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?
Every now and then, I read a tragic story that breaks my heart, but no comic-book adventure has ever broken me so relentlessly as We3. A friend who isn’t really into comic books got into Grant Morrison thanks to the live-action show Happy—based on the four-issue series of the same name published by Image—so I’ve been digging into the Morrison archives. Along the way, I realized I’d never read what many people consider to be one of Morrison’s best works, if not the best. We3 is an action-packed story brought to life by Morrison’s long-time artistic collaborator Frank Quitely, and though I’ve enjoyed Quitely’s artwork for years, he outdid his own genius on We3. Before we delve into the book, let me just say that this story features one of my all-time favorite things: a cat who absolutely kicks ass.
The cat’s given name is Tinker, but she is only referred to in the story as “2”. Tinker is part of a team of three normal animals who have been surgically altered and had their brains messed with so they can become killing machines encased in high-tech armor to perform military missions and assassinations instead of having human soldiers do the job. Joining Tinker in this horrifying experiment are the dog Bandit—referred to as “1”, and the only one of the three to re-discover his real name in the story—and a rabbit named Pirate (“3”) because of a black spot over one eye.
Each of these animals was someone’s beloved pet before the story began. Instead of telling the reader this fact through flashbacks or exposition, the creative team shows it much more powerfully with “lost pet” flyers on the covers of each issue. When you realize what has been done to these hapless animals, the covers hit like a punch to the gut.
When the higher-ups decide that these lost and kidnapped animals need to be killed—decommissioned, per orders—the three of them escape their containment facility and run away. Their combat modifications and training make them dangerous to society, so the military pursues them. One of the many tragic aspects of this story is that the trio doesn’t mean to be dangerous murder machines. These animals were forced against their will to become horrors in the service of the same humans who want to put them down.
Nowhere is this more strongly portrayed than through Bandit’s canine emotional crises. Bandit truly wants to be a good dog. He wants to protect his beloved animal allies in We3 and also help humans, but he is forced into situations where his combat programming takes over and he kills humans. In the aftermath of the killings, his simple, mournful repetition of “Bad dog” hits home more powerfully than pages of dialogue or narrative captions could ever do.
Tinker does not share the dog’s remorse. She thinks the whole thing stinks. When Bandit tries to save a human body to convince himself he is a good dog, Tinker bluntly tells him the man is dead. As the two animals fade into the horizon while arguing, the panels reveal the human is annihilated from the waist down. In a combination of graphic images and minimal, broken dialogue, Morrison and Quitely set up the tension between the cat’s no-nonsense and apparently correct assessment of the situation with the dog’s potentially delusional idealism.
Each animal’s cybernetically enhanced speech pattern says volumes about them. On the first read, I had trouble understanding their speech, but it all became clear to me upon the second reading. Bandit the dog is haunted by regret over what he has been made to do, and he struggles to lead his “pack” in a volatile and untenable situation. Pirate the rabbit is the most simple-minded of the trio, only speaking in one-word sentences, but that doesn’t stop him from delivering a heart-wrenching reminder to his comrades that they are friends and are all in this together. Sadly, Pirate’s speech degrades into mere electronic noise after he suffers an injury.
Cat-lover that I am, I especially enjoyed Tinker’s dialogue. Her feline disdain for just about everything is expressed through the word “Stink”, rendered as “ST!NK” or, when she is really angry, “!SSST!!!NKK!” Compared to the peaceful rabbit and optimistic dog, Tinker appears to be the least bothered by all the killing. She seems at times to revel in it. Tinker is also the group’s cynic who doesn’t believe the trio will ever find a home, because “home” no longer exists for any of them—a point of contention that leads to an argument with Bandit.
And what is home? What does “home” mean to Bandit after all the awful things the team has endured? To the dog, home is a simple concept. “Home is run no more.” Home is a place where these involuntary machines of war can find peace and rest, and that is Bandit’s hope for We3. But as the story progresses, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Tinker is right, that home and peace will be forever denied these unfortunate animals because of what’s been done to them—and what of their lives and identities have been stolen from them.
