By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
One of the most famous pirate speeches quoted in A General History of the Pirates is attributed to Captain Bartholomew Roberts, explaining to new and often unwilling pirate recruits how he came to embrace the pirate life. However, it needs to be noted that such speeches were probably invented by the book’s author, the mysterious Captain Johnson.
Captain Roberts in A General History of the Pirates
Although Captain Roberts himself was at first forced into piracy and “shed as he used to tell fresh men as many crocodile tears then as they did now,” he said that piracy had rid him of “the disagreeable superiority of some masters he was acquainted with”.
Roberts would conclude with the following words to the new members of his crew:
In an honest service, there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.
The phrase “a merry life and a short one” is one of the most quotable quotes in all of pirate law. Whether or not Roberts really said this, it encapsulates perfectly the seductive idea that pirates were choosing a dangerous path because it was also, relatively speaking, a path of freedom, and they were deliberately turning away from a life that was the very opposite of merry.
Golden Age of Piracy
Now, among properly lawful private steering earing ships or among the courses of the Mediterranean, this doesn’t hold up. Just because a ship made its money by preying upon others was no guarantee that its crew had a more flexible or happy life. They certainly weren’t likely to have a lot of things like pleasure and liberty on board; rigid hierarchies and the perpetual risk of scurvy were lot more likely.
European private steering ships, especially the more legally clean nosed ones, might well have been run essentially the same way merchant ships were, with tight discipline and clear hierarchies. The pay might have been a little bit better, and discipline a little bit looser, but the difference was of scale not kind.
Aboard the Golden Age pirate ships and many of those that sailed after the golden age, there was at least some truth to the position Roberts so colorfully sketches out. This is a key reason that scholars are so fascinated by these groups and their organizational structure; what the philosopher R. B. Braithwaite calls a hydrarchy was unique.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Hydrarchy: Organization of Sailors
The historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh defined hydrarchy as the organization of the maritime state from above and the self-organization of sailors from below. In piracy’s Golden Age, in other words, sometimes the sailors from below organized to overthrow the maritime powers above in order to live lives according to rules that they had a greater say in making.
Pirates’ association with the radical overthrow of hierarchical order at sea made some people suspicious that they had the same goals on land, that they were even Jacobitical, that is men passionately devoted to the forcible restoration of James II and his heirs to the throne of England and Scotland. To this line of thinking, the pirates were not rebelling against unfair labor practices so much as the wrong that sat at the very top of society. Mutiny was just a local symptom.
However, there’s not much support for this idea.
Defiance by the Pirates
Some pirates seem to have affected Jacobite symbols and signs as a sort of defiant joke, something to frighten their prey and irritate their former government. Some pirates sometimes forced captives to drink to The Pretender or damnation to King George. Blackbeard sailed in a ship he rechristened to the Queen Anne’s Revenge, his followers Stede Bonnet sailed the Royal James, but one gets the impression this was opposed.
While James II had a few privateers, most pirates did not take any concrete steps towards the restoration of the Stewarts. What they liked was the rejection of recognized authority that was necessarily a part of Jacobite propaganda. They also resented the government’s pirate hunters.
Democratic Values in Piracy
Another claim made about piratical defiance, and one with a little more meat to it, is that pirates were an early important form of labor resistance; freedom fighters attempting to spread labor rights and democratic values across the oceans. In general, it’s a qualified set of ideals at best.
Some pirate ships did work under fairly democratic principles, under which most men had a vote and the quartermaster was, except during battle, as powerful or more powerful than the elected captain himself, but there are always important exceptions. Roberts and his men excluded Irish men from the vote, and they certainly weren’t interested in the rights of labor or labor conditions of the African prisoners they enslaved, sold, or murdered.
Common Question about the Problems in Piracy and Their Defiance
The phrase ‘a merry life and a short one’ is one of the most quotable quotes in all of pirate law. It was quoted in A General History of the Pirates and is attributed to Captain Bartholomew Roberts.
The historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh defined hydrarchy as the organization of the maritime state from above and the self-organization of sailors from below.
Pirates’ association with the radical overthrow of hierarchical order at sea made some people suspicious that they had the same goals on land, that they were even Jacobitical, that is men passionately devoted to the forcible restoration of James II and his heirs to the throne of England and Scotland.