Who wouldn’t want to hoist the Jolly Roger?
With role models like Captain Morgan, the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Keith Richards, what little boy hasn’t, at one time or another, dreamt of running away and joining the pirates? Even little girls could thrill to the exploits of real life female pirates, such as Anne Bonney, Mary Read, Madame Cheng, and the legendary, fictional, Pirate Jenny.
What is it about being a pirate that makes us want to put on our pirate pants and dance? And, what is it about pirates that has kept the public enthralled for centuries, and has made them such a creative force in our collective imagination?
Certainly the popularity of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow has revived interest in the iconoclastic image of the freedom loving, rule breaking, sea faring rebel who has no government to answer to except for his own conscience. Popular depictions such as this have reinforced the idea in public consciousness that there is something cool about being a pirate.
Although piracy in the 21st century carries whole other legal and tactical implications, if one were to really think about it, the reality of piracy today is not that different from the 18th century Golden Age of Piracy; rush in, take stuff, get away, then distribute the precious booty as one sees fit. Unfortunately, piracy today is not nearly as romantic as it was of yore.
How did we arrive at our romantic notion of the swashbuckling buccaneer anyway? Pirates, apparently, have existed and been written about since merchants have taken to sea. Early pirate sightings include Dionysus’ transformation into one around 440 BC, although there is evidence of piracy off the North African coast as far back as 1350 BC. Even Homer was writing of pirates in The Odyssey of 750–700 BC Greece.
Although Nordic Vikings get their own iconography and place in history, they were known to raid, pillage, and plunder as early as the 9th and 10th centuries AD. Obviously, pirates have had a long and storied history, but were their lives ever as romantic as we have come to expect? Was it all just puffy shirts and nautical nonsense?
Long John Silver (the legless fictional character from Treasure Island; not the fast food franchise) and Captain Hook (Peter Pan’s and Neverland’s armless arch-nemesis) forever cemented the template of the pirate’s image in popular imagination. An eye patch, a talking parrot, and some unintelligible accent that has given way to “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” are hallmarks of pirate culture that make it seem as if all pirates were loveable rogues and not bloodthirsty thieves.
Let’s consider this for a moment. First, being a pirate is very difficult work. The hours are long, the pay is bad, and working conditions are often abysmal. As such, only an unreasonably strong breed of man need apply. During The Golden Age, pirates were not just disaffected youth unwilling to make a living in the humdrum existence of 18th century farming or factory life. Many who became pirates during that time were former employees of the Royal Navy who, due to lack of work, joined up with the next best thing. There were also those who were ambushed at sea and forced into piracy.
Former sailors for the Royal fleet, some who had jumped ship and others who had been kicked out for disciplinary reasons, soon found that life as a pirate was not all the fun and games that were advertised in their pirate’s brochure. Professional pirating called for a level of discipline that had to be strictly maintained in order for the enterprise to be carried out successfully. The Captain of the ship was elected democratically, and the members of the crew were expected to work as a team and pull their weight.
There was a lot of work to be done on a sea faring ship, and in order to make this grueling, painstaking work reasonably tolerable, work songs were often sung in a call-and-response manner, not unlike US military cadence calls. There were shanties for unfurling short sails, shanties for raising and lowering large sails, shanties for raising and dropping the anchor, and shanties for pumping water out of the vessels. There were songs to sing while leaving port, and others sung while returning to land. Still others, the forecastle shanties, were ballads sung for entertainment and relaxation at the end of the workday, often in the crews’ quarters, and often accompanied by beer or extreme amounts of other alcohol.
Despite these brief moments of merriment, the pirates’ code of conduct, a ship’s intractable “Articles of Agreement” that each crewmember had to sign and abide by, stated that lights and candles must be out by 8 o’clock, and that any drinking done after that time MUST be done on an open deck. The Articles also insisted that men must keep their weapons clean and ready for engagement; that gaming for money is not allowed; that striking of another while on ship is not allowed; and, that women, under any circumstances, are not allowed on board.
These are but a few of a long list of regulations required of the crew while at sea, and although some of the offences were punishable by marooning (left on a deserted island with a single bottle of water and a pistol), other offences, like robbery, were punishable by splitting the offenders nose and ears, and then marooning. In addition, indiscretions such as smoking one’s pipe in the hold without a cap or carrying a candle without a lantern were subject to Moses’ Law (39 blows with a cat o' nine tails across a man’s bare back). More serious offences, however, such as disguising a woman as a man and bringing her on board, were punishable by death.
And pirates weren’t even concerned with buried treasure anyway! Think about it. These were guys out on the ocean for weeks, and quite often months, at a time, all smelly and starved and simply trying to make a decent living. They couldn’t wait around for some imaginary fantasy of an elusive hidden treasure to be waiting for them just beyond the horizon. They needed to hit it and quit it; pirates needed to strike oncoming seafaring vessels fast, grab their cargo, whether it was olive oil, tobacco, barrels of rum, or some other practical cargo, and take what they needed while selling the rest on the black market.
Occasionally, feelings would get hurt, and, uh, people would get killed…but, that was all in a day’s work. There are tales of the French pirate Francois L'Olonnais eating a man’s still beating heart, or of Jean Lafitte who was reported to have captured over 100 ships and murdered every one of the crew members aboard, or Edward Teach, Blackbeard to his friends, who once wanted a diamond ring so badly that he cut of the owner’s finger to have it.
Blackbeard was eventually decapitated during a standoff with the Royal Navy, and his glorious long locks on his freshly severed head was available for all to see on the mast of the Navy ship responsible for his capture. L’Olonnais was eventually, and ironically, eaten by cannibals in Panama, and the notorious Captain Kidd, who was so mean he once killed one of his own crew with a wooden bucket, was left to rot on the banks of the River Thames for all the naughty little boys and girls to see.
As Nina Simone sang, "That'll learn ya!"
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.