Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter season two, where we explore the untold history of women and queer pirates. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’re traveling over to the Adriatic Sea to talk about the Uskoks, a band of raiders who operated in the 16th century at the intersection of three empires.
LC: But before we get into that, let’s talk with our resident pirate expert, Alyse, for a game of Fact or Fiction. Hi, Alyse.
EB: Hey, Alyse.
Alyse Knorr: Hello, friends.
EB: This is my favorite part of every episode. I’m so excited to hear what you have for us today. What do we got?
AK: Two things: “Arrr, matey. Shiver me timbers!”
LC: But Alyse, where’s your pirate costume for this?
AK: What are you talking about? I’m in my full regalia.
LC: Oh, yes, of course.
EB: Yes, yes, yes. For anyone who’s listening, she’s full pirate. Okay, so you’re asking us: these phrases, were they things that pirates actually say?
LC: Yeah, you know how like on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, you’re supposed to say things like, “Arrr, matey,” and, “Shiver me timbers.” I’m asking you about specifically those two phrases. Did pirates actually say those things? And you can split your answer if you want. Oh, that feels like a hint.
EB: So like, yes “shiver me,” no “arrr.” Or, the other way around.
LC: I would say the opposite of that. Yes “arrr,” no “shiver me.”
LC: “Shiver me timbers,” just seems so specific and so Disney.
EB: It does seem so specific. But I’m like, let me try to explain this.
LC: Yes, I love your explanation corner. Let’s go.
EB: So I’m gonna say yes to “shiver me timbers,” because, when they would get cold, their legs would shake, and their peg legs would start shivering, and they were full of timber.
LC: Why didn’t we decide that pirates didn’t really have that many peglegs?
EB: No, they did. Because they lost limbs.
LC: They did?
EB: So they would have to have things, like they would have the hook or they would have peglegs.
LC: Yeah, yeah, but I thought it wasn’t that common. Alyse, do you remember? I have such a bad memory.
EB: Yeah, can you clarify about the peglegs?
AK: It wasn’t as common as like–I think it could have happened and there’s a couple instances, but it wouldn’t have been as common as it seems in movies.
LC: It doesn’t matter though, because I love this explanation from you, Ellie.
EB: Alright, but that’s my explanation. And “arrr” maybe is just going to be a no for me, just because, I don’t know quite my explanation for that. I just–
LC: It just doesn’t feel right? Fair enough.
EB: It just doesn’t feel right. Yeah. It doesn’t feel as right as “shiver me timbers.”
LC: Okay, that’s interesting. I feel the opposite way. And I can’t really put words on why. I mean “arrr” just seems like something that could be true, if any of it was true. And I don’t know, maybe they just were, like, scurvy-something, I don’t know. For some reason, like, talking up something or I don’t know. I’m not as good at the explanation corner as you, Ellie.
EB: It’s okay. “And on this episode of Explanation Corner.” All right, I’m ready. Tell us, tell us.
LC: Alyse, take us out of our misery.
AK: Okay, so this one is actually our most complicated one, I think, of Fact or Fiction, because it really is–it could be fact. There’s a lot of speculation as to why it could be fact. But there’s not any hard evidence, and there’s a lot of evidence that it was more fiction. So first of all, “shiver me timbers,” it became a thing because of Victorian fiction starting with Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Like, all the pirates in there were just like, “Shiver me timbers!” every time they meant, “Holy shit!” But it’s also based in actual nautical slang, because timber meant like the ship’s timbers, because the ship is made of wood. So you might have said, “Shiver me timbers,” if you wanted to have the cannons start going. Or if you were talking about your ship getting hit with cannons that the timbers on the ship would start shivering. And also, you know, it’s kind of like splintery, like splinter wounds were really common on these ships, so “shiver me timbers” might mean something like that. But we just like–there’s no like actual historical evidence they said it. It’s all just from pop culture.
EB: Okay, close enough. I’ll take it.
LC: I mean, it feels like you’re right, Ellie.
