Pirates!…floating nightmares or loveable rogues?

Lizzy Donnelly 23 March 2012

Martha Henriques questions the basis of our modern fetish for all things piratical and Lizzy Donnelly flicks through some evidence of our obsession with these salty swashbucklers…

Imagine finding out that your moderately distant ancestor was the real life equivalent of Jack Sparrow: a swashbuckling blaggard who could pull off a wooden leg and don a three-pointed hat with style – no mean sartorial feat, even without the obligatory parrot. Well, sorry to turn you green with envy, but yesterday I found out exactly that. Moses Cohen Henriques was an infamous pirate of the seventeenth century and the only one in history to found an entire pirate island. Henriques was left-hand man to leading buccaneer of his day Henry Morgan, upon whom the character Barbossa was based in Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2, 3 and, yes, 4, 5, and on, and on…

I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that I had piratical roots: why else does my hair begin to weave itself into dreadlocks when I can’t be bothered to brush it for a few days? Who am I to doubt such signs, even if I have only Wikipedia to confirm my suspected ancestry? My swashbuckling genes come not so much as a surprise but as a satisfying justification for all my bad behaviour. The feeling of pride associated with my newfound piratical ancestry, on the other hand, seems a little out of place. If I had been told my great-great-great-etc grandfather was a remorseless robber of old ladies, I would doubtless brush it under the family history carpet and say no more about it.

The harsh facts of modern piracy show our rosy-tinted romanticisms to be horribly detached from reality. For their victims, pirates aren’t so much the stuff of idle daydreams but nightmares. Jean and Scott Adam, a wealthy American couple, were taken hostage by pirates on their private yacht last year in the West Indian Ocean near Somalia, easily the most dangerous waters in the world in terms of piracy. One pirate involved, who said his name was Hassan, told the BBC “the hostages pleaded with us not to harm them or take them to dangerous places. They cried when we captured them and asked us to release them because they were too old and couldn’t endure captivity.” Instead of going through their usual protocol of taking the rich hostages back to land and demanding ransom, the pirates were blocked from the coast by US naval forces. At the end of misjudged negotiations and a long standoff, two pirates and all four of their American hostages were dead. Fifteen pirates in total were captured by the US forces, and are likely to face tough sentencing if tried in a US court.

Despite horror stories like the Adams’, along with the estimated billions of pounds that piracy costs the global economy each year, some still argue that it isn’t all bad. Many claim that piracy brings much needed economic stimulation to impoverished and politically hopeless countries like Somalia. A Robin Hood style redistribution of wealth, perhaps, except rather than giving it to the poor, the pirates spend it on lavish lifestyles for themselves. Nonetheless, the decadence of pirates’ local spending has undeniably brought money to incredibly poor regions of Somalia that would otherwise have little or no access to such wealth.

Less ethically murky benefits of piracy are being celebrated by the fishermen of Somalia and Kenya and by marine biologists alike: the fish are coming back. After years of endemic illegal foreign trawling in the wake of the collapse of Somalia’s government in 1991, increasingly intense pirate activity has finally deterred fishing vessels from the area, reflected in the rocketing insurance prices for ships planning to enter Somali waters.

The rich diversity of marine life in the western coastal areas of the Indian Ocean is finally reviving after the prolonged period of industrial overfishing. The small-scale fishermen, as well as the fish, are seeing the benefits: in Malindi, a small town on the coast of Kenya, fishermen using low-intensity, sustainable fishing methods are earning up to fifty times more than the average local wage. But despite the widespread pirate activity, the UN estimates that around £190m worth of fish is still stolen from Somali waters every year.

Whether the wider picture of piracy should be is defensible or not is perhaps a more subtle matter than it first appears, although probably not so in the eyes of those who knew the victims of pirate attacks. With this in mind, I’ll certainly think twice before boasting to all and sundry that I am the descendent of a real-life, muscular, be-dreadlocked, parrot-sporting highwayman of the sea.

