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This is not a post I’d ever intended to write, believing–clearly foolishly–that publishing a book on pirate myths would once and for all send the the myth of Rackham’s pretended “skull and crossed swords” flag to perdition where it belongs. Or mostly so. How naive! It’s not just hope that springs eternal–so does myth flying in the face of contrary fact.
Although it’s well-documented that the “Rackham” flag–quite probably the most-depicted pirate flag in film–is a fanciful 20th century invention, Wikipedia via trolls and the ignorant continues to spew nonsense regarding both Rackham and this flag, the latest of which I learned, via a historical forum on Facebook, is that the two crossed swords might represent Anne Bonny & Mary Read. (For the record, all either of them did with a sword–quite possibly a machete, in fact, based on a witness statement–as pirates as far as we know is wave them at frightened merchant seamen who had already surrendered.) I’ll get to the ridiculous notion that the swords represent the women pirates in a moment.
Trying to correct Wikipedia is like playing Whack-a-Mole; it’s never-ending. Wikipedia is a prime resource for the lazy and the gullible, and trolls and others attempting to distort facts are well-aware of this. It’s one of the best places today to replace fact with nonsense, or worse. Don’t get me wrong: there are excellent articles on Wikipedia, including some on pirates and piracy. But to the uninitiated it can be hard to tell the difference between these and those that are little more than nonsense or outright propaganda. And even the best ones are often soon rewritten–and their important facts often disappear with the revision.
A few facts about Rackham & Co. before I describe the 20th century origin of the flag:
There is no record of any pirate flag John “Calico Jack” Rackham ever flew, if he even flew one. The only record of any flag he flew is of a white one, probably as a French flag for deception. This doesn’t mean he never flew a black flag, but if he did we have no idea what it looked like. None of the witnesses at his trial mention a black flag.
Again, as noted above, the black flag attributed to him, with skull (“death’s head”) and crossed cutlasses (or hangers or falchions) is a 20th century invention. More on this in a moment.
Rackham was a smalltime pirate who whose piracies prior to late 1720, if any (although likely; “Charles Johnson” claims he was once Charles Vane’s quartermaster), cannot be corroborated, and he would doubtless be entirely forgotten today were it not for two women who briefly sailed with him, Anne Bonny & Mary Read, and a publisher/editor, apparently Nathaniel Mist, who greatly “sexed up” their petty sea thieving. For most of his time in command, Rackham’s crew numbered only ten, including the two women and himself; he had added nine more drunk volunteers earlier the same day he was captured at sea. His piratical cruise lasted less than two months. It’s entirely possible that even his nickname, “Calico Jack,” is an invention.
At the time Rackham sailed with these women in his crew, he commanded a tiny 12-ton sloop named William he stole at anchor at New Providence (Johnson reimagined it as a swift 40 ton sloop), and was robbing small largely defenseless fishing and trading vessels in the waters off New Providence, Hispaniola, and Jamaica: seven small fishing boats, three merchant trading sloops, one small merchant schooner, and one small canoe. Most if not all of them were local “Mom & Pop” coastal seafarers, in other words. Hardly epic escapades. None of the vessels Rackham captured put up a fight.
Bonny & Read wore women’s clothing aboard, and dressed as men only the very few times they robbed small merchant traders and fishermen. In fact, there is only one confirmed attack in which they dressed as men, although it is probable they also did when capturing other vessels.
There was only one battle in which the two women pirates might actually have fought side by side–the battle in which they and Rackham were captured–and it was over in a moment, literally. There wasn’t much of a fight other than a single “great gun”–apparently in this case a swivel gun, not a carriage-mounted gun–and possibly a pistol fired by the pirates, and neither did any damage. There is no record of any other resistance by the two women pirates or any of the men. The pirates surrendered immediately after Jonathan Barnet’s sloop fired a broadside and volley of small arms. No pirates are recorded as having been wounded or killed in the brief action.
Further, most of what “Charles Johnson” wrote about Bonny & Read cannot be corroborated in spite of extensive research by numerous scholars and other researchers. Although much of what “Johnson” wrote about pirates in general is clearly factual and has been corroborated (pistols hanging from silk slings is an example of what might be invention proved to be a fact by the Whydah wreck, for example), he also embellished–lied–often, almost certainly to improve sales potential. His depiction of Bonny and Read as the only pirates willing to fight while the rest were drunk below deck, and Bonny’s scornful upbraiding of Rackham as having failed to fight like a man, were surely invented or grossly exaggerated by the author.