LC: Let’s give you a win. We all need to win, this week.
EB: Thank you.
LC: Close out the year.
EB: I’m not wrong, that’s all you’re saying.
AK: You’re not wrong and you’re not right, and neither is Leesa. But we’ll give Leesa win here, and this is one that I think really could have been true, is “arrr, matey,” because it was really a thing in, again, Treasure Island with Long John Silver. All the pirates in there said, “Arrr, matey.” So that’s how it got popularized, as with many pirate things in Treasure Island. But the reason that the pirates in that would say that is because the author was trying to work in a sort of crude imitation of a West Country English accent, which is where most of the pirates came from in England during the late 17th to early 18th century. And when they made the movie Treasure Island, they cast this guy who came from that part of England, so he could do the accent really well. So again, it was popularized in Treasure Island, but that is how people from that part of England talked then. And also, pirates didn’t have a lot of teeth. So that kind of like, “Arrr, matey,” like, just like the slurring.
LC: Do it again, Alyse.
AK: “Arrr, matey!!! Shiver me timbers!!!”
LC: Alyse, I should let you know, Alyse does have her teeth. Yeah, I do, I do have my teeth. Which is really hindering her ability to perfect it.
EB: Yeah, but it’s very close.
AK: I’ll come next time without teeth so I can do it properly. Just knock ’em out.
EB: Every single episode, Alyse just becomes more and more of a pirate.
AK: It’s a slow evolution.
EB: Just like I actually sold my house. I live on the sea now.
LC: Wouldn’t that be great if that’s how we ended the season?
AK: I live in Denver, but I’m just gonna commit and go to the sea.
EB: Yeah, exactly. Wait, so okay, so it is true though? “Arrr, matey” is pretty true?
AK: I think it’s pretty true. I mean, just the way they would have talked between having no teeth and then being drunk all the time. I think they would have talked in some of these more colorful ways. So I, you know, I probably shouldn’t say it’s fact, but I’m gonna say it’s fact.
EB: All right.
LC: I think the actual answer is like, you know, the emoji where it’s, like, shrugged shoulders?
LC: That’s what I’m going to put as the official answer. The shrugged shoulders, but I like it. The splitting the answer was good, because we’re both right.
LC: And we’re both wrong.
EB: Yes. We’re both sort of right. So I like it.
LC: Yeah. Okay, good.
EB: Thank you so much, Alyse, as our pirate linguistic expert. We appreciate you.
AK: Of course.
EB: We will be back after a quick break.
LC: We’re back. So as we said at the top of the episode, this week we’ll be covering the Uskok pirate raiders.
EB: Our source for today’s episode is Wendy Bracewell, an emeritus professor of Southeast European history at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. Here’s Wendy!
LC: That’s adorable.
Wendy Bracewell: The Uskoks were really raiders, frontier raiders, in the 16th century. And they had a lot of frontier to raid across, because this is an area in the northern Adriatic where three empires meet. So the Habsburg Empire, and this is the territory, The Senj, the city of the Uskoks was on, and they owed loyalty to Habsburgs. But the Adriatic and much of the Adriatic coast was controlled by the Venetian Republic. Shipping up and down the Adriatic was the way that Venice made its money. And the third empire, and possibly the most important in terms of the Uskoks, is the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire had been making inroads into the hinterland since really the beginning of the 15th century, and the Uskoks were animated by a Christian ideology. The idea of the Antemurale Christianitatis, they were the front line of Christianity, protecting Christians from the Turks, from the Muslims. So their stated aim was to raid across the border, and do as much harm to Ottoman invaders as they could. And that made them extremely useful to the Habsburgs. They were practically free military irregulars, and extremely irritating to the Venetians, who had relatively good relations with the Turks at this point. So having Uskoks raiding either by sea or on land made the Ottomans angry with the Venetians, the Venetians retaliate against the Uskoks, the Habsburgs get irritated because their irregular soldiers are being put at risk. So the Uskoks are at the center of a great diplomatic struggle, as well as a military struggle, in the 16th century. Religiously motivated, yes, that’s at any rate, what they say and what their support is, particularly in Rome, they see them as crusaders against the Muslims. But they’re also motivated by the need to earn a crest. Their city had been a trading port at the end of overland trade routes. But as the Ottomans came up through the