Are there any other violent criminals more romantically and favorably depicted as pirates? It seems odd to celebrate armed robbery on the high seas. Piracy at sea is a violent crime that is classified as a capital offense by most nations.
Piracy on the high seas may be the oldest international crime. For at least a few centuries the death penalty was the dominant punishment for pirates. Legitimate navies treated pirates as hostile enemies.
Because piracy on the high seas is still a problem, controlling it requires serious international cooperation in order to further the safety of commerce and the global public’s well-being. We only need to remember the menace of the Somali pirates who terrorized and hijacked seafarers during the early years of this century.
The only other criminals who have been romantically depicted are bank robbers like the James Gang or Bonnie and Clyde. However, they were not presented as fun, happy-go-lucky characters that toddlers should emulate.
What other criminals have had a “golden age” than pirates? That golden age lasted from approximately the 15th past the 18th centuries. There were terrifying criminals like Blackbeard who might be thought of as Charles Manson on steroids. He was a merciless robber and murderer.
Then there was “Black Bart” Bartholomew Roberts who might be diagnosed as a psychopath by today’s standards. “Black Bart” was an arsonist at heart. He was once accused of burning a slave ship with 80 slaves aboard because the mass murder was more expedient than simply freeing the captive slaves. Black Bart and his murderous crew were finally captured and tried in history’s largest pirate trial. All of them were found guilty of piracy and murder then they were executed.
How did these cruel, greedy, hardened felons became the highly esteemed, romanticized characters we depict them today. Certainly, if we could travel back in time, the last people we should ever hope to encounter would be pirates. Such a meeting would probably end in our capture and/or demise.
Yet we have such fictional characters as “Long John Silver”, a despicable villain with a wooden peg-leg and a parrot. Perhaps we can point our fingers at Robert Lewis Stevenson for launching the positive image of these sadistic criminals.
I don’t know of any true historical accounts of actual pirates who piloted ships painted black, had treasure maps with “X” marking the spot, or actually took the time and effort to bury their treasure. History says that pirates tended to spend their loot on alcohol, prostitutes, and gambling.
Hollywood even got the ships wrong. Pirates didn’t normally sail on three-masted galleons. The actual criminals sailed on smaller vessels like two-masted brigs and single masted sloops. That’s because the smaller vessels were faster and more maneuverable than larger ships.
The fantasies of nineteenth century fiction and Hollywood swashbuckler movies are probably the main reasons for our adoration of pirates. Who hasn’t dreamed about searching for an isolated tropical island with treasure map in hand and digging up a chest filled with gold? Our visions of pirates are so sanitized that there are even fast-food restaurants featuring pirate themes.
Even I once dressed up as a pirate one Halloween for trick or treating and went house to house growling “arrr”. It was great fun because then I was ignorant about the evil, murderous nature of the real pirates that preyed upon legitimate ships and innocent victims.
It is in this spirit of romanticized criminality that the entire month of August can be spent celebrating fictional pirates. Happy Arrr-gust.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes author Robert Kurson. “Piracy was risky business, and injuries were commonplace: a single lost limb or gouged-out eye could end a pirate’s career. To encourage pirates not to hesitate in battle–and out of a sense of fairness–many pirate crews compensated wounded crewmen in predetermined amounts.”