As for the modern origin of the flag, I’ll quote from the draft manuscript of The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths (I’m too lazy to pull up the published final):
“Many…pirate flags depicted today, such as those purportedly of Stede Bonnet, Calico Jack Rackam, and Blackbeard, are modern inventions without historical basis. The pirate flag we know incorrectly as Calico Jack’s, with crossed cutlasses under a skull, may well have been inspired by the flag used in the 1935 film version of Captain Blood, that of a pair of cutlass-holding arms crossed beneath a skull. And this film flag may have been inspired by the early flag of Bartholomew Roberts, that of a death’s head and an arm holding a cutlass, or by the Dutch red battle ensign with an arm holding a cutlass, or by the seventeenth century flag of Algiers (a notorious have of Barbary corsairs), or even by a Barbary corsair flag of no quarter.
“We simply do not know what the pirate flags of these three pirate captains really looked like…except that Blackbeard’s was a black flag with a “death’s head,” and not the commonly attributed black flag with horned skeleton [apparently a very early 20th century invention]. Similarly, the purported pirate flags of Christopher Moody and John Quelch are misattributions: Moody’s is actually the Barbary corsair flag of no quarter described later in this chapter, and Quelch never flew a pirate flag…
“The origin of our modern popular but fanciful renditions is a series of several books whose illustrations were passed from one to the next, with few or any changes. The earliest publication of this series discovered to date—and probably the origin [except for the fanciful Blackbeard horned devil flag which was published previously in The Mariner’s Mirror]—is Basil Lubbock’s The Blackwall Frigates, published in 1922. The book includes a plate of eight pirate flags (even though the Blackwall frigates only came into being a century after the Golden Age of Piracy expired, but pirate flags sell books), three of which are misattributions, although otherwise mostly accurate, and one is a fanciful flag taken from an illustration in Charles Johnson’s pirate chronicle. [Rackham’s purported flag is not among them.]
“Most of these flags, with names now added, were reproduced in Charles Grey’s Pirates of the Eastern Seas. Patrick Pringle’s Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy, published two decades later, includes nine pirate flags, all reproduced exactly from Grey’s book. In 1959, Hans Leip’s Bordbuch des Satans (Log of the Satans) includes some very similar flags clearly inspired by Lubbock, Grey, and Pringle, although two have been miscaptioned. Leip also adds three new flags, all imaginary: those of Calico Jack Rackam, Stede Bonnet, and Henry Every [“Long Ben”]. [Every’s flag includes a skull with a bandana and earring, a clear giveaway that it’s an invention.]
“Most of Leip’s pirate flags were reproduced exactly in 1961 in Pirates of the Spanish Main, part of the American Heritage Junior Library, with credit to Leip’s book. Pirates of the Spanish Main became a classic source of historical pirate lore—and mythical pirate flags—to literally thousands of young readers who imagined themselves pirates, not to mention to publishers of subsequent books on piracy. Similarly identified flags, some accurate, some, like those in the other books, not, were published in 1978 in Pirates, a title in the popular Time-Life “The Seafarers” series [including the “Calico Jack” flag with crossed swords]. It is no surprise that inaccurate images of pirate flags would appear in pirate books: for many publishers, the main purpose of images in a book is to get readers to buy it. The image of the “Jolly Roger,” whether accurate or not, is the perfect lure.”
The two most similar written descriptions of historical black pirate flags circa 1715 to 1730 to Rackam’s purported flag are “this flag was a black cloth in the middle of which was depicted a cadaver [skeleton] and scattered bones and crossed sabers” (I’ve translated this from French), and “The Ship hoisted a Black Flagg at the Main-Top-Mast-Head, with Deaths Head and a Cutlass in it…” Neither were hoisted by Rackham. The former is the only reference I’ve found to crossed swords among the many eyewitness descriptions of pirate flags.
If there were an early 18th century origin to the Rackham flag, we can blame Daniel Defoe’s Captain Singleton, a pirate novel published in 1720: Captain Bob [Singleton] flew “a black flag, with two cross daggers in it.” We cannot be certain this is the ultimate origin, for the idea of crossed swords is quite common throughout history.