hinterland and seized more and more territory, those trade routes would cut off, so they couldn’t make money as traders anymore there, and there’s no agricultural land around Senj. It’s all bear, rocky, hard landscape. So they had to turn to the sea, and so they turned to raiding, which answers both an ideological need and a military need, but it also brings them in the wherewithal to continue to survive in the city. But in terms of, you know, what they did, their strategy and techniques, they’re very similar to pirates elsewhere and at other times. They tend to be small-scale rather than large-scale piracy. But that’s part and parcel of the technology of seafaring at the time. So they’re not dealing with great, big, round ships, they’re dealing with the small and larger trading galleys, especially the small-scale trade up and down the Dalmatian coast. They’re very well equipped to deal with that, to take it on with fairly small boats, barques that will hold maybe 12 to 24 men. So not huge, but very fast, very agile. And they’re also very well-suited to the landscape. So if you know the Dalmatian coast, it’s dotted with islands big and small. And these small little Uskok craft are very good at hiding behind rocky promontory or in a bay, and then scooting out really quickly, you know, four or five boats, rounding a larger ship and jumping aboard, and saying, “What have you got on you? And who does it belong to?”
LC: Hello, religious extremism.
EB: Here we are.
LC: Here we are. I know I shouldn’t be excited, but you know, this is what my whole thing is about, so I’ve got to be a little bit excited.
EB: Yes. And a little love triangle of religious extremism.
LC: Great. Okay, so a lot of terminology here. Ellie, what is a corsair?
EB: A corsair is a Mediterranean term meaning the equivalent of a privateer, someone recognized by state authority and still bound by law.
LC: Okay, we’re going to talk about that in the next clip, I think.
WB: The Uskoks would say that they weren’t pirates at all. If anything, they’re corsairs. First of all, they’re heroes. But they’re corsairs, they’re recognized by a state of authority, they’re not simply raiding on their own account. You know, they’re doing this under license from the Habsburg emperor. So that’s an important thing to keep in mind. But yes, they’re Uskoks, I would definitely say that the women were Uskoks, you know. They’re part of Senj, they’re part of the wider Senj community. None of them, as far as I have ever found any records, held an official position, either recognized by the Uskok military leaders themselves, or certainly not recognized by the Habsburgs, though the widows could receive pensions for the service of their husbands, from the Habsburgs. So in that very formal sense, no, they’re not part of the Uskok war machine. But in a much broader sense, yes, they are. And they’re a very important part of it. The Barbary Corsairs, that’s a collective term that’s usually imposed from outside. So they’re corsairs rating out of the various small city-states on the north African coast, each under the authority of a bay or a pasha, who ultimately recognizes the Ottoman sultan, but have a tremendous degree of autonomy. And they’re raiding in very much the same sort of ways. The Uskoks, though, you could see them as a parallel phenomenon. Another group that you could mention would be the Knights of Malta. Peter Earle wrote a wonderful book comparing the Barbary Corsairs and the Knights of Malta. The Knights of Malta would be appalled to be compared, either to Scots or to Barbary Corsairs. You know, they are doing it for entirely religious reasons. But when you look closely at either the strategy and tactics of corsairing, or the ideological drive behind them, they’re all very, very similar.
LC: This is incredibly interesting, because a big debate that happens around the idea of terrorism and legitimate violence is the idea of state sponsorship. So by definition, terrorism is a non-state actor. But a lot of people use the word terrorism when describing actions by a country or people paying mercenaries on behalf of a country. So for example, people would say things like, you know, America is a terrorist because of its actions of war. But literally all that makes a difference is we’ve deemed any country action to be legitimate under international law, which has been a big issue in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and I’m not getting into that. But because Israel has been deemed a state and Palestine is not a state, any action taken by Palestine is a non-state actor, therefore terrorism. And so it seems like it’s the same kind of thing here, where it’s like, “Oh, we’re legitimate because we’re state-sanctioned, even though the actions are still, you know, pirate.” So it’s a debate that still happens now.
