Welcome!

Hello and welcome to my site!

I use this blog to write about historical film and the media along with observations and advice about postgraduate work. I’m a teacher and a freelance writer and I am available to write for you and to consult for television/film in any area of history. I have written for History Today and appeared on the BBC to discuss pirates and their public executions. You can find more information about my research, publications, and media experience through the different tabs on this site.

I am a historian of early America and the Atlantic world with a PhD recently completed at King’s College London. My expertise is in legal history, piracy, state power, violence, print culture, and polite society. For more information about my academic work and interests, check out the “About” tab on this site.

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Advice: Starting a PhD in a Foreign Country

It’s over halfway through March and over the next several weeks American universities will start mailing out acceptances and offers into postgraduate programs. But what if you decide to move abroad for graduate school? I chose to do that and spent 2012 – 2017 living in London to research my PhD about pirates. This is more practical advice than a personal story and I’m not touching on PhD advice. That’s for another day. Continue reading

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Who Were Pirates?

Over the past several months I’ve been taking a writing class about the novel at a local university. Naturally, I’m working on a project about piracy. Recently my chapter was workshopped and one of the comments I received was, “The person seems too ambiguous to be a pirate. They’re supposed to be these pillaging swashbucklers looking for treasure.” This comment stuck with me until I was finally allowed to speak.

“I deliberately left it ambiguous,” I said. “Many pirates did not consider themselves to be pirates and lots of those people were not that violent. And buried treasure is more of a myth.”

My goal: To upend the Hollywood trope of the antiheroic pirate off to search for buried treasure.

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Sorry, Jack, but no.

Well, despite this image and caption I will allow myself a Jack Sparrow quote: “Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate.”

But I digress. I’ve written about my thoughts on buried treasure and how it became part of the pirates’ narrative before so I won’t spend time going into that here.

The vast majority of pirates were skilled sailors who wanted to make more money than they would working on a merchant ship or in the Navy. They had families to support and important roles in their communities.

Were some pirates violent? Definitely. Did they attack ships and kill for the sole purpose of stealing goods and supplies? Absolutely. After all, the definition of a pirate is one who robs and murders on a body of water.

Yes, there were many pirates who signed up for this life indefinitely but the majority only intended to work as a pirate for a year or two before retiring back home to lead a simple life.

To be a pirate, one just had to be a skilled sailor…with some moral ambiguity of course. The Navigation Acts blocked trade outside Britain into their colonies so the purpose of many pirates was to also act as smugglers in the American colonies. While this meant they mostly attacked foreign ships, they were not above stealing from their own countrymen with the intention of selling goods illicitly.

Pirates’ actions brought in wealth and revenue into the American colonies as the British worked to establish their empire. Despite their crimes, they played just as important a role in the establishment of the colonies as colonial officials. (Although the moral debates of these actions are a much larger subject…)

 

SOURCES

Mark Hanna, Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570 – 1740, UNC Press, 2015

This American Life, “I Am Not A Pirate,” May 5, 2017.

Ben Franklin’s World, “Mark Hanna, Pirates & Pirates Nests in the British Atlantic World.”

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Why Do People Like Pirates?

It’s time to revive this site so I thought I’d go back to the basics and discuss why people have liked pirates since the 18th century.

Pirates in today’s popular culture mostly take on caricature forms as these exciting, swashbuckling antiheroes out to find treasure and glory. Their enemy? Often the Royal Navy because who doesn’t want to stick it to The Man? The answer: everyone.

If one wants to look at the best source of how people reacted to pirates, the best subject to examine are their public executions. These events drew out hundreds of people because they guaranteed an entertaining spectacle. The unfortunate person sentenced to hang provided the audience with a speech atoning for their sins before they were sent to their Maker.

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A pirate at Execution Dock.

Pirates had a similar ritual but theirs was more extravagant. For one, they were led to Execution Dock on the bank of the Thames in Wapping in a procession headed by the silver oar of the Admiralty.

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Pirates then gave their speeches and off they went back from whence they came.

Their speeches were then published verbatim for eager readers (or listeners if they could not read for these were often read aloud in public houses). Not only that, the Observations of the Ordinary of Newgate and the pirates’ trials were published as well because they turned a huge profit.

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By 1724, publications about piracy were so eagerly sought after that the book A General History of the Pyrates was published by Captain Charles Johnson (often attributed to Daniel Defoe). This book is still in print to this day.

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So why were pirates such a popular commodity and from where did their legendary originate?

During the 17th and 18th century, social status was (for the most part) fixed. If one was born to aristocracy, then they and their subsequent generations would retain their status. If one was born in some form of business, most likely they would retain their moderate success. If one was born into the working, laboring, or poorer classes, they would stay there.

