- Why are we so obsessed with pirates?
- We're swashbuckling.
- [Joel] The mythology of pirates has infiltrated our culture so deeply.
- One-Eyed Willie.
- But did you know not all pirates were pirates?
I'm Joel Cook.
I'm a maritime archeologist and historian, and this is "Rogue History."
[gentle music] [coins tinkling] [waves crashing] Let's start with the definition of a pirate.
A person who robs or commits illegal violence at sea or on the shores of the sea.
Seems pretty clear, right?
Well, let me put in little extra emphasis on the word in illegal, because when we think about the history of pirates looting and plundering around the world, some of that actually was legal.
In England, the High Court of the Admiralty would issue so-called letters of marque.
France issued the same kind of letters to buccaneers.
These letters were basically rubber stamps of state-sponsored piracy.
That made it possible to legally rob and commit violence against other colonial powers.
So pirates weren't always the outlaws we think of but sometimes just people taking advantage of a lucrative government job, a fairly vile government job.
This all feels a little theoretical.
Was there a difference between privateering and buccaneering on the one hand and piracy on the other?
Did the legal distinction really matter to their victims?
Did it make a difference if the person robbing, kidnapping, and murdering you was doing it with or without the permission of their own government?
- Well, depends on who you're asking, right?
Because as far as the people who were being attacked are concerned, as far as the Spanish are concerned, it didn't matter that they had letters of marque, right?
They were still laying siege to their colonial possessions, to their vessels that were carrying silver and gold and luxury goods and human beings, people of African descent in particular.
And so a lot of those distinctions mattered more to the sending countries than to the people that were on the receiving end of this corsair activity, on the receiving end of these attacks.
- [Joel] In other words, there were a lot of dynamics between a few European powers who were trying to grab as many resources as they could from these colonial territories.
That's what was creating this violence and theft whether by pirates or privateers.
- [Tamara] And then sometimes you would see individuals who were engaged in the world of piracy who would then join up with privateering vessels.
So there were a lot of porous boundaries between the world of piracy the world of privateering, the world of buccaneering.
- [Joel] When we talk about pirates, it's often assumed that we're talking about men of European descent operating in the Caribbean during an 80 year period known as the Golden Age of Piracy from the 1650s to the 1730s.
In pop culture, whether it be movies, TV shows, or books.
This is the era and location of piracy that's most often depicted.
But piracy existed long before and after the Golden Age and in way more places than the Caribbean.
Julius Caesar was abducted by pirates in 75 BC and Tom Hanks had a ship taken over by Somali Pirates in 2009.
- Look at me.
- I'm the captain now.
So if there is a long history of pirates to tell why focus so much on these people at this time in this place?
- [Laura] I think the Golden Age of piracy is really what you think of when you think of pirates because of a couple of reasons.
One is Robert Lewis Stevenson's "Treasure Island".
I think that really captured the piracy in the popular imagination.
I don't think you can overestimate the hold that Disney has on the popular imagination, at least in the West.
- [Joel] It makes a lot of sense that pop culture content uses the same generic depictions of pirates if they're all pulling from the same bag of source material.
And it creates a snowball effect.
- Double the powder and shorten the fuse.
- [Joel] The more movies we see of pirates from the Golden Age, the more the movie going public expects to see pirates from the Golden Age.
Some more pirate movies are set in the Golden Age, blah, blah, blah.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
- [Laura] These Golden Age pirates, some of them were not particularly successful because if we were measuring by statistics you know, Zheng Yi Sao, a Chinese Pirate is the most successful pirate who ever lived.
But way more people have heard of Black Beard than if Zheng Yi Sao.
- Hold up.
Why haven't I ever seen a Hollywood movie about her?
- Women are frequently portrayed in pop culture in pirate stories, and it's almost never as accurate as what women were doing because not only were women pirates but they were definitely not the saucy wenches of pirate Halloween costumes.
Armed to the teeth and these tiny, tiny skirts and these high boots that was very impractical for the sea.
- How about these more recent depictions of bipoc pirate crews that we see in Our Flag Means Death?
- [Tamara] Part of why we're so interested in black pirates, for example, is one because we don't usually hear about them, right?
And because we like to imagine that these pirate crews were democratic.
- I pay my crew a salary, same wage every week no matter what.
- But these were individuals who were susceptible to the same forces that were were happening on land, right?
They were susceptible to enslavement they were susceptible to racism.
And if we are going to talk about them joining up willingly with pirate crews it's often because they were attempting to escape slavery.
- But there were some famous black pirates.
What about Black Caesar?
- [Tamara] This was someone who rose to prominence as a member of Black Beards crew.
In some ways, it's kind of a generic moniker to refer to people of African descent in the world of piracy.
And that's for good reason, because often the way pirates and privateers would write about people of African descent was to refer to them by their color.
- So the history of piracy has often been told from the perspective of Europeans who had very little regard for the people of African descent they relied on.
Which brings me to another popular misconception I had about pirates as a kid.
That they were all these self-sufficient rogues who always had a flare for adventure and a survival trick up their big puffy sleeves.
There's a song, "Modern Major General" in the Gilbert and Sullivan musical "Pirates of Penance".
♪ I am the very model of a modern major general ♪ ♪ I've information, vegetable, animal, and mineral.
♪ ♪ I know the kings of England ♪ ♪ and I quote the fights historical ♪ ♪ From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.
♪ - [Joel] The song mocks the types of British army captains who were sometimes book smart but not so street smart.
Or should I say sea smart?
- That's something that we know about the history of piracy and seafaring that these individuals rely on one another for survival.
But they also rely on the people they take captive and are often making choices on who they take captive.
Because of the skills that those individuals have because they have lived in this area and have learned either the hard way or have knowledge that they've cultivated over centuries that they can impart to these new arrivals.
- So when we think of pirates we might think of a Captain Jack Sparrow who is so clever and one step ahead of everyone.
But the real version was much more complicated.
Many of these heroes of our culture held captives who were forced to share survival information.
Like where ships were coming from and when or what was and was not safe to eat.
This gets me thinking, why are we even attracted to the mythos of pirates to begin with?
Is it the call to adventure that Joseph Campbell would say comes from the primal deep part of us?
Hollywood wouldn't make films about pirates or cowboys or 11 guys who get together to rob a Las Vegas Casino if we weren't so willing to shell out cold hard cash to go see it.
I mean, Pirates of the Caribbean movies all grossed over $4.5 billion worldwide.
That's a lot of doubloons.
The history of pirates is broader, darker, and messier than we've ever been presented.
And the stories we tell about them say something about who we are, who we want to be, and what we're trying to bury.
So I hope you set sail with us.
I promise there will be terrible pirate puns.
The producers don't want me to say this, but what is the pirate's favorite letter?
You think it would be R, But it's actually the C. - [Producer] Cut.