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The Radical Romanticism of Piracy

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Authored by Katherine Waite
Published on 10th July, 2019 13 min read

The Radical Romanticism of Piracy

In Western popular culture, pirates have emerged as dashing heroic figures.

Despite the fact that, on the periphery, most people are vaguely aware that there is a profound disconnect between the realities of piracy and the popular fantasy, we choose to ignore this. Pirates have stolen, murdered, and raped throughout history. These values are criminalised in our society so it seems strange that children are encouraged to paint their faces and adorn traditional pirate garb. From cartoons, such as Captain Pugwash, to box-office hits, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean seriesthe popularity of pirates is unquestionable. Pirates pervade ever further into western pop culture through pirate festivals, and even feature on sporting logos, such as Bristol Rovers’ football crest. 

Positive imagery surrounding the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy in the 17th and 18th century is even more surprising when juxtaposed with the growing problem of modern day piracy, particularly off the coast of Africa and Asia. Modern-day pirates have little in common with the romantic rum-swilling rogues of Hollywood. They are organised gangs of poverty-stricken men sometimes backed by corrupt governments. In an increasingly globalised world, with better travel opportunities than ever before, it is important to challenge the romantic stereotypes of piracy before more unwitting travellers are taken unawares.

Several silhouettes of people with rifles raised over their heads against the sea at sunset

Historical fiction is currently one of the most popular literary genres. It is therefore one of the key ways in which the past is understood. The romanticised way pirates are portrayed in popular culture has been heavily influenced by literature, where pirates are colourful stereotypes rather than authentic representations of the diverse breed of criminals who actually sailed. To understand why romantic clichés are still prevalent today we must begin with one of the most popular and earliest piracy novels. 

Robert Stevenson wrote Treasure Island in 1883 as a ‘boy’s book’ for his young son, meaning that any piratical villainy had to be downplayed to be suitable for Stevenson’s young audience. In order for the plot to work, Long John Silver needed to trick the protagonist, Jim. He was thus was characterised as dashing and charming rather than villainous. Stevenson blends the idea of how he imagines a typical pirate – greedy, violent and daring with a dash of intelligence, charm and wit. The universally known, charming and dastardly Long John Silver serves as a template for future generations and a turning point in the popular perception of piracy. 

This romanticism continued with Rafael Sabatini’s swashbuckling tales of adventure, which bore even less resemblance to reality. In the 1920s, popular literary taste ran towards authors who combined romance, history and intrigue in their novels. In Sabatini’s novels, pirates evolved into knights in tarnished armour, often rescuing damsels in distress. In this case, the idea of the gentleman pirate was born. To produce empathy pirates were portrayed as social bandits, men of good character thrust into poverty through some injustice. This transformation is often seen as complete with Daphne Du Mariner’s novels of piracy at their most glamorised. Starting with Treasure Island where the iconic Long John Silver was born, authors have used the romanticised pirate as a protagonist to capture the hearts of their readers and become international bestsellers.

The popularity of piratical historical novels has contributed to a confusing mixing of fact and fiction. The perception most people have is a blend of historical facts overlaid with three centuries of melodramas, romance novels and adventure stories. The first history of pirates was written by Captain Johnson in 1724. Johnson writes in a way that implies he has personally known many famous pirates. This creates an aura of authenticity surrounding his account, however little of it can actually be verified so it is unknown how much Johnson’s book should be regarded as historical fact. Despite this, Johnson’s book has been referred to by historians and novelists alike, keen for an insight into the world of piracy. Stevenson is the first of many authors that uses Johnson’s book to poach real people and anecdotes. Stevenson borrows character Israel Hands, Blackbeard’s second in command, from Johnson’s history and writes him into Treasure Island. Furthermore, Stevenson mentioned five other pirate captains that actually existed: Blackbeard, Kidd, England, Davies and Roberts. Regularly mentioning historical figures lends his work further authenticity. To top it all Stevenson slips in some of Johnson’s stories through the character of Long John Silver, giving his pirates a backstory and further sincerity. For example, Silver discusses a ship's surgeon on Roberts’s crew who had his leg amputated and was later hanged. Stevenson’s story is absorbing and written in such convincing detail that it appears to be true, heavily influencing public perception about pirates and their lives. Treasure Island is the first of many piratical historical fictions that mix historical fact with fantasy, thus giving Stephenson’s story credibility and encouraging the reader to believe what they are reading. This contributes greatly to the confusion surrounding the reality of piracy.

