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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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The Lure of Piracy
Realty vs. Romanticism
By Cindy Vallar

The transformation of pirates from common thieves to roguish heroes began with writers.  Early pirate stories, which did not glamorize pirates, depicted gruesome incidents of pirate cruelty.  Torture, murder, battles at sea, and marooned pirates fascinated readers.  In 1678, a Dutch publisher released a book filled with such descriptions.  Written by Alexandre Exquemelin (also known as John Esquemeling), The Buccaneers of America was an eyewitness account whose vivid details continue to curl the most steadfast toes.  A Frenchman by birth, Exquemelin joined the pirates after acquiring some training with a doctor on the Isle of Tortuga in the 1660s.  After five years, he quit and returned to Europe.

Treasure ChestRobert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island also painted a picture of pirates that all should fear.  Exciting and colorful, this book nevertheless portrayed pirates as villains.  The name Long John Silver conjured up an immediate image of a ruthless peg-leg pirate to whom one should give a wide berth.  It was within the book’s pages that fictional pirates became associated with certain images: treasure maps, tropical islands, pirates with wooden legs, parrots, and black schooners.  This adventure also provided future readers and writers with pirate symbols that were, in reality, myths.  Few pirates held their treasure long enough to bury it, preferring instead to spend their ill-gotten gains on drink, women, and games.  Nor did pirates have maps where X marked the spot where they buried such treasure.  No evidence exists that pirates forced prisoners to walk the plank.

A General History of the Robbers and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates related the exploits of many well-known pirates.  It was published in 1724, not long after the demise and/or capture of Blackbeard, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and Bartholomew Roberts.  Although the identity of its author, Captain Johnson, remains a mystery, this book inspired later stories of pirates.  Although first released in 1798, Blackbeard the Pirate remained popular into Victorian times.

Credit for starting the romantic myth of piracy rests with George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his poem, The Corsair.  On the first day of publication in 1814, it sold 10,000 copies.  Conrad, leader of pirates based in the Mediterranean, practiced all the vices of a typical pirate while possessing the traits of noble outlaws akin to Robin Hood.  Over the years Byron’s poem inspired operas, paintings, musical scores, and ballets that featured pirates.  When Charles Elms’ The Pirates’ Own Book was released in 1837, it quickly became a bestseller.  It combined myths with facts about pirates from ancient to modern times throughout the world.  The author relied on previously published documents to make it the classic of classics (as Elms himself wrote) among books dealing with pirates.  A year earlier, Captain Marryat published The Pirate in which the pirate ship was painted black.  This schooner may have served as the model for Stevenson’s Hispaniola in Treasure Island (1833) and Arthur Ransome’s Viper in Peter Duck (1932).

Yet it was the release of Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini that transformed the pirate into a romantic hero.  Peter Blood, a physician, ministers to an enemy soldier.  Arrested and convicted of treason against the English Crown, he is sentenced to transport to Jamaica where he becomes the slave of a wealthy plantation owner.  After his escape, he achieves success as a pirate captain and leads his men on daring adventures.  The idea of an educated or landed gentleman turned pirate through some misfortune became a recurrent theme in literature and drama.  In actuality, few of the English-speaking pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy fit this description.

Pirate & ParrotAll these tales were initially written for adults. Peter and Wendy, known today as Peter Pan, captivated children and introduced them to the world of pirates.  As fanciful as this book is, J. M. Barrie gave his villain Captain Hook some of the same traits possessed by one of the most infamous pirates – Blackbeard.  Another author who wrote pirate stories for children was Arthur Ransome. Swallows and Amazons told of children on summer holiday who have pirate adventures on a lake.

Playwrights and scriptwriters also added to the romanticism of piracy.  The first theatrical production to feature pirates was staged in 1612.  With the premiere of The Successful Pirate in the next century and The Pirates of Penzance in 1879, pirates became regular characters in the theater and their bright clean costumes overshadowed the tattered dirty clothes that most real pirates wore.  Pirates who surfaced during the Victorian Era continued to be villains, but the melodrama made them not quite believable.  Gilbert and Sullivan’s pirates entertained rather than frightened.  Silent films introduced glamorous swashbucklers to audiences of the silver screen.

During the 1950s, pirates were featured in nine movies including The Crimson Pirate starring Burt Lancaster.  Technicolor films loved red and yellow clothes and large ships in flames.  Anne of the Indies further muddied the waters by pitting Anne Bonny against Blackbeard, her mentor.  In actuality these two pirates never met.  Perhaps the two most memorable and daring pirate rogues were Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (The Black Pirate) and Errol Flynn (Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk).  Flynn especially epitomized the swashbuckling hero and preferred to do his own stunts, which made the films more compelling.  From the 1920s through the 1940s, pirate films allowed audiences to escape into a world of adventure where the sorrows of the Great Depression and the tragedies of World War II became distant memories, if only for a brief time.

