Pirates and Piracy: Then Versus Now


By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University

The theater historian Joseph Roach wrote an important study called ‘It’, theorizing about what he termed abnormally interesting people. Unsurprisingly, its final chapter includes many pirates. They are abnormally interesting, but there’s also something odd about the way they are interesting, which can far exceed their actual historical moments.

Pirate skull alongside a treasure chest
From swashbuckling anti-heores and hostile villains to modern-day patriots, the image of pirates has evoloved over the years. (Image: Waewkid/Shutterstock)

Piracy: A Cultural Force

Pirates certainly refuse to be consigned to the realm of finished history. Not only does real piracy persist but piracy as fiction, and even as a metaphor remains a powerful and omnipresent cultural force.

And it’s worth noticing that the lion’s share of modern piracy tales and images like those of the 19th and 20th centuries still assume that the golden age stereotypes are synonymous with piracy. To us, for most intents and purposes, piracy is the pirates of the Caribbean.

The modern Western culture has largely embraced the post-19th century idea of pirates as romantic, freedom-loving anti-heroes as opposed to the 18th-century understanding that they were lower-status villains of all nations or the early modern tendency to see higher-ranking pirates as patriots.

A good recent example of this tendency is the cable drama Black Sails, whose premises are a kind of freewheeling but far grittier prequel to the events of Treasure Island.

Discourses around ‘Pirates’

The opening of Black Sails begins with the title card that invokes the old hostis discourse reading.

In 1715 West Indies, the Pirates of New Providence Island threatened maritime trade in the region. The laws of every civilized nation declare them hostis humani generis, enemies of all mankind. In response, the pirates adhere to a doctrine of their own war against the world.

Calling pirates the enemy of humankind is done more often to set a disciplinary tone or call up a swashbuckling mood than it is to give an audience really vital legal information.

Matthew Tindal, a controversial 17th century religious thinker who was also deputy judge advocate of the fleet quoted in 1694, “Hostis humani generis is neither a definition, nor as much a description of a pirate, but rhetorical invective to show the odiousness of that crime.”

A more modern theorist of piracy, Jody Greene calls “hostis humani generis, an epithet universally acknowledged to be at once semantically void and uniquely legally productive.” The term is useful, but not in a candid way. The vocabulary around piracy is a tricky thing.

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

Meaning and Implication of ‘Piracy’

Both pirates and piracy themselves are difficult terms to pin down. On the one hand, piracy is treated as a very special and particular crime, one that abjures national belonging and positions the perpetrators against all the world outside their floating community.

On the other hand, piracy is sometimes used very loosely and often just refers to some sort of theft, especially if the theft is positioned as galling or shocking, or even just not easily fit in other categories.

Metaphorical Usage of ‘Piracy’

In April of 2020, shortly after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Berlin’s senator for the Interior and Sport, Andreas Geisel, accused the US of confiscating an air shipment of protective masks to the United States and denounced the alleged action specifically as an act of modern-day piracy.

Using the term piracy instead of something simpler, like theft or even imperialism, implies that there’s something particularly uncivilized about the act of taking the masks, that this is behavior beyond which today’s trading partners ought to have evolved.

At the same time, calling something modern-day piracy also suggests that we don’t have ongoing piracy in contemporary waters when we absolutely do. Using piracy as a metaphor is an act of erasure.

Sesationalizing Piracy

The show Black Sails features at one point a prop pamphlet in anachronistic typeface, entitled An Account of the Barbarous and Botched Pirate Menace Of The Bahama Islands. Despite the research visual design, the pamphlet is a clever piece of business, alerting the audience to just how much piracy even back in historical times, was a matter of text, news, and marketing.

Piracy is violence perpetrated at sea and then reconstructed by words, images, and fiction on land.

One especially interesting use of terms like ‘piracy’ and ‘pirate’ is as a way of referring to and villainizing copyright violators.

Calling copyright violators pirates is a modern habit with old roots, and we can trace such usage back to the 17th century. Although technically the use of ‘pirates’ to describe an unauthorized printer existed before copyright did.

Hand voting in a ballot box against Jolly Roger flag
Pirate political parties have sprung up for the cause of net neutrality and copyright laws among other things. (image: Niyazz/Shutterstock)

Pirate Politics

Perhaps the most striking sign of how far pirates have come from a former counterculture existence is that there are now many active groups using the ‘pirate’ label in an attempt to enter mainstream, legitimate politics.

The first pirate party, now one of a number of loosely affiliated political groups interested in net neutrality, copyright reform, open source, and open access, among other values, originated in Sweden in 2005. Modern pirate parties are pretty far removed from any real history of piracy. Their chosen label is far more about a desire for sharing than for theft.

Pirates in Pop Culture

Pirates are a logo now for sports teams, beers, shaving products, and pet costumes. Then there are children’s products. LEGO launched its popular pirate line in 1989 and Playmobile, which tends to be wary of historical themes, has a longstanding popular pirate line as well.

They are the basis for movies, books, shows, games, and sexy Halloween costumes. Pirates are a pastime now. They represent an escape.

There is a certain danger in the popularity of pirates, particularly in the toothless and one-eyed incarnation of their traditions in 20th and 21st-century popular culture.

Our modern pirate traditions involve deliberate amnesia towards the violence done to merchants, coastal dwellers, and to Black and indigenous people at apocalyptic levels. Yet the erasure is never allowed to be complete. There is always resistance to amnesia, and it’s a resistance we can cultivate.

Common Questions about Pirates and Piracy

Q: What did the discourse around pirates say during the 18th century?

During the 18th century, the laws of every civilized nation declared the pirates as hostis humani generis, meaning enemies of all mankind.

Q: When did the first pirate party originate?

The first pirate party interested in net neutrality, copyright reform, open source, and open access, among other values, originated in Sweden in 2005.

Q: How are pirates making their way into pop culture in the recent times?

Pirates are a logo now for sports teams, beers, shaving products, and pet costumes. They are the basis for movies, books, shows, games, and sexy Halloween costumes.

Keep Reading
American Pirates: The Lafitte Legacy
Ballads: Creative Amusements for Pirates
Theatre: Of Pirates, by Pirates, for Pirates