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04 February 2011

A case for the pirates of yore

Posted in Pirate life

February 4, 2011

After centuries of relative--and perhaps, intentional--obscurity, pirates have been on broadsides, er, the news, thanks to a surge in high sea hijackings off the Somali coast.

Every so often, a journalist or visitor will venture through The Pirate Museum and ask, "Aren't you romanticizing the lifestyle of violent men who made their living as maritime thieves?" (or something like that) and I welcome the challenge.

Pirates were by no means nice guys: they tortured captives and slay crews that resisted attack. But let's not forget that civilization as we know it operated under different rules back then.

"(Pirates) were nasty, brutal and vicious people. But they lived in an age which was extraordinarily nasty, brutal and vicious," pirate expert Kenneth Kinkor told the Associated Press.

Somali piratesDuring the Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730), life for the common man was a daily struggle to simply survive against government or merchant ship tyranny, cruelty, and barely-existent wages. Under punishing and dangerous conditions, starving workers made one piece of eight (roughly 7 shillings) per month! Piracy offered escape from a difficult and painfully disparate life.

Piracy was a democratic undertaking; pirates voted on most major decisions, including who would be their captain, where to sail next and if to attack another vessel.

They also got their fair share of loot, whereas merchant ship captains often took 15 times more than their crews, who were left at times with almost nothing to show for their work.

Pirates had the first form of disability insurance long before it became standard. If they lost an arm or a leg in battle, they were handsomely compensated, and if they were killed, their families sometimes received payments, too.

Pirates were also a colorblind folk. Ships were an empowering and inordinately fair place for black men and former slaves in the 18th century. They had same right as white pirates to booty and to vote. Some were even elected captains.

Pirates spent a lot less time in combat than you might think. The Jolly Roger flag was raised as a warning to surrender rather than indicate attack mode. (The all-red flag indicated that.) Think about it: fighting could lead to injury and they wanted to avoid injury at all costs. Surrender is way better than a fight to the death.

Pirate ships also had rules called Articles or the Code of Conduct that had to be signed by every crew member. These rules included no smoking below decks after sunset, lights out by eight, no women or boys aboard and no gambling, which often led to fights. Barbarians? Not these guys.

In the beginning, colonies like England and France hired private sailors to raid and destroy the ships, forts, and townships of their enemies to undermine trade and seize cargo that would help feed their people and aid their nation's economies. With official backing from their government, these privateers and buccaneers were considered heroes in their own country. With one stroke of a pen on a treaty parchment, sailors who continued to do what they did best for mother country were labeled "pirates."

The pirates of today are nothing but thugs under the oppressive rule of drug warlords. There's no democracy, no upward mobility, no chance of rising in status or station. Modern day pirates would probably make my pirates of centuries ago roll over in their skull and crossbones-studded graves!


The photo in this blog post is from Lex Rex, Tim Tompkin's blog.

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Did you know?

  • At the height of its popularity, Port Royal, Jamaica had one drinking house for every ten residents. In July 1661 alone, 41 new licenses were granted to taverns.

  • Pirates wore an earring to ensure they died with at least one piece of treasure to buy their way into 'Fiddler's Green' (sailor's paradise in heaven).

  • The reason you've heard of most well known pirates is that they were captured and killed, or brought to trial where their exploits were recorded. But pirate captain Henry Every was made famous because he evaded capture after his piratical exploits.

  • Many pirates had eye patches, peg legs, or hooks. Ships in the 17th and 18th century were extremely dangerous places to work, so pirates would commonly lose limbs or even eyes during battle. 

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