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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.