Truly there is no rest for the wicked. Macbeth just closed a few weeks ago and we’re already only another few weeks away from opening our third and final show of the season. Which means it’s about time for me to lecture you all at length about the history or cultural significance of whatever project we’re working on. I always look forward to doing this, because there is little that nerds love more than getting to show off how much more they know than other people. But I’m even more excited about this one than I usually am, because we’re putting on an adaptation of Treasure Island and that means that the topic of my lecture today is pirates!
I should clarify that I am specifically talking about Caribbean pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, between the 1680s and 1720s. Pirates have always existed, wherever people have transported goods on the water and other people have stolen them, but the image you have in your head, with the cutlass and the Jolly Roger and the ruffled shirt and the bottle of rum, come to us directly, and surprisingly accurately, from the Caribbean. [Treasure Island is actually responsible for one of the only falsehoods we generally believe about pirates; that they buried their treasure, when instead, of course, they spent it. -ed.] Allow me to elaborate for 1500 words.
The reason that our image of pirates hews so closely to reality is due in large part to the fact that pirates were consciously cultivating and trading on their reputation and image. They actively sought to create an aura of menace to cow their victims with the terror of a pirate attack, so they took every available opportunity to make themselves look fearsome and desperate. The Jolly Roger flags they flew were adorned with totenkopfs, bleeding hearts, daggers, skellingtons…all manner of sinister imagery to terrify their victims. Blackbeard grew out his beard and hair and stuffed burning fuses in them so he would look like a demon during raids. This curated savage appearance made them intimidating and marked them as outsiders with dangerous and antisocial ideas. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the society from which they had been voluntarily exiled. Being a pirate was about freedom, and they wanted to celebrate that freedom. Outlaw bikers and punks dress and act in a very similar style for more or less the same reason; to shock the normals and consciously make a distinction between themselves and society.
Our stereotype about pirates’ drunkenness is also borne out by the historical record. But all sailors were drunk; the difficulty of keeping fresh water fresh on a ship travelling across the ocean meant that the only drinkable fluids had to have alcohol in them. Plus sailing was hard, dangerous, boring work, and getting drunk every day was one of the few sources of reliable entertainment and escape available. English sailors had a daily ration of booze, usually somewhere in the neighborhood of a gallon of beer, 8 ounces of rum or brandy, or a bottle of wine. Pirates were simply less constrained in their consumption than ordinary sailors, being governed democratically [more on this in a second -KH] instead by of a top-down bureaucracy. Many of the extant pirate contracts and accords set it in stone that there is to be no rationing of alcohol or food consumption on the ship, unless there was danger of running out. This meant that securing sources of alcohol was often the highest priority. There are multiple accounts of pirates seizing a ship and only taking their wine, or of expeditions turning around because their supply of rum had run out or been destroyed.
As I mentioned above pirate ships were governed democratically; every crew member got a vote on the ship’s council, and the whole crew got a roughly equal share of any treasure. Rules were agreed upon and a contract signed before the ship sailed, and any disputes while on the journey would be decided by the ship’s council. The captain was in command during battle only, and for the responsibility received only a double share. The captaincy was also democratically elected and could be (and frequently were) deposed at more or less any time. This is in marked contrast to most navy and civilian ships at the time, which paid a fortune to their captains and a pittance, when it paid at all, to their crews, and were run like dictatorships. Floggings, beatings, and other, more arcane corporal punishments like the keel-haul or the gauntlet were common. The English navy in particular also had a nasty habit of “pressing” sailors, abducting them from merchant ships or literally kidnapping them off the street and forcing them into service It should not be surprising that most pirates started out as ordinary sailors who either deserted (often when they were boarded by pirates themselves) or mutinied.
There were also both unofficial pirate havens and settlements that were inhabited and run solely BY pirates. There was minimal presence in the area from colonial governments and pirates would routinely outnumber and outgun any garrisons. The heaps of treasure pirates had at their disposal made it extremely easy for them to dole out bribes, and their intimidating reputation made taking those bribes an easy choice for most mayors and colonial governors. Tortuga and Port Royal (until its destruction in an earthquake) were major hubs of pirate activity. In addition to these unofficial havens were settlements and ports actively and entirely under the control of pirates, in a conscious effort to recreate a similar pirate society on the island of Madagascar. Nassau in particular became the ‘capital’, if such a thing could exist, of the Republic of Pirates in the Bahamas.
Demographically pirates were more diverse than ordinary European or Caribbean society. The majority were English, and then a melting pot of Northern European nations, including French, Irish, Scottish (including many partisans of the exiled Stuart dynasty), Dutch, Danish, and Swedish, with a handful of Native American, mestizo, and African sailors as well. Having African sailors as crew members instead of as slaves seems to have been a ship-to-ship, and even person-to-person, decision; there were free black pirates on ships that re-sold slaves from captured slaver ships. There are also on record two female pirates at the time (and on the same ship under Calico Jack Rackham), Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And were I a gambling man I would wager there were many more who we don’t know about; existing as it did on the fringes of society, piracy would be likely to attract all manner of misfits and outcasts, including women seeking agency in their own lives.
Contemporary accounts usually painted pirates as treacherous, greedy, cowardly, and vicious, because the contemporary accounts were written by authorities who had a vested interest in making piracy seem as hideous as possible. Elements of this reputation were in many ways welcomed and encouraged by the pirates themselves, because it made it much easier to intimidate civilian crews into surrendering (and because it suited their self-identity as outsiders). While it is certainly true that there were some pirates who tortured or executed prisoners it was very uncommon and frowned upon; Charles Vane was famous for his cruelty, but was also stripped of his captaincy and marooned by his crew for it. For all his fearsome reputation and appearance Blackbeard was never once known to execute anyone.
The historiography on piracy has undergone a recent shift to more accurately and sympathetically examine pirates, and the historical record is now much kinder to them. Pirates are now seen as more akin to the Luddite machine-breakers; disruptors, anarchists, and proto-socialists who scorned the society that would rather see them dead than equitably treated, or to frontiersmen who found autonomy in the absence of laws. This is not to say that pirates were maligned and persecuted heroes of yesteryear; they still made their living by theft and terror and by preying on the defenseless, and although they were mostly not sadists they were also certainly not opposed to killing. But the romantic, swashbuckling, devil-may-care reputation that they now enjoy is certainly how they saw themselves.
A reputation that they currently enjoy in large part due to books like Treasure Island! Despite being written under the older historiographical model, in which pirates were villainous scum, this story and others like it were key to romanticizing the lifestyle and keeping them in the public eye. All media that depicts pirates, even the stories like this one or Peter Pan where they are the villains, inescapably serve to romanticize them. Just like, as Truffaut says, it is impossible to make a truly anti-war film, you cannot include pirates in a story without making them seem cool. Everyone wants to be a pirate, because pirates are the coolest.
If YOU want to be a pirate, or at least see us pretend to be pirates, please join us for Treasure Island! We will be performing at various locations throughout the city in May and June, and we’d be happy to have you join us! Tickets are available now!