I would like to introduce you to a topic that quite frankly needs no introduction. Pirates… Long John Silver, Blackbeard and all that jazz. At first glance this seems like a topic for children. Swashbuckling, peg legged bandits of the sea fighting over buried treasure and living on little Caribbean islands off the coast of Brazil doesn’t seem like a topic with a deep historical meaning. However, the laws, cultures and origins of many places and people have their roots firmly in piracy.
Piracy started life not in the Caribbean but in the Mediterranean sea. 1300 years BC the first reports of cutlass wielding maniacs surfaced from the Greek writings. But who were these villains of the sea? The answer, nothing more than other civilisations trying to get by. The Illyrians were the ‘pirates’, a small group of Indo-Europeans living in the Balkan area (around modern day Albania). They were by all accounts very successful all be it slightly fragmented group of tribes, that met an untimely end in 168BC. This was due in no small part to them being branded as pirates. It can be argued they would have been conquered by the Romans anyhow but they were targeted sooner due to the label the Greeks put on them. It would be too simplistic to say that they didn’t deserve it but the Greeks definitely gave as good as they got. The Greeks, however win on the propaganda front by virtue of them being the prequel to the Roman Empire. What this shows us is that the label of Piracy is more important than the acts that were committed, and there is one example of this that shines above all the others.
The British Empire. Now I am a very patriotic person, maybe annoyingly so to some. But the British empire for all it’s glory was brilliant at labelling things (and on a slightly off topic note, still is.) to portray something in a positive or negative way. Lets look at it this way for example, if a ships crew raids another ship they are pirates, true, if they were Spanish or African or Portuguese or French or Sicilian or anything other than British. If they were British, there were Privateers doing a service to the Empire and serving justice to a deserving enemy. Why do we assume a ship flying the British flag is the good guy in a film or book? Labelling. Now the legend of pirates is murky and spoiled. I am not arguing that pirates are cool, but real life pirates are cooler. And not really pirates at all. So to conclude this section, the history of pirates is really just the history of the winners calling the losers names, propaganda the Soviets would be proud of.
Now we look at pirates in the media and culture today, why do we love them? We love the idea of a Jack Sparrow incompetently bumbling his way through a raid to receive the legendary treasure or an evil captain hook drunk on rum with fake legs or whatever he was equipped with. (The truth being that prosthetics in piracy were the best available at the time, and a precursor to modern day fake limbs.) Time after time, whether the good or bad guys popular culture idolises them in a quite frankly weird way. The craziest thing about the ‘Hollywood’ portrayal of pirates is that they not only change the facts about pirates to suit themselves but they also worship the fake figures they create. Pirates were not vessels of drunken rejects squabbling over who got to kill the captive rich guy, they were for the most part democracies, they voted on where to go and what to do. Doctors on board were skilled surgeons and were at the cutting edge of medicine, almost literally. They were paid handsomely and equipped well by the governments they worked for. Skilled sailors who could also wield a blade. I am not saying they were the pinnacle of civilised society, far from it, but they were civilised. Disney are the main perpetrators of this odd obsession with a group of people who never really existed and they are stereotyping them out of all recognition.
For the most part schools do not remedy this, luckily we have the good old British Broadcasting Corporation to fix this for us. The children’s show, Horrible Histories, is the only true showing of pirates I have seen in the media and I urge you all to tap into the vein of information it presents on this topic.
And with that scary rambling rant over, I bring you the random factoid: The first person to sail around the world was an unknown Malaysian accompanying Ferdinand Magellan (who himself never made it back due to a fight with some Philippine natives.)
By Tom Rigg