Make no mistake: I detest and reject the romanticizing of pirates by novelists and Hollywood. The truth is that they were the terrorists of their age.
Yep, the Jolly Roger was no sign of sexy hijinks but that one’s life was about to be cut short.
Pirates had a deadly purpose in what they did: rob ships and their passengers of their ‘portable property’ (as Dickens would say in Great Expectations) to finance their illicit lifestyle.
They would fly false colors to lure a ship into complacency as they appeared upon the horizon until they drew close when they would run up the Skull and Crossbones, a human skull that hovered over an X of armbones upon a black field.
Their purpose was clear: ships that surrendered without a fight were plundered but the passengers’ lives were spared. Ships that tried to run or fight—crew and passengers were murdered without a twinge of conscience.
Striking terror into their targets was a deliberate policy that made their job easier and, without a fight, less likely that any pirate would die.
Nevertheless, a pirate’s life was brutal and short. Apart from the golden age when the crowns of Europe authorized their deprivations to advance their wars (privateer vs. pirate), pirates were hunted by the authorities and, whenever captured, hung.
What then attracted men to piracy?
In the 1600s and 1700s, as Europe moved from feudalism into modernity, the prospects of the ordinary man were few. They lived lives of futility upon the few acres of the land of their birth, completely controlled by the local nobleman, or they escaped into military service, another nightmarish world where the slightest infraction was met with severe discipline such as flogging.
A pirate, though, thumbed his nose at the crown head, the authorities, and the society that despised him. A pirate lived a life of freedom. A pirate did as he pleased with his shipmates, and though he chose a life of debauchery and pillage, it was his choice. That was exhilarating to men whose life’s courses were otherwise determined by the status of their grandfathers’ births.
They were free! Although that meant that their only means of support was robbery and that they made poor lifestyle choices, throwing themselves into drunkenness and squalor, promiscuity and disease, yet—it was their choice. That made all the difference.
Is it any different today in our poorest, most desperate, urban neighborhoods? Places where there are no prospects, no means of holding a job because there are no jobs, and no opportunities to do anything else than hang out on the street corner?
Life can be brutal and short. Authorities look for the slightest infraction and though we no longer use hanging, these young men are tossed into prison for long stretches of their lives, long enough that all meaning has gone by and the most basic of human desires—that of producing the next generation—is thwarted.
It is a life where life is not guaranteed. An encounter with the authorities is a crapshoot—one may live or one may roll snake-eyes. The choice to obey and you will live is not given to the pirate in the ‘hood. When you look at the world through their eyes, their choices are not surprising after all.
When there are no jobs, the only choice is to be an entrepreneur. What business opportunities exist in the neighborhood? Ones that require no capital outlay (for they have none)? The opportunities may be illegal and invoke the wrath of authorities, but that’s only a cost of doing business. It’s all they have.
Don’t preach at them about education, these city pirates. Even if you assembled a group of 100 superteachers, who rescued their schools, and they spent their K-12 years learning, walking out with a diploma, what good is that when there are no jobs for them, their neighborhoods disintegrate, and they struggle to survive?
Look at the world through their eyes and the ones who drop out, the ones who check out, seem smarter than the ones who hang in.
And for a few brief years, only a few but enough, they live lives of freedom. Free to do as they choose, free to raise a finger (you know which one) in the face of society, free to compete for supremacy with no rules, free to be the best they can be in their world, even if that world involves violence, murder, and emotional turmoil.
Addendum: What happened to the pirates?
Once the authorities became serious and united in wanting to suppress them, military operations against their strongholds and towns that supported them grew comprehensive and more effective.
But there are always plenty of places in the world to hide. What really did the pirates in was that the world changed around them.
As colonies expanded and prosperity grew, as opportunities for merchants, craftsmen, and small farmers meant that an ordinary man could find the means to earn income and support a family, the allure of piracy faded and then died out.
These changes also took place in the homelands of Europe.
It is no different today and it is time our society got on with it—creating and expanding opportunities in our poorest and most desperate neighborhoods so that our young <ahem> entrepreneurs would find other avenues in which to invest their energy and their lives.