Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Pirates recapitulating the Iliad

Hubris runs through human affairs. From Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty. Privateer Henry Morgan has been trapped in Lake Maracaibo by Don Alonzo. Morgan launches a surprise fireship attack on the blockading Spanish warships and is able to make his escape with all his treasure intact.
What Morgan did not realize until days later was that Don Alonzo had been warned about the fireship. Although the pirates kept a strict guard on all their prisoners, a "certain negro" had made it to the Magdalena days before the attack and told the Admiral, "Sir, be pleased to have great care of yourself, for the English have prepared a fireship with desire to burn your fleet." The Spanish noble had scoffed at the idea. "How can that be?" he thundered at the spy. "Have they, peradventure, wit enough to build a fireship? Or what instruments have they to do it withal?" Do Alonzo was a Spaniard to the bone: He simply could not imagine that he could be out-thought by scum like the Brethren. But the collective wisdom of the pirates had defeated the noble.
It reminds me of the scene in The Iliad when the Trojans are warned by Trojan priest Laoco├Ân about the possibility that the wooden horse left by the Greeks might be a trick and should not be brought into the city (famously rendered by Virgil as "I fear Greeks, even those bearing gifts.")

Hubris runs through history. Our downfall is surprisingly often, not the result of a deficit of knowledge, but a deficit of humility.

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