Is Our Depiction of Pirate History Accurate?


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

Margarette Lincoln argues in her book, British Pirates and Society, 1680-1730, that, “The history of piracy is as much about rhetoric as it is about actual events.” That is, piracy is created as much by how it is talked about as it is by the acts itself. And the ways piracy has been talked about in popular culture are most definitely confusing.

Vintage pirate stuff
What we know of the history of piracy is confused with what people talk about when they discuss the issue. (Image: Aris-Tect Group/Shutterstock)

So, What Do We Know about Pirates?

Pirates are freedom fighters or murderous villains, democratic or out for themselves, patriotic at heart or utterly nationless. Pirates are not privateers, except that if you try to hold that line in any extensive account of piracy, you end up tied in knots over the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy or No true Scott’s privateer fallacy pretty quickly. True Scotsman, John Paul Jones was a privateer or pirate, depending on who you ask. 

As we’ve seen, pirates are freedom fighters or murderous villains, democratic or out for themselves, patriotic at heart or utterly nationless. Pirates are not privateers, except that if you try to hold that line in any extensive account of piracy, you end up tied in knots over the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy, or No true Scott’s privateer fallacy pretty quickly. (As a reminder, True Scotsman, John Paul, Jones was a privateer or pirate, depending on who you ask.)

A pirate is a terrifying person to encounter or a really cute Halloween costume for a baby. Historians argue about what pirates really are, as do governments. Ordinary people may be excused for feeling confused.

People have always found pirates interesting, but it’s a relatively modern development that we have pirates with us from our childhoods. Encountering them in most cases, in fable and fiction, movies and games, long before learning the real history. 

The first pirate a child is likely to see now is either animated or in a picture book or, as any barefoot parent can tell you, a LEGO pirate. And these pirates exhibit all the traits we’ve come to expect; white skin, a fancy coat, an eye patch or a missing limb, a parrot, a cutlass or two, a black flag, a map to buried treasure.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Pirates in Literature

What we think is a pirate is what 19th century fiction writers imagined about 18th century pirates. But, they are not very much like real pirates. Instead, they’re distant cousins of the historical thing, once or several times removed by being filtered through 19th century popular culture. There have been plays and poems and ballads featuring pirates for a very long time. Contemporary American and British cultures are culturally still very much influenced by the voices that were dominant in the 19th century.

The 19th century witnessed the rehabilitation of the popular culture pirate into a sentimental hero. In 1814, the conservative editor of the British Review, William Roberts, represented one powerful facet of British society when he called out pirate fiction for glorifying moral degeneracy, blaming Kant and Goethe and the Romantics:

It is not, we believe, until within these last 40 or 50 years that the pirate, the robber, and the man of blood, have shown themselves in our poems and novels to be tender lovers, generous friends, and persons altogether of the highest sentimental cast. These sturdy sentimentalists, these elegant outlaws, these stately despises of form are a class of entities that owe their existence principally to the ideal in morals so well known to the German philosophers.

Rebranding Pirates

Pirates in the 18th century could be rebellious, compelling swashbucklers. But in the next century, at least some of them became sensitive. And it was also primarily in the 19th century that pirates were repackaged from fare for adults, trial proceedings, last words and confessions, histories, and serious dramas into children’s fare. 

The further away pirates drifted from being actual threats to European shipping, the more they became fair game for, well, different kinds of fantasy. Notably well, the first half of the 19th century witnessed the apex of abolitionist sentiment and debate in English literature, the pirate fiction popularized in this period showed no remarkable engagement with that topic.

Illustration of Blackbeard with his sword standing on an island
Blackbeard’s character in John Cartwright Cross’s play wasn’t based on the real history of piracy. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Different Takes on the History of Piracy

As the war with France created a market for privateers and smugglers, pirates became objects of celebration on the British stage. John Cartwright Cross’s melodrama Blackbeard or the Captive Princess, first performed in 1798 and perennially popular for at least half a century afterward, was what we might today call a crossover hit. This is just the conclusion of the madcap plot:

Blackbeard endeavors, by every art, to seduce Ismene, [who is the captive princess] but is interrupted by the apparition of his murdered wife. He views her with horror but has scarce time to reflect when he learns his ship is about to be boarded by the British Captain …The British Captain, after an obstinate engagement, plunges the piratical monster into the sea. [The princess and her lover are reunited, and] British valor and humanity are conspicuously triumphant.

This play, a song and dance extravaganza complete with a sea battle and scantily clad dancing women, was performed initially at the Royal Circus Theatre in Lambeth, where its audience would likely have included many sailors and dock workers, but it went on to find audiences in many other theaters.

In most places, like Blackbeard, the pirate is a fearsome and compelling character, yet not really the hero: Robert Newton or Tim Curry, not Douglas Fairbanks. There were productions taking the same kind of approach about Francis Drake, William Kidd, and Jean-David Nau, to name a few. The vogue for the pirate as a steamy, tragic hero appeared at about the same time.

Common Questions about Our Depiction of the History of Piracy

Q: What image do we have of pirates today?

Today, children get acquainted with pirate fiction and sometimes even a fictional account of the history of piracy from a young age. They experience pirate fiction through LEGO, comic books, movies, plays, etc.

Q: How did 19th-century literature affect our contemporary image of pirates?

The fiction writers of the 19th century passed a filtered image of the history of piracy to us. The 19th century effectively rehabilitated the pirate figure into a hero people would care for.

Q: What is the conclusion of the Blackbeard play written by John Cartwright Cross?

After Blackbeard successfully seduces the captive princess, he sees his murdered wife. Immediately, his ship is attacked by the British captain, who sends Blackbeard into the depths of the sea. Blackbeard is an example of fiction writers taking the history of piracy into their own hands.

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