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.