When one thinks of “Pirates” they immediately conjure up the image portrayed by Disney and fabled adventure books of either Captain Hook and Tinker Bell, or Johnny Depp and the “Pirates of the Carribean”. Pirates of the Carribbean is by far the most popular portrayal, and there today is an over-glorification of these dastardly criminals. But they were not only criminals, but a anarchistic society and sub-culture. In basic definition, A pirate is a person who commits acts of piracy, usually at sea, without authorization of a country, King/Queen, or army to do so. Of course soldiers throughout history, Ancient mariners fighting for their countries would loot, raid, conquer, maim, and kill hundreds if not thousands in their wakes of invasion. But those actions were deemed “ok” by historians since it was under the authority of a “nation”. These seaward scumbags however were classified just as such because they did the acts independently for their own greed or want of treasure. Truth be told, it was survival and independence, the poor striking against the rich. They often started out as young sailors, struggling to survive, realizing “thievery” was a quick and easy route to making it. Others were captured crew who were pushed into the life of piracy, often as slaves or indentured servants at best. Others were recruited in harbors as crew for a ship sometimes with the art of piracy being known or often not revealed that was what one was getting into.
Some say that Pirates were documented as early as the 14th century BCE with “the Sea Peoples” who were thought to have come from the Aegean Sea as well as Ancient Greece. The Fomorians of Ireland were a legendary race of Giants who were portrayed as “pirates”. Pirates and Piracy has existed from the beginning of time. The earliest records were that of Dionysus the Phocaean in 494 BCE and lasting right up to the modern day with Abduwai Muse in 2009 CE. However, when we think of Pirates – it extends from either the Middle Ages (400 CE – 1585 CE), on into the Rise of the English Sea Dogs and Dutch Corsairs: (1560 CE – 1650 CE), the Age of the Buccaneers: (1650 CE – 1690 CE), Golden Age of Piracy: (1690 CE – 1730 CE), and After the Golden Age: Pirates, Privateers, Smugglers, and River Pirates: (1730 CE – 1885 CE). Of course the “Vikings” as well were “Pirates” of sorts, though they operated with authorization of their peoples in Norway, Denmark, etc. so it draws a gray line. Every coastal country had its own sea-faring raids, invasions, and activities that were controversially criminal.
The term “Pirate” denotes an individual who participates in “Piracy”. Piracy is a sea-born offence against the universal laws of society, equating to “theft”, “robbery”, “looting”, or “crime”. Pirates are seamen who have turned to crime – robbing, attacking, seizing, capturing, or destroying other ships and their crew at high seas or within the coastal harbors. They were also known for their acts of theft, smuggling, and slave trade all for their own personal interests rather than for a company or country. They were punished as criminals for their crimes against society. They were not without their popularity and many of these pirates were high-profile and influential which often led to the death penalty when caught and penalized. The legality of their actions however was the biggest distinguishing factor separating them from privateers, buccaneers, or servants of a royal fleet. The acts led to a sub-culture, a band of individuals that joined together creating crews and legions. The acts turned lifestyle and evolved into action not just for wealth, but for independence, anarchy, fighting the mainstream, and for the hunger of adventure, fame, and danger. It was a manifestation of freedom in their minds and souls, some would say was in their blood and spirit. They were portrayed as free spirits, united with others of like-minds, usually men who loved women, booty, liquor, songs, and sword fighting. Today they are romanticized and seen as a glamorous rebellious culture even though historically they were not. Their lives were historically cruel, short, violent, and abrupt. There were also numerous female pirates who made their mark in history.
Today, Children all over the world celebrate Pirates, pretending to be them, fight them, hunt for treasure, and it is fun and games to them. The dastardly history is white-washed and the sense of adventure glorified. In some ways Pirates are equated to Robin Hoods of the Sea. They are seen as icons of fighting against the dictators and oppressive governments.
Pirates ate what most seamen ate – and it was always dependent on food supplies or conditions of their stock. Sometimes it was dependent on what they raided from other ships or towns. Food often molded or rotted, and sometimes their foodstuffs were questionable. Often they had livestock on board, eating meat, bread, dairy, and produce. They often cured their meats (salt) and fermented their vegetables. Common were salted meats, sea biscuits, sauer kraut, and bone stock soup. Oddly they didn’t fish all that much and seafood was not as common in the diet as one would think. They drank a lot of alcohol, often from raids, and in the Carribean known for their love of rum. Beer, ale, brandy, mead, and wine were common drinks.
Pirates didn’t often bury treasure. While some did, overall the “treasure” was perishable and needed on a daily basis. Because they were hunted criminals, their careers didn’t last long, and neither did their lives. They actually lived to their own rules, morals, and standards. It was not uncommon for pirate crew members to agree to a code of conduct and often had to sign in agreement. They had their own rules and punishments for lying, stealing, fighting, or acting against one another while on board their ship. Sometimes these punishments were severe, but they rarely if ever “walked the plank”. The few case examples of that kind of punishment was after the Golden Age of Piracy. Punishments were often beatings, whippings, knee hauling, dragged by the ship, or marooned on an island. Their ships were well run with a clear division of labor and officers in charge who were respected and held in high regard. The captain decided where to go and when to attack, the Quartermaster would issue punishments and settle grievances, ran the ship’s operations, and divided the treasure. Other common roles were boatswain, carpenter, cooper, gunner, and navigator. While many Pirates started from a poor life of suffrage, some were social elites who came from wealthy families. Lastly not all Pirates were criminals – like the Vikings, they were serving their nations or people, and during wartime and battles of one country to another, Piracy was enacted and Pirates were often hired as mercenaries. Some nations issued letters of Marque and Reprisal allowing ships to attack enemy ports and vessels leading to plunder and captivity. These were somewhat differentiated though and called privateers.
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Article by Thomas Baurley on 2/27/18.
- Canfield, Nicole 2005 Owlcation: The Life of a Pirate. Website referenced 2/27/18 at https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Life-of-a-Pirate-What-They-Ate-What-They-Did-For-Fun-and-More
- Minister, Christopher 2017 ThoughtCo: 10 Facts about Pirates. Website referenced 2/27/18 at https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-pirates-2136238.
- Way of the Pirates n.d. “Pirates”. Website referenced 2/27/18 at http://www.thewayofthepirates.com/types-of-pirates/pirates/
- Wikipedia n.d. “List of Pirates:. Website referenced 2/27/18 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pirates.
- Wikipedia n.d. “Piracy”. Website referenced 2/27/18 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piracy