Real pirates bore little resemblance to the legends, Pitt scholar says
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Marcus Rediker enjoys a good Pirate movie. In fact, he's even hoping to make one himself. But if the University of Pittsburgh scholar eventually gets his pirate story on the big screen, it won't bear a lot of resemblance to Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" series or the Errol Flynn swashbucklers of yore.
Certain Hollywood pirate myths -- buried treasure, walking the plank and routinely swinging onto the decks of other ships for fierce hand-to-hand combat -- will have to go by the boards, he said.
But other elements -- peg legs, rum and parrots, for instance -- could stay in his film, as long as they were put in their proper historical context, as befits a man who has spent 30 years studying the real story of the pirates who roamed the Atlantic in the late 1600s and early 1700s.
Dr. Rediker, a lanky man who has taught history at Pitt for 12 years and written several books about maritime life in the 1700s, knows he has to tread carefully when he tries to reshape people's ideas about pirates. Thanks to such children's classics as "Treasure Island" and "Peter Pan" and all the movies that they have spawned, he knows that "people grew up with a fantasy life about pirates, so when I talk to people about my research, I can see in their eyes that childhoods are at stake."
So he deconstructs delicately.
Pirates didn't bury their treasure, he explains, because they didn't expect to live long enough to make it worth saving for a rainy day.
And while some creative buccaneer may have blindfolded an enemy and made him walk off a plank into the ocean, pirates generally tried to avoid violence whenever they could, Dr. Rediker said.
If they could get a merchant ship's crew to surrender in abject fear by raising the Jolly Roger, that meant the pirates could take what plunder they wanted and throw the rest overboard with minimal loss of life.
If the crew resisted them, though, or its captain had a reputation for brutalizing his sailors, pirates would often wreak punishment that made the plank look like a walk in the park.
Mutilations, vicious floggings, point-blank shootings and hangings were not uncommon in those cases, and provided lessons in terror that increased the chances that subsequent crews would surrender without a fight when pirates approached.
And what about the Hollywood artifacts that contain a kernel of truth?
Peg legs, eye patches and missing hands were depressingly common, not just for pirates, but for all sailors of the era, Dr. Rediker said.
The opportunities for maiming were numerous. Most cargo was carried in heavy casks that could easily be dislodged in heavy storms; equipment could plummet from the rigging; and in a naval battle, the amount of shrapnel created by a cannonball tearing through a wooden ship was truly horrific, he said.Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Dr. Marcus Rediker sits at his desk at the University of Pittsburgh. Behind him is a copy of a 1774 map of the West Indies, prime pirate territory during that time.
Click photo for larger image.
Audio highlights from a conversation with historian Dr. Marcus Rediker about the real pirates of the high seas:
Pirates of the 18th century turned to life on the high seas in response to a brutal world
Above: Erroll Flynn in the 1935 movie "Captain Blood."
Below: Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."
Injuries were so common that the majority of beggars in port towns were former sailors, he said, and pirates themselves pioneered the concept of making extra payments to comrades who were maimed -- an early version of disability insurance.
Rum, distilled from West Indies molasses, was indeed the drink of choice for sailors of the time (in its watered-down form it was known as grog).
Pirates drank more rum than other sailors, because a big part of the pirate life was to shuck off the rationing of food and drink that they had experienced on merchant and naval ships.
In fact, pirates conducted so much business "over a Large Bowl of Punch," one account said, that if a man didn't drink, he was "under Suspicion of being in a Plot" against fellow pirates.
Parrots, like the one on Long John Silver's shoulder, or monkeys like the one in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, were common sailors' pets, Dr. Rediker said, "because those things were symbols of having been to exotic lands."
The biggest thing missing in pirate films, he said, is a sense of why men became pirates in the first place.
It wasn't just the lure of a criminal lifestyle, he said. And unlike the Errol Flynn movies, very few pirates were romantic aristocrats who'd had a reversal of fortune.
"Real pirates were not aristocratic," Dr. Rediker said. "Real pirates were rough and rugged working people who put their lives on the line in hopes of having a different way of life and getting money in ways they could not expect to get in normal British or American society."
In the late 1600s, many pirates got their start as privateers working for England and the Netherlands, attacking the richly laden merchant vessels of France and Spain.
But in the last and biggest wave of piracy, which lasted just a decade, from 1716 to 1726, many pirates were sailors who had mutinied in protest against poor pay, execrable food and brutal discipline by their captains.
