Why pirates?

Yesterday was Talk Like A Pirate Day, and while a lot of people took the opportunity to let their inner pirate hoist the colours and buckle some swash, there was also ridicule on the twitter hashtag against people who think this is a fun thing to do. I am therefore inspired to write this post about why I love pirates.

Note that the pirates discussed here are a mixture between historical, fictional and mythical pirates, and admittedly romanticised to a certain degree – but what seems fictional or mythical is often more historical than many people might think.

MaryReadAndAnneBonneyI believe that at the core of it is freedom, of several kinds. The people who became pirates escaped from poverty and starvation, from slavery, from oppression, from unjust, unequal and judgemental societies. And the societies they created on the pirate ships were a kind of democracy that could only be possible in such a small community.

The captain was chosen by the crew and could be deposed if the crew weren’t pleased, and got a double share or share-and-a-half for taking the burden of making the decisions. Everyone on board got a share in the booty, and crippling injuries were compensated. While I’m certain there were racist pirates, a large number were escaped slaves and the systemic racism of life ashore wouldn’t be feasible. 17th century pirates practiced gay marriage, matelotage, where they shared property, had widower’s rights etc.

captain blood in the rigging

The Pirate Code, as I imagine it, adds to this democracy: everyone agreed to the rules everyone was expected to follow. Aside from the code, you could do as you liked. If you didn’t like the rules you could find another ship. ching shihThe Code could also to an extent spread the pirates’ justice, such as it were: Ching Shih’s rules for her pirate fleet included treating fairly the villagers they dealed with, and rape of prisoners was punished by death.

As a result of this freedom from the landlubbers’ constricting norms and of making your own rules, comes another thing that’s attractive about pirates: the swagger. The devil-may-care, spit in the eye of fate, death-defiant grin. Potentially selfish and arrogant, sure, but also a choosing and an owning of your own life, a pride in having escaped from what would trod you down.

hook coat

Another freedom that cannot be ignored is the freedom of the sea. The endless horizon as the only limit. The sea can kill but is more often beautiful, and there is a sense of being part of powers greater than mankind when you manage to work together with winds and ocean. (Yes, romanticised. But this is, incidentally, why I’ll probably never like space pirates as much as sea pirates: being in a tin can with recycled air is not the same as being surrounded by seemingly boundless sea and sky.)

I am not deluding myself that every ship was a pirate utopia, that the majority were supportive, diverse safe havens like my own ship, or that of Broadside Comic, or the pirates of Key & Peeles excellent shanty – but all the groundwork has been laid, and the possibilities are what appeal and allure.

And finally, the Talk Like A Pirate Day thing. With the vocabulary of Robert Louis Stevenson and the pronunciation of Robert Newton, ”pirate speak” has become a thing which holds a community together: a common language. Saying ”Arrr, me heartie” can help identify those-who-don’t-get-it from those who might feel the same way you do about romanticised/historical/fictional/mythical pirates.

Now up that rigging, aloft! Break out those sails and watch them fill with the wind that’s carrying us all to freedom!

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Summer Pirate Reading 3

Two more pirate novels read this summer, both channelling Anne Bonny in different ways.

queen of swordsThe Queen of Swords by R. S. Belcher

The first two books of this trilogy, The Six-Gun Tarot and The Shotgun Arcana, are set in the Wild West town of Golgotha, a town rock deep in Lovecraftean horrors and very living myths from all round the world, with a cast diverse enough that HPL would have had a fit. This book follows one major cast member and one previously minor one: Maude Stapleton – respectable widow, mother, and unbeatable-unkillable warrior of the sisterhood of Lilith – and her great-great-something grandmother, Anne Bonny, queen of the pirates.

In 1870, Maude is back East, fighting for the legal right to her inheritance and the custody of her daughter, and also fighting horrible monsters from the dawn of time, as well as her own “sisters”. Anne historically correctly disappears from prison in 1721 and, obviously, goes on a quest to find Carcosa and its ancient, terrible secrets (and hopefully treasure beyond measure). She doesn’t get to do much pirating, mostly being on a trek through half of Africa, but she is such a quintessential pirate everything she does is pirating. At one point she even uses the phrase “fair winds and following seas” which is especially gratifying to me, since that is how I sign my books. I do miss Golgotha – we only get a few tantalising glimpses of it in letters from Mutt – and the whole blood-of-Lilith thing gets a bit much from time to time, but I very much enjoyed the book, especially Anne’s chapters.

magic of blood and seaMagic of Blood and Sea by Cassandra Rose Clarke

An omnibus of the duology The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish. Ananna of the Tanarau is the only child of a pirate captain, and is supposed to be married off to the son of another pirate captain for an alliance. She, however, says Fuck That Shit, I want to captain my own ship unfettered by a fool of a husband, and runs away. An assassin gets sent after her, things happen, and Ananna and the assassin, Naji, are bound together by a curse. Adventures, some predictable and some unpredictable, happen; romance, some predictable and some unpredictable, happens. If you want to picture Naji, Zuko in the later seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender goes a long way. If you want to hear Ananna’s voice in your head, think Clara Paget’s Anne Bonny in Black Sails, only more angry than sullen. A good solid YA read with satisfying pirate levels.

