The Incorrigible Harriet Dumont

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.

I 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.

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. The 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.

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!