The process then fed on itself, because whenever pirates boarded a merchant ship, they would ask how many of the crew wanted to join them, and there were usually several volunteers.
For sailors on slave ships, joining the pirates also meant avoiding death from African diseases, and the possibility of having to fight a slave rebellion, something that happened on at least 10 percent of all slave voyages.
The complicated relationship between slaving and piracy is another slice of history that Hollywood has ignored.
Pirates liked capturing slave ships because of their size and configuration.
A typical 200-ton merchant ship carried a crew of only 17, Dr. Rediker said, to allow maximum space for cargo. But a typical pirate crew might have 80 to 90 men.
Because slave ships were built with a second deck to transport the slaves, pirates could adapt them more easily for their large crews and extra cannon.
While the pirates may have wanted the slave ships, most of the time, they didn't want the slaves, because they had no easy way to sell them.
If they happened to capture a fully loaded slave ship, the pirates often would ask many of the slaves if they wanted to join, which explains why there were so many documented cases of African pirates.
Pirate crews not only came from all nations and races, Dr. Rediker said, but included a smattering of women, the most famous of whom were Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who joined the crew of Calico Jack Rackam in the West Indies.
Bonny and Read originally went to sea disguised as men, something a couple hundred women may have done over several decades, according to records of the East India Co., Dr. Rediker said.
The two women proved their physical mettle as pirates, he said, and one popular account said they were among the only sailors who stayed on deck to fight against a vessel that came to capture them in 1720.
The final golden period of piracy that included Bonny and Read was also the era of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, and the most fearsome pirate of them all, Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts, whose crews captured more than 400 ships in just four years.
Dr. Rediker, who grew up in Tennessee and Virginia and now lives in Squirrel Hill, has no family history of piracy or seafaring.
He became fascinated with pirates when he was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, searching for ways to describe how common people had shaped history.
When he discovered there were voluminous books, letters and legal documents from the 1700s that described pirates, it started him on a journey that continues today.
One of the most fascinating lessons he learned along the way, Dr. Rediker said, is that pirates created for themselves one of the most democratic societies of the time.
Because they had lived under the harsh thumbs of often aristocratic captains, pirates were determined to elect their own captains. They also drew up "articles" that specified how they would live together, and voted on whether crew members had violated those rules and how they should be punished.
The only time pirate captains had unquestioned control of their crews was when they were on a raid. The rest of the time, a raucous, argumentative form of democracy prevailed.
Telling the story of that pirate society is one of the main reasons why Dr. Rediker would like to see his research turned into a film. He has teamed with Hollywood producer and history buff Alessandro Camon, and they are shopping around a synopsis in hopes of finding a studio.
The 2,000 or so pirates who operated in the Atlantic in the early 1700s disappeared almost as suddenly as they arose.
The beginning of the end came in 1722, when "Black Bart" Roberts was killed while fighting a British man-of-war off the coast of Africa and much of his crew was captured.
At the same time, many pirates were being captured and hanged in mass executions up and down the coast of America and Africa.
The risk of dying at a young age was something every Atlantic sailor of the 1700s was aware of, and those who went into piracy were under no illusion they would live a long life.
In fact, the skull and crossbones on the Jolly Roger were borrowed from a symbol that captains entered in their logbooks whenever a sailor died during a voyage, Dr. Rediker said.
"Pirates understood that mortality ruled in the world in which they lived," he said. "They wanted a better life even if for a short period, and so they selected this symbol and said: 'Let us live under the flag of King Death -- a merry life but a short one.' "
Among pirates who were hanged, many went to their deaths defiantly.
One account said that on the gallows in Boston in 1726, pirate William Fly's last words expressed his hope that "all Masters of Vessels might take Warning ... to pay their Sailors their Wages when due, and to treat them better [because] their Barbarity to them made so many turn Pyrates (sic)."
Dr. Rediker said he believes that kind of commitment to freedom in the face of danger and death is one reason so many people remain fascinated with pirates today.
"Pirates had a sense of themselves as morally superior to the rulers of the world," he said, "and in a sense, they won that battle. The people who hanged them are by and large not remembered in popular culture, but pirates are -- they lost the battle but won the war."
For more information on Dr.Rediker and his books, go to www.marcusrediker.com.
First Published July 23, 2006 12:00 am