Pirates, however, subverted these social norms. They declared themselves to be of no nation and made their ship egalitarian societies. They stole goods to sell and commanded an equal distribution of wages. As a result, they could end up wealthier than if they stayed on shore. These were people who were able to cast off their social class and become richer, independent of government, and (polite) social norms. Yes, they committed murder and robbery and left coastal cities ransacked or in fear of their livelihood. At the same time, however, many people could not help but be intrigued by these rogue sailors and the way they were able to rise above and become their own people.

Over time as piracy dwindled, fact transitioned into myth. Eventually the writer Robert Louis Stevenson took inspiration from A General History of the Pyrates and penned a serial called “The Sea Cook,” which eventually became collated into a wildly successful novel named Treasure Island. While well-researched, the author took many liberties to create a fun, adventurous story. Then in the 1950s, the actor Robert Newton gave the character Long John Silver his own interpretation. 

The result? The pirate we know today. Centuries of fear and fascination transformed into exciting fiction forever changed the view of who pirates actually were.

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Sorry, Jack, but no.

 

Further Reading:

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates of the Golden Age, Beacon Press, 2004.

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, Random House, 2006.

Margarette Lincoln, British Pirates and Society, 1680 – 1730, Routledge, 2014.

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How I transitioned from the PhD into secondary education.

A few months ago I announced on Twitter that I had accepted a full-time permanent position as a humanities teacher in West Los Angeles. I know there are many PhD students and ECRs out there who might be contemplating a professional move either outside of academia or to something “academic adjacent” as I put it. For those of you interested in teaching, here is how I did it.

NOTE: This is 100% based on my experience to teach at a school in the United States, specifically California. I was fortunate to have a strong teaching resume, personal and professional resources, and teaching experience. However, there were still some challenges and I hope this could be helpful to those interested in a teaching job. This is a LONG post, but I think it’s worth it if it helps you.

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Why I Decided To Leave Academia

I’ve seen some blog posts floating around Twitter explaining the perils of academia and/or why someone has chosen to go alt-ac. I’m also one of the PhDs who decided to forgo the traditional academic route and go into secondary school teaching. I thought I’d explain why I did.

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My review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

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Last night I saw the latest installment of the Disney franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I won’t go into huge details about the plot but beware of spoilers below.

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Campus Interview Experience, Part 2

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about my experience of making it to the interview stage for a tenure-track job at a small university in the American South. Today I’ve written about the actual campus visit. It took place over a period of 3 days at the beginning of April. A week ago I found out I was not selected for the position, but I gained a whole bunch of experience and insight, which I hope will be helpful to those entering the academic job market. I welcome any thoughts and insights from others! A fair warning, this post is long. In my last entry I left off where I had to get ready to fly across the country for my interview. I’ll start this entry from the moment I landed.

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Campus Interview Experience, Part 1

Recently, I was lucky enough to make to the campus interview stage for a full-time, tenure-track academic job at a small university in the south-eastern region of the United States. The two days I spent at the university was a fantastic learning experience and I cannot thank the university enough for making it as pleasant, friendly, and useful as they possibly could. I ultimately did not get the job, but I hope my insight can be helpful for others.

This post is geared toward those who are seeking an academic job in the USA and although my background is humanities/social sciences, I imagine some of this could be relevant for those in other parts of the world and/or the sciences. There are other excellent blogs and articles on this subject. Inside Higher Education has some great advice about how to prep for an interview and UC Berkeley wrote a really informative article about the hiring process from the “other side“, which will give you some great insight. The Chronicle also wrote a great article about the campus interview process in a step-by-step format. I suggest you check them out before you head into the academic job season or find yourself lucky enough to make it to the campus interview. The amazing website, The Professor Is In has a whole series of blog posts about the campus visit, which I read several times before mine.

Here’s my experience from my application to the campus interview. Again, this is my experience alone and this will differ greatly at every institution. This entry will be about the lead-up to my campus interview and in my next post I’ll talk about the campus interview itself.

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Historical Context for Pirates 5

I’m a little behind the times at the moment. I’ve just returned to the LA area after over three weeks of travel, which included a great visit to London to see friends and present at a conference and also Tel Aviv to visit family. As a result, I did not see the trailer for the 5th film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (Dead Men Tell No Tales) until last night when I saw the live-action Beauty and the Beast (it’s awesome, go see it).

You can check out the trailer here on YouTube.

Based on the trailer, the film is up to its usual swashbuckling high jinks. Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), prolific pirate hunter [a few minutes on Google and Google Books has convinced me he didn’t exist] has returned from the dead to seek revenge upon Jack Sparrow. There are throwbacks to the whole franchise. Barbarossa is back, played by the amazing Geoffrey Rush. Like the previous film, we have warnings that those who die not necessarily stay dead. I’ll even wager a guess that the young sailor might be the son of William Turner and Elizabeth Swan (seemingly absent from this film?).

2 minutes, 35 seconds does not provide much to contextualize the movie, but there was one bit that made me sit up in my seat and pay attention 56 seconds into the trailer:

Barbarossa: I have heard stories of a Spanish captain who has hunted and killed thousands of men.

