Why Do We Love Pirates?

Don’t lie to me. You totally love pirates. Everyone does. Because, let’s face it, pirates are cool. Like really cool.  In this blog post, I’ll try to figure our why exactly we think pirates are so cool, and delve a little bit into the history of some famous pirates. Hang on to the mizzenmast mateys, here we go!

Each human being possesses a desire for adventure, danger, thrills, and exploration. This universal human emotion has been captured and magnified by one particular group of individuals: pirates. Since the 18th century, pirates have been idealized and romanticized more than any other profession throughout history. Although many of these men and women were in fact brutal, ruthless murderers and thieves, throughout the past two decades, pirates have become a raffish symbol for freedom, adventure, and raucous living. How did pirates, who often committed horrendous acts of savagery like locking women and children in a burning church, become such loveable and idealized characters in the public mind? While the answer to that question lies beyond the scope of a 500 word blog post, it begins sometime around 1700, with the rise of the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean.

From 1716 to 1726, thousands of European and American sailors and privateers, left unemployed by the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, turned en masse to piracy in the Caribbean, the North American eastern seaboard, the West African coast, and the Indian Ocean. During this time, often known as the Golden Age of Piracy, the modern conception of pirates as depicted in popular culture was born. Tall tales and legends surrounded the most famous buccaneers like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Black Bart, Stede Bonnet, Calico Jack Rackham, and Anne Bonny. Because pirates earned their living by terrorizing merchant vessels throughout the civilized world, they were, not surprisingly, viewed in a very negative light by most of the world. When pirate Captain Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was killed by Lieutenant Robert Maynard in the famous battle of Ocracoke Island off the coast of North Carolina, the citizens of Great Britain celebrated a national holiday.

However, as pirates began to appear in popular literary works, the public perception of these swashbucklers began to change. In 1724, the heyday of piracy, Daniel Defoe published A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates under the pseudonym Captain Charles Johnson. This semi-historical work, which chronicled the daring and dangerous deeds of many famous pirates, was an enormous success throughout Britain. Pirates continued to be depicted as loveable rapscallions throughout the next 100 years in works such as The Pirates of Penzance (in which pirates sing and dance adorably), Lord Byron’s poem “The Corsair” (in which a good-hearted pirate captain pines for the love of his sweetheart), and Treasure Island (in which the famous Long John Silver saves the life of young Jim Hawke). During the beginning of the 20th century, piracy was further romanticized by countless Hollywood movies about dashing, young, handsome, gentleman pirates, such as in Errol Flynn’s famous movie “Captain Blood.”

Today, we have a great deal of historical evidence that points to the true atrocities committed by the majority of pirates. Rape, murder, theft, arson, and torture were common among these predators of the high seas. However, throughout the years, pirates have been romanticized through books, plays, and movies. While we all know that pirates were horrible people, we still fall prey to the glamour and bravado of the romantic notion that pirates were merely rambunctious and raffish free spirits because of the universal cultural perception of pirates as romantic archetypes.


11 thoughts on “Why Do We Love Pirates?

  1. I never really thought about why pirates are so idealized. It’s cool to look at all the history of this situation and to see how it’s changed over time. I feel like the free-will associated with being a pirate is what appeals to us most, despite pirates being pretty violent.

  2. My backup plan was a kid was always to become a pirate, even through I had no nautical knowledge nor any body of water larger than a creek to sail in. One thing that always fascinated me was the appearance of female pirates, who were just as bloodthirsty, violent and successful as their male counterparts. Who doesn’t love a story about female outlaws kicking butt in a society they would traditionally be restricted in?

  3. Okay you got me. I absolutely love pirates, I always have and I always will. However, I love the idealistic notion of a pirate – I’m well aware that in real life they were cold-blooded killers, thieves, and rapists. I suppose it’s a little upsetting we romanticize them so much, it’s not really giving justice to their victims. But I still have no intention of stopping. I also love the notion of an American cowboy, another historical figure that has been vastly idealized. While the freedom and adventure of life on the 7 seas will never lose its appeal, being bitten by bilge rats and suffering from scurvy may not have been worth it.

  4. Pirates are almost mythical. I think it’s funny, that whenever we imagine pirates, we think of the European ones from the 16th-17th century but there ARE real pirates at this moment and they are nothing like the ones described here. Of course, those pirates are much more interesting and less dangerous to us now so it kind of makes sense that we barely know about the ones in African waters.

  5. I have always loved pirate stories – from the story of Grace the Pirate Queen back in elementary school, to Pirates of the Caribbean, to the whole Bloody Jack series… It’s hard to admit how much I bought into the whole romanticized piracy thing as a kid, but I’m glad to know that I’m not alone. You did an awesome job of explaining the development of romanticized pirates in literature!

  6. I agree. Most people love piracy, because it shows how these pirates are living the way that they want to, only listening to their inner desires. Giving caution to the wind and ignoring laws and morals in becoming a pirate is a powerful idea, as the idea of living according to only your values and no other rules is quite freeing.

  7. Hey Swashbuckler.
    I think I just learned more about pirates than I have learned in my entire life combined. Thanks for sharing this awesomely factual blog about the history of pirates and shedding some knowledge on us mere scallywags. Arghhhhh matey and hope you have a grrrreeattt day!

  8. I have never thought of pirates in this light, however, I do admire pirates. It is interesting how you connected the fact that as humans we love thrill, adventure, suspense and these are traits that pirates have also. This blog post has broadened my knowledge about pirates. I’m currently in the mood to go watch some Pirates of the Caribbean tonight!

  9. I will not lie, I do love pirates. I wonder what unique groups of criminals will be romanticized hundreds of years later from our times, if any. Cowboys and Indians, both in some ways like pirates especially in pop culture, are another good example. To some extent, mafia and gang culture in general could be considered romanticized. Vikings are another group affiliated with mass murder (in some cases) that people see as really cool.

  10. I think one of the reasons we adore piracy instead of vilify it is because it provides us with a more appealing reality. Sure, we know that pirates do terrible things but they’re also living their lives how they want to live them. That’s something that not many people can say, especially if you grew up before egalitarian revolutions such as the French and American Revolutions.

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