Soon after I posted this blog, my friend Antón Viejo Alonso mentioned to me that conquistador, traitor, sociopath, and murderer Lope de Aguirre is said to have had three identical flags made in 1561, each with a black field with red crossed swords, the colors representing the blood he shed and the “lamentations and mourning” he caused. Whether this may have influenced Leip’s illustrator is unknown. Many flag designs appear to be parallel developments independent of previous or current similar flags, and not descendant, although clearly many also fall into the latter category. Black flags, and mortuary symbols on flags, have been around since antiquity, and have been used on land as well as sea. Aguirre’s flags were described by Friar Pedro Simón (1574 – circa 1628). The English translation of his work is entitled The Expedition of Pedro de Ursúa & Lope de Aguirre in Search of El Dorado and Omagua in 1560-1 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1861). A modern reprint is also available.
The modern “Calico Jack” flag of skull and crossed swords is a popular one in pirate films and among pirate fans. I myself own versions in both black and red, but I don’t represent them to be authentic. It’s an easy flag to imagine, substituting crossbones for crossed swords. I can even imagine myself creating it today or three centuries ago, or even today, given my interest in piracy and swordplay.
The “Calico Jack” flag has been used in several films, and a possible, even likely inspiration for its use in pirate movies, including the Disney franchise, is the flag flown aboard the pirate ship Wicked Wench in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at the Disneyland theme park. In fact, the design is also used early on in the ride in the form of a talking skull, with crossed cutlasses beneath it, providing safety and other information to visitors.
Very likely, the ride’s designers selected the design from the book The Pirates of the Spanish Main (1961) discussed above, although it is possible the Captain Blood film flag was also part of the inspiration. In fact, the entire ship-attacking-fort scene in the attraction was copied from the similar scene in the film. Notably, the attacking Spanish ship in the novel the film was based upon is described as red-sided, just as is the Wicked Wench in the attraction. (Carrying the hypothesis further, is the name Wicked Wench a bit of a joke on the Arabella–the name of Captain Blood’s ship–and the very proper English lady whose name it was? This would be in keeping with the piratical sense of humor of the attraction’s designers.)
All of this suggests that the Wicked Wench was the first fictional, and for that matter, non-fictional as well, ship to fly the “Calico Jack” Jolly Roger–although arguably the Arabella of the film Captain Blood did so in its original form. It’s entirely possible therefore that all subsequent film pirate ships flying the flag may have been inspired in part by the flag flown by the Wicked Wench, which was in turn inspired by the book The Pirates of the Spanish Main, and ultimately by the film.
(Historical note: buccaneer ships, one of which the Wicked Wench was originally depicted as, rather than as the pirate ship which would become the Black Pearl, did not fly black flags with skull and bones–only those of later pirates did.)
In Swashbuckler (1976), a version of the flag with ensanguined cutlasses is shown flying at the masthead of the Blarney Cock in the film, and flying in a odd arrangement at its stern in the movie poster and other marketing materials. The film stars Robert Shaw, Genevieve Bujold, James Earl Jones, Peter Boyle, Beau Bridges, Geoffrey Holder, Avery Schreiber, and, in an early role, Angelica Huston:
Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red (Walter Matthau) flew a version in Pirates! (1986) aboard the captured Spanish galleon Neptune:
Morgan Adams flew it aboard the Morning Star in Cutthroat Island (1995); “Hoist the colors!” she orders at the beginning of the battle with Dog Brown’s Reaper. The flag flown from the Morning Star was slightly modified from the original 20th century illustration, although the popular “original” was used on posters and other promotional materials. The film, although it bombed at the box office (odd that a blockbuster is a film that makes lots of money, yet a blockbuster is also a very large bomb…), has a great soundtrack, plenty of comic book pirate action, and Geena Davis did a better job portraying a pirate captain than many men have in films.
It was flown aboard the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) at the beginning of the film when Elizabeth Swann imagines she sees the ship in the distance as she holds up a cursed Aztec coin, probably because this was the flag originally flown aboard the Wicked Wench, which was via a certain revisionism converted from a buccaneer ship to the former name of the Black Pearl.