Salazar: No, no, no, no – men? No, no, no, pirates!

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Captain Salazar…afflicted with greyscale?

Captain Salazar’s career as a pirate hunter combined with his posthumous rage and revenge has caused him to completely dehumanize pirates. This is not out of step with the pirate extermination campaign that took place during the early eighteenth century when the British sought to eliminate Atlantic pirates altogether.

Who were pirates? The majority of Atlantic pirates were from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.[1] For the most part, pirates were ex-privateers (legally-sanctioned to rob enemy ships and paid in booty) who continued to rob ships during peacetime. Others were former merchants, sailors, or members of the Navy who did not want to work under strict laws. Some were sailors who only engaged in piracy for a brief period of time to quickly gain wealth. The number of pirates who specifically chose to engage in piracy for the purpose of robbing and committing murder on the high seas was surprisingly small.

However, the greatest insult of piracy was the willful attack against their sovereign nation. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century laws against piracy referred to a term commonly attributed to Cicero: hostis humanis generis. During the age of the Roman Republic, Cicero wrote that pirates were ‘enemies of all’. Over time, new interpretations of this phrase changed its definition to ‘enemies of mankind’.[2] This is because pirates cast off their allegiance to their home countries and declared themselves of no nation and as a result, their capture meant certain death.

The goal of the Admiralty was to totally eradicate piracy from the waters and they were largely successful thanks to the expansion of Admiralty courts into the American colonies and because of an increased naval presence throughout the Atlantic. Whether this new Pirates film goes into detail about this or not remains to be seen, but I’m looking forward to the shenanigans of the new film and I’m curious to see how the idea of hostis humanis generis plays out. To that effect, stay tuned for when I eventually review the movie.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales comes out 26 May 2017.

 

Further reading:

Amadeo Policante, The Pirate Myth: Geneologies of an Imperial Concept (London, 2015)

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, 2004)

[1] Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates During the Golden Age (Boston, 2004), 51

[2] Amedeo Policante, The Pirate Myth: Genealogies of an Imperial Concept (London, 2015), 11 – 12.

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International Women’s Day: Madame Cheng

In honor of International Women’s Day, I wanted to write about a female pirate who left her own legacy in history. Much has been written about the notorious female pirates who sailed throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic, so I decided to write about another woman who became known as a pirate queen: Madame Cheng of the South China Seas.

(I should note that I am writing this in Los Angeles International Airport and I only get 45 minutes of free Wi-Fi, so I hope you’ll forgive me for an obviously hastily-written post!)

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Madame Cheng was active during the first quarter of the nineteenth century and is said to be one of the most powerful pirates in history. At the height of her power, she commanded over 300 ships and anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 pirates.

Little is known about her early life but it is believed that she was born in 1775 in Guangdong. She worked as a Cantonese prostitute until a group of pirates kidnapped her. It is unknown what happened to her after her capture until she emerged in 1801 as the wife of Cheng I, who was a powerful pirate captain. Cheng I belonged to a family of pirates with origins that traced back to the middle of the seventeenth century.

Together Cheng and his wife managed to create a large allied fleet of Cantonese pirates that became known as the Red Flag Fleet. Madame Cheng’s rise as a pirate co-commander was not unusual. There was a long tradition in China of women who rose to power through marriage. It is also likely that Madame Cheng would have been skilled in the ways of the sea: entire communities lived and worked on boats in ports and rivers throughout Southern China and women played an active role in sailing.

By 1804, under the command of Cheng I and his wife, the Red Flag Fleet was the most powerful pirate fleet in all of China. At this point, the fleet could be better described as a confederation of 400 junks and 70,000 men that sailed under 7 flag. They even operated under a constitution signed by 7 pirate leaders in the South China Seas. However, this would change three years later when Cheng I died off the coast of Vietnam.

Madame Cheng swiftly moved to take over the entire command of the Red Flag Fleet. She married a captured fisherman who had respect amongst the pirates and together they carried out strict code of conduct not unlike the pirates who operated in the West Indies. What makes Madame Cheng particularly noteworthy is her treatment of female prisoners. Women had to be treated with civility and rape was strictly forbidden and punishable by death. Even for consensual sexual relations, sailors had to receive written permission by Madame Cheng lest be they be thrown overboard.

Madame Cheng is unique in that she is one of the few pirates in history that chose to retire and was successful in doing so. In 1810, the Chinese government promised amnesty and pardon to all Chinese pirates. At this point she amassed so much wealth that she decided the time was right to end her career as a pirate queen. She took the government’s offer and kept her loot. She used her wealth to open a gambling house, which she operated until death in 1844 at the age of 69.

 

Further Reading:

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates (New York, 1996)

Joan Druett, She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea (New York, 2000)

Dian Murray, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790 – 1810 (Palo Alto, 1987)

CR Pennell, Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader (New York, 2001)

 

 

 

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