How can we explain the romance with pirates in Western culture?
Sam Mandi-Ghomi (2018)
The immersion of Pirates within western culture has developed so far that records are actually being set by the genre now. The best-selling manga of all time, the best-selling Playstation 4 game of all time, and the 12th best-selling film series of all time are all influenced by, or directly involve, the swashbuckling renegades. The pirate genre is so commonly accepted within the west that it is often grouped together with other ‘action’ films, and differing interpretations of piracy are merely seen as developments within the genre rather than shocking new ideas. But what actually led to the social acceptability of traditional pirates, who historians will tell you were murderous, ruthless, decrepit and misogynistic, was the romanticisation of them. For this, this essay will break down three reasons. First, that piracy is such a unique thing, such a departure from any other form of adventure ever conceived that it appeals to the very base of human imagination. Secondly, the fascinating way in which their on board system of democracy was in alterity with the other traditions of pirate life. Finally, the way in which pirates represented the typical ‘dream’ presented in western society: those who have thrown off the chains of oppression, started working only for themselves and those close to them, and not listening to anyone else. The combination of these three factors results in an inherently entertaining narrative which we have seen exploited for western audiences.
If we take romance to mean ‘a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2018), then the western romance with pirates seemingly stems from the ability of pirate culture to be romanticised. Since the creation of entertainment media, such as films or video games, humans have been creating ways to relax and entertain themselves, to experience things in such alterity to that of their everyday lives. Genres are aplenty (action, adventure, drama, romance, sci-fi) and one of the key theories necessary for consumption of this media is the suspension of disbelief, which is defined as ‘to allow oneself to believe that something is true even though it seems impossible’ (Merriam-Webster Dictionary 2018). The two highest grossing films of 2018 – Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War – both exist in a highly fantastical world featuring aliens, wizards, advanced technology etc… that provides something so different to modern life for the consumer that suspension of disbelief is necessary for immersion and entertainment purposes. With pirate stories being inspired by actual events, however, the romance with it stems from how believable it is despite its very fantastic nature. An act of piracy such as ‘the case of Henry Avery (var. Every) who in 1695 led a lucrative raid against Moghul ships in the Indian Ocean, collecting $96,000,000 [sic, translated into today’s dollars] in gold and jewels before changing his name and vanishing into history’ (Dawdy & Bonni 2012: 10) would make for an encapsulating film if it came simply from the mind of a writer, but the fact that it actually occurred is what separates piracy from other genres of entertainment and creates a feeling of romance around it. There is something unexplainably engrossing about a story that one feels could occur in everyday life, and then these being ones that – in any other context – would be some of the most fantastical stories every told, is why the west is so obsessed with telling them. A raid such as Avery’s and his successful disappearance – to the point that even now no one truly knows what happened to him – is so impressive that you just have to applaud it. It is not just the stories of battles at sea and acts of seafaring that the west are engrossed by, however. Something heavily romanticised in the west is the culture of pirate havens and the way in which pirates would spend the booty they had accumulated for themselves. Scholars from the University of Chicago write how ‘Pirates in this period also practiced a pronounced form of “binge consumption,” to use Richard Wilk’s (2007) term, in which their personal fortunes fluctuated wildly from wealth to poverty. Pirates exerted social pressure upon one another not only to share their gains but to spend them lavishly in port havens such as Tortuga and Port Royal on instant gratifications such as liquor and prostitution, and on extravagant consumables such as fancy clothes and jewelry.’ (Dawdy & Bonni 2012: 7) This facilitates the idea that the west’s obsession with piracy actually stems from jealousy of the lifestyle. Aspects of a ‘binge lifestyle’ have been evident throughout human history, such as the Roman practice of gorging or the modern culture around clubs and drugs, because instant gratifications appeal to the base desires of human nature. The difference in modern western society, however, is the responsibilities and ability to be held accountable for actions such as these. Pirates, contrarily, were already outlaws. Their responsibilities were simply to their ship and their crew, so when they were harboured in pirate havens like Tortuga then it made no difference to them whether they got blackout drunk or fathered a bastard child they would never see again. This freedom of lifestyle, and freedom from repercussions, appeals to the restricted side of western culture. It is a culture that limits itself and its own ability to pursue activities that pirates could enact as will when in port, so the act of romanticising these taboo subjects in an attempt to make them more acceptable within society is not beyond the realm of possibility. The truth is that a pirate’s life was not a particularly easy life, or a comfortable one, but it was action-filled and lived fast, therefore easily romanticised by those who create taboos around sex and binging in public but can be seen as obsessed with it in private. As scholar Kris Lane puts it, ‘It was an adventurous if barbaric life.’ (Lane 1998: 92)