It was flown again aboard the Black Pearl it in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) during the “Hoist the colors!” scene–again, a badass female pirate gives the order–and in the engagement following:
The “Calico Jack” skull and crossed swords also appears in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) on the main-topsail of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, now commanded by Capt. Barbossa. The sails are of wine red or burgundy velvet with yellow-gold tassels, probably an homage to or inspired by the reputed sails of some the wealthiest Cilician pirates in antiquity. Some even captured Julius Caesar, who, after ransoming himself, had the pirates captured and put to death.
That said, author George MacDonald Fraser in his comic novel The Pyrates (1984 US edition) described the sails of the Grenouille Frénétique (the Frantic Frog), commanded by Happy Dan Pew, as having “velvet sails…fringed with silk tassels in frightful taste…” In fact, Barbossa’s “bon vivant and gourmet” image in Dead Men Tell No Tales might well have been inspired by Fraser’s description of Happy Dan Pew.
The iconic flag was also used in Peter Pan (2003) as both a traditional Jolly Roger and as a sail decoration, notwithstanding that sail decoration, with the exception of an occasional Spanish fishing vessel and similar, had for more than half a century been abandoned by the late 17th and early 18th centuries which provided the piratical source material for Mr. Barrie and Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy if you prefer).
The “Calico Jack” flag is depicted also in the Starz Black Sails series at the very end of the final season. I was the historical consultant for all four seasons, and for reasons of both history and legal liability I traced the origin of the purported Calico Jack flag for the producers. The writers wanted to use the flag because it was already popularly attributed to Rackham, the set designers wanted something that looked authentic, and the lawyers wanted to be sure there was no copyright or trademark infringement.
A version was used in Lego Scooby-Doo! Blowout Beach Bash (Warner Bros., 2017). Scooby-Doo has always been fond of pirates, or at least ghost pirates and fake pirates…
Such an icon is the flag that it shows up in modified but immediately recognizable form, here in the BBC’s Doctor Who episode, “Legend of the Sea Devils” (2022):
Navy SEALs sometimes wear a “Calico Jack” flag patch on their field uniforms. Often the flag’s skull has an eye patch, a variant based most probably on choice of vendor. If my memory is correct–for the record, I’m a former Navy SEAL–its use began in the very late 80s when “real world” VBSS operations (board and search operations) were put to use. I might be mistaken, however. Pirate flag patches weren’t yet a fad in the Teams I served in (ST-3, SDVT-1) in the 80s. Certainly the “Calico Jack” patch remains in use today by Navy SEALs. Luminox, maker of a watch used by Navy SEALs, even has, or had, a special limited edition (375 watches only, I think) Navy SEAL watch with a Rackam skull and crossed swords on its face, although notably not the most common design of the flag, at least on one version. (See below, I couldn’t get captions to work on the tiled images.) Other military special operations units have been spotted wearing the flag patch, or one similar, too.
[Self-Promotion Alert!] The “Calico Jack” flag is also on the cover of The Golden Age of Piracy. Again for the record, the publisher chose the cover. I had no real input, although I’ve no problem with it. It certainly stands out and gets attention, and that’s what dust jackets are supposed to do. It slipped my mind when I first drafted this blog post that the Polish edition also uses the “Calico Jack” flag. (Sorry, Maciej Studencki, for missing this the first time around!)
If you’re looking for more details on pirate flags–accurate details, that is–you can read the book above or Ed Fox’s Jolly Rogers, the True History of Pirate Flags (author given as E. T. Fox). Or better yet, both. 🙂
If you’re looking to fly the flag, try eBay, lots of vendors carry it. It’s also available in red, and in design variations as well. There’s also a “weathered” version in red, but I’ve only seen it available so far at one ebay vendor and a few non-eBay vendors. Plus there are patches, stickers, T-shirts, rings, cufflinks, and more. If you want to fly the flag regularly, plan to pay a little more for sturdier nylon and construction; in particular, look for fabric that’s fade-resistant (all flags fade eventually). If you want to make your own authentically, you’ll need wool bunting or, in a pinch, silk.
