Pirates: Not Overrated




Playmobil pirates

Originally uploaded by R D L

According to Mark Juddery, pirates (esp. of the Caribbean) are among the 11 most overrated things in history. I acknowledge at the outset that Juddery’s is just one man’s opinion and that he is trying to be funny and probably also trying to rankle people a bit on purpose.

However, his reasons listed at Huffington Post are that most pirates were privateers and did not spend their lives burying treasure, but traded mainly in tea and spices and had nice pension packages. To make his point about the overratedness of pirates, Juddery has blurred the lines between pirate and privateer. Indeed, a privateer was nothing more than a legalised pirate with a letter of marque from the ruling monarch. The rules for privateers were only to attack enemy ships (read: Spanish and French).

And when the war with Spain or France is over, what happens to the privateers? They become pirates.

Some pirates, of course, start off as pirates. Some pirates are in the illegal employ of the governor of Jamaica. Some are buccaneers whose sole goal in life is boarding small Spanish ships from canoes, taking the small ships and then attacking galleons. Such ventures rarely go well.

The life of a pirate was not glamorous. Anyone who thinks otherwise probably works for Disney. Indeed, the life of anyone on the seas in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries was not glamorous at all, be the seaman Royal Navy, East India Company, or pirate. Tight quarters, filthy conditions belowdecks, danger on all sides, little chance of promotion, disease, cabin fever, days without sight of land — this is the life of the man at sea.

And, while some pirates became captain through fair election (Juddery says all of them did), most did so through fear and prowess. Things only got democratic the moment they also got mutinous — see Kidd, William. The man with the longest sword and best tactics wins. People will follow him, so long as they don’t get sick, killed, or hunted by the Royal Navy or East India Co for extended periods of time (again, see Kidd, William).

Given the vast range of people who engaged in piracy from Sir Francis Drake to the twilight days of Capt. Kidd, that so-called “Golden Age of Piracy”, most of them probably were overrated. But we don’t care about them. We do, however, care about the adventurers, the glamorous stories, the lives of famous pirates and privateers — Capt. Drake, Capt. Morgan, Blackbeard (William Teach), Capt. Kidd. These men and their fantastic stories, as well as some of their grim competitors — some of whom may have been psychopaths — are not overrated, as Angus Konstam demonstrates in Piracy: A Complete History.

They actually engaged in derring-do and swashbuckling. Blackbeard actually did light smouldering tapers in his beard. Capt. Kidd did get a good bit of booty, but was also “the innocentest of all” (Kidd’s quote) in that business — he was abandoned by his Whig backers in London* and forced to attack Moghul ships under escort by the East India Co by his mutinous crew. Sir Francis Drake actually circumcised the world with a hundred-foot clipper (wait, that’s not it …). Capt. Morgan did cool stuff, but I forget. It was in Konstam’s book.

Other piratical awesomeness: Vikings. And old-school Chinese piracy.

Pirates overrated? I think not.

*Never trust a Whig unless he’s David Balfour of Kidnapped.

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