The now famous “International Talk Like A Pirate Day” gave me the inspiration to write a few lines on the infamous raiders of the sea. Let’s be honest, every boy has at one time fantasised about roaming the sea, boarding enemy ships and vanishing to tropical islands with rich bounty. At least this is how was when I was a boy. It would be interesting to find out whether kids today still have the same dream and whether the idea of treasure hunting has the same lure to it as it had for me. And who are the people who still have pirate dreams today?
First up – what is a pirate, and for how long have they been around?
Pirates and piracy are a type of robbery at sea. But: pirates do not only raid ships, they also attack small costal towns.
In contrast to pirates, freebooters have their governments’ permission to raid foreign ships. A letter of marque gives them permission to do so. These freebooters are also called privateers, which means that they are private persons who are not subjected to any kind of state authority. They do, however, abide by the general rules of martial law and hold a kind of military status. Pirates are often confused with freebooters (or privateers), and another word – buccaneer – has been most popular to tar all with the same brush. In Europe, sovereign states emerged in the 16th and 17th century, and simultaneously freebooters received letters of marque to raid merchant ships sailing under a foreign flag. In times of peace they mostly became ordinary pirates then. Most notable examples are Francis Drake or Jean Ango.
The heyday of ancient piracy occurred about a decade before Christ when there was many a ship causing trouble in the Mediterranean Sea. Another hot period for sea raiders emerged in the 18th century when the Antilles and the Indian Ocean attracted many pirates as cargo vessels sought to return rich bounty to their homelands. But these homelands reacted and send out warships to fight the plague of piracy. As a result of this, pirates gradually disappeared along with their ships. (Source)
One of the most famous pirates is definitely a guy called Blackbeard. English-born Edward Teeth saw the light of day in 1680 (albeit a recent study suggests that he was born about 10 years earlier in the USA…). Blackbeard turned to piracy in 1716 after having served under Queen Elisabeth I to fight the Spanish Armada for about 10 years. In 1717 he put the fear of God into the seafaring world:
Born 1682, this pirate and tea drinker (legend goes it that he tipped away rum – at least that’s what his crew said) captured some 100 ships and invented the pirate codex which any half-decent pirate abided by back in the day.
You can read the whole codex here.
Olivier Levasseur aka la Buse
He roamed and terrified the Indian Ocean in the 18th century, and he allegedly hid a treasure on an island called La Réunion. Unfortunately this hasn’t been found until today. His bounty was brimming with diamonds, pearls and silverware, and his biggest claim to fame was based on capturing the Portuguese ship of Goa’s viceroy at the shore of the island of Saint-Denis.
Wikipedia offers a quite extensive overview on the most notable pirates. It’s a striking fact that most of them were either English or Dutch ;-)
Pirates are still around today, even when they were on the brink of extinction in the 20th century. And, of course, pirates have never left the realm of illegality.
In the 21st century, piracy has experienced a new boost. The IMB (International Maritime Bureau) registered 406 cases of piracy in 2009. 153 ships were captured, 49 people abducted and 120 people were shot at. As many as 1,052 crewmembers were taken hostage. 68 people got injured, 8 were killed. 217 cases alone took place at the shores of North-East Africa. Moreover, pirate attacks that used to happen in the Gulf of Aden are more likely to occur in the Indian Ocean today, some 1,000 miles off the coast of Somalia.
The Sirus Star was the biggest ship captured so far. Somalia pirates seized the boat on 15 November 2008. Months of uncertainty followed and made this incident stand out in a rather discomforting way.
(Source – Extract from “Modern Piracy” )
So what’s this got to do with pirate language?
Why not just give this somewhat antiquated language a go and have some fun! Next time I dress up as a pirate I will try a few lines on my son, such as “Time to clear the decks, you blackguard varlet of the night!” So many phrases and insults stem from the old days of piracy, and even someone like a cast away was regarded as a villain of the deepest dye as he could not be trusted anymore. This poor soul was then called a miscreant. His soul was thought to be deprived because he had turned apostate (lost his faith deliberately) and sold his soul to the devils of the sea. As you can see, picking up a few turns of phrase will improve your pirate jargon in a wicked way, and you are bound to impress your peers by calling them e.g. an unmitigated varlet or outright miscreant of the deepest dye.
Here you can find a short introduction and dictionary, in case you feel like learning some more lingo.
And this in an interesting buccaneer video to whet your appetite
Piracy in literature (novels, memoirs, reports and narrations)
A few works on piracy:
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
A general History of the Pirates, Daniel Defoe
Pirates: A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, Charles Johnson
Pirates and Privateers, Jeremy Pascall
Piracy Today: Fighting Villainy on the High Seas, John C. Payne
Deadly Waters: Inside the hidden world of Somalia’s pirates, Jay Bahadu
Piracy in movies (an extract)
The Eagle of the Sea by F.Lloyd – 1926
Treasure Island by Victor Fleming; Clyde de Vinna, Ray June and Harold Rosson – 1934
In the Wake of the Bounty by Charles Chauvel – 1933
The Buccaneer by Cecil B. de Mille – 1938
Treasure Island by Byron Haskin – 1950
Caribbean by Edward Ludwig – 1952
Blackbeard’s Ghost by Robert Stevenson - 1968
Treasure Island by Raoul Ruiz – 1994
Pirates of the Caribbean by Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer
Phantasy pirates (cartoons and video games)
This list is also non-exhaustive:
Captain Harlock, known as Albator in France:
The space pilot (created by Leiji Matsumoto) is a manga and anime hero. His father Great Harlock is also a pirate. He is the captain of the spaceship Shadow of Deaths and later of the famous Arcadia.
The Red Corsair
He is one of the protagonists of the cartoon series of the same name, parodied in the comic cartoon Asterix.
He is Peter Pan’s adversary in a story written by James M. Barrie.
A character in Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – the infamous captain of a privateer ship called Walrus dies when entrusting his helmsman Billy Bones with a treasure map.
The pirate in chief in Pirates of the Caribbean # 1-4
Pirates and illustrations
By Tiina Ylikorpi:
And let’s not forget that there are still a few (unofficial) treasure maps left. At least we can dream…
Who’s your favourite pirate?