Films often portrayed galleons and ships with three masts as the vessel of choice for pirates.  In reality, writers came closer to the mark when their pirates sailed sloops and brigs.  Pirates favored small vessels because they were faster than their prey and could navigate shallow waters, where naval vessels hunting pirates could not follow.  Hollywood preferred large ships because they were more impressive.  The heroic pirate had room to fight a duel with the villain and more actors could fit on the deck during a battle.  Climbing aloft on the rigging of a galleon was far more exciting than doing the same on a smaller ship.

If you learned of pirates from the seventy-plus films produced during the 20th century, you would have a skewered picture of pirates.  Most of these movies depicted pirates who lived during the Golden Age of Piracy, which began in 1690 and ended around 1730.  In truth piracy predated the pyramids of Egypt.  Heroic pirates did not rescue beautiful women from villainous ones.  In 1825, Lucretia Parker witnessed the brutal slaying of the ship’s crew by pirates and then was taken prisoner although she was eventually released.  Chinese pirates often held women for ransom.  One such incident involved about 100 women, one of whom was Mei Ying who fought the pirate who took her captive.  In the ensuing struggle, he broke two of her teeth.  Rather than submit, she seized him and flung them both into the river, where they drowned.

SwordsHollywood also gave us the impression that pirates were only found in the Caribbean.  The Barbary corsairs, however, hunted the merchant galleys that traversed the Mediterranean Sea.  Kanhoji Angria preyed upon East Indiamen and terrorized the city of Bombay.  Kuo Hsing Yeh, a pirate warlord, frequented the South China Sea and in death became a Chinese folk hero.

Perhaps the most visually awesome pictures of pirates, though, were those that illustrated pirate stories.  In the 1920s one artist rendered the majority of paintings – Howard Pyle.   Marooned, An Attack on a Galleon, The Buccaneer was a Picturesque Fellow, and So the Treasure was Divided were several of his more famous pirate scenes.  His artwork possessed an element of realism that books, films, and plays often lacked.  He did not include traditional props found in the majority of pirate stories since the publication of Treasure Island.  Rather his paintings fascinated and compelled viewers to consider the true nature of pirates and the harsh life they led. N. C. Wyeth, one of Pyle’s students, also became known for his renderings of pirates.  He illustrated the 1911 edition of Treasure Island and Rafael Sabatini’s The Duel on the Beach, a story that appeared in the September 1931 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal.  Recently, the United States Post Office included two stamps featuring the works that portrayed pirates by Pyle and Wyeth in their series of American Illustrators.

Children focus on the image of a pirate in search of daring adventure and fantastic riches.  They don costumes of pirates for Halloween or celebrate their birthdays with pirate-theme parties.  They dream of finding a lost treasure and sailing the high seas in wooden ships.  They read books about pirates, and perhaps study one such as The Pirates Handbook: How to Become a Rogue of the High Seas by Margarette Lincoln or World of the Pirates by Philip Steele that tells them how to be pirates.

Adults dream of those same things, but they also identify with the aura of freedom that pirates represented and the lush tropics they inhabited.  Criminals by their very nature live outside the law.  They neither heed society’s rules nor endure the drudgery of commuting to work each day.  Pirates were free to do what they wanted and they could savor the warm tropical sun and white sandy beaches instead of sitting in an office from 9 to 5 five days a week.  Pirates represent escapism from our daily routine.

Three centuries of entertainment – be it found in books, on stage or screen, or at a child’s birthday party – have instilled in us an image of a pirate that is universally recognized.  When we see a man with a wooden leg, wearing a black eye patch, armed with cutlass and pistol, and accompanied by a parrot on his shoulder, we know without hesitation that he is a pirate.  No matter that he no longer resembles the true pirates of yore.  No matter that they had well-deserved reputations for drinking, cursing, and harming innocents.  The clean-cut image that captivates us is a far cry from those men.  We prefer to root for the downtrodden and wrongfully accused gentleman who became a pirate because of injustice and corruption.  He’s not to blame for turning to a life of crime.  It is our fault that he has become a pirate.

As is often the case, however, legend and fact merge and the truth becomes muddied.  Enjoy the rousing adventure and swashbuckling hero.  Just remember that rarely does he resemble the infamous pirates of yore or the murderous pirates that prey upon ships today.

© 2001 Cindy Vallar

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