When buying, remember, black means “good quarter if you surrender now,” which in practice means “surrender now and we might not murder, torture, or abuse you much,” and red means “no quarter, we’re going to kill you all.” Perhaps the best description of the meaning of the red flag of no quarter comes not from my books, or any other book on piracy, but from Les Aventures de Tintin: Le Secret de la Licorne (Casterman, 1946; reprints in many languages; in English, The Secret of the Unicorn). Enjoy! Don’t read French? “Tonnerre de tonnerre de Brest!” It’s never too late to start learning another language! Or, buy the English version. It’s a fun read, and there’s a sequel too.
Copyright Benerson Little 2021-2022. First posted June 18, 2021. Last updated February 5, 2023.
A brief place-holder blog post (and at the bottom a not quite shameless plug for Blood & Plunder by Firelock Games) while I finish several more challenging posts in the queue.
Before the advent of CGI, many swashbuckler films used models of ship and shore, along with full-size ships built on sound stages, to both recreate environments no longer available and also to save money. To some degree the early miniatures may seem quaint today, as compared to CGI, although in my opinion bad CGI is worse–more jarring to the eye–by far than an obvious model.
These old sets and scenes evoke nostalgia for the entire spectacle of old Hollywood swashbucklers: the cinemas with their great screens and clicking film projectors, the lasting impressions left by thundering broadsides and clashing swords, and above all the image of pirate ships in tropical waters.
For fun, here are a few.
Above, the Albatross, commanded by Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) arrives in a secluded cove on the Isthmus of Panama in order to raid the silver trains. The film scenes set in the Old World are in black and white, while those in the Americas are in sepia.
Only the film title is actually based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, which tells the story of an English gentleman who turns Barbary corsair in an act of revenge. The 1940 film is a not even thinly-veiled wartime propaganda piece, albeit an enjoyable one. English sea dogs are renamed in the scrip as patriotic sea hawks suppressed by treasonous machinations until the doughty hero (Errol Flynn) reveals the treachery and England arms the sea hawks against
Nazi Germany Imperial Spain. For more information try The Sea Hawk, edited by Rudy Behlmer. It’s a fun read for anyone interested in the script and the film’s history.
Next, we have the models of Port Royal and the French flagship used in the finale. This image is not of an actual scene from the 1935 Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone, but of the set prior to shooting.
Of course, the real Port Royal looked nothing like this. It was actually crammed with English-style brick buildings of two and even three floors, unlike this Southern California Spanish colonial revival-influenced town. But it’s sets like these in Hollywood swashbucklers that have influenced our notions of what the seventeenth century Caribbean looked like. In fact, the region at the time had a wide variety or environments and architectures.
Above we have the battle in Port Royal harbor during the finale of Captain Blood: the Arabella on the left versus the French flagship on the right. N. B. Royal sails (the smallest on the ship on the right, the fourth sail from the bottom) were not used in this era. Their use here is an anachronism. In fact, only exceedingly rarely was the topgallant sail (the third sail from the bottom, used on “tall ships” on the fore and main masts) seen on the mizzenmast or sprit-mast on the bowsprit. I know of only two seventeenth century instances, each noted as being highly unusual. One was Kidd’s Adventure Galley in the very late seventeenth century, the other was a Spanish ship in 1673.
A pirate ship under full sail in action against ships at anchor and shore targets during the finale of The Black Swan starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara. The film is based on the somewhat similar novel by Rafael Sabatini.
A pirate ship sailing into Cartagena de Indias under the guns of a castle in The Spanish Main starring Maureen O’Hara and Paul Henreid.
Over-large pirate ship and treasure ship of the “Great Mogul” in Against All Flags. The ships are engaged under full sail, a practice generally not seen in reality except in the case of a running fight, but quite common in Hollywood because it looks good. Here, both ships would have stripped to “fighting sail” for a variety of reasons, including simplified ship-handling in action. The film stars Errol Flynn, as Brian Hawke, in one of his last swashbucklers (followed finally by The Master of Ballantrae in 1953 and Crossed Swords in 1954). It also stars Maureen O’Hara wielding a sword as Prudence ‘Spitfire’ Stevens, something I always enjoy.
And now, a not quite shameless plug for Firelock Games’s Blood & Plunder tabletop war game of piracy and much, much more–one need not take the side of pirates to play. A full spectrum of peoples and forces are available.
Full disclosure: I’m the game’s historical consultant, and I thought it would be fun to compare the Blood & Plunder models to the film models above.
So, above and coming soon: a small Spanish galleon. Historically accurate, the model also evokes the best of old Hollywood swashbucklers.