Quitely employs many innovative and dramatic approaches to action. A video by Strip Panel Naked does a good job of analyzing the groundbreaking visuals in this story, so check that out. Regarding the page where Tinker hacks and slashes her way through a series of panels filled with her enemies, I am reminded of what Scott McCloud taught in his book Understanding Comics, where he asserts that part of the magic of comics is what happens—but is not shown—between the panels, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. Quitely gives us two-dimensional panels rendered in 3-D with Tinker in action, demonstrating how the cat is a fast-moving agent of destruction. While Tinker’s opponents exist entirely within the panels, she flashes like lightning through the spaces between them.
Go, Tinker! As Bandit says in a dramatic moment, “Gud 2! 1 Protect!”
Quitely also does amazing things with panels-within-panels to show a sequence of fast-paced actions in a slow-motion strobe effect, and he often employs elements of the scene’s environment to create panel-like divisions, such as rendering trees in all black to create dividing lines, or using the metal structure of a bridge to divide a series of movements across that bridge.
For a few pages, Quitely captures the narrative in an insane number of more than one hundred tiny panels to show footage from multiple security cameras in the containment facility—only to present a spectacular release from all that claustrophobic tension by finishing with a two-page double splash where our heroes burst into the night.
We3 has been collected in paperback, hardcover, and a second hardcover “deluxe” edition with ten new pages of story. But I recommend you read We3 either in digital format or in the original stapled comic-book format so you can see all the amazing two-page spreads without any part of them disappearing into the gutter of a bound book. Like I said in my recent review of the Bendis/Maleev run on Daredevil, it is a rare and beautiful thing to see a comic book story where script, art, and overall design are perfectly married for maximum narrative and emotional effect. We3 is one of those perfect unions.
Collector’s Guide: It’s hard to find the original three-issue printing, but you can easily find a reasonably priced collected paperback on Amazon. Current prices on the deluxe hardcover are ridiculous. Instead, I suggest getting the $10 digital edition so you can fully appreciate the two-page spreads.
Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations dedicates a chapter to female pirates. Though his account of Read & Bonny covers familiar factual ground, Rediker adds his thoughts on gender roles of the day, and their relation to the pirate way of life. He writes of other women at sea, for comparison, and analyzes how artwork depicting a female pirate in the frontspiece of Johnson’s General History may have influenced the painting Liberty Leading the People.
On the subject of the Atlantic pirates in general, Rediker examines the working conditions of sailors in those days, and how piracy was a rebellion of oppressed laborers. Rediker is no stranger to the horrors suffered on ships back then. I studied his book on the Atlantic slave trade, and he painted a grim picture of life at sea for not only the captured slaves but for the sailors hired to transport them. Villains of All Nations briefly touches on this slave trade and how the 1720s crackdown on piracy was influenced by pressure to keep slave trade routes open and profitable.
Rediker’s narrative clearly sympathizes with the Atlantic pirates for liberating themselves from intolerable working conditions, and he openly criticizes government campaigns of propaganda and public hangings used to deter piracy. He details the code of collective self-government pirate crews adopted, but he does not unilaterally glamorize them. He does not shy away from their cruelties, nor their increasingly unconscionable violence as the crackdown turned against them.
But in giving a clear picture of the harsh living conditions which compelled them to rise up and resist captains and empires, to form their own multi-ethnic and independent societies, Rediker provides a unique insight into the decision to go “on the account” and become a “man of fortune” in the 1700s. The book is scholarly but never boring, and much of it could be read as the makings of a manifesto in an age where millions of laborers continue to suffer in oppressive conditions around the world.
The Atlantic pirates may not have been the romantic heroes portrayed in theater and fiction, but many of the justifications for their rebellion echo ideas we now consider noble or even take for granted: self-determination, reasonable working conditions, respect for diversity, and a voice in our governments.
