“The Real History of Pirates” Busts Myths, Not Fun, of Buccaneer Life

lecture series about scallywags provides the real arrrrrticle

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Piracy began as a rebellion against the Spanish Main. Pirates may not have said “Arrrr!” but they did live controversial lives plundering and drinking. A senior producer at Wondrium discusses The Real History of Pirates.

Pirate ship at sea with beach front view
Flags flown on pirate ships identified the intentions of the pirates aboard: the Jolly Roger, a skull and crossbones on a black flag, meant death. Photo by proslgn / Shutterstock

The modern image of the pirate owes more to films like Treasure Island than to actual seafaring plunderers like Captain Kidd, but the truth about pirates is just as fascinating—maybe more so, since it really happened. From the skull and crossbones flag to buried treasure, Wondrium’s The Real History of Pirates steers the ship’s wheel from myth to fact without disappointing pirate fans or historians.

The course lays the pirate world bare with period-authentic maps, original artwork, and an engaging presenter. In an exclusive interview, Wondrium Senior Producer James Blandford discussed his role in developing the course alongside its presenter, Dr. Manushag N. Powell, Professor of English at Purdue University, who was also interviewed.

The Seamy Underbelly of Trade

According to Blandford, piracy not only affected nations’ economies but commerce was also a major part of the pirate world. Pirates spent far less time burying treasure chests full of gold than they did running mercantile trades. In fact, the opening of free trade struck a blow against piracy since pirates could no longer undercut the prices of tariffed goods between nations. With trade becoming efficient and prices lowering, pirates lost their edge.

Additionally, in the interest of being historically accurate, one of the broader themes in the course reflects a darker side of historical piracy: slavery.

“I hate to say that [but] unfortunately it’s true,” Blandford said. “A lot of the people who were on pirate ships in the golden age of piracy were implicated in the slave trade—often the captured cargo was slaves. I think a theme is ‘freedom and unfreedom,’ because you’ve got the people that the pirates captured, but also the people that were already ‘property’ before being caught by the pirates.”

One surprising topic is that pirates often benefit local economies. When they seek port, they bring business as they purchase food, drink, and lodging. They also bring new goods that may be restricted by local laws or otherwise hard to find.

“It may sound absurd, but pirates are good for business.”

True Mateys

Developing The Real History of Pirates was a team effort in more ways than one. Blandford said that Dr. Powell collaborated with him throughout the production process, referring him to authentic maps of the period for the team to use, to handwritten correspondence of the day, and even to music.

“She also [showed me] how a lot of popular music incorporated pirate themes, and that’s what helped me be aware of the band Blackbeard’s Tea Party, who recorded ‘The Ballad of William Kidd.’ And that is the music you hear in the front of every lecture; and in the closing credits, you’ll hear that entire song,” Blandford said. “They agreed to let us use that at no charge; I was so grateful to them. They were really generous with that.”

As Dr. Powell lectured about pirate tactics in one lecture, Blandford—who, in his own words, does “not understand sailing very well”—found himself struggling with developing an animation to accompany her tale. He soon found help in Dr. Stephen Ressler, Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, who has taught several lecture series on engineering for Wondrium.

“He’s all about engineering; he did—in DIY Engineering—a whole thing about how to build a sailboat. So, I thought, ‘He probably understands these things,'” Blandford said. “So, I called him up and described the situation, gave him the script excerpt, and, within a day, he had created a PowerPoint of exactly which way the sails should turn, where the wind would be coming, how the approach would be—and so by the time we got the 3-D animation done, it was perfect, thanks to him.”

The Real History of Pirates is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily