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.”

About Dr. Rebecca Simon

Los Angeles-based historian who's expert in all things pirates and public executions. PhD, King's College London, 2017. https://twitter.com/beckalex
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1 Response to Who Were Pirates?

  1. Jillian says:

    There are so many directions you could go with pirate characters, it’s really shocking that we just get the same one or two over and over again. I would actually bet that a lot of pirates were just “going along with the crowd” and didn’t give much probing thought to their own motivations, like employees at a company who might not consider themselves personally responsible for the collective actions of their employers.
    Is your novel a serious project or just for fun/learning? I want to hear more about it… 😉

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