Pirates: much more than hooks, peg legs, eye patches and boarding in the Caribbean

Piratas somalíes en un fotograma de la película 'Capitán Phillips'.
Somali pirates in a frame from the movie ‘Captain Phillips’.

Three things are very clear after reading Pirates, a story from the Vikings to today (Criticism, 2021), by Peter Lehr: one, piracy is much more than hooks, peg legs, eye patches and collisions in the Caribbean; Two, being a pirate has never been a bargain, not in Blackbeard’s time wielding a saber or now in Somali waters with an assault rifle or RPG grenade launcher; and three: despite what it may seem, pirate is a job on the rise. In his book, an exciting and revealing journey under the banner of the skull and the tibias (although it is also explained that this is only one of the many pirate flags), the student of maritime violence and professor of terrorism studies at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) dismantles clichés, traces a global history of piracy extending horizons to the Far East and the present day, and puts in unexpected connection the victims of Calico Jack, Henry Morgan or Long Bean Avery with the kidnapping of Richard Phillips, captain of the container ship MV Maersk Alabama who played Tom Hanks in the cinema.

All this telling surprising and shocking episodes, tactics and famous races (and their endings: the Olonés, buccaneer born very predestined in Sables d’Olonne, shattered alive; Blackbeard with his guts out, so many hanged). And with data like that the pirates today, far from the image of a Douglas Fairbanks, an Errol Flynn or a Tyrone Power, capture pleasure boats and yachts in the Caribbean to reuse them in the drug trade, previously throwing overboard to the occupants; that the island of Pulau, in Indonesia, is the contemporary equivalent of the legendary Mompracem of the Sandokan of Salgari, that the French captain Louis Le Golif was nicknamed Borgnefesse, Medioculo, because a bullet had destroyed his buttock, or that a buccaneer wasted a night 565 real eight (the equivalent of 23. 000 euros) in Port Royal only to see a prostitute naked.

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Why traditionally when we think of piracy we think of the Caribbean of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its peg leg and eyepatch villains? “So far,” replies Lehr (from 60 years old and born in Berlin), “research on the phenomenon of piracy tended to be focused on the West: carried out by Western scholars who were interested in Western demonstrations of piracy, written for an equally western audience who wanted to read about that topic and not another. Studies on non-Western manifestations of piracy were comparatively rare, and generally directed at other researchers, which made them very arduous. In my opinion, what hindered the investigation of other forms of piracy was the belief that it was a Western phenomenon and that all other types of non-Western incursions into the sea were simply self-defense against aggression in the form of colonialism and imperialism. ”

Was the pirate archetype set by Stevenson at The island of the treasure? “It begins to form in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, with ballad and pamphlet authors traveling from city to city in Europe telling lurid stories of riches that can be obtained at sea, about buccaneers in the Caribbean and ships. Spanish and Portuguese treasury. Then came the first books on pirates, such as Daniel Defoe’s General History of Pirates (first edition in 1724), which further developed the theme of pirates as rogue swashbuckling adventurers larger tan life. Stevenson borrowed from there for his novel, and so did others like JM Barrie when he invented Captain Hook for Peter Pan . The rest is history, so to speak … ”

What are the myths around pirates: did they bury treasure? “Normally not, the only one we know of was Captain Kidd: he buried some of his treasure somewhere near Long Island before sailing to New York. He was accused of having exceeded the limits of his commission as a privateer, and therefore of being a pirate. So his hidden treasure was conceived as a bargaining chip to buy, bribing, his way to freedom. But it failed. As for the other pirates, they all seem to have spent their riches as fast as they got them, enjoying the coveted gay life in taverns and brothels. Or they didn’t come up with enough treasure to make it worth burying. Keep in mind, to begin with, that only very few ships that the pirates captured carried treasure; most carried much more mundane cargoes such as grain, fish, barrels of pork, sugar, wine, and so on. The consequence that there were no buried treasures of gold, silver, gems and pearls was, of course, that there were no maps to find them either. ”

Image from the movie series ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.