EB: My mind is blown.
LC: I’m sorry. I’m gonna stop nerding out about terrorism.
EB: No, that was so great. I just learned something new today. So, I know probably our listeners are learning some new stuff, too.
LC: Yeah. Completely left from gay poetry.
EB: Yeah. But I mean, I love that it like connects now, right? Like the same sort of state-sanctioned or non-state-sanctioned violence has been happening for centuries.
EB: And it’s like, who’s the pirate and who’s the privateer? It’s just so interesting.
LC: And if you take a step back, it’s like, at the end of the day, it’s like, I mean, not to get too abstract, but like, we’ve just decided things. Like we’ve just decided, “Okay, if a country invades another country, that’s legitimate. If a non-state actor wants to do the same acts, that’s not legitimate.” And in a similar way, these guys are like, “Well, we’re doing this for this emperor, so it’s legitimate. We’re not pirates.” But it’s exactly the same behavior, so.
EB: Yeah, we’re doing pirate behavior, but we are not pirates.
LC: Yes, exactly. We’ve been legitimized by this random emperor-person.
EB: Yes, makes sense. In our next clip, we’re going to talk a little bit more about the Knights of Malta, who Wendy mentioned earlier. The Knights of Malta and the Uskoks were motivated by similar Christian ideology, and they also use similar tactics.
WB: They both affirm a crusading ideology. The justification for what they do is the protection of Christendom against the infidel. And that’s very, very much at the forefront of their self image, and affects some of what they do. So the theory was that if you stopped a trading ship, even if it was owned by a Venetian or a Ragusan, so a Christian trading ship, but trading with the east, you would ask: “Who owns the various parts of the cargo?” And there is licit plunder, that which is owned by Muslims, and illicit plunder, Muslims and Jews. Jewish traders on the Mediterranean have a little bit of a difficult position. They can argue that they are subjects of Christian rulers and should be free of the danger of being plundered. But very often in practice, their goods seized as well as those of Muslims. But goods belonging to Christians, that’s illicit plunder, you should not take it, you should leave it there, and you can go to court. You can go to the Habsburgs with the Uskoks, or you can go to Malta and say, in Valletta, you know, “I am a Christian subject. My goods were plundered illicitly by these corsairs. You are pirates, give it back.” And they win their cases. So that’s shared ideology. And it’s similar on the other side, though, I think you can see it much more clearly among the Ottomans in land-based raiding rather than ships at sea. There are Muslim pirates at the bottom of the Adriatic going out Ulcinj, who operate very much like the Barbary Corsairs. But up and down the Adriatic, there’s very little Ottoman raiding at sea, much more raiding on land. But there again, the ideology is that this is justified as holy war against Christians. So it’s mirror image, one of the other, and the techniques, obviously, are very similar. You know, you have trade routes with ships, how do you stop them? How do you get hold of their cargo? And you have hinterlands where people are raising cattle, and you raid them back and forth, sometimes to take home for food or sometimes to barter back. That, too, is really similar. So there are all sorts of constraints on what you can and you can’t do as a pirate. And I think it ends up meaning that their activities are very similar in very many different sets of circumstances.
LC: So, not only should the Uskoks we’re covering be called corsairs, rather than pirates, even though we are covering them on our pirate podcast, but also it’s worth pointing out that they saw themselves as the good guys, which, like Loki, every terrorist sees themselves as a good guy, and not villainous pirates at all.