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Look, it’s my ship

This is a detail from a painting from 1697: Rough Sea With Ships by Ludolf Bakhuysen. The flags were probably originally the Dutch flag, but – time and the devil have done for the rest, so now it’s the pan pride flag! Thus, I’m deciding this is a painting of my own proud ship, The Incorrigible.

rough sea with ships

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Summer Pirate Reading 2: Pirate Utopias

Before the well-known pirates of the Caribbean, there were the ”Barbary Coast” (Maghreb coast) pirates of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes by Peter Lamborn Wilson tells a story of these Muslim pirates, and of the several thousand Europeans (primarily captives) who converted to Islam and joined them.

pirate utopieasWilson focuses especially on the European converts, ”Renegadoes”, hoping to find their motivations, their tale. He therefore focuses on the port of Salé in Morocco, which for several decades was independent, multicultural, and governed by pirates as a more or less functioning republic: possibly, one of the eponymous ”pirate utopias”.

I exaggerate when I say ”focuses”, however. This is not a history book, but rather a sprawling historical essay. There are few first-hand sources to draw from, and none from the Renegadoes themselves, and Wilson goes from there to (he freely admits) pure wishful thinking and several instances of ”we can’t prove this is how they thought, so it’s not impossible!” This is ameliorated by the fact that these flights of fancy are so hopeful. They might have converted because 16th century Islam was far more democratic, pleasure-loving and wisdom-seeking than 16th century Christendom (for men). They might have become pirates as an act of proto-Marxist social resistance. They might be the original fathers of modern democracy already.

There are a lot of sources very properly quoted and a very proper bibliography, and I do feel I know quite a lot more about Maghreb history and pirate history. The rest of the story is wildly tendentious and very romanticising, but most of it is quite seductive to those of us who romanticise pirates – though there are some problematic romanticisings in the book as well, let it not be unsaid. In conclusion, I do recommend to fellow amateur piratologists, but take it with bushels of salt, if also hope.

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Summer Pirate Reading

It wasn’t planned, but this seems to be a summer of pirate reading. (As every summer should be, but it’s not always supply meets demand.) In this post: John Silver x 2, and James Hook.

mary jones historiaI started out with Mary Jones historia by Elin Boardy, which has waited patiently for me for a couple of years, and I immediately regretted letting it wait, because I fell in love with it.
Before Treasure Island, Long John Silver ran a tavern in Bristol with his wife. This book is the story as told by their kitchen girl, Mary Jones, and additionally the story of Silver’s creole wife Dolores. There’s one timeline before the treasure hunt, and one starting with Silver’s death on Hispaniola, years later. It is the women’s story, but significantly, though Silver, alive or dead, is always a powerful presence, Mary and Dolores are not merely women the story happens to: the stories about their lives are the important ones. Women’s history (with a wlw love story) well balanced with metaliterary pirate history.

treasure islandThen I had to reread Stevenson’s original Treasure Island, since the first time was easily 30 years ago, and then probably abridged and certainly in Swedish. It was very fun to read literally all the pirate tropes and staples – eye patches, parrots, treasure maps, rum, ”By the powers”, Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest &c &c – from the very source that’s made them last to this day (though apparently we have Robert Newton to thank for ”Arrr, matey!”). And I think the pirates were crueller and more devious than in the version I read as a kid.

flintFunnily enough, while reading these I was also catching up on Black Sails, and I did think that Silver in both these books would have been played by Toby Stephens rather than by Luke Arnold – but then, quite a few years and hardships will have passed. Jessica Parker Kennedy would make a good Dolores.

After these and after some space opera (but Captain Uisine of Ann Leckie’s upcoming Provenance could easily be classified as a space pirate) –

lost boyLost Boy: The true story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry. ”Peter promised we would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies.” This is the story of Neverland as told by Jamie, the very first boy Peter fetched over from The Other Place, his right hand, his best friend … and the first boy who starts to question Peter. The island is really a very dangerous place to be, not only because of pirates and monsters, but because if Peter’s happy, everyone is happy, but if Peter’s not … It’s a gruesome tale, and probably not one for someone who idolises the character of Peter Pan.

Currently: Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes by Peter Lamborn Wilson, and season 4 of Black Sails.

queen of swordsUpcoming: The Queen of Swords by R. S. Belcher, and Magic of Blood and Sea by Cassandra Rose Clarke. And perhaps someone has more suggestions?

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My Worldcon schedule!

In just a few short weeks I’ll be setting sail for Helsinki (well, I’ll fly, but I wish I was sailing) and Worldcon 75! So far I’ll be on two panels (programme details are preliminary), one very me and one very nervous but for all the right and important reasons:

Wednesday, August 9, 21.00: Queer pirate smut fantasy !

The panelists discuss queer smut fantasy, its appeal to the readers and writers as well as how to add more pirates to it!

Saturday, August 12, 13.00: Feminist and Queer Readings of Fantasy Tropes – with me as moderator!

How do we read fantasy literature in terms of class, sexuality, disability and gender politics?

The programme over all looks entirely amazing and I’m going to need half a dozen time-turners to visit every item I want. Can you use several time-turners at once? I can’t use the TARDIS because I’d cross my own timeline – perhaps a DeLorean?

worldcon banner

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What do my heroes smell like?

Nope, not just sea water and rum. Tumblr stumbled me onto this generator bot: What does your romance hero smell like, and it’s accurate to the point where I’m sure it’s read my book. I hope you enjoyed it, generator bot, and that it made you want to be a pirate!

My lovely, sweet, happy Jean smells like ”peaches and literature”. Captain Crow smells like ”boots and control”.

Lucy Fire smells like ”goose down and thunder”. Mister Rotten smells like ”whisky and the desert”. Misha smells like ”peppercorns and authority”. Naughty Nathalee smells like ”boulders and efficiency”. Mister Herod smells like ”wolves and tension”. White Betty smells like ”cinnamon and damage”. Philippe Kingfisher smells like ”knives and Paris”. I am here for all of this.

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