The way pirates are presented is as ‘notorious outlaws, regarded as thieves and criminals by every nation, including their own’ (Woodard 2007: 3). Even those most charming and presented as heroes, such as Captain Jack Sparrow, are still rouges who are morally grey. Due to this, the system of democracy on board ships and their pseudo-socialist workings provide a massive juxtaposition to the typical expectations of outlaws and bandits within academia. This supports the idea that we can explain the western romance with pirates because they are easy to romanticise; they provide a sense of action and adventure whilst innately appealing to the western values of democracy and supporting your ‘fellow man’. With a hierarchical structure deemed necessary for the workings of the ship and battle, and ‘demanding someone both bold of temper and skilled in navigation, the men elected their captain.’ (Rediker 2001: 142) A captain obviously had to demand respect from his crew, as he would not have legitimate authority otherwise, and so the actual election of the captain by all crew members ensured that they trusted him and he worked to serve them in turn. Furthering the camaraderie on the ship, the rank of captain did not hold any unfair advantages, as ‘‘He “or any other officer is allowed no more [food] than another man, nay, the Captain cannot keep his Cabbin to himself”’ (Rediker 2001: 142). This could not be any dissimilar to that of modern western society, where high ranking officials often have designated and recognisable abodes (10 Downing Street, White House, Elysee Palace etc…), or bosses having their own private offices within a building, and the idea of everyone sharing the same amount of food was pivotal in why new members ‘were generally glad of an opportunity of entering with them’ (Leeson 2009: 33). Beyond this, a system comparable to trade unionism was seen upon ships through the role of the quartermaster. This person, essentially, would represent the crew’s wishes in matters with the captain, to ‘allocate provisions, select and distribute loot… adjudicate crew member conflicts’ and ‘is the first on board any prize, separating for the company’s use, what he pleases, and returning what he thinks fit to the owners, excepting gold and silver, which they have voted not returnable’ (Leeson 2009: 35). It delegated responsibility and ensured that anarchy was not descended unto when disputes happened on board. This system of operation, with the crew being represented by an elected official both in highest rank (captain) and in matters of the ship (quartermaster) was unprecedented for the time. What is most important to remember is that this was ‘half a century before the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence’ and ‘only a little more than a decade after the British Monarchy withheld Royal Assent for the last time’ (Leeson 2009: 24). Perhaps the western romance with pirates comes, not from a better system of democracy on their ships, but one that actually inspired the democracy of the world we live in now. Pirates were voting for who represented them ‘150 years before the Second Reform Act of 1868 accomplished anything close to the same in Britain’ (Leeson 2009: 24). When looking at a history of democracy, pirates being democratic before Britain, and before the independence of America, seems an absurd notion. As mentioned earlier, the juxtaposition between the lifestyle they lived (reckless, illegal, murderous) and the decorum on their own ships seems to balance out perfectly the human want for adrenaline and safety. This, again, supports the idea that the western romance with pirates comes from a place of jealousy, fascinated by the concept that those perceived as outlaws could muster a system such as this even before the great powers of the world had mastered it. Democracy on board the ships did not get challenged by greed, either, but instead was one of the main reasons for it. ‘Pirates democratized the naval custom. Their councils usually included every man on the ship. The council determined such matters as where the best prizes could be taken and how disruptive dissension was to be resolved.’ (Rediker 2001: 143) Marcus Rediker writes of how pirates would actually decide together where they were going to get their booty from, and when they actually captured it, ‘The distribution of plunder was regulated explicitly by the ship’s articles, which allocated booty according to skills and duties. Pirates used the pre-capitalist share system to allocate their take. Captain and quartermaster received between one and one-half and two shares; gunners, boatswains, mates, carpenters, and doctors, one and one-quarter or one and one-half; all others got one share each.’ (Rediker 2001: 144). Whilst one would not go as far as calling pirates socialists, this form of fair wealth distribution on board ships is highly advanced for its time (over a hundred years before Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto). What it would ensure is that no man on the ship felt exploited or alienated, and gave them all more than enough to enjoy their nights in Tortuga or Port Royal. Opposingly, in the modern western world, people regularly get underpaid, labour gets exploited and the system seems rigged for this to happen. This could suggest that the romance with pirates stems not from the actual want to be a pirate, or to have this system, but to be part of something bigger, a fairer system where people work with and for each other, and share the fruits of their labour instead of never really seeing where their work goes or who benefits from it, as is often the case with massive corporations under modern day capitalism. A romance with pirates may not truly be about pirates themselves, but part of a bigger statement against the system that the west currently operates, one that shunned these people who actually lived in a fairer society and lived for each other. Again, it is definitely easy enough to romanticise that concept, furthering the notion that the western romance with pirates was inevitable, as they pursued idealism as an escape from oppression.
