Why I’d Rather Be a Fictional Pirate Than an Actual Pirate
Posted by Jenelle Sosa
I am a Pirate.
This is known to anyone who has ever spoken to me for more than an hour. It’s not something that can be taught, you’re just born this way. Now if you’re jealous, don’t be. I can’t bake so if you can then that’s an awesome thing you have over on me. But this isn’t a contest. This is about Pirates. And when you’re a pirate people make one very obvious assumption, “I bet you wish you could live back then and be a real pirate!” And my answer is alway, “HELL NO!” (and there’s usually a dramatic record scratch).
I don’t blame you for being shocked. How could I love something that much and not wish I could see it or experience it first hand? Well, the short answer is three words long, “Penicillin, anesthesia, birth control.” What do those things have in common? Pirates didn’t have them. In fact they didn’t have a lot of things… like teeth. Most of what the public consciousness perceives as piracy comes from fictitious novels, sensationalized legends, and of course movies. No one ever walked the plank, said yar (unless they were getting run through by a cutlass) and buried treasure wasn’t buried so much as spent IMMEDIATELY in port.
But this misinformation doesn't make me angry. Sure it’s fun to drop knowledge on people about what being a pirate was really like, but in all honesty I love the romanticized figure of the pirate as much as you all do! I’m totally there with you on the whole swinging from ropes thing and dramatic jumps from high cliffs into conveniently deep water! That stuff is fun, exciting, and amazing! As a pirate I am proud of my pirate heritage and well read on the history of my people, but if you’re asking me if I’d rather sail with Black Bart or Capt. Jas Hook the answer is Hook! Hook! Give us the hook!
In honor of September 19th being International Talk Like a Pirate Day here are a couple of more ways being a fictional pirate trumps being an actual gentleman of fortune during The Golden Age of Piracy.
Here’s the #1 reason people usually want to be a pirate; It’s so much more exciting than your dull life! All the swashing and the buckling and the drinking! Now pirates did see a lot of action but I wouldn’t call it adventure so much as chaotic carnage…and that wasn’t every day. Being a real pirate was actually kind of boring 90% of the time and it was pretty backbreaking labor 99% of the time. You were on a ship in the middle of the ocean with no way to talk to anyone not on the same ship for days or weeks on end. And woe be it to the poor suckers who got caught in the doldrums with no wind or waves and ended up just floating dead in the water. Sea travel was also not a fast method of transportation, and you need to track down a prize before you can pillage it. That took planning, navigating, and waiting.
Then there was the day to day grind. Ships were not assembled by Henry Ford and built like tanks. There were constantly leaks to be plugged, rats to kill, bilge to pump, deck to swab, sails to fix, and most of these things required several very large men to accomplish. You were so exhausted at the end of the day you were lucky if you swallowed the grog in your mouth before you passed out on the deck (aka, your bed.) If adventure did come along I don’t know about you but I’d be like, “NO WAY! It’s my day off! I’m not bothering with no stupid map!”
Between the monotony, the sun beating down you, and the worst smell you’ve ever experienced in your life people, often went a little crazy. Imagine Jack Torrence from The Shining and now imagine him on a floating hunk of wood with you and no maze to ditch him in. Sure if you came across a prize things suddenly perked up!..you just better hope that you survived. But all this hardship actually made crews very tight knit units who, for the most part, were very loyal to each other. The threat of being crushed by a keel during a routine barnacle scraping tends to bring people together.
Actual chance for profit!
So many ships, so much gold! Pirates be big pimpin’, where do I sign up? Hold on there, kid! Sure, in pirate stories prizes are plentiful, rich benefactors hire you to take out rival merchants, and there’s always a motherload of a Spanish Galleon that sank just off the coast of some tropical paradise that you need to find, but when you’re sailing for real the odds of getting rich quick are about the same as they are today for someone who tries to be a rockstar so they can be rich and famous.
Loads of pirates got lucky (Black Bart took 470 ships in his career!) but the rest of the working class stiffs were lucky if they got a ship in a month. And while ships were carrying gold and such want to know what pirates were actually more interested in? Medicine. Food. Weapons. Clothes. You know, things that you need to keep you alive daily. So how’d they get paid? Aside from getting lucky and knocking over a ship with money, whatever goods were left over when they restocked their own ship were sold in port.
