Pirate Culture, the State, Capitalism and the Revolutionary Atlantic

Nowadays pirates are cool, and I'm not talking about people who download music and movies illegally (that's a whole other can of worms). I'm talking about buccaneers: swashbuckling, rum drinking, peg legged, eye patched
 pirates. Not only can the 'Jolly Roger,' be seen in dorm rooms across the country, but skull and crossbones motifs are popping up in the unlikiest of places such as on bibs for babies or backpacks for little girls (they make skulls cute with bows and rhinestones). Heck, even the Disney Corporation sensed that there was money to be made in this trend, coming out with their Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Added to that, the big growth in Pirate Culture where grown adults dress up and talk like pirates in normal day to day life, means seeing a pirate at the mall is now more likely than seeing a pagan in a purple velvet cape (that's so 90s). What's behind this surge of pirate cool? Just another wacky bandwagon fad that will fade as quickly as it erupted or is it a reflection of something deeper?

Oftentimes when viewed in the present, trends, fads and wacky little movements seem to be just oddball occurrences, related to nothing else. However, from the perspective of time, it's easy to see how many of these trends were reflections or rejections of other trends in mainstream society. As PL Frank notes in his blog, Not For Public Consumption, "fads and trends reflect where our heads are at—at the social level, that is. A society that focuses on being carefree, wholesome, and fun-loving (or in denial) creates a craze for Hula-Hoops and Slinkys. A focus on empowerment, control and good-conquers-evil brought about Teenage [Mutant] Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. In the 1990's we saw the hit board game 'Let's Go To The Mall'...in which children get credit cards and the object is to be the first to charge up the most without having your credit card purchases declined." Trends and fads fill a need that we have as a society, but what need does the burgeoning Pirate Culture and omnipresent pirate imagery of today serve?

Piracy and pirates have existed since ancient times and have been active all over the world, even today the UN is doing battle with missile armed pirates off the coast of Somalia; however, for all intents and purposes, the pirates and pirate culture that I refer to in this article are based around the historical Caribbean pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries and the modern day revivalists who also use this era's Caribbean or sometimes more exotically, South Seas, aesthetic. That means Black Beard and Captain Jack Sparrow, not ancient Phoenicians and modern day Somalis.

Lots of different things come to mind when one thinks of your stereotypical pirates: drunkenness, eye patches, wooden legs, walking the plank, brutality, beards, parrots, violence, whoreing and more drunkenness. For some, that's the appeal, being rowdy, yelling arrrrr and using a veritable treasure trove of colorful dialogue ("avast ye matey", and the like). But perhaps there is also a deeper meaning to the appeal of pirate culture today.

Pirates were free men and women, who lived lives of autonomy and adventure, directing their ships where they wished, staying in idyllic islands for however long they wanted (before resorts marred the beaches) and took what they needed to survive. In today's modern world full of rules and regulations, boundaries, borders and patrols, such a lifestyle speaks powerfully to our own inner human needs for independence and freedom from the powers that oppress us and make us work 9-5 in a gray cubicle so we can pay off the mortgage. With our economic structure crumbling around us, you can stand in the rubble and wonder if it was all worth it: not only are all your savings and material possessions gone, but you wasted your life trying to get this stuff and the only memories you have are of your drab workplace.

During the Golden Age of piracy between 1650 to 1725, rules that regulated the life of ordinary people were much stricter than the ones we suffer under today; however just because your handcuffs are more comfortable does not mean that you are free. Our reigns have been loosened only because the world has become our jail: there is no escape. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries there was a way out of a peasant's life of starvation, brutalization and misery for the benefit of unimaginably wealthy elites and that was the freedom and self fulfillment of piracy. Like the many European settlers who escaped the brutal oppression of their colonial government in the New World and the near slavery of indentured servitude by running away to live with Native Americans, most of the men who became pirates escaped from the unimaginably cruel conditions of the Royal Navy and the merchant marine as well as slavery on sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Contrary to many of the popular images we have of pirates as brutal, vicious fiends without honor, joining a pirate crew was more like a liberation for the average sailor. Conditions in the Navy and merchant marine were brutal and strict. Regular sailors shared in none of the profits that they made for the ship's wealthy land-based owner while taking all the risks for miserable pay and even worse treatment. The power structure on these ships was strictly hierarchical and regular sailors had no input whatsoever in any decisions that their captain made. Discipline was harsh and intolerance for difference, whether religion, skin color, gender or sexual orientation, abounded. As Dr. Johnson famously observed: "no man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in jail with the chance of being drowned... A man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company." It is no wonder then, that many pirate crews were easily recruited and joined their 'attackers' as soon as their officers were no longer in a position of power over them.

