Wondrium Demystifies Pirates with Purdue Professor Manushag Powell

the real history of pirates steers fiction back to fact

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Wondrium’s The Real History of Pirates separates seafaring fact from fiction. How? As it turns out, oceanic criminal enterprises from up to four centuries ago were really well-documented. A Purdue University professor is at its heart.

Professor Manushag Powell
Dr. Manushag N. Powell, Professor of English at Purdue University, presents Wondrium’s The Real History of Pirates. Photo by The Great Courses

It seems like everyone loves pirates. And why not? There’s adventure on the open seas; gold and jewels; rum; camaraderie; a crazy lifestyle with more cannonballs than peg legs and parrots; and, of course, the famous pirate voice. Some of those may not be historically accurate—namely, the whole “Arr” thing—but in order to tell what’s swashbuckling and what’s silliness, it takes an expert with the courage to set things straight and to rain on a parade or two.

Enter Dr. Manushag N. Powell, Professor of English at Purdue University. Dr. Powell presents Wondrium’s The Real History of Pirates with insight, dry wit, a fierce passion, and expertise. In an exclusive interview, she discussed her work and her personal interest in all things buccaneer.

Pirate Studies

Piracy has seen a massive resurgence in the public eye since the early-mid 2000s when Captain Jack Sparrow sauntered onto the big screen. Historical piracy has gotten more attention, as well.

“There’s a lot of people doing good work on piracy right now and so I think if you’re interested in piracy there’s a lot of good stuff that’s available,” Dr. Powell said. “I do think that because my training is in English, in literature, I have something to offer that sometimes other scholars of piracy miss, which is that I’m used to evaluating texts in terms of generic conventions and my expectations for a text having truth value are different from some people who are trained in other disciplines.”

For example, most pirate scholars say that walking the plank wasn’t a real event, but Dr. Powell wants to stop and look at why people talk about it so much, where it came from, why Robert Louis Stevenson thought it was real when he wrote Treasure Island, etc. She found that her passion for the topic came not from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies themselves, but from the realization that she’d always enjoyed pirates, and in college, she had the tools to learn more about them.

A Pedagogy of Ruination

Among her portfolio, Dr. Powell can take credit for bringing a book by Daniel Defoe—author of Robinson Crusoe—back into publication after too many years to count. Crusoe‘s successor, Captain Singleton, tells of a successful English pirate traveling through Africa, and is published by Broadview Press. Though wildly inaccurate throughout, the book receives “copious contextual grounding” through Dr. Powell’s editing, as one reviewer said.

She also cowrote British Pirates in Print and Performance with author and UCLA professor Frederick Burwick. Both experiences informed The Real History of Pirates, which rains on a parade or two in its course correction from pirate legend to pirate history. Dr. Powell knows that this is an exercise in disillusionment for pirate fans—a task she seemed to take on with an infectiously wicked glee.

“My pedagogy is sort of a pedagogy of ruination,” she said. “I like to take people’s sort of rose-colored glasses and crush them [laughs]. Pirates were bad people. That doesn’t in any way mean they’re not interesting people or that there’s anything wrong with finding them fascinating and reading stories about them and wanting to study them, but they were bad people.”

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

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily