Why We All Love Pirates

Ahoy maties! Today be the day we talk like a pirate. So get yourself some grog, landlubbers, and hold off swabbing the decks for a while.

We shouldn’t love pirates. They are thieves of the sea even though they can rob on the shore. They are outlaws and criminals, often violent and sometimes murderers. So what is the strange appeal that makes us tell stories about them to young children and enjoy Hollywood films about them?

When my daughter was four, pirates were everywhere. Her bed was a pirate ship with a large Jolly Roger flag at the headboard, maties such as a giant fluffy bee lookout  and a ship’s cat, crewed the ship. There was a large treasure chest carved by my uncle and wood smith extraordinaire, Norman Smith, complete with secret compartments, maps and treasure. There were the obligatory accessories: parrot, hook, hat and eye patch. I created a new world of stories where she was the captain and, with her friends and toys, went on many adventures and we discussed them on our walks. But best of all were the books and DVDs of such pirate heroes as Captain Pugwash, Yoho Ahoy and Treasure Island. For the grown-ups we have Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp playing Captain Jack Sparrow. Pirates really capture our imagination with their quirky phrases and dress sense.

Historically, pirates were both feared and venerated. They have existed as long as sea-faring commerce has existed – and that is a long time. However, the romantic versions of pirates and their galleons came from the Tudor period until the late eighteenth century, mostly. The Golden Age of Pirates came about as the Americas were discovered and the treasures were transported back to Europe. These goods included gold, rum and sugar. There was a lot of wealth generated by the traders and with it came more fancy things like silk and embroidered clothes. So when the pirates captured ships and stole the cargo they utilised their booty. They wore rings and jewellery, fancy frilly shirts, satin and lace. And of course, they became drunk on the rum. And sang a lot too.

The kind of men who became pirates were often outcasts for one reason or another. Some were already criminals on the run to escape the harsh justice of the times, or slaves. Others were already sailors who mutinied and took over the ships themselves. Some were not even men but women who carried out crime the way men did so dressed accordingly. The one thing that drew them together was that they were all pirates aboard a ship and as such they had a kind of respect and democracy. The communities chose the roles of captain and the other officers that did not take into account social status or race simply on skills and characteristics needed. If the democratic rules were broken then punishments took place: walking the plank or thirty-nine stripes of the whip. This almost civilised structure probably started the romantic ideology and affection the pirate folklore has given us today.

Queen Elizabeth I was very keen on her pirates. They were known as privateers, that is, they were authorised by the queen to carry out their piracy. In this case it was against the Spanish ships of King Philip II as they brought the gold and Aztec treasures from the emerging Spanish Empire, including tobacco and potatoes. Shortly afterwards the Armada occurred. Funny that.

There was glamour and democracy, adventure and discovery, heroes with made-up names, lots of stories and songs. That is why we love pirates me hearties.

(c) 2013 A.J. Sefton

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