In recent years television has become the principle means by which most people learn about history.  A review by the New York Times encapsulates the essence of one typical piratical film, Captain Blood, released in 1935. "With a spirited and criminally good-looking Australian named Errol Flynn playing the genteel buccaneer to the hilt, the photoplay recaptures the air of high romantic adventure… the Warner Brothers skilfully reconstruct the…ships that sailed the Spanish Main flying the Jolly Roger." This review describing the film as a ‘skilful reconstruct’ of the past seems absurd, as the reality of piracy was far from the glamour of Errol Flynn.

Rather than attempting to understand or explain, historical films tend to be romances which use and misuse the past as a setting for tales of adventure. This model is still prevalent today, with Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean epitomising the popular image of the pirate. All four movies are featured in the All-Time Highest Grossing Movies Worldwide list which emphasises their popularity. The Pirates of the Caribbean films draw heavily from popular pirate inaccuracies that further ingrain the image of pirates as loveable rogues in the eyes of the nation.

If popular culture presents a fanciful and fun version of the world of pirates, it also provides an avenue to explore piracy as a general phenomenon. Highlighting interest in piracy is the Daily Mail article on the authenticity of Pirates of the Caribbean. In this article, historian Konstam argues "they have occasional real characters such as Blackbeard that make an appearance but the trouble with the film is that it was designed around a Walt Disney ride and there was really no attempt at trying to make it realistic."

There is a genuine interest in the reality of piracy, especially due to recent media coverage of hijackings. In 2009 the American ship Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somalian pirates and its crew held hostage. This incident inspired the film Captain Phillips which emerged as a box office success, grossing over $218 million and receiving six Academy Award nominations. Although the film was based on a true story, aspects of the plot, including the protagonist Captain Phillips’ actions, were glamorised for entertainment purposes. Despite this glamorisation, Captain Phillips offers a much needed alternate vision of piracy in the modern day. Films are a powerful tool that adds to the larger discourse of history and the abundance of piracy films and dramas from 1908 to the present day often reiterate stereotypes.

This public interest generated by films and novels should be harnessed more to engage the public in critical questions about criminality, property relationships and limits of political authority. There are no direct links to piracy in the United Kingdom’s National Curriculum, therefore children grow up learning about piracy from the mainly romanticised books and films in popular culture. However, characters such as Francis Drake, William Kidd and Blackbeard could be studied as part of the ‘Famous People’ topic in Key Stage One. At Key Stage Two, piracy can be selected in specific areas of the United Kingdom, such as Bristol, once a hotbed of piracy, to develop local historical knowledge. 

One criticism of a local history module on piracy is that it is unlikely to be negative. For example, local primary age children are taken to one of the most popular piracy museums in the country, the Golden Hind Museum ship, in Bristol.  The museum is very positive in its portrayal of pirates, particularly Francis Drake, who went on "epic expeditions of plundering". Drake is a local hero and referring to him in a positive light will better engage the local community. Once on board students are encouraged to empathise with pirates by finding out if they are related to the crew. Furthermore, visitors are invited to "feel the romance of the seas" with an actor playing Captain Blackheart who takes photos and plays games with children. The museum is an engaging mix of piracy and local pride. However, it gives visitors an overly positive view of pirates. At a young age, it is unlikely children would be able to study piracy in any more than a superficial way. It can be argued that piracy is not an age-appropriate topic for children under twelve due to violence and horror. At the lower Key Stages, piracy can be part of the curriculum. However, the scope is limited and rough edges smoothed off leaving the children with a very limited understanding of the true nature of piracy, sometimes adding to, rather than detracting from, pirate stereotypes.

