Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Admiralty Silver Oar

Watched a fascinating programme on pirates last night. Dr Sam Willis, an excellent historian but a not-so-good folk singer, gave a potted history of the sea wolves with lots of gory detail especially concerning their execution.
Pirates would be tried by the Court of Admiralty, set up by Edward III with jurisdiction over ships, the sea and rivers below the bridges. The court's symbol of authority was a mace in the form of an oar carried by a marshal, as depicted in this tomb of a Tudor Judge of Admiralty.
The execution of pirates was a great display. They would be paraded from prison to Execution Dock, led by the marshal bearing the silver oar.
The oar has been much repaired over the centuries but substantial parts of the Admiralty Court's oar may go right back to Edward III's time.
In the late 17th century, the classic age of the pirates, all had to be sent to London for trial, Captain Kidd for example. This was clearly inefficient and soon subsidiary courts were established in the American colonies, and several of them still have their silver oars. Eventually, Admiralty Courts were established round the empire, each with an oar. And soon the councils of ports such as Southampton and Harwich equipped their mayors with maces in the form of oars.
There is a history of this interesting oddity here.


Alden Smith said...

It is interesting in hindsight how the English establishment executed pirates and then went on to colonize the rest of the world - which many would see as being a form of piracy itself!

Chris Waite said...

Ah, Alden!

The British have been a ‘trading’ nation for a long time and have never had too many scruples in regard to the disposal of individuals when there is commerce involved. An inconvenient pirate or two, when they cease to be privateers, or a friend of mine working in Bahrain who got caught between two Arabic employers in a disagreement over money and found himself and his family stranded for months, passports withheld. The Consulate response was to suggest he get a good lawyer, but he became sufficiently depressed to choose another way out and killed himself jumping off a building out there. Rather than rely on our (trade obsessed) diplomatic corps abroad, I'd take my chances pleading at an American embassy in a similar situation, at least they have the hormones to take care of their own.

Having said that, there are worse things than colonization and it’s not solely the prerogative of the English. Humanity has been invading to the utmost of its ability since time began and the British have tended to leave a well organized, thriving society behind, much of which has subsequently been corrupted by the local leadership.

There’s an interesting book called ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond with a good explanation of why Europeans became such effective colonizers. Then if you look at the history of Syria, which I did extremely briefly through Wikipedia, it seems that the last time they have not been in some internal conflict was when part of the Roman Empire – even the French were sent packing by unruly, local warlords.

Pirates yes, but only because we are a small island and had to take to the seas to achieve our colonizing. Anyway, it’s over now, our ‘decline and fall’ is here; we are too civilized for our own good, or as I would suggest effete, or even dissolute and ripe for invasion ourselves.

Lo and behold, it’s at our doorstep….

Back to the boats


Unknown said...

Truly dreadful folk singer, what on earth was he thinking ??
Somewhat akin to watching Jeremy Paxman juggling whilst doing a stand up routine.
Realy odd.