Posted by: Captain Mike | May 3, 2011

Why would I admire pirates?

“Didn’t pirates kill and rape people?  Why would you admire them?”

This question was posed to me by a very astute student when I visited her class.  The bell rang and she had to hurry on to her next class before I could answer, which was a shame because it was the most interesting and complex question I’d been asked all day.  So I’ll answer it here.

The answer to the first question is obvious: yes, pirates did some truly horrific things.  I don’t just mean that they stole and murdered and raped – yes, those are all terrible things, but there are reliable reports of pirates who engaged in savage tortures of their victims before killing them.  These were men who weren’t merely violent, but brutal and sadistic, inventing atrocities and perpetrating them upon a hapless populace.

However, there are many reports of pirates who were very civil and good-natured.  In one account, a ship that had already been attacked by pirates was allowed to pass – the second group deciding that the ship had suffered ill fortune enough.  In another account, a pirate crew went to great lengths to pretend to kill a taken ship’s crew to get a seaman to confess the location of some hidden gold, only to reveal that none of the crew had been hurt at all.  The bottom line for many pirates was that violence was a means to an end, and murder for the sake of bloodlust was rarely profitable.

It may sound like I’m trying to rationalize the terrible acts of murderers, but I’m really trying to set context.  The term ‘pirate’ is very broad – compare it to the term ‘criminal.’  Murderers and rapists are criminals, and so are thieves, but so too are speeders and people who download music without paying for it.  This may seem a stretch, but the point is that the term ‘pirate’ was just as unclear a designation as ‘criminal.’  Moreover, compare the actions of most pirates with the actions of most legitimate seamen and marines at the time: attack an enemy ship, kill or subdue the enemy crew, and take whatever was valuable (even the enemy ship itself).  The only real difference was that pirates didn’t always worry about the nationality of the ship they were attacking (though sometimes it was very important to them).

I often point out that pirates are not to be emulated, though I can see why that comes across as a little ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ when I’m wearing a three-cornered hat.  The real connection is found in the answer to the second question, though that question should really be ‘DO I admire pirates?’

I admire anyone who’s willing to do what must be done to live free.  This is why I generally stick to Caribbean pirates of the Golden Age variety, by the way.  At the time, the value of human life was low, especially from a government’s perspective.  Sailors and soldiers were paid very little, and when wars ended (and they often did so abruptly), these men had nothing to fall back on.  Many people took to piracy because it was a way to earn money, hoping to earn enough quickly enough that they could quit the business and live well.  Moreover, many navy sailors were pressed into service – an aggressive version of the draft – and were taken onto warships for years without concern for the man’s previous job or family.  Many of these forced men became pirates because they were tired of poor conditions, angered by their indentured servitude, and desirous of worthy pay.  Since deserting a navy ship is a crime already, why not get rich by doing so?  Seen through the overall historical climate, joining a pirate crew was a legitimate business choice and way of life – it may have been violent and dangerous, but it offered freedom, wealth, and a chance to have a say in one’s own fate.

In point of fact, for many pirates, that say in their own fate was the strongest draw.  This was an age of kings and queens, with elected government just a cloud on the horizon.  Navy captains were chosen from an elite group of trained men, not promoted from the rank-and-file sailors.  Pirate crews, by contrast, were democratic.  They elected their captains and quartermasters, and even then a captain was only in command in combat.  The overall courses and plans were voted on.  When the money came in, each man had a share.

Again, I might be accused of romanticizing criminals, but consider the case of Captain George Roberts, whose ship was taken by pirates in 1722.  Roberts and his small crew were taken hostage and their ship commandeered.  The crew talked with him and discussed his situation, during which time he was given whatever drinks he wished from the pirates’ store.  The crew became divided over Roberts’ case – some felt they should keep the captured ship and others felt they should send Roberts on his way with it.  During the debating – which took more than a week – Roberts was treated well, except by one of the ranking pirates.  This man, named Russel, had taken an intense dislike of Roberts.  Russel tried to convince the rest of the crew to take everything of Roberts’ and leave him to die.  Most of the crew disagreed, which is why the debate went on so long.  Russel, unable to sway the vote, decided to trick Roberts into insulting him at dinner, and tried to shoot him.  (It was against the pirates’ rules to shoot a prisoner without a consenting vote, but it would have been acceptable if the prisoner was behaving improperly.)  Another pirate snatched away Russel’s pistol before he could fire it, at which point the gathered pirates, according to Roberts’ own account of the incident, calmed him and…

…speaking to Russel they said they would not allow him to be so barbarous: that they had always valued themselves upon this very thing of being civil to their prisoners and not abusing their persons: that, till now, he himself had always been the greatest persuader to clemency, and even to the forgiving of provocations, and permitting them to go from them with as little loss as could be, after they had taken what they had occasion for. (Stephens 181-182)

Captain Roberts later comments in his account that he hoped to never again see any of the pirates unless it was at an execution.  This was not a man who had any reason to romanticize these rogues, and yet his account paints, from start to finish, a group of brigands who live by their own laws in an attempt to make a profitable business with as little loss of life as possible.  These pirates are not anomalous nor unique – account after account brings up the notion that the average pirate crew wanted wealth and control over their lives, not bloodshed and horror.  Is this not admirable?

 

 

Stephens, John Richard. Captured by Pirates: Twenty-two Firsthand Accounts of Murder and Mayhem on the High Seas. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. Print.


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