When I tell people I’m working on a pirate column, the first thing they say to me is, “Arrrr.” So I say “Arrrr!” back. I suppose they could have said, “Ahoy” and I could have said, “Avast, ye scurvy bilge rats,” but I’m not quite up on my pirate lingo. Fortunately, there are websites than can help with that.
And festivals. The Northern California Pirate Festival happens June 19th and 20th at the Vallejo waterfront. I intend to attend, though I’m a bit nervous about being around that much facial hair. (I prefer clean shaven pirates with eyeliner, like the young Adam Ant.)
Real “pyrates” may have been lusty and bold, but they were also filthy and often cruel. So how did they become so sexy? Hans Turley, author of Rum, Sodomy & The Lash - Piracy, Sexuality & Masculine Identity, considers the pirate figure as the “ultimate outsider,” an economic, cultural and sexually transgressive anti-hero. Even given the “homosocial” setting of any sailing ship, Turley still hedges a bit: “I shall not make claims that the pirate was a sodomite and that pirate ships were rife with buggery. What interests me is the way pirates have been eroticized through the past centuries.” This is what interests me too. In fact, I’ve lately realized that the heat I generate in my own erotic core is entwined with a piratical image of myself that I’ve had since I was about four and I’m completely unable to account for how the image got there! But more on that in a moment.
First, let’s distinguish between buccaneers, privateers and pirates. English buccaneers raided Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. The English government condemned buccaneers in public but privately were delighted to have them harassing the Spanish empire. Turley refers to the buccaneer as an “outlaw-made-nationalist hero.” Privateers, like Sir Francis Drake, had official “letters of marque” that enabled them to go after enemy ships only during war. Problem was, peace could break out suddenly and the privateer on the open seas might not find out about it until months later. That meant the privateer could unknowingly become an accidental pirate in spite of his letter of marque. Later he could hang for his accidental crimes.
But the pirates, especially during their “golden age” (1695-1725), thumbed their noses at established society (mostly monarchies) and created their own social order, on ship and off. Madagascar was apparently a central location for pirate “government” and Turley also mentions a certain Captain Mission who wanted to create—or did create—a democratic pirate utopia called “Libertalia.” On ship, pirates signed “articles” that usually governed behavior and distribution of plunder. Turley points out that “regulated behavior is, of course, relative. Ships’ crews, whether pirates or Jack Tar, were a wild bunch.”
Life on board a sailing ship consisted of harsh discipline (or worse), bouts of “the bloody flux” (and worse), scurvy (which can get pretty bad), a diet of worm-riddled biscuits and rank morsels of pickled meat (and worse; remember those bilge rats?), a crushing work schedule, the continual prospect of sudden death, filth, and lice. You were probably often damp. For fun, you got a ration of watered down rum and maybe a bit of buggery. Maybe.