A small Spanish frigate engaged with a French brigantine.
Spanish and French brigantines engaged near shore. Which is the pirate? (Answer: either could be!)
A small fluyt (in English a pink, in French a flibot, in Spanish an urqueta, on the left; a galleon at center; a brigantine on the right.
Close up action!
Brigantine crewed by, I believe, French flibustiers.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First posted April 16, 2018.
A few quick notes on the use of the word pirate when the term privateer is appropriate.
It’s a minor issue, I know, this particular instance of the practice known today as “click-bait.” The practice has been around a long time, not only in political rhetoric but in marketing as well. But it has grown much worse over the past decade, and, given the state of affairs today in regard to the truth, in which outright lies often pass with too little outcry, and, almost as bad, in which mere unfounded opinion is often given equal time with solid expertise, any egregious usurpation of fact or meaning should be shunned–even in such a trivial-seeming matter of pirate versus privateer.
I am not entirely innocent of the charge myself, but in my defense it’s not been an egregious offense, and one generally committed by my publishers primarily because the word pirate is so marketable, not to mention that publishers invariably retain the right to change or even outright reject the author’s title.
For example, The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques is actually about the tactics of pirates, privateers, and commerce-raiding men-of-war. But pirate is the word used in the subtitle, a decision made by my publisher. Likewise The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main 1674-1688: buccaneers were often pirates, but also often legitimate privateers as well as what might best be termed “quasi-privateers” or “quasi-pirates” operating without a legitimate commission but with a “wink and a nod” from their respective governments. Pirate Hunting: The Fight Against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders From Antiquity to the Present also discusses privateers, commerce raiders, and even early submarines. The Golden Age of Piracy is the most accurate, but, as noted already, even buccaneers were often privateers.
Strictly speaking, piracy is armed robbery on the open seas. In the past, it was armed robbery pretty much anywhere there was ocean or land touching the ocean, at least if the thieves came by sea. Not just a crime, but a hanging crime, in other words.
Privateering, however, derives from private man-of-war, a vessel commissioned by a legitimate state to attack enemy shipping and profit from it. Lawful plundering, in other words, an entirely legal practice. A privateer might be imprisoned by the enemy if captured, but he wouldn’t be tried and hanged for piracy.
I’ve made plain in print many times that there is plenty of overlap among the various sorts of sea rover, that is, among pirates, privateers, and commerce-raiding men-of-war. That said, in most cases during the Golden Age of Piracy (circa 1655 to 1725) and afterward, the overlapping is much less common. In particular, the distinction is readily apparent everywhere except in the case of Caribbean buccaneers during the Golden Age (and strictly speaking, the only period in which true buccaneers existed).
In other words, in the majority of cases the distinction between pirate and privateer is obvious. Privateers in no ways considered themselves to be pirates, nor did anyone else except in a figurative sense by some of their their victims. Only if a privateer had overstepped his lawful authority and entered the realm of piracy might he be considered a pirate. Privateers did not claim to be pirates. Rather, they rejected the term outright. You’d get into a fight if you called a privateer a pirate, quite possibly a fatal one in the form of a duel.
So how does the use of the word pirate in the title of my books, and in similar books, differ from books and articles in which pirate is used as a term for privateer? Because my books and others like them are largely about piracy. Were they largely about privateering, the word privateering, not piracy, would appear in the titles.
Pirate and piracy have become romantic words, so it’s easy to see why they’re used whenever possible, however tenuous the connection to the subject. They’re therefore commonly used as umbrella terms for anything resembling plundering at sea, lawful or not. And they’re used in spite of the reality of piracy being anything but romantic to the usually entirely innocent victims: common seamen, coastal inhabitants, free people of color taken and sold as slaves by pirates, not to mention slaves captured by pirates and sold elsewhere, often away from their families.
In fact, it should be privateering and pirate hunting that convey the most romance, with piracy conveying revulsion, as it did in the past.
But it’s the caricature that matters: the word pirate conveys the image that draws the eye, and the description the ear.
