What I didn't know was that Sag Harbor had its share of pirate-related history. I found this out when I realized that my six-year-old daughter thinks that Sag Harbor was founded by real estate developers and Zabar's imitators in 1986. I dragged her over to the Whaling Museum on Main St., where it turned out they're exhibiting "Pirates: Raiders of the High Seas," through Oct. 1.
The first thing I learned there was that Julius Caesar was captured by pirates in 75 BC. No one else in the world knows this fact, but it would make a great movie, if the world were run by literates. The second thing I learned was that Capt. Kidd lived in Manhattan around 1665, when the city was still fun to live in. The infamous crew of his ship was a New York crew, and in 1695 he was authorized by King William III as a privateer to capture pirates threatening ships of the East India Company in the Indian Ocean.
Revolutionary War privateering began in 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized private Colonial shipowners to assist the Revolution by capturing English ships or any vessel aiding the English. The only problem was that often the line between privateering and pirating became blurry, and this was the issue earlier in the London trial of Capt. Kidd.
But anyway, Kidd sailed the high seas, sinking and plundering ships and amassing his famous treasure that he buried on Gardiner's Island in Long Island Sound in 1699. Needless to say, people are still looking for it today, especially Geraldo Rivera. Lion Gardiner, you'll remember, bought the island, which he immediately logoed for himself (foreshadowing Calvin Klein and Donald Trump), from the Algonquin Indians for a gun, some gunpowder, some cloth and a large black dog.
Contrary to popular myth, pirates were a democratic lot. Captains of ships were elected by their crews and voted out if they transgressed. Crews decided which routes to take and which ships to attack. There were written rules for the distribution of plunder and conduct on ships. Others prohibited gaming and stealing, mandated keeping weapons clean and ready to fire, that musicians were to be given Sundays off, and how booty would be divvied up.
There were even rules of compensation for loss of limbs. From the crew of the pirate Bartholomew Roberts in 1722:
Loss of right leg
500 pieces of eight (?$520 today?)
Loss of eye
100 pieces of eight (?$280 today?)
No lit candles are to be left unguarded. 39 lashes of the whip a reminder of the ever present threat of fire.
It is worthy of note that in today's computer world the loss of an eye would be considered worth more than the loss of a leg, or am I wrong?
Capt. Kidd was charged with pirating by the British around 1700 and brought to trial. Kidd turned to the Governor of New York, the Earl of Bellomont, with whom he had brokered an assurance of protection, to defend him as the privateer Kidd claimed he was. But when the Governor heard the British had declared Kidd a pirate, the man feared he would be involved in damaging political scandal, turned tail and left Kidd to be hanged, as he was in 1701. Then he dug up some of Kidd's buried loot on Gardiner's Island. Some things never change.
Which brings me back to Sag Harbor. Many Sag Harbor residents were commissioned as privateers. Among them was David Hand, on whose bizarre appearance and peculiar laugh James Fenimore Cooper based Natty Bumpo in The Leatherstocking Tales. Another was Joseph Stratton Conkling. His father had owned whaleboats. He himself owned a sloop with 10 guns and a crew of 80. He spent seven years patrolling the seas until the British left Long Island. During his long absence, his farm had fallen to ruin and he and his family lived in poverty and hardship until, in 1799, he sold out and moved to Brooklyn.
It will, perhaps, surprise no one who has had his pirate-priced, but excellent, $10 glass of house wine that Ted Conklin, owner of the American Hotel, is a descendant of privateer Conkling.