Pirates could be civil…


Howard Pyle, Blackbeard’s Last Fight, 1895 (detail) 

From Humanities:

Historians and fiction writers alike have portrayed pirates as inherently removed from civilized society. Hubert Deschamps in his 1949 Les pirates à Madagascar voiced what has become a standard trope: “[Pirates] were a unique race, born of the sea and of a brutal dream, a free people, detached from other human societies and from the future, without children and without old people, without homes and without cemeteries, without hope but not without audacity, a people for whom atrocity was a career choice and death a certitude of the day after tomorrow.” Seventeenth-century lawyers defined pirates, in the words of Admiralty judge Sir Leoline Jenkins, as hostis humani generis, or “Enemies not of one Nation or of one Sort of People only, but of all mankind.” Since pirates lacked the legal protection of any prince, nation, or body of law, “Every Body is commissioned and is to be armed against them, as against Rebels and Traytors, to subdue and root them out.”

Contemporary historians have tended to use pirates for their own ends, depicting them as rebels against convention.

One reason piracy was often an act or a phase, and not a way of life, was simply because humans have not evolved to live on the sea. The sea is a hostile place, offering few of the pleasures of terrestrial society. Pirates needed to clean and repair their ships, collect wood and water, gather crews, obtain paperwork, fence their goods, or obtain sexual gratification. Simply put, what is the value of silver and gold in the middle of the ocean? Why would someone risk his life in a hostile maritime world if there was no chance he could actually spend his booty?

“A Merry Life and a Short One” was not the motto of most pirates of the late seventeenth century. Until the 1710s, English pirates almost always had somewhere to go to spend their money, either for a few days or to settle down for good. The British National Archives holds a petition from 48 wives of known pirates, begging the crown to pardon their husbands so they could return home to care for their families. Returning to London was not an option for most sea rovers, but a life in the American colonies offered the closest proxy.

“A Lot of What Is Known about Pirates Is Not True, and a Lot of What Is True Is Not Known”, Mark G. Hanna, Humanities


Comments are closed.