WB: They certainly saw themselves as heroes. That’s a very important part of their self-image: they are fighting men, and they’re heroes, they’re knights, they’re brave men, they use all of these terms to describe themselves. And this sort of heroic masculinity is really an important part of the Uskok code. They’re right, to an extent. They risked their lives, constantly, in the pursuit of both their military aims and their need to make a living. And they live by a particular code of honor, whether they are taking on empires. Well, they’re not taking on the Habsburg Empire, except occasionally to thumb their nose at it when there are regulations that try to stop them from raiding. They’re certainly taking on the Ottoman Empire. But they have friends on the other side of the border, too, Muslim friends who will help them with their raids. And they’re certainly taking on the Venetians, they haven’t got much time for Venice’s control of the Adriatic. So heroes in their own eyes, brave, certainly foolhardy, you know, all of these things I can sign up to. But also extremely violent, and could be very cruel. It’s not a nice, romantic world out there, at this time. It’s a world of constant warfare. So I think they did what they had to do. It’s not the image of masculinity. The guy would choose to say it was heroic. It is fascinating that the violence of the frontier is really interesting. It’s not random, arbitrary violence, either. It’s always violence that has a purpose, you know. Is it in order to grab the plunder? But it’s equally intended to send a message: don’t mess with us, we’re, you know, we’re scary people. There are some people, some Uskoks, who enjoy it, you know, who are psychologically not very stable. But there are others who have a very clear idea of right and wrong and are willing to go to the wire in order to defend that idea of principle.
EB: I love that this theme keeps coming up that pirates didn’t see themselves as villains, right? The same way that the Uskoks did not see themselves as villains. Like, they were the heroes of the story, they were the underdogs, they were taking on these massive empires. And so I just find it really fascinating to talk about the gray area that these pirates or corsairs lived in.LC: Yes. And like, I think that’s the thing is I think that it just feels very terrorism to me, because again, it’s like people who are engaging in these acts are often not thinking that they’re just trying to be violent for violence’s sake. They think they’re changing the world, and acts of terrorism have changed the world. And I’m absolutely not endorsing terrorism, but like, violence, unfortunately, in this society, does, you know–it works.
EB: So until this episode, I had never heard of the Uskoks.
LC: Me, either
EB: How did Wendy get interested in them?
WB: It was so fascinating when I started doing it. There were all these records that nobody had really looked at, in terms of what they can tell us about how these people thought about themselves. Everybody was interested in the great diplomatic history, the entanglements between the Ottoman Empire and the Venetians and the Habsburgs. But people weren’t really all that interested in the Uskoks themselves. And I thought they were just really fascinating. And I think I still think that they’re really fascinating, because they show us a world–when we look at them carefully, they show us a world, even on the border between Islam and Christianity, that is by no means black and white. You know, it’s not heroes and victims. It’s not good Christians and bad Turks. It’s people who are living in a very complicated world, a very complicated world, with so many cross-cutting authorities, so many cross-cutting loyalties, so many pressures on them, and they do what they have to do in order to survive. And looking at what they do, and looking at how they try to justify themselves gives us a real sense of not just the precarity, but the complexity of life on this border. So that I find endlessly fascinating, and there are so many aspects of life on this border that really boggle the mind. It’s not just the piracy and banditry. It’s, you know, how do you ensure that you’ll have friends on the other side of the border when you need them? Because you will, you know, what do you do? Do you do it solely by force? Do you do it by family relationships? So people are moving around a lot in this period. You have relatives easily on both sides of the border, and sometimes relatives in both religions. That’s a very well-established fact. So, you know, what sort of negotiations do you have to carry out? What sorts of compromises do you have to make? It’s really, really a fascinating world.
LC: So how do we know what we know about the Uskoks? What are some of the historical sources we draw upon?
