Everybody has got an idea about what a pirate looks like, haven’t they?
He sails a pirate ship in the Caribbean in search for treasure.
He is rough, tough and swashbuckling with a long beard, a bandanna covering his hair, a patch over one eye, an earring in one ear, a parrot perched on one shoulder and shouts ‘Ahoy There’ when he sees land.
The modern idea of a pirate comes from two main sources.
The first is the book ‘Treasure Island’ written by Robert Louis Stevenson and published in 1884 featuring the pirate Long John Silver.
The second is the pirate character Jack Sparrow played by American actor Johnny Depp in the movie series ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.
Undoubtedly, pirates are seen as murderous and cruel bandits of the seven seas who plundered whatever treasure they could get their hands on and drank rum.
Their main target for treasure hunting was the gold and silver being brought back by Spanish galleons from the American colonies.
Pirates were previously merchants or privateers who fell out of work when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in Holland in 1713 and sea-faring nations agreed on peace rather than warfare.
This golden era of piracy was between 1660 and 1725. It came to an end when European countries took military steps to combat it in an organized way and safe havens such as Nassau in the Bahamas and Port Royal in Jamaica were no longer options.
By far the most famous pirate of all is Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach who used to put smoking fuses in his long black beard to scare his enemies. He was ferocious, fearsome and second to none. His reign of terror came to an end in 1718 when he was slain in battle by an expedition sent by the Governor of Virginia to hunt him down.
Nothing symbolizes the pirate more than the flag of the ‘Jolly Roger’ The emblem on the flag consisted of a skeleton and crossbones on a red background. ‘Jolly Roger’ translated from French means ‘Pretty Red’ and it acted as a licence for pirates to bloodlet and kill with no quarter given.
At the time, the term ‘Old Roger’ was used in old English to refer to ‘wandering vagabond and devil. Few will doubt that a pirate was not also seen as the Devil of the Sea.
Certainly, pirates are not the ‘Robin Hood and his Merry Men’ in a maritime age but they had a code which had to be strictly followed. Every seaman on board had to learn the ropes, tie the knot and walk the plank if necessary. All booty and loot from a successful treasure hunt was usually shared out equally among the crew.
Pirates were often at sea for many months and health conditions on board the ship were appalling. Many pirates suffered and died from scurvy which is a form of malnutrition, remedied easily with an intake of vitamin C. Of course, pirates did not understand that then.
When pirates came ashore, they were welcomed into gambling dens, liquor houses and brothels. Such consuming lifestyle meant their treasure did not last for long.
Pirates have long existed throughout history but the golden age of piracy at the beginning of the eighteenth century is the period which colors our idea of the pirate today.
The act of Piracy is a criminal act and is still carried out on the seven seas today in certain parts of the world. The film ‘Captain Phillips’, based on actual events, told the story of how pirates attacked an American ship off the coast of Somalia East Africa ten years ago.
It is interesting to reflect on how the film series ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ came about. First of all, there was a fun ride of the same name at the Disney theme park. Johnny Depp was then cast as Jack Sparrow in a script in which he portrayed himself as a blend of pirate and 1960s Rolling Stones rock star Keith Richard.
Piracy does not just happen on sea but in the air and on land as well. It is expanded to refer to anything reproduced illegally such as clothing merchandise, DVDs CDs and even perfume.
Pirates were and still are opportunists. In the golden age, their quest was gold and silver. A hundred years later, piracy responded to the demands of the slave trade and captured people to take to the colonial rulers.
In the twenty first century, terrorism and conflict fuel a new wave of piracy. Opportunity knocks for pirates as they take advantage of helpless refugees and economic migrants while illegally trading substances such as narcotics, weaponry and plutonium without any sense of morality or worry of the consequences.
Ironically, Disney is at the forefront of the fight to stop illegal traders ‘bootlegging’ copies of their own films. Despite all the talking, world Governments have yet to find a solution to one of the biggest problems on the planet.