The Truth About Pirates


Dec 04, 2014 by British Blog

Pirates have probably never been more popular than they are now: from films to children's TV series, pirate imagery is everywhere. As a result, most people think they know a lot about pirates - but is that true? Much of what is 'known' about piracy is myth - read on to find out more.


Natural outsiders

One of the key elements of pirate communities was the fact that they existed outside conventional societies. As a result, pirates were free of many of 'proper' society's rules and regulations and were fairly liberal, being bound together by their 'outsider' status. They were also generally diverse in terms of race, gender and identity - what mattered to the pirate community were the skills and benefits each member could bring to its service.

For example, one of the higher profile pirates during the 17th-18th centuries was one Black Caesar. Legend has it that he began life as an African chief - he was definitely from Africa, although his original social status is unclear. Black Caesar spent the best part of a decade raiding ships on the Florida Keys, and served with the notorious English pirate Blackbeard on the Queen Anne's Revenge - however the law caught up with him in the end, and he was hanged in 1718.

There were also some female pirates, although most had to disguise themselves as men in order to secure roles as crew-members. From what is known of the few who were discovered, however, it seems that even when revealed to be female, they were allowed to continue in their work.


The importance of equality

Perhaps surprisingly for members of a 'profession' based on violence and law-breaking, pirate communities seem to have held democracy and equality in high regard. In general they appear to have shared responsibility for decision-making, captains and quartermasters were elected and both loyalty and the equal distribution of wealth were core, shared values. Of course there was an element of self-interest involved in this: pirates could only succeed if they worked together and stayed loyal to the group, mutiny and dissent could be lethal, and equality minimised the risk of this happening.

However, if this makes pirates look like quite an appealing bunch, it is important not to be fooled. Revenge was also a key pirate value and generally involved considerable violence. There was also more casual cruelty: Black Caesar, for example, took prisoners from the ships he raided and imprisoned them in stone buildings on an island. When he left the island to go raiding, he generally failed to leave his prisoners any food, and many (including children) starved to death in his absence.

Furthermore, there were extreme dangers inherent in the pirate lifestyle. Injury was commonplace, although some communities established compensation schemes to make up for this. Alcoholism and gambling were rife and frequently caused trouble; many alcoholic pirates ended up ruined and destitute on the streets. If the authorities captured pirates, the penalty was generally death.

Thus although some of the 'facts' about pirates are actually myths - they didn't make prisoners walk the plank, for example, or bury their treasure - some of the truths are more fascinating than those myths have ever been.