WB: Pop culture is a sort of disconcerting way to think of the oral folk culture of the Uskok people. But that’s exactly what it is, really, it’s popular culture. So there’s a great tradition of making epic poems about heroes. And there are lots, there’s a whole cycle of epics about the Uskoks of Senj, about the bandits of the hinterland, with their names, telling stories of their exploits. Some of them are, you know, they’re sort of hero worship, you know, of the masculinity and heroism of these guys going out and doing battle with the Turks. But some of them are much more interesting and much more complicated, and deal with things like moral dilemmas. You know, what do you do if you have a Muslim blood brothers? You know blood brotherhood is a big deal on this frontier. And it can be contracted between Christian and Muslim, it can be contracted between men and women as well, or Catholic and Orthodox. So it’s a great way of bridging differences, but it can pull you into all sorts of moral difficulties. And some of these songs set up a problem where a Christian hero has to stand against a Muslim hero with whom he is a blood brother. So, which bond of loyalty do you choose? That sort of thing. And I think that really does justice to warfare on the frontier. There are ones that also deal with the constant violence of the frontier. A mother who says to her son, you know, “War on the frontier is nothing but blood. Blood here, blood there, I’m always having to wash a bloody shirt.” This recognition of the human costs, as well as the heroism of the frontier, I think is very true to life. It’s a difficult source to use. The earliest collection of these epics we have was written down–oh, this is such a great story. It was written down about 100 years after the flowering of the Uskoks. So, beginning of the 18th century, and it seems to have been written down by a chancellor in one of the Habsburg military headquarters, who didn’t really know the language very well. It looks as though it’s partly an exercise in using his Cyrillic, and partly an exercise in, you know, can he hear it properly. So he’s clearly got somebody reciting these songs in front of him, and he started writing it down. So with all sorts of orthographic mistakes and running words together, and you get the sense that, you know, that the recording device is a little iffy here. But that means that it’s much more accurate. He’s not editing it as he goes. So this is the song as it was sung in front of him. It’s really marvelous stuff. It’s a great compendium of ethics, the occasional sort of lyric song, all sorts of things. So that sort of source, 100 years later, tells you about how some of these people were remembered. It tells you the way in which the people who were singing these songs thought about them, and thought about the settings within which they operated. It probably tells you something about how the singer’s projection of their own time onto these figures of the past worked. But it’s a direct source saying you know, “Okay, you’re right, this man was here then and did that, you know, to somebody else.” It doesn’t work like that very well.
EB: And we’re bringing it back to epic poetry.
LC: Woo, shoutout to season one.
EB: I love this though. I mean, we’ve talked about this extensively with Sappho, like how oral tradition is passed on and then completely messed up and changed, and so it’s like this game of historic telephone, right? Of like, okay, so what is true from here, and like what completely got lost in translation. But I love that that’s how we pass down our stories and legends to turn these people into, like, part real people and part hero, legend, in this epic poem. So it’s very, very cool.
LC: Yeah. We love an epic poem.
EB: We love it.
LC: If any of our listeners want to write an epic poem about us, do it, please. Please.
EB: One of the reasons we reached out to Wendy specifically is because she has written about the role that women play in Uskok communities, which we haven’t talked too much about yet. So here she is on that.
