To err is human, to arr is pirate
Published on 19th September 2014
Ok, I stole that heading, but in a blog about piracy, a bit of thieving is only to be expected. Of course, the romance of piracy is very different from the reality, which usually meant an outlaw life of hardship and brutality – and still does; nevertheless the romantic view lives on, and is especially celebrated every year on September 19: International Talk Like A Pirate Day. This is a convention that’s been going on for a good few years now, and has a substantial following, replete with costumes, grog, and pretty much every cliché going. Say arr.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
The original and best pirate story, and the source of most of the clichés we have today: peglegs, parrots, and yo-ho-ho. Jim Hawkings finds himself aboard the Hispaniola with a crew of murderous pirates bound for an island holding buried treasure. Adventure abounds, and Jim finds himself amidst cut-throats in a quest for treasure, learning quite a few lessons along the way about greed, entitlement, and lust for life.
Irish Pirates and Privateers by Michael J. Carroll looks at Irish pirate activity from the Spanish Main to Bantry Bay. Activity in Irish waters flourished for a time between around 1603 to 1625, aided and abetted by the English Admiralty which was supposed to repress it, but actually benefitted from the trade because it kept 50% of every seizure. Eventually the trade moved to the more profitable Caribbean waters, and the Irishmen went with it. This book includes little biographies on the many Irishmen – and a surprising number of women – in the records, such as the Cullen Brothers from Cork, ‘Redlegs’, and Darby Mullins.
Granuaile: The Life of Grace O'Malley. Granuaile lived in radically changing times, and stood on the cusp of two worlds: the old Gaelic life of tribalism was dying out, and Ireland was being forced to catch up with England and with renaissance Europe. Granuaile took full advantage of the flux , taking the law into her own hands, and seizing for herself a life of adventure and chaos. While it has to be said that this book concentrates more on life ashore than at sea, providing a huge amount of background detail on the customs and lifestyle of Gaelic Ireland, if ever anyone abided by the pirate maxim ‘No prey, no pay’, it was Grace.
Pirates of Barbary. This book examines the background of piracy: how James I wanted peace with Spain and so withdrew the sanctions enjoyed in the Elizabethan age, and also reduced the status of the Navy, making it no longer a viable career option. Suddenly sailors were disempowered and disenchanted, and decided to forge their own careers. The Barbary Coast of North Africa was where piracy flourished in the 1600s, as these European sailors clashed with Turkish corsairs, looking to fill a thriving slave market (including a raid on Baltimore). The last great corsair was killed in 1815 by a US ship, spelling the end of an era.
The Pirate Hunter. The story of Captain Kidd, ostensibly a pirate hunter, but accused of piracy himself. Was he or wasn’t he? This book says not. Along the way, it debunks a lot of our cherished pirate myths: they were democratic; they never flew the skull and crossbones, but they did often fly a blood-red flag known as the ‘Jolie Rouge’. On the other hand, they did love fancy clothes and wore the most outlandish costumes, thumbing their noses at the Sumptuary Laws which were still in place; they were ‘mostly young, foul-mouthed men on stolen ships on a constant search for liquor, money, and women’. Celtic tiger, anyone?
Pirates of the Caribbean (DVD)
Johnny Depp channels Captain Blackbeard via Keith Richards. This is the romantic side of piracy with no apologies. Pure escapism and very good fun. Pretty much what ‘National talk like a pirate day’ is all about. Lots of derring-do, ingenious escapes, and the whole ‘live fast, die young’ ethos.
Treasure Island - the drama (DVD)
A two-part production of Stevenson’s tale. They’re all here: Jim, Silver, Billy Bones, Ben Gunn, and a realistically multi-national crew. It does take the odd liberty with the plot but mostly stays true. It’s rollicking, fast-paced, but not romantic, and it does show what a murderous, dirty world this was – very much a man’s world, which makes you wonder how any of the female pirates could cope in it. Still, makes me want to set sail and head for the Spice Islands. Arrrrr!