Pirate ships were veritable utopias on the sea. Democratically and horizontally organized, each crewman had a say in what he or she would be participating in and all shared in the risks and gains. Each crew operated under a written pact that was agreed on and signed by all crewmen. These pacts commonly made provisions for crewmen who were injured in raids in the form of compensation. Pirate crews were also highly diverse and included people of various skin colors as well as women. There was no glass ceiling, anyone could be captain if they proved themselves worthy. These people were proletarian rebels, dropouts from an unjust and unequal society. They took Gandhi's advice before he ever spoke it: "be the change you want to see in the world," and acted in an autonomous and egalitarian fashion, despite the dangers and constant persecution. They set up "pirate utopias" on uninhabited and remote islands which were like free autonomous zones organized with an anarchist political structure.

Contrary to popular notions, pirates were not just rough, brutal men interested only in rum and women. The Caribbean islands at the time were a teeming mass of outcasts, political deportees and so called religious extremists - literally anyone who dared to challenge the state, the monarchy and capitalist exploitation. There were deported Irishmen, Scottish Royalists, religious dissenters, exiled conspirators of various uprisings and plots against the King as well as the defeated proto-anarchist revolutionaries of the English Civil War of the 1640s, the Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchy Men and many others who fled persecution and joined revolutionary pirate crews. This revolutionary consciousness can be seen in the words of one pirate Captain Bellamy who spoke these words to the captain of a merchant vessel his crew had just seized and who had refused to join them: "They villify us, the Scoundrels do, when there is only this Difference, they rob the Poor under the Cover of Law, forsooth, and we plunder the Rich under the Protection of our own Courage; had you not better make One of us, than sneak after the Arses of those Villains for Employment?"

These pirates were so successful that their very existence threatened the mighty and fast-growing empires of Europe that were scrambling over each other to gain wealth and territory in the New World. Not only did they present an alternative lifestyle based on equality, freedom and solidarity (something that had to be crushed in order for the wealthy to continue exploiting everyone else so that they could become even more wealthy), but their brazen and often very successful attacks on shipping in the lucrative waters of the Caribbean deprived these growing empires of both manpower and material goods. Clearly, something had to be done.

It is ironic that the early stages of piracy were both encouraged and often state-sanctioned as in times of war between rivals England and Spain. Queen Elizabeth found it convenient to allow sea adventurers such as Sir Francis Drake to attack Spanish ships while telling Spain that it was out of her hands since the man was clearly a pirate. This set up however, was not the free, autonomous piracy and so the crewmen on these privateer ships suffered the same depravation and exploitation as the men in the navy.

Once piracy had exhausted its "legitimate" uses for the state, a campaign to eradicate piracy once and for all was put into place that can be credited with many of our current ideas about the viciousness and brutality of pirates. It was a vast propaganda campaign meant to destroy any opposition to the power of the exploitative state and the cannibalistic capitalist system of reproduction. They were slandered as riotous, blood thirsty, sodomists, and vicious men while the penalty for piracy was death. The famous Captain Kidd was hanged and then his body, covered in tar to preserve it, was placed in a gibbet, a sort of iron cage and hung at Tilbury Point as a reminder to all seamen of the risks of escaping from wage slavery. And thus, piracy declined due to the steady retaliation of the major European powers that were tightening their political and economic grip on parts of the world that had previously been on the very fringes of civilization.

Pirate Culture of today that emulates these free revolutionaries might be seen as an outcome and, ultimately, a rejection, of the devastation that the last 500 years of imperialism and capitalist exploitation has wrought not just on our environment or in the so called "Third World" but on our very psyches. Why do we no longer have the choice to live free like the pirates of yesteryear? Our American democracy is supposedly about choice but our choices seem to be limited to Coke or Pepsi, Democrat or Republican, green laptop or pink laptop - in reality it is all the same. What I find heartening about this pirate fad is that maybe more and more people are seeing that there is more to life than ceaseless accumulation of material goods and that true freedom means a life outside the structure of the state, which is inherently hierarchical and violent. Only time will tell where pirate culture goes from here and if it will be crushed or co-opted by the powers that be.

Until then, fly the black flag, matey! Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

SOURCES:
http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no8/pirate.html
http://plfrank.blogspot.com/2008/10/american-fads-and-trends.html
Published by Agnieszka Marczak

Posted by Under The Black Flag on 4:39 π.μ.. Filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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