Original Pirate Material

Issue section: 

Review of 'Villains of All Nations', Marcus Rediker, Verso £18.99

What most of us know about pirates we've learned from Walt Disney - colourful clothes, wooden legs, Johnny Depp with lots of eyeliner. This inspiring book describes the reality. In a brief period from around 1713 to 1726 thousands of people became pirates - because it made their lives more democratic, humane and simply enjoyable than anything else on offer.

The Atlantic was key to the development of capitalism: European powers were carving up the 'new world' between them, warring between themselves over the booty. Commodities like sugar and tobacco made merchants rich. Violence and oppression were central to the Atlantic trade - two and a half million Africans had been enslaved and shipped across the ocean by the 1720s, many dying in appalling conditions on the way.

The whole system depended on deep-ocean ships, the newest technology of the time, and on the men who crewed them. Such men faced the risk of death or serious injury from the sea - hence the wooden leg of the stereotypical pirate - but they also faced exploitation and violence from ships' captains. Food and drink were scarce and poor. Wages were low or nonexistent. Some men were simply forced to work on board ship. Finally, ordinary sailors were at the bottom of a hierarchy, while captains slept in separate cabins and could whip men as close to death as they pleased.

English rulers had supported pirates attacking Spanish ships and ports - Sir Francis Drake had been this kind of pirate a hundred years earlier. But in 1713 England agreed a peace treaty, hoping to defeat Spain by trade rather than war. Piracy was outlawed, but England's colonies were too big an area for the navy to control - the Bahamas were undefended, and hundreds of pirates established a base there.

Pirates were mostly poor and embittered seamen. Some ships rose in mutiny and became pirate ships. Other men became pirates when their ship was attacked - pirates would offer every sailor the chance to join them. They robbed other ships, partly so they could survive, but not with any scheme of becoming rich - if they couldn't use what they stole, they threw it away. Rather than wealth they sought revenge on their rulers, and a life of dignity and enjoyment.

Pirate ships were profoundly democratic, drawing on traditions dating back to the English Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s. Captains were elected at the start of a voyage, and had real authority only in battle; the partitions which formed officers' cabins were torn down. Many pirates were black - more than half the crew on some ships. There are cases of women becoming pirates, and liberal attitudes to sexuality were common.

Pirates would sometimes provide welfare for each other, giving money to a man injured at sea so he could live decently on land. But such long-term responsibility was rare. The usual goal was 'a short life but a merry one'.

With grim humour, pirates inverted all respectable ideas. They drank such toasts as 'Curse the King and all the Higher Powers'. They joked about death, and boasted that they were going to hell - 'a merrier place' than heaven. On trial for piracy they defended their actions, arguing it was the only way they could make a living, or coolly mocked the judge. Sentenced to hang for piracy, William Fly spoke from the gallows to a large crowd, telling captains to pay sailors their wages or take as a warning his murder of a captain. Pirates often blew themselves up as a group rather than face capture.

Piracy stood in the way of English trade, particularly trade in slaves, and the authorities responded with a bloodbath. Between 1716 and 1726 over 400 pirates were hanged, perhaps one in ten. Their bodies were hung outside ports in chains as a warning to seamen tempted to follow their example. The golden age of piracy was over.

Yet the judges and merchants are forgotten now, while through this wonderful book we can still hear William Fly: 'I shan't own myself guilty of any murder - our captain and his mate used us barbarously. We poor men can't have justice done us.' We hear pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts telling the court that the merchant navy meant poor food, low wages and hard labour while piracy meant 'plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power'. And we hear Daniel Macarty, hanged with seven others who each made defiant speeches, 'crying up a pyrate's life to be the only life for a man of any spirit'. Yo ho ho.