich.  And while rowdy-as-hell is probably an apt description, the bloodthirstiness is wildly overplayed. The pirates themselves instigated this one, cultivating a reputation of outlandish violence as a kind of psychological warfare designed to make their targets simply surrender rather than fight.

When sailors revolted and turned pirate, they didn’t just turn criminal.  They remade the world of water and wood that they inhabited.  They took care to do it legally, to write down “articles of agreement” that were effectively the constitution of each ship.  What they created, in a culture that was exclusively hierarchal, racist and undemocratic, was a society that turned all that on its head.

Pirate crews took equal shares of the loot, they limited the authority of their captains, whom they elected, and which they could un-elect at any time.  The Council, a gathering of every crew member, was the real authority aboard.   They took their ships, which they were the servants of, and made the ships serve them.  They even provided for the common good;  they would set aside a portion of their takings to provide a pension for those that were maimed.  Race, too, was irrelevant.  These were ships crewed by men (and a few women) of all nations, including those of Africa.  Black pirates were so common as to be ordinary; some ships had crews that were more than half black.

When pirates captured a ship, their first action was never to see what “loot” was aboard.  Rather, it was to “distribute justice.”  What this meant was quizzing the crew of the captured vessel about their captain and officers.  Were they fair?  Were they tyrants?  The fair officers were treated, for the most part, fairly.  The tyrants typically got what they had coming, along the lines of what they’d been dishing out.

As for the loot, when they got around to it, they certainly indulged in the food and drink that they found, and pocketed the gold, of which there really wasn’t much.  These were merchant vessels, and they were full of merchant cargo.  Curiously, the pirates didn’t seem to keep a whole lot of it.  In fact, they seemed much more interested in simply destroying the cargoes than in enriching themselves with it.  If you pause to think about it, you get the feeling that the pirates were exercising a different kind of right of reprisal on the one thing that they knew their ex-employers really cared about.  It’s a feeling that gets reinforced when you discover that pirates once loaded up an “honest” merchant captain with money and told him to sail back to London and throw the cash at the merchants who sent him.

The other thing that pirates would do is offer the sailors aboard captured ships the opportunity to join them.  Sailors did, in droves.  Recall, joining a pirate crew pretty much meant putting a death sentence on your head.  But, coming from the lives they lived, that wasn’t much of a threat.  As pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts wryly put it, “there is thin commons, low wages and hard labor” in working for the corporate empire.  But in a life of piracy, there is “plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power… and all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking.  No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto.”  When you look at the facts of pirate life in the early 18th Century, what’s overwhelmingly clear is that piracy is less about crime and more about freedom.

Clearly, this kind of thing had to be crushed.  England did so, changing the laws to make piracy the most dependably capital crime you could find, and then waging full out war on the pirates.  It took time, but they crushed them, both in battle and, more importantly, in public, in spectacular group executions that always ended with the bodies of the ringleaders being chained up to rot in full sight of the populace, as an edifying reminder.  Yes, England wanted and needed to defend their commercial empire.  But as historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh (the guys that resurrected the term hydrarchy) like to point out, there was another mission.

The pirates had created an entirely different kind of society.  People were fascinated by them.  Book after book was written about them.  They were entirely too popular in the public imagination, especially when there were a model of how to live life where wealth was shared, and not concentrated to the few.  Piracy had to be eradicated because it was a virus, a germ of revolution.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with the Victual Bros?  How do we know the same thing was going on there?  Well, it turns out that one of the very few facts to come down to us is that the Victual Bros were eventually known by a different name.  It’s likedeelers and it’s one of those German words whose meaning you can almost puzzle out.  It means “equal sharers.”  Like their spiritual decedents, the Likedeelers equally shared in their spoils.  But they did more, too.  They also shared out their spoils with the impoverished marsh-dwelling landsmen of their hideaways on the Waddensee coast.  Or, at least they did until they, too, were exterminated.

There’s a final parallel between the Victual Bros and the Golden Age pirates.  When they set out to avenge themselves, they struck at the very notion of the control of the seas.  The Baltic Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, had both once been a commons, open to all. But the Hansa and the English had effectively privatized them with their military might.  What the self-organized, bottom-up hydrarchy of pirates were really doing was repossessing what was once common.  It was, in other words, an act of occupation.

Here, at last, we find the parallel with our time.  Pirates:  self-organizing, diverse, non-heirarchal, communal and aggressive about reclaiming common space.  The Occupy Movement: self-organizing, diverse, non-heirarchal, communal and assertive about reclaiming common space. Where pirate notions of equality came from the fusion of sailors from all nations, Occupy’s came from a web-enabled fusion of ideas.  Where the pirates had the Hanseatic League and British Empire, Occupy has Wall Street and multinational corporations.

What’s even more telling is how the powers that be respond — with disproportionate violence.  True, no one beheaded Occupy protestors, but it’s instructive how consistently the police overreacted, a faint hysteria in their efforts.  Did you ever wonder why they were so determined to dismantle the Occupy camps?  What was the threat?

The threat was the same that the pirates posed.  They were a model.  By their very existence suggested a different social model.  And the image of that had to be erased.

Occupy had an understandable impulse in going to Wall Street, to set up shop in the wheelhouse of capitalism.  But in this age of “dematerialized” commerce, there’s no there, there and so the space that Occupy occupied was a non space.  It wasn’t even a commons, it was a corporate “bonus park,” an “amenity” provided by real estate developers in trade for the right to exceed zoning restrictions.

For all their achievements in reframing the debate, the one thing that Occupy didn’t do was actually occupy anything that their opponents cared about.  To do that, they’d have to, like the Victual Bros, find a real commons, make a stand in one place where commerce cannot be dematerialized.

Say, the food supply.


For  fascinating reading on the reality of the Golden Age Pirates, check out Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations.


Störtebeker Reconstructed by Kent Hall
Pepper Spray Cop by DonkeyHotey
Hanseatic Kogge by Malte Diedrich
Container Ship by Pete Markham
Statue of Störtebeker by woozie2010