Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why Pirates Should Walk the Plank: Resources

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why Pirates Should Walk the Plank: Resources

Article excerpt

To children they are magnificent, the stuff of legend, but the threat they pose at sea is still very real. A. W. Purdue reports.

They roamed the Spanish Main in their armed ships, flying the skull and crossbones. And, though many of the most famous were British, they plundered the cargoes of Spanish and British ships alike.

Fuelled by copious quantities of rum, walking the plank was a favourite means of disposing of their enemies, and their battered bodies bore witness to their violent lives. Black eye-patches dramatically covered useless eyes; Long John Silver famously lost a leg and acquired a wooden one (as well as a parrot); and in Peter Pan's Neverland, Captain Hook's name came from the terrifying replacement he found for his missing hand.

Such cliched images of pirates have been embedded in our minds by classic literature and films. And, of course, there is the legendary language and the childhood jokes they spawned: "Why are they called pirates? Because they aargh."

As with all the best literary and dramatic genres, the pirate story continues to evolve. Johnny Depp's magnificent, strutting, camp caricature Captain Jack Sparrow in the film series Pirates of the Caribbean is now the ultimate pirate in popular culture.

The relationship between pirates and their national governments was always ambivalent. France, Britain and later the US all employed privateers (ships issued with a licence or letter of marque) to prey upon the ships of their enemies. There was a fine line between the privateer and the pirate. British governments disavowed privateers and pirates when it suited them, but continued to find them occasionally useful.

Henry Morgan, who was alternatively privateer and pirate, ended up as a knight, an admiral and governor of Jamaica. But such Caribbean buccaneers of the late 17th and 18th centuries were not the only pirates to terrorise the high seas or make raids on peaceful coastal settlements throughout history. Vikings can be considered pirates - when they raped and pillaged, if not when they conquered and settled - and there have been Chinese, Japanese and Indian pirates.

When Gilbert and Sullivan wrote their comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, the juxtaposition of pirates and a peaceful Cornish peninsula, which was at the time growing in popularity among Victorian holidaymakers, may have seemed playful. But a century earlier, a different sort of pirate had raided villages in Devon and Cornwall.

The Barbary corsairs were certainly pirates, though some could claim the status of privateers when capturing the ships of enemies of the Ottoman sultan. From their bases in Islamic North Africa, the corsairs operated throughout the Mediterranean and, from the early 17th century, posed a major threat both to shipping and to towns and villages. In their galleys and square riggers, they captured thousands of ships. Long stretches of the coasts of Spain and Italy had to be abandoned, while those fortified hill towns - those which modern tourists so delight in now - illustrate the absolute terror the invaders engendered in those who built them.

Pirates ventured further west and shipping between Britain and Ireland suffered from their depredations. Baltimore in Ireland was sacked, and along the southwestern English coast villagers and seamen were vulnerable to attack and capture.

It was capture that inspired the greatest fear, for this meant slavery and being lashed while manacled to an oar as a galley slave, or being sold in the slave markets of North Africa or the Middle East. …

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