The final attempt to explain the western romance with pirates is in how those who turned to piracy were often doing so in an attempt to better their life, to cast off the irons of oppression and of the elite mercantilist system of the time to instead follow what has become seen as the ‘American Dream’ in modern times. Pirates tended not to be people of note, instead becoming infamous through their actions, but at the beginning ‘It was a way of life voluntarily chosen, for the most part, by large numbers of men who directly challenged the ways of the society from which they excepted themselves.’ (Rediker 2001: 139) A dominant portrayal of pirates presents them as inherently evil, villainous characters who plunder and destroy out of some sort of natural benevolence, when a more realistic character description is that ‘They were sailors, indentured servants, and runaway slaves rebelling against their oppressors’ (Woodard 2007: 3). What this means is that, in their most base form, pirates represent that which the majority of regular workers across the western world want to be: people who have rebelled against society, and against the masters that oppressed them, to lead a better life for themselves. The ‘rags to riches’ story has been told throughout western media ever since its conception, so the ability to combine it with the fun of binge consumption and a unique, action/adventure situation makes it one of the most entertaining naturally-occurring situations in western-led history. Dawdy & Bonni write that ‘it may be helpful to frame pirate culture as a type of counter culture. Counter-cultures are sustained by a self-conscious ideology of protest and are generally compromised of individuals who have, to a degree, self-segregated themselves from a dominant social structure to which they had once belonged (Roszak 1969).’ (Dawdy & Bonni 2012: 5) A structuralist lens would focus on the systematic disadvantages that people who became pirates had to overcome in their ‘regular’ lives, therefore viewing piracy as a subversion of the systemic norms that allow for the oppression of the working class. Contemporary western history is scarred by class struggle, starting before the time of piracy and still existing in the modern day, therefore the issues that forced those to partake in piracy are still curating a culture that allows the west to romanticise piracy and the reasons people became these scallywags. Furthermore, a feminist perspective on the matter would highlight how piracy (whilst a male-dominated area) was also a system of escape for women. Firstly, it is important to note that pirates thought that ‘women were for recreation and pleasure and were not welcome on board their ships.’ (Cordingly 2001: 80), with Black Bart Roberts’s crew even decreeing ‘No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.’ (Cordingly 2001: 80). This, however, did not stop both Anne Bonny and Mary Read dressing up as men and seeking their own fairer tides onboard pirate ships. The two crossed paths in Nassau, when their ships were seeking the King’s royal pardon, which is a fantastic coincidence seeing as ‘there were between 2000 and 3000 pirates operating in the western Atlantic and among the hundreds of Caribbean islands around 1720’ (Cordingly 2001: 82), and both joined a small crew with Bonny’s lover, the notorious Pirate Calico Jack. There, it is said the two fell in love with each other, but no one really knows whether it affected anything when they both revealed themselves to be female. What is documented, however, is their final stand and capture, at Negril Point in Jamaica. Being found by English privateers who were attempting to eradicate pirates in the waters, ‘Mary Read and Anne Bonny were the only two members of the pirate crew to remain on deck and put up any resistance.’ (Cordingly 2001: 85) Through a feminist lens, this needs to be split into the actual act of piracy, and Read & Bonny being the last resistance fighters on said ship. Firstly, whilst Read and Bonny were the only two documented female pirates in the Caribbean at this time, their ability to be concealed for so long and their true nature only be revealed of their own accord suggests there may have been many, many other female pirates who just kept their secret until their deaths. Much like it was for the working class males, piracy for females provided an outlet to be free from the chains of civilised life. For men, ‘real life’ was harsh labour conditions and even worse living environments, but for women it was an actual opportunity to control your own destiny, be free from the reins of the patriarchal system that dictated your entire life. This is also best kept in mind when looking at Bonny and Read’s last stand. For the men on the ship, surrendering and being sentenced to the death penalty was still better than undertaking the labour of their working class lives. For the women, however, the penalty was unprecedented. No one knew what would happen to Read and Bonny, even though it turned out to be the same penalty, but their decision to fight instead of waiting around to find out makes sense in this regard. As a final testament to Anne Bonny’s character, apparently her last words to her captain and lover were ‘if you had fought like a man you would not have been hanged like a dog.’ (Cordingly 2001: 85) What western culture is obsessed with, above most things, is easy entertainment. The ability to consume without having to think too much, to understand narrative easily, and not to regret the price of admission. The daring sense of adventure that comes from abandoning the common, accepted route of life and instead creating your own – not to mention one that is daring, rebellious, and literally illegal – if one of the easiest things to turn into consumable entertainment. A slight amount of creative license is necessary and people will watch it endlessly. This is why the Pirates of the Caribbean series grossed so well, why Treasure Island is so revered, and why Uncharted 4 was loved so much. The west romanticise pirates because they are so easy to romanticise.
To conclude, the way to explain the western romance with pirates is the way in which pirate life is simply fascinating. The actual adventures at sea – the literal acts of piracy – are only a small part of it, although the ruthless, brutal and violent hostile takeovers of other ships do lend themselves to being romanticised in the way action films typically portray violence (as a narrative device as well as a source of entertainment). The usage of the money they gained through this violence, in pirate havens such as Tortuga, is another thing easily romanticised, as the west is a society obsessed with sex and alcohol – pirate movies are not the first to depict this and most certainly will not be the last. Through a post-colonial lens, these actions then take on a different meaning, one that paints pirates as anti-colonial rebels who frustrated the empires at every turn whilst having no involvement in the actual act of colonisation themselves. Furthermore, the political aspect of piracy can turn pirates into beacons of hope and champions of idealism, not only in the 1700’s, but is applicable to the modern day. Using democracy on their ships around fifty years before the US declared independence, extending it to all members hundreds of years before any western state permitted universal suffrage, and themselves typically being of working class men or slaves who have forgone the life that was given to them in search of a life that they actually want, it an innately interesting story that would appeal to core audiences within the west. There is no disputing what characters such as Long John Silver and Captain Jack Sparrow have had upon popular culture, but they themselves were inspired by Blackbeard, Black Bart Roberts, Calico Jack and the like. The ability to romanticise this culture stems from just how easy it is to romanticise. The seas are a foreign and unexplored place, and the concept of knowing fragments of the bandits that sailed those waters whets the appetite for a culture so obsessed with action and drama. They can sing ‘Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me’, but the lack of definition of what that actually means is why the romanticisation is so rife within this field. A pirate’s life can be many things and has all the tropes of a fantastic story – action, adventure, sex, drama, diversity, and representation, overcoming evil masters, the ability to be political. No wonder the Pirates of the Caribbean series is so popular, no wonder people love Black Sails, and no wonder Uncharted 4 was so revered. It will be fair time before we see the pirate story at the bottom of Davy Jones’ Locker in western culture, and if it is anything like Captain Jack Sparrow described it, I think it would do best to avoid it at all costs.
Cordingly, David. 2001. Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives. Chapter 5. Random House.
Dawdy, Shannon Lee & Bonni, Joe. 2012. Towards a General Theory of Piracy. Anthropological Quarterly, Volume 85, Issue 3, 673-699. Available from: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/484371/pdf [Date Accessed: November 22nd 2018]
Lane, Kris. 1998. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas 1500-1750. Chapter 4. Routledge.
Leeson, Peter T. 2011. The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates. Chapter 2. Princeton University Press.
Pennell, C.R.. 2001. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader. Chapter 8 (Rediker, Marcus). NYU Press.
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