In today’s installment of The Library of Female Pirates, we take a look at a few pages from Angus Konstam’s Piracy: The Complete History. Though we return once again to the familiar subject of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, this book is notable for questioning the romantic yet brutal tale of these two female pirates. Unlike some other texts in our series, Konstam finds fault with the “far-fetched” and “sensationalist” story passed down to us courtesy of Daniel Defoe’s General History of the Pyrates.
Konstam points out that a pirate’s occupation was generally short-lived, due not only to its rough nature but to its being a temporary economic solution for most sailors involved. Thus, Konstam doubts Mary Read would have spent nearly 23 years at sea. He also points out we have little record, other than their trial documents, to verify anything Defoe has told us. Konstam makes these criticisms in pages 185-188, reproduced below.
Piracy: The Complete History begins in the 14th century BC, with a band of sea raiders who troubled the ancient Egyptians, and continues up to the modern time of 2008, when it was published. It’s an enjoyable read, and its modern language makes it more accessible than some of the older texts covered in this series.
In this 1970s story from DC’s Adventure Comics #415, Supergirl gets abducted by evil space pirates to serve as their captain’s unwilling wife while the rest of Earth is destroyed. These creeps find out soon enough that they picked the wrong woman to mess with!
The Saturday-morning-cartoon tenor of Supergirl’s 1970s adventures makes them somewhat dull for an adult reader, but they are occasionally impressive in their portrayal of her character. This story shows of a range of heroic qualities besides her super-cute costume and classic beauty. Supergirl is powerful enough to hand out beat-downs to the pirates, but compassionate enough to try and reason with a misguided member of the crew. She uses her intelligence to deduce their plans, and her might to unravel them. Even the male-dominated Planetary Galaxy Patrol shows her respect, and suggests that word of her “innumerable accomplishments” has spread far beyond Earth. Supergirl is the only female in this story (other than in a panel on page 3), so you won’t find it passing the Bechdel Test. But she certainly commands the stage!
If you would like to see more scans of vintage Supergirl tales from the 1960s and 70s (including Action Comics, Adventure Comics, and her short-lived self-titled series from 1972), then head over to The Supergirl Project!
“A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates and Also Their Policies, Discipline, and Government.” Nearly every book you find on pirates of antiquity will refer to the book featured in today’s installment of The Library of Female Pirates. David Cordingly, in Under the Black Flag, calls it Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, and Cordingly has provided an Introduction to at least one edition of the book under that name.
However, you will also find the book listed under author Daniel Defoe. Why? Editor Manuel Schonhorn explains in the Introduction to the edition pictured below. Based on the work of Professor John Robert Moore in 1932, academics have increasingly come to believe that “Captain Charles Johnson” was merely one of many pseudonyms for Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. Schonhorn elaborates on Defoe’s life, his interest in maritime commerce and piracy, and the nature of his sources and travels.
Schonhorn’s edition fills more than 700 pages and incorporates text from four editions of the first volume of A General History and the second volume as well. His supplementary material works to clarify Defoe’s factual claims, while the organization of the text for clarity cohesively orders material which was apparently scattered throughout the editions published in Defoe’s era. Defoe himself made corrections and changes between editions, and Schonhorn must have put in tremendous time and effort to make a single coherent text.
Compared to other texts in our Library of Female Pirates, this one has the most antiquated language. Schonhorn has preserved many old spellings (such as “authentick” instead of “authentic”) and the apparently common “anything goes” Approach to Capitalization of those bygone Days. This makes the book at once more challenging to the reader and more endearing, as if one is truly studying an historic document.
Pages 153 through 165 cover Mary Read and Anne Bonny. We would love to scan those pages for you, but the book is incredibly thick. Scanning it without destroying it is nigh impossible. However, most of the information has been recounted in the other, more modern books we have covered in this series. A General History of the Pyrates has served as the primary source, or at least the starting point, for all modern research on Read and Bonny, from the romantic retelling by Charles Ellms to Gosse’s account to Cordingly’s scholarly work.