WB: They raise the children, they make the food, they try to ensure that there’s enough on the table in order to be able to keep their families. They have friends, they play games, they’re like women in any of the other communities up and down the coast, and like women, you know, in most coastal communities, I think, around the world. There are some specificities, maybe, to their lives. Some of these, I think, are true of seafaring communities anywhere. They see off their husbands and sons to sea, and they don’t know whether they’ll see them come back. That, I think, is something that was always very much on their minds. And you can see that worry in the way that the women in Senj take a big part in two things: in equipping the ships, the little barques that the Uskoks could use for raiding. So they–if they had any capital, they could invest. They could provide provisions, they could use pensions that they had received if their husbands or sons had died in the service of the Habsburgs, and they could invest that in putting a ship to sea. They’re very engaged economically in the Uskok life. And the other aspect where you can see their worry about their husbands and sons, and indeed about the community as a whole, is the way in which they take part in the trade in captives. So, a big part of the raiding across land is taking Ottoman captives and bringing them back to Senj and holding them for ransom. This is a huge part of the military economy. So the rights to these captives could be traded. So you hear of women in Senj acquiring Ottoman captives, precisely in order to ransom their own family members back from Ottoman captivity. So there’s this whole trade back and forth in captives and ransom. And that’s an interesting aspect of women’s lives, and everybody is doing it. And I think it’s really interesting in that it’s something that mitigates against the violence of frontier warfare. You don’t want to kill a captive, because he then loses all his value. You want to save his life and bring him home, you know, and get something in return for that. So they’re very involved in that. They’re also involved in traveling outside of Senj, which could be dangerous in times of blockade of the city. But women were more easily able to travel across boundaries, because the authorities didn’t suspect them. So they could collect information, they could take news of what was going on in Senj to the outside world, but they could also see, you know, what trade routes were being used, whether armies were on the march, what will, you know, whether the Venetian rectory down the road was friendly or not, you know. They’re very, very good, very effective information gatherers for the city. In terms of the women of Senj, what I think is really interesting about the sources is the way that the Venetians use them as a symbol of an upside-down world. So for the Venetians, the Venetians tell stories about the women of Senj that paint them as completely unwomanly women. They don’t know how to use a needle or a spindle. They urge their husbands on to a life of crime. All they want to do is lie around in dresses of silk. I think if women of Senj saw dresses of silk, they would be thrilled beyond belief. They have no morals, the women of Senj, according to these Venetian propaganda reports. Their husband dies and they marry a new one in a few days or a few weeks. One of these Venetians says, “Not very old, who has been married to 11 husbands.” So they use them as a symbol of the way in which who’s got society is perverted, is upside down, you know, is not a Christian place. And it’s a justification for the violence that the Venetians then use against the Uskoks. So they tell the story that they need about the Uskoks. And I think we can learn a lot about Venetian attitudes and needs from reading this sort of propaganda material. It’s fascinating what they do with it. But I–when I was thinking about this interview, I was thinking, but is that anything different from what we do with pirates, and with Uskoks? We make them tell the stories that we want and need. And sometimes they are stories that are very, very far different from the lives of people on the frontier in the 16th century.
LC: I have so much to say on this. I feel like that’s this episode’s theme. But firstly, I want to make a confession, which is that I am an unwomanly woman, because I can’t sew. And I refuse.
EB: I can’t either. I do play games, though. So does that make me a woman?
LC: I don’t even know. But this is really interesting, because two things. Firstly, this is exactly the way that we use the word terrorism now, and like Trump used this really effectively, right? He started calling people who were Antifa terrorists, even though many of them were very peaceful. But it was a way to sort of engage the public and create an enemy, and people who are legitimately trying to push against imperial forces or push against the state are often deemed villains like this. And so I think that’s one interesting point. The second thing that I think is super interesting, is that this is in the 16th century. This tactic of sending women off to kind of, like, do recon or, like, you know, kind of catch people unawares, was used really effectively in Algeria, in their anti-colonial terrorist movements. And actually, they used women very well as suicide bombers, because nobody ever expected that women would do that. And so that was like a really big part of their tactic. And so I just think that throughline is really interesting of people being like, “But no one would suspect a woman!” Like, seriously–still, still?
EB: It’s still–yeah, I mean, that is very interesting, too, like, using women as the negotiators, between hostages and captains.
EB: I feel like there’s just like that idea of, like, women as people who can talk well, you know, they’re gonna talk their way into helping alleviate tensions or, like, “Here, here’s your kidnapped person. Give me the other kidnapped person.” Rather than men who are like, “I’ll just kill you instead.” Yeah, right. Like, there’s a specific role for the women in all of their, like, negotiations.
LC: Yes, but also like the way that the broader society treated Uskok women as kind of backwards and use that as a justification. Like, I think that’s been a tactic often used in war by men against women to dehumanize them, and like, do terrible things to them, which we’re not going to go into. Anyway, on a lighter note, if you want to read more about Uskoks, there’s a Canadian fantasy novelist who wrote a whole book about them, which I just think is really cool.
