Engraving of Richard Temple as The Pirate King, c. 1880
Arrgh, matey! Since the International Talk Like a Pirate Day was celebrated just a couple of days ago on Monday, September 19, I think that the time is ripe to consider these swashbuckling fellows. So, let us consider why we like pirates.
It’s their devil-may-care attitude
Along with highwaymen, spies and other rule-breaking rogues, pirates seem to hold a special place in our popular mythology. We know what they do is wrong, and yet … there’s just something about them. I believe that pirates appeal to regular people because:
- They defy conventions. When society is particularly rigid, or when ordinary folk are systematically denied justice, then the rule-breakers who impose their own brand of “natural justice” become folk heroes. As the Pirate King in the Pirates of Penzance admits, “I don’t think much of our profession, but contrasted with respectability, it’s comparatively honest.”
- They are free. Remember in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, when Captain Jack Sparrow confessed to Elizabeth Swann, “Wherever we want to go, we go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and sails; that’s what a ship needs. Not what a ship is… What the Black Pearl really is, is freedom.”
It’s the clothes
In addition, pirates really do get to wear the cool clothes. During the hey-day of piracy in the 1500s and 1600s, the Sumptuary Laws of many nations forbade ordinary people from dressing “above their station.” According to Cindy Vallar’s site, Pirates and Privateers: The History of Maritime Piracy :
Everyone must wear the clothes of his state and rank. To dress more lavishly or more shabbily than is customary for the class or the circle to which one belongs is a sin of pride or a mark of debasement. Moreover, it is a transgression against the social order and thus a cause for scandal… (Pastoureau, xi)
Sumptuary laws separated the upper and lower classes. Silk, velvet, lace, brocades, gold or silver thread; gemstones and pearls; furs like mink, sable and fox – and anything dyed with the royally expensive purple dye – were all forbidden for commoners to wear. Penalties for violating these laws included the loss of one’s title or property, or if one of the lower class, one’s life.
For pirates, such laws were meant to be broken. According to this report on the Pirates and Privateers site:
After sea rogues captured Captain Samuel Cary’s ship, the Samuel, on 13 July 1720, the Boston News-letter reported that “[t]he first thing the pirates did was to strip both passengers and seamen of all their money and clothes…with a loaded pistol to every one’s breast ready to shoot him down who did not immediately give an account of both, and resign them up.” (Sanders, 113)
It’s the accent, matey
We know that the seafaring peoples of Cornwall and England’s West Country produced many pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But after 400 years, why are we so sure we know how to talk like a pirate?
According to Wikipedia, sources seem to agree that our current ideas of the pirate accent came from one person –Robert Newton, the actor who played Long John Silver and Edward Teach, Blackbeard, in the early 1950s Disney produced films of “Treasure Island” (1950) and “Blackbeard the Pirate”(1952). It was his exaggerated West Country accent that became the accepted pirate voice for us all.
Newton has even been called the “patron saint” of the annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Pirates are desperate and dangerous
The coastline of South West England has many coves and inlets, good for hiding pirates, their vessels and their loot. Smugglers, too, benefited from the coastal geography. Between 1780 and 1783, it’s estimated that as much as 2 million pounds of tea and 13 million gallons of brandy were smuggled into Britain. http://www.cornishlinks.co.uk/history-smugglers.htm
And when the economy of the region faltered, there was always the chance that a distressed ship might wreck itself along the rocky shores, providing rich pickings for the locals – at least, until Sir John Killigrew erected the first lighthouse at The Lizard in 1619.
Worst, however, were the pirates who turned kidnappers, raiding villages and selling their captives into slavery in Barbary (North Africa).
But some are not so bad once you know them
In the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, the Pirates of Penzance turn out to be “noblemen who have gone wrong” – they have all abandoned the establishment because they’re too tender-hearted and freedom-loving to be true noblemen. But they all desire “domesticity” – female companionship – and ultimately are united in their love and respect for the Queen, that ultimate symbol of the English culture and value system.
So shiver me timbers, matey, join me in song! Or, you can watch a video of Kevin Kline singing this delightful tune here on YouTube.
Oh, better far to live and die
Under the brave black flag I fly,
Than play a sanctimonious part,
With a pirate head and a pirate heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where pirates all are well-to-do;
But I’ll be true to the song I sing,
And live and die a Pirate King.
For I am a Pirate King!
And it is, it is a glorious thing
To be a Pirate King!
Don’t you agree? Let me know in the comments!