Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Why are we so Fascinated by Pirates?

It is, it is, a glorious thing to be a pirate king.
Who hasn't dreamed of "a pirate's life" at some point in their lives? When we think of "pirates" our imagination flies to the Spanish Main, or to the Caribbean - even to Neverland. Our mental images of pirates have been shaped by popular culture for centuries - a myth-making and glorification of bandits, similar to the legend of Robin Hood. Since the writer "Captain Charles Johnson" published his influential work A General History of the Pyrates in 1724 - the figure of the pirate has assumed legendary qualities, and accrued some interesting (but fictitious) characteristics. We invest these beings with attributes we desire or feel we lack - courage, rebelliousness, a devil-may-care outlook on life, loyalty to others (in the form of "crewmates"), adventurousness, confidence... They become the agents of mystery - hailing from exotic locations, bound for strange shores. They do not conform to society - observe their bohemian dress and colourful language. Oh if only we dared to follow their example. 

We all know that the reality of piracy was not so attractive as popular culture has portrayed it. While the so-called "golden age" of piracy has been depicted as a time of lavish treasure and boundless opportunity for adventurous souls to discover new places and make their fortune - conditions aboard even the cleanest and best-equipped ship became quickly unsavoury when the sweaty and unwashed crew had sailed a week or two... While the captain's cabin was palatial compared to the rest of the ship (almost big enough to stand up in), most crewmembers had to bunk in cramped and squalid conditions, or swing in flea-swarming hammocks. Those picturesque Spanish galleons - they had the euphemistically named jardins instead of toilets. The food was at best bland and at worst rancid, bilge-soaked or rendered inedible by rats, mildew or weevils. The unsanitary conditions and poor nutrition made the ships into breeding grounds for disease. Did you ever wonder where the phrase "scurvy rascal" came from?

This is the face of your average pirate.
But surely we can afford to put up with a bit of hardship to live such a free and wonderful life as pirates led? Now they weren't stuck behind a desk all day. Nor are they required to conform to society's standards of beauty. And with the job comes so many cool tricks! We all know what pirates do - they swing around on rigging, quaff quarts of rum, romance (seduce is such an ugly word) beautiful and fiesty yet ultimately yielding women, engage in frequent and flamboyant sword-fights and walk around with parrots on their shoulders.

And we mustn't forget the golden lure. Just think of the treasure! Who doesn't love golden chalices and chests of silver coins? Speaking of chests - check out that beauteous buxom pirate wench! She even has a sword! How empowering is that? And anyway - everyone knows that pirates were gentlemen underneath... Well - maybe not gentlemen, after all they had hard lives and were rebels against society! But deep down underneath they were decent. Just look at Jack (I mean Captain Jack) Sparrow!

Just a lovable rogue... right?

The truth is, our perception of piracy is a romantic fantasy. "Piracy" really refers to acts of violent crime committed at sea (but can also be stretched to include violent robbery on land and air). And our image of the swashbuckling pirate is based only on a small period in history (the aforementioned "Golden Age" of piracy) whereas piracy has actually existed since the 14th Century BC and still exists today.

Nor were pirates the attractive idealists, attractive daredevils or unattractive-yet-comical characters we have seen on stage or screen. Rather they were hardened criminals who, although they did not commonly "kill all hands on deck" (simply because it would cost them too many lives), felt no compunction in committing murder, rape, extortion and theft.

Wait - you mean I'm not drawn from life?
Nor is piracy a Western phenomenon. Rather it is a global crime - with pirates found all over the world throughout history, including China, India and North Africa. In modern times pirates are still to be found in the waters of Somalia, Guinea and the Danube River.

Viewed out of the rose-coloured lenses of popular culture, a pirate presents a truly ugly sight. But is there nothing good we can take from the pirate trope? Is it necessarily a dangerous fantasy? Of course not!

The pirate legend satisfies the universal human need for heroes - mythical figures onto whom we project the "admirable" qualities we feel we lack in ourselves and our society. Today we feel restricted by bureaucracy, obliged to conform to social expectations and niceties. We look to the pirate ship as a means to sail away from the strictures of modern life. The pirate's crew, appeals to us with its tight-knit sense of belonging - a connection we feel we lack in a technologised society. In a world where  security is of paramount concern - the image of the adventurous, risk-taking treasure-seeker offers hope and consolation. The pirate reality was and is brutal and dark. But then, so was, in all likelihood the "reality" behind so many of our mythological figures - the ancient Greek heroes, King Arthur and Robin Hood...

It is the nature of the mythic to transcend its origins. We as humans need these inspirational, larger than life figures. Therefore the pirate fantasy figure has a great deal of value, so long as we remain aware of the disturbing truth; and do not let the attractive myth tempt us to glorify the ugly reality.

1 comment:

  1. Very thorough analysis, I love it! Ever since I was little I fell in love with Captain Jack Sparrow and he's freedom, sense of adventure and simply rebelliousness against the wearisome and tedious society. Of course that comes with a price, but maybe poor living conditions are easier to bear than lack of freedom and having to suppress one's pure desires to please somebody despicable anyway. It surely depends on the person, but diversity is fruitful, and without a constant 'war' among us humans we wouldn't be able to improve ourselves so fast.