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Pirates of the Mediterranean

A painting of the feared Blackbeard fighting a young British officer.  Photos: Ruti Porter

First you walk down some steps.

The sound of breaking waves increases, and suddenly you see the cave. Two tall pirates are stationed at the entrance. Both have daggers and what looks like an old flintlock. The pirates keep a watchful eye over the bay which stretches away in the distance. So far, they haven't seen you.

A closer look, and you see that these are young men – perhaps in training for their new profession. Whoever made these lifelike figures had a romantic concept of what pirates of the past centuries looked like. One young man has a Dayan-type eye patch, but otherwise, they appear to be quite respectable.

So, where are we?

We've just reached the lower floor of Haifa's Maritime Museum, and once past its dramatic entrance, we're anxious to see the pirate exhibition, a permanent feature of the museum.

First we walk through some other maritime sections with weapons, models of ships from different centuries, items of the seaman's daily life in the past, glass cases filled with exhibits. One section features seamen's crafts which include intricate rope work and beautifully carved items from walrus tusks.

After a quick look at dioramas and underwater finds such as ancient anchors, storage jars, an original bronze ram from the 2nd century BCE, and many other models, we make a bee-line for the large television screen set against the wall and sit down.

We watch a fascinating program. A large number of experts, each specializing in a particular field (weapons, warfare, ships, designs, history and so on) give us a detailed look at the life of the pirates of the past. The explanations and exhibits are backed up by dramatic scenes of pirate ships chasing, firing and boarding their prey and of the fierce hand-to-hand fighting which followed.

Psychological warfare was used: we see the pirate ship flying a false flag, and then, when the ship is judged to be near enough, hauling it down and hoisting the grim-looking skull and crossbones flag in its stead.

According to the many finds in the waters around this area, the Mediterranean was one of the prime bases for these activities. But there just wasn't a place in the world's waters, even in rivers, where pirates weren't active at one time or another.

The earliest known "sea people" (the Illyrians and Tyrrhenians) were plying their trade in the 14th century BCE.

Ancient Rome was a prime target of piracy. Children were kidnapped to be sold as slaves, and even Julius Caesar was captured by Sicilian pirates. Caesar was extremely angry when he found out about the low amount the pirates had demanded for his release. He felt he was worth far more!

Amazingly enough, the pirates held to a code of honor in their tempestuous lives.

In the 17th century, we read that the lifestyle of this society of "brethren of the coast" was a democratic one; they elected their captain and quartermaster and they could vote them out of their jobs. They also had a system of hierarchy for distribution of their loot (an early example of honor among thieves) but, of course, there were exceptions to the rule.

The experts tell us that, thanks to the pirates, the marine technology of those early years progressed: they cut away unnecessary parts of the ship and achieved shallow drafts enabling them to sail into waters where other ships could not follow. Sails were added to give ships more speed and new and strange ammunition was designed to take down or set the sails on fire without sinking the other ship (after all, what they wanted was "the money, Lebowski").

Occasionally they would swap their old-model ship for a newer, captured one which they proceeded to remodel to suit their needs.

They used ballast piles (large rounded rocks or stones) to keep their ships upright. Archeologists and deep-sea divers still find these tell-tale signs when they go diving to the bottom of the bays in their search for old ships. Wood decays – the ship may have been long gone, but the stones remain.

The career of piracy was a profitable one as a result of gains such as gold from South America, ivory from Africa and richly-laden ships returning from the Far East and India along the trade routes. Some of the pirate leaders took early retirement. At least one went to live on an exotic island and another became a successful merchant.

It may have been a lucrative trade, but it had its negative side as well. A good example is Black Sam (Samuel Bellamy) who in the early 18th century took in $120 million before dying, a multi-millionaire, at the age of 28.

The pirates even had their own "malls" where they could stock up on food and other supplies. One of these – again in the 18th century – was a well-known trading post established on the Isle St. Marie, a small coral-ringed island near Madagascar.

Piracy wasn't just a "man thing". A surprising number of female pirates were already plying their trade in the 5th century. On one ship the entire crew was female, all from Scandinavia. And I must thank Wikipedia, which gives an extensive list of pirates through the ages. There were also a few women from England and Ireland, including at least one who was the captain of her ship (Anne Bonny, 18th century, Irish). In the 19th century Ingela Gothenhelm proved what an excellent wife she was when she took over as captain of the pirate ship after her husband's death.

The 17th and 18th centuries were known as "the golden age of piracy" but after the flourishing 18th century, it seems to have lost some of its appeal, at least to the feminine gender.

A large number of the pirate leaders became legends under adopted names.

Not many people know who Edward Teach is, but mention Blackbeard and everyone knows who he is. And then there was Barbarossa (Red-beard) the Turkish privateer, born into a family of pirates; the Welshman, Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart and even an African known as Black Caesar, who both lived in the early 18th century.

There was also "that pirate Francis Drake" as the Spanish still refer to him. A few years ago, I was driving along the Costa de la Luz, somewhere around Cape Trafalgar, when I came across this sign. But Drake belonged to the circle of "privileged" pirates – the privateers.

These members who included Sir Walter Raleigh, and quite a few other "Sirs", had a license from good Queen Bess to raid and plunder foreign ships. This was obviously a good source of income for Elizabethan England which, under the rule of Elizabeth 1, rose from being known as the "backside" of Europe to a wealthy and powerful nation.

Not everything was rosy in a pirate's life. If you were wounded in battle and had to lose a limb, surgery was performed with the aid of a saw. Those pirates who had lost a hand had an interesting model with which to replace it: a hook, which was something that could be used as a ferocious weapon in the hand-to-hand battles. But these were the lucky ones – they survived. 

In Haifa’s Maritime Museum: Two young pirates guard a treasure chest.

Just about every nation had a go at piracy, including 9th century Muslim pirates, mid-17th century Maltese pirates (who used Haifa bay as a base), and Christian pirates. Some of the others were Turkish, French, Swedish, Dutch, English, and even Chinese.

Let's get back to the Haifa Maritime Museum which got me all fired up in the first place. Before climbing the steps to the first floor and the temporary exhibitions, take a quick look around the stairs. High above your head you'll see a frogman, while under the stairs is an "ocean floor" – a representation of an underwater cave with large shells and conches, waving plants and sea-life.

There are still another two floors to see, with scientific instruments, astronomical instruments made in China during the first millennium BCE, and an extensive collection of over 3,500 maps and atlases – so you'd better give yourself half a day at least.

The naval museum is only a few minutes' walk away. Here we walk up a ladder and into a tremendous submarine which seems to be one long and narrow passage. Each side of this passage is crammed with bunk beds: talk about claustrophobia – it really takes a special type of person to live in such conditions, sometimes for months on end.

And by the way, as this is a museum connected to the Israeli Navy, you'll need to produce an identity document before you can go in.

If you see the tremendous submarine on your right-hand side you'll know that you've just missed the turn-off. Maybe the traffic will let you make a U-turn in the main road.

The Maritime Museum is at 198 Allenby Road, which meets up with the Haifa-Tel Aviv road at the southern entrance to Haifa. 



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Thursday, 07 December 2023

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