The Appeal of Piracy

The Appeal of Piracy

The popular image of piracy appeals to the repressed desire to rebel against the constraints of civilized society. Pirates, though violent, are also free-living, wandering, fearless, cunning and always in pursuit of ill-gotten plunder that will allow them to sail into port and spend weeks having a grand time.

We envy the free lives of characters like this and tend to ignore the harsh realities of starving pirate crews, killing and the fact that most ports were closed to them.

A pirate is a robber who commits crimes at sea. There are such people committing crimes today. The South China Sea is a hotbed of pirate activity where ships and boats are routinely attacked near the Philippines. The modern-day pirates use speedboats and automatic weapons. They are very dangerous people and do not fit the popular romantic image of pirates which we seem only to apply to pirates of the past.

The pirate Long John Silver in Treasure Island sums up the pirate lifestyle this way:

Here it is about gentlemen of fortune. They live rough, and they risk swinging, but they eat and drink like fighting cocks, and when a cruise is done, why it’s hundreds of pounds instead of hundreds of farthings in their pockets. Now the most goes for rum and a good fling, and to sea again in their shirts.

Long John Silver is talking about how pirates live free and make a good bit of money while doing it. They spend their earnings on merry-making in some port before heading out to sea again.


A painting made by an eyewitness to a pirate attack
at the beginning of the 1800’s.

If the reality of piracy is so brutal and anti-social, why have we been so interested in putting it in our literature and our movies?

Possibly, the answer is that piracy is a form of escape from the constraints of modern society. Just as the American West of the nineteenth century is romanticized and idealized because it allows us to express the wilder, adventurous, unrestrained parts of ourselves, piracy is turned into an adventurous escape from what we know as normal life.

Next: The Spanish Main

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