An updated version of this essay appears in the second edition of Virtually Yours: A Meteor Mags Memoir.
Curse me for a papist, you bloody bilge rats! I almost forgot it’s Talk Like A Pirate Day! But what does it really mean to talk like a pirate? Is it mastery of the word “argh” and a few catchphrases from Treasure Island?
I think it runs deeper than that, deeper than aping some romanticized Disney version of the so-called Golden Age of Atlantic Piracy. It even goes beyond the English language, as thievery and butchery on the high seas have been around for as long as people have had ships. We can’t forget the pirates who kidnapped Julius Caesar, nor the Irish pirates like Grace O’Malley, nor the Somali pirates who are probably out there right now looking for their next score. Not a single one of them talks like Long John Silver.
Talking like a pirate requires getting inside the pirate mind. This goes beyond any one language or any single period in history. Once you understand who the pirate is, talking like her is almost an afterthought. So, who is she? Let me give you eight insights.
1. She’s poor. No one rich ever became a pirate. Stealing at sea is primarily an activity undertaken by those who have nothing of their own. Piracy is not a cute ride at an amusement park, nor a lark, nor an afternoon adventure. Piracy is a desperate response to desperate times by people whose very survival depends on taking for themselves—by force, if necessary—the resources they need to survive.
2. She’s out of work. Some of you might be thinking, “No rich people? But didn’t wealthy nations of Europe hire pirates?” Indeed they did. When an empire issued a “letter of marque”, it granted authority to one or more ships to go fuck up some other country’s shipping and entire economy that depended on shipping. But because that had an official permission, it wasn’t considered piracy. It was “privateering”. Strictly legal—at least in the eyes of the nation who issued the letter of marque.
Many pirates were at one time or other “legal” privateers. But if, for example, a war ended between two nations, the privateers were out of a job. There they were, alone, adrift at sea, with their income source vanishing into thin air. They were unemployed, and they needed to survive. All they had was their ship, their skills, and their willingness to work together to stay alive.
Also, many pirates around the world were fishers who weren’t catching enough in the off season to support themselves. Their income dried up, but they still needed to eat, and they had boats. At that point, taking some shit off another boat starts to sound like a good idea.
3. She’s been abused on the job, and she didn’t like it. Besides unemployment, the greatest contributor to classical Atlantic piracy was abusive work conditions. Not having a job truly sucks, but sometimes having a job is an even greater hell.
Many of the Atlantic Pirates around the turn of the eighteenth century were part of a labor rebellion against horrific conditions on military ships. They had been whipped nearly to death over minor infractions and lived through extreme cruelty at the hands of deranged officers. Many who became pirates were people who couldn’t exactly walk off their job, since their job was in the middle of the bloody sea. So, they simply took over the ship through violence.
Often, the previous captains were flogged or imprisoned or thrown to the sharks. And in their absence, a new kind of law took their place.
4. She’s an anarchist. Once the abusive captain was gone, what sort of order prevailed? A collective order, agreed upon by every member of the crew. In this new order, the captain was not an almighty authoritarian figure but served at the whim of the entire crew.
And the pirates created their own code, their own social order. They drafted articles of their piracy and signed them, including provisions that allowed for choosing new leadership, pensions for the disabled, and humane working conditions. Everyone got a share of the spoils, and unlike today’s CEOs, the captain took hardly more than any other crew member. Authority was de-centralized, democratic, and set to chart a course no national government could control.
5. She’s evil. Despite understanding piracy as a somewhat justifiable reaction to harsh economic and labor conditions, let’s not romanticize. Many pirate crews traded in captured slaves who were even less free than the pirates. Many destroyed settlements and slaughtered people who were no better off than they. Many committed atrocities that rivaled those of the very institutions they had rebelled against. Though much of a pirate’s life appears admirable through a certain lens, much of it is deplorable.
6. She knows she has not chosen the easy path, but she celebrates it. Classical pirates had a toast: “To a merry life, and a short one.” They knew they had escaped horror only to embrace constant danger, and their days were numbered. The pirate had no illusions about living forever, unless she was the religious type. To become a pirate was to accept impending death as the outcome, and vow to live life to its fullest until that unfortunate end. No one parties as hard as those who know they die tomorrow.
7. She’s a professional sailor. If you don’t know your mizzenmast from your poop deck, then you aren’t ready to be a pirate. Very few, if any, people besides professional sailors ever “fell into” piracy, despite what romantic fiction might want you to believe. Your typical classical pirate was either ex-military (Navy), or ex-privateer (government-sanctioned), or both, and many other pirates were fishers out of work in the off-season. All of them knew their vessels and what it took to survive on the open sea.
8. She’s tough as nails. The pirate is a survivor of horrific conditions I hope you and I never endure. She’s lived through physical torture, emotional trauma, extreme deprivation, malnutrition, mutilation, and the most brutal storms this godforsaken planet can throw at her. Do you still wonder why she gets into the rum a little too often? I don’t.
I’m sure I left something out, but if you remember these eight things about what it means to be a pirate, then I bet you can talk like a pirate any day of the year, regardless of your language, culture, or era.
Happy Talk Like A Pirate Day! If you’re craving more awesome pirate history and want help finding awesome books about pirates, see my Library of Female Pirates.
Those demonized by the rulers of society as the common enemies of mankind, she suggested, were heroes to the common sailor.
One major reason was how the outlaws organized their ships… How did they manage to be “precisely just among themselves”?
What did justice mean to those whom the law sought to “bring to justice” by hanging?
—Marcus Rediker; Villains of All Nations, “The New Government of the Ship”, 2004.
Mars Will Send No More said:
Just to prove there is an exception to every rule, pirate history does include a moderately wealthy guy who decided to become a pirate. His name was Stede Bonnet, and he spent some time with Blackbeard. His life is covered in Captain Johnson’s well-known “General History of the Pyrates”, and you can read about him on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stede_Bonnet
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