Part of the problem with the lure of the word is that piracy has been re-interpreted as a form of rebellion against injustice. Pirates, we are told by too many scholars both amateur and professional, were rebels against empire, against unfair corporate practices, even–falsely–rebels against slavery. They are mostly the “good guys.” We are told that they may even have helped inspire the American Revolution and that they even threatened the existence of the English and other empires. Although there are occasional fragments of related truth in these claims, none of them are profoundly true or even slightly more than less true. They are not even as true as the suggestion that privateers were a form of pirates.
The fact is, we’re attracted to pirates so we sanitize them, we invent reasons, and let others invent reasons, why they weren’t as bad as they were. We make them palatable.
But to reemphasize, pirates were sea criminals, and in no way did their victims view them as heroes. Simply reading through a list of pirate cruelties and other depredations should be enough to correct the false image–but seldom does it. Privateers, although some did break the law at times, were by comparison Boy Scouts.
There are periods in history in which some groups of commissioned privateers behaved piratically: Spanish Caribbean privateers in the Golden Age, French and English buccaneers in the Golden Age, Colombian privateers during the South American wars of revolution (and likewise Spanish men-of-war fighting Colombian privateers), for example. But they are in the minority as compared to the enormous number of commissioned privateers, and when privateers did commit piratical acts, they were considered to be pirates. However, the majority of privateers behaved lawfully or largely lawfully, restricting their attacks to enemy shipping as permitted by law. The majority of privateers should never be referred to as pirates, nor should the term pirate be a catch-all for any sea rover, legitimate or other.
The inspiration for this post–not that it hasn’t always been on my mind in a small, usually resigned, way–was a recent NPR “All Things Considered” segment: How Pirates Of The Caribbean Hijacked America’s Metric System. The segment does note that:
“And you know who was lurking in Caribbean waters in the late 1700s? Pirates. ‘These pirates were British privateers, to be exact,’ says Martin. ‘They were basically water-borne criminals tacitly supported by the British government, and they were tasked with harassing enemy shipping.'”
But the privateers were not tacitly supported by the British government, that is, with implied consent. Rather, they were officially supported, they had explicit consent. They were not pirates, notwithstanding some critics who considered that privateering was in some ways piracy legitimized.
Bad history and click-bait are a common combination these days, although the example above is not by far one of the many egregious examples. Still, it is hard to imagine that the word pirate was used for any reason other than to draw the reader or listener in. Worse, the phrase used in the title is “Pirates of the Caribbean,” conjuring up images of romantic buccaneers, not to mention fantasy pirates like Jack Sparrow.
The correct title of the NPR segment should have been “How Privateers Hijacked America’s Metric System.” But this has much less cachet, and is far less likely to get someone to click on the published article and read it, or tune in later to listen. The title is actually a bit doubly misleading: did the capture of a metric weight really keep the new US from considering the metric system? Or was it, as the segment does note it might have been, just a missed opportunity?
I emailed All Things Considered on this minor matter several days ago. I haven’t heard back, even though I noted my several works on the subject of piracy and privateering. Perhaps the editors found the word click-bait offensive, or the fact that I pointed out that pretty much the same article ran in The Washington Post this past September on Talk Like a Pirate Day.
I’m not singling out NPR, this is just the most recent example I have at hand. I like NPR and have been a listener off and on for decades (mostly depending on how often I’m in my Jeep). But facts are facts, and when they’re imposters it doesn’t matter who the offender is–the offense needs to be pointed out.
The difference might be a non-issue with an educated audience, one that understands the difference between pirate and privateer. But today too many people are getting their education, such as it is, from click-bait articles on social media–articles that are ultimately misleading.
While this may seem to be nothing more than quibbling, it remains vital for the sake of truth to get facts straight. And this includes word definitions because they’re the primary means of conveying factual meaning, aka facts. We’re overwhelmed today not only with obvious liars and subtle liars, but with a large segment of society who excuse loose meaning and interpretation as a means of getting attention. It’s not only ideologues and Mammon’s imps who play fast and loose with the truth anymore, but every know-nothing and know-a-little know-it-all considers his or her wrong-headed opinion to be equal to that of the knowledgeable, facts be damned. And the disease is spreading to mainstream educated society: the Internet is making everyone lazy. How to stop this? By using facts to point out errors, misconceptions, and outright falsehoods.
For the privateer, definitions and facts made all the difference: it’s what kept him from being hanged as a pirate.
Copyright Benerson Little, January, 2018. First posted January 2, 2018.