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By Dusti Lewars-Poole
Piracy may well be one of the oldest known professions. With roots wrapped around Roman past and Viking exploits, piracy has inspired terror and fantasy for centuries.
Today, the word “pirate” brings to mind dashing rebellious male spirits with gold teeth, elaborate coats, and oversized plumed hats. Swords and pistols, handhooks and maps, eye patches and parrots – these are the tools of the trade. Treasure and freedom are the themes. The reality is, of course, a much more complicated matter.
Pirates, or more accurately “sea thieves”, were first mentioned in writing as far back as 140 B.C. For most of history, water has offered Man the quickest way to travel and transport goods. Ships and seaports were long recognized as holding the possibility of wealth – and where there’s wealth, there will be those who want to claim a share of it.
Privateers – Pirates By Any Other Name …
Surprisingly, the actual “golden age of piracy” – the time when pirates such as Blackbeard hit rock-star-fame status – only lasted from (roughly) 1665-1716. And frequently, the status of “pirate” depended on who was attacking whom. Some acts of piracy were perfectly legal – nations would hire adventurous individuals as “privateers,” complete with legal military status, to attack enemy shipping.
Being a privateer rather than a pirate, however, didn’t guarantee any sort of safety if one was caught. A thief is a thief in the eyes of the ones being robbed, and legal privateers were punished nearly as harshly as any criminal pirate. Depending on one’s perspective, privateers had it worse, as they faced life imprisonment rather than death by hanging, which is the traditional punishment for being a pirate.
So Spain’s privateers attacked French ships, France’s attacked the Spanish, England’s attacked French and Spanish ships, and the Maltese corsairs happily attacked any Christian-owned boat that dared sail the Mediterranean. And all too often, the lure of wealth led many a soul to cross the admittedly vague line from legal attacks to illegal robbery.
Sometimes, the road to piracy was inflicted on a person. If one’s military ship is manned by pirate wanna-bee’s, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where the crew might mutiny, taking over the ship, dragging a captain from a respectable life as an officer into a seedier career choice. Other times, the life of a pirate offered a person a chance to jump social statuses in a world where having the ill luck to be born to the wrong family trapped many a soul into a constrained life. And in times of peace, when there were too many sailors and too little salary, piracy had an obvious appeal.
Women Were Pirates, Too
Women made the very hazardous jump into piracy as well. History tells of at least two – Anne Bonny and Mary Read. They were women that disguised their gender at a young age in pursuit of a better life. Anne became a pirate because of love; Mary, because of being taken hostage by a pirate crew. Chances are very good that there were other ladies riding the waves as well – but considering that Fate was not kind to most women on board ships, it’s also very likely that these women would have tried to pass themselves off as men as much as possible.
Hollywood tells us that a pirate’s life was glamorous and wealthy, filled with buried treasures and hook-hands. A glance at history doesn’t entirely dismiss this version of the truth. A successful pirate was wealthy, squandering his wealth on luxury during his time ashore. Setting money aside for the future wasn’t a common practice. Pirates didn’t usually live to a ripe old age. Lost limbs were common. Disease and malnutrition frequently hit crews. A pirate captured during a raid was usually hung. While it’s true that some pirates succeeded in retiring from their rough life on the sea, it seems to have been the exception rather than the rule.
Democracy on the High Seas
One thing that Hollywood does not tell us is the fact that democracy was very common on pirate ships. Captains were often voted into power by the crew. Decisions that involved non-battle situations were usually reached by vote. At a time when most countries were still controlled by monarchies, the fact that pirate crews were figuring out new ways to govern themselves is one of the more intriguing aspects of piracy.
Aargh, Where’s Me Parrot? And Other Historical Inaccuracies
It may also be a surprise to learn that peg legs, parrots and huge sailing ships were actually not the norm in the world of the pirate. While limbs could certainly be lost in this very rough life, many people did not survive the amputation of legs, so it’s unlikely that peg legs would have been as common as Hollywood might portray them as being. Eye patches and hook-hands may have been seen more often, as the loss of an eye or hand is far easier to survive, and a hook is obviously more useful than an unadorned stump.
Parrots, frankly, are very high maintenance, and while their exotic look may have been appealing, it’s not likely that the limited supply of food on board, as well as the rough nature of the sea, would have brought much joy or health to a macaw. And while big ships with lots of cannons is a thrilling image on screen, small ships, quick to maneuver and very lightly armed, were a pirate’s first choice of transportation. Battles at sea would have been extremely dangerous. Most pirates preferred to race up to their target, hop on board, and steal as much as they could manage, and get away as quickly as possible.
A final surprise: There are indeed modern pirates. Some are poor fishermen, sneaking on board docked ships and stealing anything they can get their hands on. Others are highly organized; heavily armed criminals that aren’t afraid to attack a moving ship. Somalia has become known as a place for sailors to be wary of. The waters around Indonesia had the most recorded acts of piracy today. The International Maritime Bureau warns that the area between the south China Sea and the Java Sea is a high-risk area.
Pirates today use mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They’re stealing oil and ships. They take hostages. They kill resisting captains. There is little that is glamorous or sexy about it. So let Hollywood weave its web of sexy glamor around the myth and history of piracy. Wrap yourself in the fantasy. Embrace the pirate-heritage our history books barely touch on. But don’t forget…it’s all as real today as it was 3000 years ago. Out on the ocean, there still be pirates lurking.