Piracy would be a more suitable topic for Key Stage Three, though it is not currently included on the curriculum for High Schools. After the 1988 Education Reform Act, History became a compulsory subject until the age of fourteen. There has been mass controversy over what historical events should be included on the curriculum. Then Education Secretary Michael Gove changed the national curriculum in 2013 and created a renewed focus on how the British people shaped the nation and how Britain influenced the world. However, many argue that the problems of superficiality, chronology and incoherence can only be reduced when history is given more time in the classroom.

At high school level the Slave Trade and religious change during the Reformation sideline any study of piracy as they are seen as a higher priority in the same time frame. Piracy is an important part of Britain’s past, its stronghold on popular culture is a testimony to that. Very few historical timeframes have received as much popular interest, yet this is not reflected on the curriculum. Studies show that, far from being essentially stateless individuals, pirates viewed themselves as European. Piracy in the Golden Age can therefore be viewed as a European subculture. Piracy deserves to be studied as a remarkable era that spread British and European ideas and culture across the seas and left an indelible mark on the psyche of the Western World.

Initiated by historical fiction and propelled forward through a lack of proper education, pirates have emerged into the 21st century as dashing rogues. Although films such as Captain Phillips attempt to place piracy in a modern context, not enough has been done to reveal the true danger piracy represents. The radical romanticism of piracy is surprising and dangerous when it is considered that currently, piracy is a deadly billion-dollar business. The UK government warns against travel in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Guinea and the Malacca Straits due to dangerous levels of piratical activity. It is important that people are not deceived by the popular positive image of piracy in Western culture, especially in an increasingly globalised world. It can be dangerous to underestimate piracy, as John Burnett found out when he set sail alone across the South Chinese Sea in the 1990s. He had been warned of pirates but this was not a threat he took very seriously so he did not take precautions. Piracy to him was associated with Long John Silver, Captain Hook and Hollywood. Burnett was lucky that he escaped a brutal attack with his life. He wrote a book to warn others of the real threat pirates can pose, warning ‘had I not been attacked, I might have dismissed piracy as a product of a rich imagination’. The romantic imagery surrounding piracy can prove dangerous, as people fail to take the necessary precautions to safeguard themselves. It is not only Burnett that has been caught unawares. There are multiple accounts of Westerners who have been attacked by pirates and sometimes even kidnapped, such as Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were held captive for over a year in 2009.

Piracy increased on the world’s seas in 2018, with a marked rise in attacks against ships and crews. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) is a specialised division of the International Chamber Of Commerce (ICC). The IMB was established in 1981 to act as a focal point in the fight against all types of maritime crime. Worldwide, the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) recorded 201 incidents of maritime piracy and armed robbery in 2018, up from 180 in 2017. This included 6 successful hijackings, 18 ships fired upon, 141 hostages taken and 83 seafarers kidnapped for ransom. Piracy is recognised as an issue by the UK government who acknowledge that it ‘affects UK prosperity and security’. The government states, ‘our comprehensive approach to tackling the problem at sea and onshore includes support to international naval missions, capacity building initiatives and alternative livelihoods programmes.’ Despite the fact that piracy is acknowledged as an issue little is done by governments to promote knowledge of the nature and dangers of piracy. This leads to increased piratical activity.

In the 21st Century piracy both directly and indirectly manifests a range of social, geopolitical, security and economic issues.  It is important to challenge traditional stereotypes of piracy because, in a globalised world in which piracy is growing, the threat needs to be addressed more thoroughly to avoid further casualties.

Authored by Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite is Head of Publishing at British Online Archives. Katherine studied History at Newcastle University, graduating in 2016. She has worked in the editorial and content teams at British Online Archives. As Head of Publishing she is currently working on curating a collection on the history of pandemic disease in the United Kingdom.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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