Can We Ever Get Enough of Pirates?

piratebookIt’s a rhetorical question, of course. No. Not enough on pirates. Ever. They fascinate us as kids and, once we become adults, they fascinate the kid in us. As they say in algebra: “Same difference.”

I just finished an ARC of Robert Kurson’s Pirate Hunters: The Search for the Lost Treasure Ship of a Great Buccaneer. Like a lot of schools, it’s due out in June. The great buccaneer is a relative unknown on the pirate meter — one Joseph Bannister, an English gentleman and captain of his own British ship until, well, he sniffed spring and got the urge, so to speak. Arghh!

Whoops. Which brings me to this: Kurson assures us that no historical pirate ever said, “Arghhh, mateys!” Nor did they ever say, “Shiver me timbers!” causing school children everywhere to wonder what a timber might be (if not a falling tree). But it’s true they liked parrots, especially ones they could train to talk. And it’s true, too, that they loved wine (oh, hell, any liquor), women, and song.

Buried treasure? Ah, no. You don’t buy wine, women, and song in Port Royal with buried treasure, my friends. Pirates did not believe in legacies or savings accounts in the dirt. No. Get and spend (if you couldn’t steal). The less time money and liquor spend in hand, the better.

So, what did pirates say if they weren’t uttering the lines fed to them by mid-20th century screenwriters? Kurson provides a few:


“A merry life and a short one!”

“Eat what falls from my tail!”

“Damn your blood!”

“I’ll cleave your skull asunder!”

“I’ll cut you in pound pieces!”

“I come from Hell and I’ll carry you there presently!”

As you can see, pirates had an affinity for exclamation points. They’d stand out in a library or church service, in other words. Sotto voce was not their strong point. But they loved colorful beads in their hair and showy clothes if they could be had. Probably, then, a pirate wouldn’t stand out at Woodstock in the 60s.

The most interesting thing about pirates is how they anticipated democracy. Yes, they had a captain, but he had limited powers. And there was a well-established “code” among pirates. During the late Golden Age (1650-1720) of Piracy, black men serving as pirates had all the rights of their white counterparts. Women? Not so much. There were a few lady pirates (Mary Read and Anne Bonney are two), but, for the most part, women and pirates were a bad mix, at least when it came to the day-to-day work of chasing and stealing from ships.

From Kurson’s book:

“Before every voyage, pirates gathered together to commit an unthinkable act: They made every crewman an equal. From the greenest of lookouts to the captain himself, no one would own rights over any other or possess privileges unavailable to all. The men would eat the same meals, earn similar wages, share the same quarters. The captain would exercise absolute authority only in battle; at other times, he would guide the ship according to the pleasures of the crew.

“And that was just the start of the madness.

“Having made everyone equal, the pirates now put almost everything to a vote. To choose where to stalk prey, they voted. To decide whether to attack a target, they voted. To determine the rules of the ship, the punishment for wrongdoers, division of booty, to maroon or shoot traitors, they voted. And every man’s vote counted the same.”

As you can see, far more advanced than many nations today. And certainly, in its way, ahead of the British ships, where captains kept cozy quarters, sipped the finest cognac, and had crew members whipped for the smallest of offenses.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a pirate piece if I didn’t include some pirate mayhem. Surrender and you might (I said “might”) be treated lightly by the pirates, but fight and lose and you’re captain cooked but good. Pirates might squeeze a man’s eyes from their sockets, roast parts of their bodies, hang him by the genitals (ouch), and even bite into his still beating heart quickly extracted from the chest cavity (heartburn of a taller order).

It was meant to send a message and it did: Don’t mess with us. And most didn’t — unless they could do so successfully (see British, who believed in numbers and cannons).


Nota Bene: One of the pirate hunters in the book, Joseph Mattera, claims his all-time favorite pirate book is one first published in 1678, during the Golden Age itself! I’ll have to see if it’s in print. The title is The Buccaneers of America, and the author is Alexandre Exquemelin.


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