Golden Age Piracy Reconsidered

(By Michael)

The crux of this post will be to introduce a new topic for this blog; the History of Pirates, Bandits, and Brigands. As a professor of world history, I have found success in teaching a survey course of such outsiders and supposedly unethical persons throughout history, from the Sea Peoples of the Late Bronze Age to the operatives of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State today. My particular fascination is with the so-called Early Modern period (ca. 1500 CE to the early 1800s), which means focusing on the piracy of the Mediterranean (Knights of Malta and Barbary Corsairs) and that of the Spanish Main before and during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy.

Pirate, idealized: parrot, hook, peg-leg, eye-patch, bi-corner hat, cutlass, unkempt hair, buckles and boots…

If one defines a pirate by their actions instead of their Golden-Age appearance, the potential group grows much larger. Pirates operate mostly by intimidation and hostage-taking for ransom, which allows historians to collectively compare the actions of early-twenty-first-century Somali fishermen and Niger river delta oil workers, eighteenth-century ex-Navy sailors in the Caribbean, early-twentieth-century Hong Kong fisherman, sixteenth-century corsairs sailing under the flag of Malta, and so on. (Note: the odd ones out from this group are the Buccaneers of the Caribbean dominant in the middle seventeenth century, though their name lived on to describe unrelated populations.)

Yet for many, a pirate is easier to define by their looks than by their deeds. This is easy enough to explain: we’ve all seen people dressed as pirates, but few if any of us have seen people living the lifestyle of pirates. Pirates in the movies, for example, are quite successful at looking like what we expect pirates to look like… but fail spectacularly at behaving like the pirates described by their contemporary observers (whether in 1700s Caribbean or 1930s Hong Kong).

To reiterate, the overwhelming of pirates throughout history did not look remotely like the pirates we see in the movies: parrots and peg-legs, eye-patches and bi-corner hats, flying a jolly roger and shouting, “Arrrr, matey!”

The how and why of this specific dominant media type help illuminate general trends in our culture and the way we write history. To be quite explicit, I argue that:

the Caribbean in the early 1700s became the Golden Age specifically because those pirates spoke English, looked like the majority population of the Caucasian West (USA, Europe, and her colonies), and threatened European colonial targets.

Woodcut from Johnson, Charles (1724) A General History of the Pyrates

Piracy as a way-of-life is both ephemeral and eternal. While few pirate populations have lasted more than a generation or two, it is a lifestyle that re-emerges fully formed each time it has been supposedly wiped out. Partly this is due to the illusion that state violence or legal action are effective means of ending piracy. Piracy is a lifestyle — when it no longer provides for its practitioners, it dies off quickly… only to pop up again when it offers an attractive alternative to the desperate and marginalized in society.

One of the foremost historians of Golden Age piracy is Marcus Rediker, currently at the University of Pittsburgh and author of several books on the topic, including Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. It is a book I know well from using to teach my History of Pirates, Bandits, and Brigands course in the past. He and other scholars have shown how the poorly-cared-for but highly-trained population of the European Navies emerged from the end of each in abject poverty with an attractive set of skills. It was this lack of compensation that might explain their easy transfer into lives of ocean-going brigandage. One modern analog would be the rise of computer hackers, often under-paid, under-appreciated teenagers and young adults with skills in a technology economy that continues to privilege seniority over ability. Another modern analogy would be the fishermen of Somalia pushed out of their traditional profession by foreign incursion into their coasts, yet with the boat-handling skills to turn to professional kidnapping-for-ransom.