WB: I was terribly flattered. A Canadian fantasy novelist read my book on Uskoks, and wrote a fantasy novel in which one of the heroines is an Uskok woman who lives by the code of honor and vengeance. And this trips her up, she has to kill another Uskok, because she must, you know, honor requires that she does. And she then must leave her Uskok society, and strike out and make a life for herself. And he tells a story that’s about the freedom to choose, and how far that goes, when it’s brought up against a code of honor. And especially when it’s a woman doing it. That’s a story that’s very much for the 21st century, isn’t it? It’s not a story that would show up in the epic songs of the 17th or 18th century but it’s an example of the way that we use Uskoks. It’s a terrific book. It’s by a Guy Gavriel Kay, called Children of Earth and Sky. Highly recommend it, it’s a, you know, a real rousing story.
EB: Wendy left us with some really beautiful parting words about why the Uskoks are so fascinating, and why they matter so much.
WB: That’s in all of the past, you know, doesn’t it act that way, as a slate for us to project our needs and desires onto. But I think Uskoks, pirates, corsairs–they’re outside of our normal range of existence. I don’t know about you, but I rarely go out raiding. I rarely have a chance to, you know, to hold up my principles as a banner and say, you know, “I am doing this for a higher meaning.” They’re a really attractive blank slate. They’re not entirely blank. They already carry with them stories, even at the time, stories about moral dilemmas, engrossing stories, stories about love that crosses boundaries, you know, stories about fighting what is right, you know, or more frivolous stories about dressing up. You know, these are really good slates for us to use our own ideas and needs and wants.
EB: It’s the same thread that keeps coming up for us, which is like that projecting our modern lens onto these, like, historical–
LC: Ellie, are you telling me I put a modern lens on this? Are you accusing me of that?
EB: I would never. No, but I mean it’s interesting to look at these people through a modern lens. But it is like what Wendy was saying of, like, they’re almost so out of what our normal range of thinking is, that you can create even more wild and fantastical stories about them, which is why we tell all these stories about pirates as these larger than life, like–
EB: I feel like sometimes I think of pirates as, like, they’re literally Disney characters. Like they’re not actually real, right?
EB: Like, so it’s just–it is interesting, to hear Wendy say that as we’re talking about like history, but it seems so fantastical.
LC: Yes. I mean, that’s the thing that’s kind of wild to me is, like, we keep recreating these movies and these stories and everything. And it’s like, even within our own history of the world, there are so many interesting stories to tell. And it’s like, you can’t think of something else to do, you’re going to remake Ghostbusters? When the Uskoks are right there? Like you don’t even have to think of something, you can like go into history, and it’s right there.
EB: Exactly. Every single episode of the season should be a film.
LC: Absolutely. Someone hit us up, make movies from our podcast. Let’s go.
EB: Let’s do it. In the meantime, while you’re waiting for the Sweetbitter franchise, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
CJ Farley: This was a great swashbuckling story of people getting in fights, and getting in sword fights, and going to new places, and having sex, and having affairs. It was just a lot of crazy, out of control, breaking boundaries fun.
Clint Jones: When Jack Rackham’s ship was captured, she famously said, “If the men had fought like men instead of cowering like dogs, they wouldn’t have been captured.” Like, she was defiant ’til the very end.
EB: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode is supposed to be released on January 13th, but we may be postponing because Leesa is sick. A lot of people in New York are getting sick right now, but she’s okay. She just needs some time to recover. If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us, it really helps. Especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. You can also support us on Patreon at patreon.com/sweetbitter. Thank you so much to our Patreon supporters, and to our Apple podcast subscribers. Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte, in partnership with Three Springs Media. Our audio engineering is by Sarah Gabrielli. Our production assistant is Thea Smith and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you to our guest this week, Wendy Bracewell. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website. You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website at sweetbitterpodcast.com. And now we have a wonderful sea shanty. This week, it was written and produced by Joshua. So, here it is.