Monday, May 4, 2009

Why Pirates?

Every so often, some one asks me what's so interesting about pirates. Usually it's after I've opened my trap and offered up some (admittedly) obscure bit of trivia that no one has requested. The other night, I mentioned to One Ring that I might be interested in taking a trip to Charleston, SC. Her best friend lives there, and initially thought that my offer was out of a desire for a reunion of sorts. However, knowing me as long as she has, she paused for a minute, then asked, "Why would you ever be interested in going to Charleston?"

"I think they have a pirate museum there," I answered. "Did you know that Blackbeard blockaded the port of Charleston for several days in 1718, mainly because he needed medicine and a doctor to treat his crew for syphilis?"

She groaned audibly and then, rolling her eyes, exclaimed, "What is it with you and pirates?"

It's simple, really.

As (Captain) Jack Sparrow put it in the first of the very unrealistic Pirates of the Caribbean movies:

"Wherever we want to go, we'll go. That's what a ship is, you know. It's not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that's what a ship needs but what a ship is... what the Black Pearl really is... is freedom."

Sure everything they did (just about) was illegal according to some government (I'm lumping privateers in with pirates here, even though there are some major differences). Sure some of the pirates (like Roche Brasiliano, Fran├žois l'Ollonais and others) were sociopaths, responsible for murder, torture, and even cannibalism in order to strike fear into their victims. Then again, "Black" Sam Bellamy attempted to use his ill gotten gains to improve his social status in the Massachusetts Bay Area so he could marry his beloved - a young woman of a much higher societal class. He died while trying to bring his ship - A converted slave ship named the Whydah - back to Cape Cod. And Stede Bonnet was a plantation owner who turned pirate when his marriage went sour and he had an early "mid-life crisis." He made a horrible pirate, by the way, and was hung (at the age of 30) more for his association with Blackbeard, who held him prisoner for a number of years, than for his own crimes.

So the group of individuals that we lump together and call pirates were a diverse lot, some good, some bad, most ugly (I mean, have you seen those drawings???). But they did have many things in common. For one, pirate ships were run as democracies. The crew voted on their actions, with every person getting one vote. Captains could be stripped of power if the crew so decided. Merchant vessels and naval ships, in contrast, were almost always barbaric in terms of authoritarianism. Captains could, and did, execute crew members for a variety of reasons. Flogging was common, the pay was horrible, and the life expectancy of your average sailor was very low. Officers did well, but sailors did not. The pay from just one pirate action would provide more money than most sailors saw in their lifetimes. And they were much better fed and treated by the others in their crew. Blackbeard's shooting of his mate, Israel Hands, is legendary for the outrageousness of his action, not because it was common.

If you were a common person, with no hope for advancement, virtually (and some times actually) enslaved by a system that promoted by class and family status rather than by merit and ability, why not turn pirate? The temptation must have been fierce.

That's the romance of it, of course. As I sit here in Tennessee, finally safe in the knowledge that I have a job and One Ring can finish out her studies without worrying about our finances, yet full in the knowledge that this job is not one that has any hope of advancement, the allure of the pirate image is great. We all have fantasies of escaping from our drudgery and heading off to points known or unknown. I have them all the time. It's just that once I finally went to the Caribbean, and saw the clear blue waters and sailed about on a variety of ships (okay, cruise liners and all of one schooner!), my personal fantasy took on a more focused tone. I grew up on the coast of Virginia, after all, so it's not surprising that there's a connection between me and ships.

Maybe this makes sense, maybe not. Doesn't really matter. I'm going to sing "Yo, Ho! A Pirate's Life for Me!" with the best of them and drink my rum and plan my island retirement and dream of learning how to sail. It's a nice fantasy, and a fun time period to read about, a time that's very different yet in some ways very similar to our own.


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