Yet some details of their lives only appear in Defoe’s work, as far as we can tell. For example, Defoe spends nearly four pages recounting a tale of three stolen spoons. The drama between a wife, her husband, and her maid resulting from these stolen spoons leads directly to the circumstances of Anne Bonny’s early childhood. Mary Read’s various military services and her marriage resulting from one of those services also earn a bit more detail in Defoe’s history than in subsequent works. A combination of Defoe’s General History and Cordingly’s research in Under the Black Flag may well constitute the sum of all we shall ever know about these two famous female pirates.
Our seventh installment of The Library of Female Pirates concludes this week of piracy with the one book we would most highly recommend to anyone interested in female pirates or pirates in general: Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly. Cordingly devotes his fourth chapter to “Women Pirates and Pirates’ Women”. We will not present the complete chapter here because, unlike some of the authors of our older texts, Cordingly is still alive and deserves your support in purchasing this incredible work.
Cordingly’s chapter on female pirates incorporates all of the historical sources our series has shared with you so far, and goes even further. For example, he expands the body of knowledge on Mary Read and Anne Bonny by researching historical documents. This provides the reader with, among other things, this notice of their trial date, complete with antiquated English spellings.
Cordingly also delves into the daily particulars of life which must have confronted females aboard the pirate ships, such as the problem of keeping their gender a secret when the only toilet aboard the ship was a large board, extending off the ship in plain view, with holes cut in it. Cordingly also notes the legendary female pirates were not the only women aboard these ships, and he reveals the conditions of wives and female captives. Finally, he puts the lives of female pirates into perspective by examining the lives of female sailors in general, favorably comparing their capabilities at sea with their male counterparts.
Ching Shih (which Cordingly spells Cheng) also appears in Under the Black Flag, receiving a far more historically knowledgeable treatment than Borges gave her in his fanciful Universal History of Iniquity. Cordingly mentions Alwilda here, essentially recounting Ellms’ brief version. However, Cordingly delves into the life of Grace O’Malley, a female pirate not covered in other texts in our series. Because she has not been given her due yet in this series, we present those pages here in their entirety.
Our sixth installment of The Library of Female Pirates returns to the pages of the 1996 hardcover edition of The Pirates by Charles Ellms. Here we receive a more complete account of the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, apparently the account drawn on by Philip Gosse in The History of Piracy.
Though not as historically complete as the next book in our series, this may be our favorite telling of their tale. Ellms’ old-fashioned language gives us a sense of these long-gone days and creates an atmosphere of both shock and sympathy for these hard-fighting women who, if truth be told, appear no more or less cruel than their male counterparts. Ellms portrays them as capable of both passion and savagery, sailors one would rather fight beside than fight against. Anne receives a shorter chapter, but much of her life overlaps with Read’s chapter, where their meeting is revealed.
Our fifth installment of The Library of Female Pirates features a brief account of the life of Alwilda from the pages of The Pirates by Charles Ellms. This 1996 hardcover edition presents material Ellms published anonymously as The Pirates Own Book, which is now available in many editions from Kindle to Audio Book.
Though Western readers tend to think of the buccaneers of the Caribbean when they think of pirates, Ellms includes Alwilda’s story in a chapter on the Danish and Norman pirates which came long before. Like Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Alwilda dressed as a man and went to sea, eventually leading a band of pirates. Ellms’ account reads like the stuff of legends, with Alwilda furiously battling a prince of Denmark whom her voyages had allowed her to escape becoming married to.
It is hard to say with certainty how accurate Ellms’ narratives are, as they make no attempt at citation, nor distinguishing historical record from anecdote. However, his charmingly old-fashioned language and sympathetic portrayal of female pirates does much to create a romantic yet savage vision of their life and times.
