Thursday, 16 January 2014

A nest of pirates

Baltimore is old. Ergo, very historical. Although not everything that is old is necessarily historical. I once had a very old French teacher with a large grey bun and she would peer at the class over the top of her glasses down her thin, beak-like nose, and tell us that she was watching us like "a big blue fly". I don't even know what that means. But it certainly wasn't historical.

Baltimore, on the other hand, is.

What's so historical about Baltimore, you ask. Well let me tell you. 

The town of Baltimore was founded in 1729, although the Port of Baltimore was established much earlier in 1706 for tobacco trade reasons, which, from what I hear, is always going to be a compelling reason. 

Tobacco and sugar. That's what empires are built on. And Baltimore was no stranger to the perks of sugar. The port and town grew swiftly in the 18th century as a granary for sugar producing colonies in the Caribbean and the profit from sugar encouraged the cultivation of cane and the importation of food.

Baltimore played a pivotal role in the events surrounding the American Revolution. City leaders encouraged the city to join the resistance to British taxes and merchants refused to trade with Britain. The Second Continental Congress met in Baltimore from December 1776 until February 1777, so Baltimore was actually the capital of the United States for those three months.

It was the activity which happened in the early part of the 19th century around Fells Point, the waterfront port area, which earned the city the intriguing name, 'a nest of pirates'. Baltimore was famous for its fast schooners which moved cargo quickly around the bay and allowed international trade to flourish. But when America stood up to Britain in the War of 1812, many Baltimore schooners began seizing cargo instead of delivering it. 

Now, you have to understand, the British Navy was a superpower. It was the largest navy in the world, with several hundred warships. As opposed to the American Navy which had about 20. The government used the schooners to interrupt the supply line by attacking the British merchant fleet. Strictly speaking, it was privateering, but the line between privateering and piracy is often a blurry one. When the British attacked Baltimore in 1814, they were after the privateers, their schooners and their shipyards. The British were unsuccessful in their attempts when the United States forces in some sort of cinematic underdog move valiantly defended the harbour.

And in particularly pivotal historical-ness, Francis Scott Key, a Maryland lawyer, was on board one of the British ships negotiating the release of an American prisoner at the time of the battle. When he saw the American flag dancing in the breeze on the morning after the battle, he was moved to write a poem recounting the attack, which he named The Star-Spangled Banner. This poem was set to a tune by a British composer, funnily enough, and in 1931 became the national anthem of the United States.

I said I'd tell you.


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