I’ve always been fascinated by pirates. Maybe it started way back in the mid-1950s when as a child I first saw the film Treasure Island starring Robert Newton as the incorrigibly lovable one-legged pirate Long John Silver. Maybe it was a few years later when I read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” about Captain Kidd’s lost treasure.
Or was it when I discovered Jack London, who as a teenager became an oyster pirate after meeting French Frank in the Last Chance saloon in Oakland and buying the sloop Razzle Dazzle? He even got French Frank’s girlfriend in the deal, Mamie, queen of the oyster pirates.
From there I went on to adopt the Pittsburgh Pirates
baseball team as my own—despite the fact that I grew up hundreds of miles away
in central North Carolina—and I rooted for the East Carolina University Pirates
as an undergraduate there! I’m still a Pirates fan. (curiously, I'm not a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Just can't seem to get into them.)
All this is to note the recent publication of the graphic novel Under the Banner of King Death: Pirates of the Atlantic by David Lester (author and illustrator), Marcus Rediker (author), and Paul Buhle (editor). This wonderful book, an adaptation of Lester’s Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, tells a different story of pirates from the ones I heard growing up.
(To the right, Robert Newton as Long John Silver in the 1950 film Treasure Island)
Not sure I felt any guilt at my fascination with pirates—I wanted to be one! Still, these were bloodthirsty brigands and cutthroats, right? Didn’t Edward Teach, the pirate who called himself Blackbeard, tie little lit fuses at the end of his beard to scare the wits out of his enemies? I remember going to some of Blackbeard’s old haunts off the eastern North Carolina coast when I was at ECU. I loved it.
It was hard not to be drawn to the pirates in the depictions of artists like Howard Pyle, Frank Schoonover, and N.C. Wyeth, pictures that helped make Treasure Island and other books about pirates come alive.
What Under the Banner of King Death tells us is that the pirates of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy (1660 to 1730) “were almost all common working sailors, poor men from the lowest social class, who crossed the line into illegal activity, most of them bearing the scars of a dangerous line of work,” Buhle, Rediker, and Lester wrote in their article “Why We Need Pirates” in Yes! magazine this past January.
Furthermore, they were “routinely maimed in the course of their work, bilked of their wages, fed rotten provisions, and beaten around the deck by captains with tyrannical powers.” In their rebellion against those conditions, they turned to piracy, commandeering Jolly Old England’s ships and raising the Jolly Roger over them! Buhle, Rediker, and Lester describe how they created a remarkable form of democracy on those stolen ships.
They elected their captain and officers, organized a redistribution of goods, and shared booty in what Buhle, Rediker, and Lester call “a rudimentary social welfare system” that came in handy when a pirate was injured or fell ill. They were racially inclusive—a significant point in Under the Banner of King Death—given that pirates came from all races and ethnic groups--from the rum-swilling denizens of the pirate capital, Port Royal , Jamaica, to Chinese pirates in their virtual navies of junk ships (now hard to find, but I saw countless Chinese junks in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor back in 1972) to the Barbary Coast corsairs of the Mediterranean and the buccaneers off the coast of Madagascar. No glass ceiling for female pirates either. Arabella Drummond, Mary Read, and Anne Bonny bowed to no man in their fierceness and ability to lead a ship’s crew.
“Gentleman, piracy is damaging the economy of England,” a loyal servant of the Royal Court tells his colleagues in a London coffeehouse in Under the Banner of King Death. “England’s power, even civilization itself, depends on mastery of the seas.”
“Piracy is first and foremost a crime against the property of merchants,” says a judge in the novel just prior to sentencing the three pirates in front of him to hang. “Because piracy damages maritime commerce it also damages the interests of the state.”
Indeed, the Royal Navy ultimately succeeds in hanging countless pirates and making a spectacle of their dangling corpses as a warning to all who dare threaten the power of the monarchy and certainly its economic wellbeing. The warlords of 18th century commerce and industry won the war.
None of this should be interpreted as a blanket pardon for all piracy, of course. Jean Lafitte in New Orleans was an active slave-trader as well as a smuggler before he won a pardon from General Andrew Jackson in order to help Jackson defeat the British in the Battle of New Orleans. The colorful Lafitte, whose blacksmith shop in the French Quarter is a popular bar today, was, in the words of writer Herbert Asbury, the “Moses of the freebooters” in the Big Easy of his time, a charmer who spoke four languages fluently and was the toast of the town before the charm wore off and he had to relocate to the Texas coast (he helped found the city of Galveston) and finally to the Yucatan Peninsula.
Lester, Rediker, and Buhle remind us, however, that it’s indeed the victors who write history. Who will write the history of today? Will it be the descendants of the hedge fund operators and arms dealers and deep-pocketed lobbyists who run our world? Or will it be the handful of rebels who challenge that rule and refuse to let them continue to exploit and leave ruin and havoc in their wake?
In the end, who are the real pirates? Maybe it’s how you define “pirate”. Is the pirate the bloodthirsty brigand we always thought he—or she—was, or perhaps a revolutionary?