Our fourth installment of The Library of Female Pirates returns to the pages of The History of Piracy by Philip Gosse for a more detailed account of Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Gosse ends this section with a brief verse he credits to the anonymous author of The Pirates’ Own Book. We now know the author was Charles Ellms, and the book was published anonymously in numerous editions as Ellms compiled material. We will explore the pages of a 1996 edition later in this series. Strangely enough, this fragment of verse did not make it into that edition, giving Gosse’s 1932 account a bit of uniqueness.
Our third installment of The Library of Female Pirates presents a more in-depth look at the Chinese pirate Ching Shih from The History of Piracy by Philip Gosse. Due to her code which prohibited certain forms of rape of female captives, some recent writers have attempted to paint Ching as a kind of feminist hero. Gosse’s account demonstrates otherwise.
Despite the initial goodwill these codes brought her in some villages, Ching eventually left a legacy of murder and broken families all along the coasts of Chinese rivers, taking hundreds of women captive. Gosse does not tell us what happened to these captive women, but it takes little imagination to know they must have been sold into slavery. Whatever her crimes, however, one thing is clear: Ching was not a woman to be trifled with. Though not as well-known as Anne Bonny and Mary Read in the Western world, she has appeared as a character in several movies and video games.
Gosse’s pages include a lesser-known female pirate from China: Hon-cho-lo. Also a widow of a pirate, she assumed command of her dead husband’s forces. Commanding sixty ocean-going junks from 1921 to 1922, she also participated in capturing women to sell into slavery. Though we enjoy romanticizing the pirates of the past as much as anyone, it would be a mistake to characterize these women as feminists concerned about the rights of women. It would perhaps be more accurate to say they proved themselves the equal of men in tactical leadership, the application of force, and barbaric cruelty.
Our second installment of The Library of Female Pirates showcases a brief narrative from Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Translated into English by Andrew Hurley, this tale appears in the Borges collection A Universal History of Iniquity. It covers the exploits of Ching Shih, perhaps the most overwhelmingly successful female pirate of all time. A widow of a Chinese pirate, she assumed control of her deceased husband’s forces, terrorizing the Eastern seas and coastlines until the government offered her a truce.
Borges’ account contains elements of fantasy, which he admits in his introductory material, as it was published in a somewhat sensationalized “tabloid” paper. Too factual to be fiction, and too fictionalized to be factual, it is best viewed as a light form of literary entertainment. Our series will share other, more authoritative texts about Ching Shih, none of which substantiate Borges’ scene entitled “The Dragon and the Vixen.” However, Borges’ flowing and descriptive language does capture the sense of brutality and beauty we have come to associate with the lives of female pirates, whether true or not.
Our first installment of The Library of Female Pirates showcases seven pages from a pirate coloring book called Blackbeard and Other Notorious Pirates by Peter F. Copeland. Copeland gives us the highlights from the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, perhaps the best-known female pirates in the Western world.
Though not as in-depth as other texts we will explore in this series, Copeland’s renderings of weapons, ships, and clothing do much to make the world of Bonny & Read come to life in our imaginations. His portrait of Mary Read, standing with her pistol before a cloud-covered mast bearing the jolly roger, truly captures the romantic vision time has bestowed on these reportedly tough and brutal women of the sea.
You are going to want to pet little Tantor yourself after you dig this pulse-pounding story! This Korak tale is so big on adventure that we can let the dumbed-down ecology slide. Just pretend you never heard of a food chain, and let it go! Robert Kanigher, who brought us Space Voyagers and Sgt. Rock scripted this story, which artist Rudy Florese brought to life.
Historical notes: Gold Key started Korak in 1964, based loosely on the Edgar Rice Burroughs material, Tarzan. DC published Korak from #46 through the final issue, #59. You Alex Niño fans will find he did a lot of cool artwork for Korak. You can find some examples of Niño on Korak at Diversions of the Groovy Kind. Now let’s fight a shark and release the wild beasts!
Collector’s Guide: From Korak #57, DC Comics, 1975.
Yes, this is abridged by a few pages. Jungle boy knifes the %$#& out of a shark, then gets captured by pirates. Keep up! Here comes the good part!