The patch, the peg leg… “Well, being a pirate was very dangerous, and there was a high risk of being killed or seriously injured in action. Losing an eye, an arm, or a leg was part of this risk. However, I doubt that there were many pirates with a peg leg or an iron hook for a hand who were still part of a crew: after all, you needed to be quick and agile to be an effective pirate. Did they sing? That of “five men on the dead man’s chest and a bottle of rum …”. “I don’t know if precisely that, but without a doubt they sang, singing raised morale and was common in the regular navies of the time. As for the real pirates of the Caribbean, some of them seem to have even employed musicians for that purpose. ”

Were they gay, democratic, cruel, romantic, and rascal swordsmen as they are portrayed in novels and movies? “That’s more of a stereotype, of course: pirates as happy, romantic companions and swashbuckling . Piracy was (and still is) a deadly and dangerous business in which all those who entered the profession due to romanticism and other naive notions were quickly wiped out. For example, the “pirate knight” Stede Bonnet, a rich and boring landowner from Barbados: became a pirate in 1700, bought his own ship (getting a boat is one of the most difficult requirements, as well as essential, to become a pirate) and hired a crew, and was promptly stripped of command by Captain Blackbeard (Edward Teach) when he met him in Nassau. Because whatever Bonnet was, what he wasn’t is a leader of men and a tough fighter. The pirate career is not for the soft or shy. ”

El autor de 'Piratas', Peter Lehr.
The author of ‘Pirates’, Peter Lehr.

Regarding if the pirates were cruel, “they certainly were. Some of them were psychopathic and cruel just because. But most of them were cruel, more for tactical and instrumental considerations. It had to do with the business model: if they had a reputation for ruthlessness, the psychological battle was won, the probability that the crews of the ships they encountered would surrender without a fight was quite high, and also that the crew or the passengers would not dare. to hide valuables for fear of being horribly tortured. In addition, violence fostered team spirit and made everyone complicit, preventing desertions. Democratic? In fact, the royal pirates of the Caribbean elected and deposed captains. In a sense, there was some democracy involved, except during action, when the captain’s authority was absolute. However, in non-Western demonstrations of piracy, democracy was conspicuously absent. The Chinese pirate fleets were organized as hierarchically as the Chinese Navy of the time, while the Malay pirates active in the South China Sea (the Iranun, Balangingi and Dayaks of the Sea, for example) were tribal warriors who followed their leader. of war. Therefore, to see pirates as democratic and even ‘proto-socialists’ as some writers like to call it is simply to romanticize them. ”

Throwing captives overboard from a plank… “There were some cases where that happened, but they were very rare. The practice is much more typical of imaginary pirates, such as those in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, than the real pirates ”. Peter Lehr also narrates the skull and tibias. “Such flags were actually quite common, but only on the pirates of the Caribbean (the real ones). Pirate Captains Richard Worley (active at 1718 – 1719), Emanuel Wynne (1700), Henry Long Ben Avery (1694 – 1694) and Christopher Condent (1719 – 1721) they had flags of skulls and crossbones; others waved flags with skeletons, skulls and sabers, skeletons and hourglasses. However, outside of the Western piracy phenomenon, such flags were rare: red or black flags were enough to instill fear. Some Chinese pirates used flags with the ubiquitous yin and yang symbols. ”

Jean Peters en 'La mujer pirata'.
Jean Peters in ‘The pirate woman’.

In something that fiction and reality have been coupled with is the existence of pirate women: the Dragon Lady from the comic Terry and the pirates, Maureen O’Hara’s Captain Prudence Spitfire Stevens in Corsair Island , or Geena Davis’s Morgan in The Island of Severed Heads have their royal equivalents in the Chinese pirate queen Zheng Yi Sao, who commanded a fleet of 400 rushes, and the famous Anne Bonny (who mocked Rackham as cowardly) and Mary Read.

To the question of how the popular imaginary about the pirate should change to conform to reality, the scholar responds: “People are free to maintain their romantic notions of pirates as swashbuckling antiheroes, but you have to understand that this is Hollywood fiction, not reality. The real pirates were tough criminals who looted, raped and murdered. I think, under the impression of Somali piracy, and perhaps with the help of the hit movie Captain Phillips , people are now aware that actual piracy is a heinous crime and not a romantic affair. ”

What is the history of piracy that captivates you the most? “There are a couple, the first being that of Alonso de Contreras, who, strictly speaking, was not a pirate but a privateer (that is, a pirate with a license in the service of the king or the Knights of Saint John in Malta); the second is that of John Ward, who became a very successful Berber privateer quite late in his life after having defected from the English Royal Navy. this. His is a story of sheer audacity ”. He also finds the story of the German pirate Martin Wintergerst very interesting, which appears in his book: a baker who ended up as a member of the crew of a Dutch corsair by chance and then continued sailing wherever the wind took him as a corsair, pirate or simple sailor for about twenty years, crossing the Mediterranean, sailing along the Atlantic coasts, Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and England, traveling to the South China Sea aboard Dutch merchants, then returning to his hometown and writing his memories.

