104. Pirates

Friday, July 12th, 2019

Welcome to Histories of the Unexpected where we demonstrate how everything has a history and how those histories link together in unexpected ways.


For this episode let us join our very own Blackbeard of maritime history, Dr Sam Willis, and the Yohoo-hoo of history, Professor James Daybell, as they bring us the unexpected history of pirates!

With cutlass’s raised and a loud ‘Aargh Captain’, our swashbuckling adventurers sail the Spanish Main from the popular representations of pirates in Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean to the real Admiral John Benbow, who was famed for capturing the notorious Captain William Kidd, from the use of public executions of condemned pirates to the Irish ‘Pirate Queen’ Grainne O’Malley, from literature representations of known female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read to the first publication in 1724 of ‘A General History of the Pyrates’, and from Daniel Defoe, copy-right, and pen-names to Elizabethan murder pamphlets and the mass marketing of violence and terror, this is one piratical tale with a happier ending.


Robbery at sea has always been a hazard, as both states and local communities either supported it, sanctioned it or approved of it, officially and unofficially. By the early seventeenth century such activities grew, both in range and impact, as the processes of state building, solidification, expansion, and global capitalism began to develop, and inform and impact upon one another in a more direct way. The relationship between the state and the economy presented an environment which allowed private violence, and by association piracy, to not only exist but also to thrive. State rulers often used the disruption of another nations trade at sea as a way to deprive that nation of capital whilst enriching their own. State sanctioned privateering then developed as a form of state sponsored violence, protection, as merchants sought aid against privateers and ultimately pirates, and plunder. By using state sanctioned privateers, rulers could control sea routes, control markets, and monopolise trade to their own advantages.  However, the distinction between privateer and pirate could become blurred, after all one nations privateer is another’s pirate. For state rulers such blurred distinctions could be ignored if pirates only targeted another nation’s trade. However, raiding and plundering at sea became not only important to states but also to individuals, whose own fortunes could be made or lost in such a manner, and depredations at sea became less targeted upon a nation and more centred on ‘booty’ and individual gain. These individuals were as notorious then as they are now, their names forever remembered and immortalised through the ages. Pirate captains such as Edward Teach, William Kidd, Henry Every, Calico Jack, Henry Morgan, Bartholomew Roberts and female pirates such as Ching Shih, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, acquired international notoriety, not only through their exploits at sea but also by the ways in which they exploited and challenged societal expectations, as pirate crews became socio-nomadic, living outside of excepted norms, expectations, and government control. Adventure and stories of successful pirates were tempting fodder propelling many a new recruit to sign up, turn pirate and board a pirate ship. As those who had turned pirate began to become more organised, cohesive and in some cases successful, the once convenient relationship between private and state sanctioned violence at sea changed as governments struggled to respond to and control the problems presented by piracy and its many temptations.

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