Critical Intel

Critical Intel
A Piracy Primer for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Robert Rath | 31 Oct 2013 12:00
Critical Intel - RSS 2.0
Critical Intel 103113 3x3

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag sails the series into uncharted territory. Previous installments dropped players into well-known historical periods like the Renaissance, Crusades, and American Revolution, but AC4 is the first time the series has to deal with a period that the public primarily knows through myth. Pirates are probably the most romanticized figures in history. Far from their origins as vicious sea-borne criminals, torturing and murdering across the waves, we now see the sea rovers as symbols of freedom and individualism. Indeed, Ubisoft will have to walk a fine line trading on the most appealing aspects of the pirate legend while still keeping its chops as an historical series.

But legends aren't what we deal with here at Critical Intel - we like facts. So I've compiled a helpful primer either supporting, or debunking, the myths Ubi's going to throw at you this week.

The Secret War

The war between the Assassins and the Templars didn't fuel the Golden Age of Piracy. That much is obvious. However, during the 16th and 17th centuries, two opposing ideologies actually did fight a worldwide struggle that led to the pirates' ascent - Catholicism and Protestantism.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the European wars of religion tore the continent apart for over a hundred years. The toll was tremendous. Not only was there the human cost-the Thirty Years War alone killed 8 million people-but Europe's political borders shattered and reformed, dragging entire countries into anarchy or decline. One of those countries was Spain. Decades of conflict drove the Spanish Empire to near bankruptcy as it simultaneously fought Protestant nations, the Ottoman Empire, France, and tried to hold onto its colonial possessions. The result was that the Spanish became dependent on the supply of silver from their colonial possessions in the New World to keep their economy afloat, and began to expand its colonial efforts to protect the financial lifeline.

Simultaneously, Spain's largest rivals the English, French and Dutch saw an enormous opportunity - to take bread from the Spanish mouth through privateering and licensed piracy. This strategy had a dual purpose: not only did privateers bleed the Spanish, but the large influx of cash served to build fledgling English and French colonial ports like Jamaica and Port Royal that could challenge Spanish possession of the New World. (The Dutch, for their part, mostly fought the Portuguese in Brazil). During this time, privateering and piracy flourished as colonial governors handed out letters of marque to anyone who'd attack the enemy and bring back the spoils, but by the 1690s this fell out of practice, leading many would-be privateers to go freelance. This got even worse when the War of Spanish Succession ended in 1714, and Britain and France dismissed their privateer fleets from duty.

In other words, there were a lot of unemployed men hanging around the Caribbean who didn't know how to do anything but raid shipping - the massive upswing in piracy was entirely predictable.

Pirate Articles

With the Assassin's Creed franchise's ongoing narrative about centralized versus diffused power, prepare to hear a lot about how pirate ships were egalitarian proto-democracies. To a certain extent this is actually true. Pirate crews elected their captain by democratic vote, split up any spoils in previously agreed-upon shares, set their own rules aboard ship and even paid compensation for injuries. Crews laid out all these decisions in the ship's articles (also called a charter), a document that laid out rights, rules and punishments in a form that some historians have compared to an early constitution - they even had checks and balances. Functionally, that meant captains had full authority over their ships during combat operations, but could be voted out of office at any other time. A captain's executive power was also balanced the judicial power of the quartermaster, who acted as the ship's magistrate, represented the crew and led any boarding parties during battle. This anti-class ethos even extended to the symbols of leadership - captains were expected to share their cabins, crockery and even food with ordinary sailors.

The reality is more complicated, though. Pirates were not above impressment - forced recruiting - and it's well known that some crewmen were forced to sign ships' articles under duress. But like everything in pirate lore, the coercion stories aren't clear-cut either. Some willing recruits apparently requested this treatment, since signing under duress meant they could plead innocent and escape the noose if they were caught.

About That Black Flag...

The black flag, variously known as the skull and cross bones or "jolly roger" actually came fairly late in piracy, since it was only widely adopted around 1700. Pirates flew the black flag before battle, where it served as an intimidation tactic to convince ships to surrender or be prepared to suffer the consequences. Several layers of symbolism combined to make the flag and its dire message so recognizable. The skulls, hourglasses and skeletons were symbols of death, and commonly used on headstones at the time. Black flags generally indicated quarantine in nautical parlance, configuring the pirates as riding a literal "death ship" toward their enemies. However, black wasn't the universal color either, as some pirates preferred red, which was the traditional sign of "no quarter" and signaled that no one was to be left alive.

Comments on