Greed, grievance and lust for adventure

Along Pirates, Lehr repeatedly makes greed, need, and the lust for adventure appear among the main motivations for becoming a pirate. “It is primarily the combination of greed and grievance that I see behind a pirate’s career: no prospect at home and sense of grievance for it, along with the hope of getting rich quick (greed). But a certain sense of adventure is also required. As I said before, the pirate race is not for the timid. ”

When observing piracy through in history, what is the most surprising feature? “Probably the one that the combination of greed and wrong can be found throughout the centuries and basically in all regions of the world. As I have said, the sense of adventure helps, and so does a religious justification as we see what happened in the Mediterranean, both on the Muslim and Christian sides. But in my opinion, practically it comes down to greed and grievance. ”

Is there any Blackbeard or Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in today’s Somali pirates? The clothes and the weapons, and of course the ships, no, right? “No, and not really, there is nothing endearing as in the case of the fictional Jack Sparrow, and no element larger than life as in the case of Blackbeard. Somali pirates show us what pirates really have been and are: maritime criminals who prey on unarmed merchant ships and terrorize their crews. What’s endearing or funny is that? Furthermore, Blackbeard or Captain Kidd were exceptional characters even in their time: most pirates were like Somalis, just brutal criminals, with no names or other traces other than their crimes. ”

From what Peter Lehr explains in his book, piracy, historical and modern, shows many similarities to terrorism today. Also in the way of fighting it. “To be honest, the similarities between pirates and maritime terrorists are quite superficial: from the perspective of their victims, they both terrorize, but pirates do it for personal gain, while terrorists do it for political purposes. Furthermore, no pirate would embed a suicide ship in the hull of a ship … But when it comes to fighting both, it is clear that we need concerted multinational efforts that not only combat both maritime terrorism and piracy at sea, but also on land, because that’s where they both live: restoring law and order in some parts of the world affected by terrorism and piracy would be a good start, followed by some kind of welfare policies, including job creation, to give the inhabitants of those places a choice and prevent them from becoming pirates or terrorists … ”.

Today’s Tortuga Island is in Indonesia

Where is the current equivalent of Tortuga Island or Port Royal? “The closest to these famous pirate strongholds are current hideouts such as Pulau Batam, in the Riau Islands, or some of the Somali ports from which the pirates have operated, such as Eyl (Puntland region) or Harardhere (Muduq province in the southern Somalia). But after the Somali pirate wave dissipated in 2013 / 2014, these ports have become fishing ports again, surely there are not many revelries … . ”.

What do you consider to be the scariest case of classic piracy? And modern? “As for modern piracy, this is probably the case with MV Cheung Son from 1856: the entire crew of 23 persons she was killed by pirates: beaten, stabbed, shot and thrown overboard, some of them still alive. When it comes to classic piracy, there are too many incidents of torture, gang rape, and murder, violence sometimes spanning several days, to single out one of them. Perhaps the capture of the Ganj i-Sawai by Henry Avery in 1695 taking the ship was followed by an “orgy of horror” (according to contemporary Indian historian Muhammad Hashim Khafi Khan) that lasted for several days, with pirates systematically going from deck to deck gang raping, murdering and looting. It should not be forgotten either that some of the wildest actions of the pirates occurred in attacks not at sea but in assaults on the coast. ”

Un grupo de piratas nigerianos.
A group of Nigerian pirates.

It seems important – Lehr points out that many navigators nowadays ignore the risks posed by pirates – to know where these threats are. Who are the worst pirates? Nigerians? “Somali piracy remains dormant at the moment. Pirates are still active in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea as a notorious hot spot (you have to be very careful when navigating there), and in the Gulf of Guinea as the second dangerous spot. In fact, Nigerians, yes, they are the worst as they seem to have no qualms about using their guns to get their way. Keep in mind that Somali pirates rarely killed crew members because for them they were hostages and hard cash. Most Nigerian pirates, on the other hand, are not interested in taking hostages, but in loading the ship – oil theft is quite common – and valuables from the crew. Therefore, anyone who gets in the way is shot to death. ”

Does piracy have a future? “It has seemed several times that it was finished with her throughout history and it helped that the privateering was prohibited in 1856, but it is a true hydra. As long as there is maritime trade, there will be piracy. Even if unmanned robot ships are deployed in the future, the piracy will simply shift to other regions. Unmanned robot ships can be the victims of another variant of pirates who are the experts in piracy attacks that override the ship’s systems. Just take a look at crime on earth – do we seem to be successful in eradicating it? Right? Well, I don’t think we’ll be more successful at sea … ”

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