Think of the word “pirate” and take a moment to sit down with the images that come to mind. You’ve probably tapped into a handful of cultural touchstones embedded in our individual and collective consciousness, fixed there by the mass marketing of the golden age of piracy. The Jolly Roger. Buried treasure. A plank waiting for someone to walk it.
The golden age of piracy lasted from 1650 to 1720. Today it lives on in caricature. Piracy as a business, however, is much older. With its origins in classical antiquity, pirates raided and pillaged across the world, portrayed as heroes, villains, honorable people making a living, bottom eaters destroying the lives of others, the debts of the state and state assets. Piracy is multi-dimensional, just as the men and women who came to it make up its legends – along with the fact and fiction that make it evocative, fascinating and fun.
In Pirates: a new story, from Vikings to Somali raiders (Yale, 2019), Peter Lehr traces the origins of piracy and the forces – push and pull, as he calls them – that drove people to take their lives. Dispelling Hollywood myths about the profession, he argues that “hacking was not so much about romance and adventure as it was about greed and grievance, with some measure of creed or religion in the mix”.
In the past, as now, poverty, lack of better options, and weak or non-existent state institutions also shaped the choice. “Essentially, what drove individuals to become hackers was an exercise in rational choice that included factors such as current living conditions, expected returns from hacking, and likelihood of getting away with it.” Thus the pirates, usually poor and alienated individuals, were pushed and swept into “A happy and short life”, as Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most successful pirates of all time, put it.
While hacking could be a private career of risk and reward for oneself, for some it was state-sanctioned. Pirates who undertook life in the service of the state were known as privateers, raiding and plundering against the enemies of the flag they carried. Sir Francis Drake was one of them. In The secret journey of Sir Francis Drake (Douglas & McIntyre, 2013), Samuel Bawlf attempts to unravel the mystery of Drake’s 40,000 mile voyage around the world from 1577 to 1580 which included, among other things, a search for the Northwest Passage through lands only many Canadians know.
Bawlf’s volume is a detailed and captivating account of Drake’s journey on the Golden Hinde. Capturing the allure and brutality of the effort, the book draws the line between the swashbuckling tropes that make up contemporary understanding of pirates – and privateers – and the harsh reality of what their activities entailed.
The historical record in the text on which Bawlf relies is a source of knowledge about the history of piracy. Another is artifacts. Many artifacts remain, hidden away in museums and private collections, but the greatest piracy artifacts of all – ships – are notoriously rare and hard to find. To date, for example, only a handful of Golden Age pirate ships have been discovered and identified.
In pirate hunters (Random House, 2015), Robert Kurson recounts the search for one of them, Joseph Bannister’s Golden Fleece. As the book’s protagonists, John Chatterton and John Mattera, set off to the Dominican Republic in search of Bannister – a gentleman British navy-turned-pirate – and his ship, their pursuit soon reads like historical mystery and thriller. contemporary.
One of the few books that deserves to be classified as impossible to put down, Kurson’s pace and Chatterton and Mattera’s skill and passion make this a story that should come with a warning: it will make you want to to quit your job and settle down to discover something, anything, beyond the horizon of your present life. And why not? Recalling one of Chatterton’s rules of life, “Do it now. Tomorrow is promised to no one”, there is worse to take.
Historically and today, piracy has been dominated by men. But not exclusively. Anne Bonny is one of the most remarkable figures in pirate history, equaled if not surpassed by Zheng Yi Sao, who commanded a fleet of hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men. In Pirate Women (Chicago Review Press, 2019), Laura Sook Duncombe chronicles the lives of these women and others whose stories are often ignored or marginalized. Part of understanding the layers of pirate history requires a deeper accounting of the times, and Sook Duncombe does just that.
Reconceptualizing pirates as a theme and opening it up requires non-fiction and fiction to free up space in our imaginations. A YA novel is a good tool for this. Tricia Levenseller Daughter of the Pirate King (Square Fish, 2017) introduces us to the young Alosa Kalligan, captain and commander, in search of a map that will lead to great fortune. “I hate having to dress like a man,” the book opens. Alosa laments the disguise, a ruse designed to get her captured in the service of research. “Clothes are annoying because they hang in the wrong places. And the smell! You would think that men do nothing but roll around in the guts of dead fish while smearing their own excrement on their sleeves. A duology, Alosa returns in Daughter of the Mermaid Queen. He’s a character whose story you want to follow, like you would Blackbeard, Anne Bonny or Captain Kidd.
The romance of the dramatized pirate life is compelling and enjoyable. The historical stuff is no less appealing, even if it clashes with the fiction that we take for fact. A wide and growing range of books opens the world to new perspectives, stories and characters. If you decide to embark on a journey through these stories, do yourself a favor and don’t stay too close to the shores of familiar fodder. There is a treasure beyond treasure island.
Food and drink
Pirate food is… not distinguished. Neither does scurvy. But pirate drinks range from rum to things containing rum, and you can make a lot of them – including hot toddy, one of the manifestations of which is a cocktail consisting of dark rum, sugar, lime juice and lime juice. ‘water. But nothing beats whiskey aged in rum barrels. Or pirate whiskey, if you prefer. Two of the best wines on offer are the 14-year-old Caribbean Cask from The Balvenie and the 21-year-old Gran Reserva from Glenfiddich. The bad news is that you may have to loot a few ships to get them, especially this last one.
A study of relationships and identity in the golden age of piracy, Our flag means death is based on real-life characters, including Edward Teach – better known as Blackbeard – and gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet. It’s funny. It’s funny. It is charming. There are gay pirates. The first season is available now on Crave.
Probably the greatest pirate game of all time is Sid Meier’s Pirates! From the creator of the Civilization series – whose latest entry, Civilization 6, may have occupied many thousands of hours of this writer’s life – the 2004 game finds you building a pirate empire on land and sea. There’s dancing, courtship and combat with the sword. Available on all platforms and on Steam, the game holds up well and complements any real pirate deep dive.
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