Martha Henriques

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest—Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” So chant the pirates lusting after loot in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, treading the pages of fiction to commit shadowy deeds. Stevenson’s novel was published one hundred and thirty years ago, but it remains the driving force behind popular culture’s portrayal of fearsome buccaneers. They are confident criminals of the high seas, shrieking “Walk the plank!” whenever unbearable cabin-feverish boredom becomes too much to bear, or poring their greasy faces over scraps of parchment to locate that coveted ‘X’; they have a penchant for mangy parrots and like to talk in a lilting Devonshire drawl with an occasional, raucous ‘Aaargh!’ whenever the West Indian sun and rum get the better of them.

Yes, these are the figures we tend to envisage when somebody mentions pirates. Those beloved antiheroes of fiction have not lost their popularity since Stevenson’s novel captured the uptight, drab and rainy imaginations of Victorian Britain. Treasure maps and black-spot death threats are now such a key component of the fictional pirate culture that it’s almost impossible to believe that they are concepts more or less entirely dreamt up by the Scottish writer. In reality, the likes of Blackbeard and Calico Jack were almost pitiable creatures, stuck on their ships with only each other for company. Many met a grisly end at the end of a nicely-noosed rope, and I can’t imagine that the famous chants they’d whistle through their loose and rattling teeth were much consolation at the knowledge that they were scum in everyone’s eyes. Being a real-life maritime bandit was a nasty business back then, and it still is. How easy it is to forget that pirates continue to operate, and remain a “tremendous concern” for the International Maritime Organisation. There’s no mistaking the fact that modern-day brigands are as different from their eighteenth-century folkloric counterparts as is possible. You won’t get a young, ambitious upstart clambering into a barrel of apples to eavesdrop on that lot. There’s absolutely nothing romantic or captivating about real pirates, whether they are of the past or the present.

However, there’s just something about the old fashioned pirate lifestyle which excites and inspires: the prospect of adventure, the total freedom of the ocean, the thrill of getting away with misdeeds and the myths and superstitions surrounding seamanship. In the same way that fictional portrayal has made sympathetic characters out of outlaw Ned Kelly, grave-robbers Burke and Hare, and Butch Cassidy and his sidekick the Sundance Kid, writers and film-makers have found plenty of traits in pirate figures of the past which make them relatable to modern audiences. As Butch says to the Kid in George Roy Hill’s film of ’69: “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” This is why we love the historical antihero and pirates in particular – you’ve just got to admire their gumption, and their certainty that the rest of the world is wrong.

A lot of the pirate life was very banal. You can only get so excited about a man who hoists flags, scrubs the decks and counts his pieces of eight in a corner. This, compounded with the fact that they were pretty much naval terrorists, makes some portrayals of them in popular culture seem madder than Ben Gunn and Jack Sparrow combined. Apologies – Captain Jack Sparrow. The final scene of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl sees Elizabeth Swann announce that she intends to wed her beau Will Turner. In response to her father’s reminder that Turner’s a lowly blacksmith, she looks up at the fiance and proudly simpers: “No, he’s a pirate.” He’s most certainly not a man condemned to a life of scurvy and syphilis, whatever he is. And, if Gilbert and Sullivan are to be believed, then many a brigand could prance about the decking and sing in beautiful falsetto. Perhaps they all went to a school similar to that of Peter Pan’s Captain Hook, whom J.M. Barrie once described as an old Etonian. They might all be able to enter the same competition in which the characters of Aardman’s upcoming animated film, The Pirates! – In an Adventure with Scientists, are taking part: Pirate of the Year Award.

Yet the most understated, yet incredibly eye-opening way in which pirate popular culture has permeated the world’s consciousness, is in the list of languages you can choose for your Facebook profile. If you have never opted for ‘English: Pirate’, then I encourage you to take a gander. It’s an absolute hoot. Your friends become ‘Me Hearties’, the ‘Like’ button becomes a superb ‘Arrr, This be pleasin’ to me eye’, and the ‘It’s Complicated’ relationship status is re-worded to that beloved, buccaneer bark: ‘Argh!’ No doubt Dodgeball’s Steve the Pirate favoured this setting from the outset. What is remarkable is that this dialect is very familiar, and utterly intelligible, despite being no more than fictional fabrication. It’s testament to the extent those cursed creatures of the high seas have captured our hearts, with their customs and language, whether genuine or invented, inspiring generation after generation. I’m sure Robert Louis Stevenson would be dead chuffed.

Lizzy Donnelly