But before that the haul from prizes was split up into shares by the Quartermaster. The Captain and the Quartermaster could expect a nice chunk of change like 2 shares of the prize but it was all downhill from there with the average able bodied sailor getting like ¼ of a share. And finally, as I mentioned before, pirates aren’t known to be the most financially responsible people. When you live day to day knowing you may die at any second it tends to give you a live for today attitude. Most salaries were spent in a single night on drinking, gambling, and pleasurable company, meaning the next day it was back to the grind all to get a few more shekels.
An easily befuddled and defeatable Royal Navy!
Most pirate stories end with Commodore Fuss-Pants waving a fist at the horizon while Captain Swank Stache sails off into the sunset having foiled him again. And the rest of the naval officers and sailors may as well be StormTroopers in powdered wigs for all their effectiveness at taking down our heroes. Now, it’s impossible for any military outfit to be an impenetrable force, but have you ever heard the words to Rule Britannia? (Also known as that song in cartoons they play when they show anything British.) “Rule Britannia! Britannia RULE THE WAVES!” That’s not just pomp and circumstance. England is known for tea, manners, Monty Python, and having one of the best Navy’s in the world, and that’s been the case for a very long time. They’re an island, for crying out loud! You think they can’t handle a bunch of unwashed upstarts sailing around the Caribbean? Even Blackbeard, arguably the most well known pirate of all time, met his end at the hands of Royal Navy officer Robert Maynard.
Sure, there were inept people in the Navy, mostly because a lot of enlistment happened when a large man beat you upside the head with a stocking full of rocks and you woke up on a Navy ship being handed a rope. Followed by a quick whiplash if you didn’t hustle. The conditions were so bad they had a little trouble getting people volunteer. In fact one of the reasons people turned to piracy was that being part of a democratic society that split wages evenly and even offered a form of health/life insurance was a hell of a lot better than being starved to death doing a job you were forced to do at gunpoint. But even with all that against it, The British Navy was a well oiled juggernaut of His Majesty’s justice and no pirates actively sought them out looking for trouble. No matter how hilarious it would be to hide a pig in Commodore Fuss-Pant’s Quarters.
I’d get to stay a woman!
“Hang on!” you say, “There were women pirates for real! It’s not just in novels and movies!” Of course there were. In fact, the most successful pirate of all time was a female (Cheng I Sao, who pretty much ruled all water, including bathtubs). Women went to sea disguised as men and got away with it, but remember I said, “I’d get to STAY a woman.” Women sailing as women and being open about what sex they were was MUCH rarer. In fact it was almost non-existent. Cheng I Sao was the wife of a Pirate and when he died she grabbed the reins and those loyal to her husband followed her, especially when they saw she could take ships and rule with an iron fist. But even the two of the most infamous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, did not start out being openly women. They dressed as men for the same reason as all of those undiscovered ladies did. Women were deemed, “unlucky” to have onboard, but it wasn’t because they brought 13 years bad luck. It was because having a lady present would “distract the men” and cause their “animal instincts to flair” and there’d be fighting over who got to “have her.” What I’m trying to tactfully say with the overabundance of quotes is that women were afraid for their lives and well-being being surrounded by criminals, and rightly so.
Life was tough for women all over. The options were limited and if you were poor they were even worse and even less appealing. But much like the men who deserted from the Navy, some ladies decided the risk of harm on their terms outweighed a life on shore under someone else’s thumb. And some were able to pull it off beautifully, convincing everyone around them that they were a man or a young boy. There were some cases that a crew would get captured and during the trial an officer would point to the guy you’d been cleaning chum buckets with for months and declare that they had found him to be a woman. It was like The Crying Game in reverse. And with pirates. Wait, that sounds awesome, make a note of that and I’ll get to a screenplay later!
Getting back to lady pirates of history, it was very rare for a woman to actively identify as such, let alone take command of a fleet. Anne Bonny started out on the DL, but she also lucked out in that her boyfriend was the Captain and she had already proven herself as capable as them. Of course her gutting a guy for having issues with it also helped to send a firm message to any would-be misogynists. But those instances are very few and far between.
And since I am the Captain of my own ship, and look great in a corset, I’ll just go ahead and go with the fantasy on this one.