Why do we like Pirates?

Alexander F. Brown & Magali Vagirault

Alexander F. Brown & Magali Vagirault

Alex is an Anglo-Italian with a profound interest in science, the humanities and how they interlink. Having completed a PhD in molecular neuroscience from UCL, he has now moved into the field of scientific writing and is based in Oxford.

Magali earned her BA in International Relations from Queen Mary University before moving to an Msc in International Development from the London School of Economics. Her research on piracy was driven by the work of the International Maritime Organisation, which will publish her Masters dissertation.

Brutal acts of piracy have occurred throughout human history. Pirates also appear in the human artistic imagination in works of fantasy and adventure, which often romanticise their cruel acts. We propose in this article that piracy is usually a reflection of the greater conflicts and abuses of its time, and also contains within it the seeds of libertarian and democratic ideals that continue to drive its artistic appeal.

Piracy: Fact and Fiction

What is piracy? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘the act of attacking ships in order to steal from them’. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Part VII, Article 101), representing the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) gives the following definition (1):

Piracy consists of any of the following acts:

(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed: (i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft; (ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).

You might expect piracy to be very unpopular, given this highly unpleasant catalogue of criminal activities. Indeed, contemporary piracy, best exemplified by the surge of criminal maritime activity in the Gulf of Aden, is demonised by the media as dangerous and destructive activity, as seen for example in the recent Hollywood film Captain Phillips on Somali piracy. Piracy, far from being a problem of the past, remains “a global security issue” (2). However, the position of piracy in the collective imagination – certainly, the European one – remains overall one of overwhelming fascination and positivity, as manifested over the centuries through Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and, in this century, the Pirates of the Caribbean film series.

At first glance, the source material for these pirate adventure stories appears to be the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ (tentatively agreed as happening between 1650 and 1730) (3). The number of prosperous cargoes that crossed the ocean between the newly discovered Americas and Europe dramatically increased in this period. Poorly organised government and policing of the seas reigned, as the rival European colonial empires of Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal jostled for control of trade and new colonies.

However, in reality, the single primary source material influencing essentially all of the fictional pirate adventure narratives is the marvellously titled A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson, which is almost certainly an invented name (4). In this work the author takes considerable artistic licence to write biographies of the best-known pirates of the Golden Age, from ‘Blackbeard’ Edward Teach to Calico Jack to ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy, and in the process “created the modern conception of pirates” (3). These tales portray pirates as ethically ambivalent, romantic figures, desperately seeking their corner of freedom from a restrictive society. A cursory glance at modern academic studies on maritime security, however, shows that the brutal reality of 21st century piracy is very different from the romantic picture.

Unsurprisingly then, the idea of pirates as romantic swashbucklers burying hidden treasure crumbles on the shores of reality. There are several other reasons why a culture might romanticise piracy. The human interest in the psychology of crime and murder, as shown by the popularity of Netflix documentaries such as Mindhunter and the Ted Bundy Tapes, may play a part. In addition, the passage of time may dilute the brutality of piracy. The atrocities and genocides of the Vikings, Mongol hordes and many others now only distantly resonate across the generations. This applies to all historical piracy, from Pompey battling pirates two millennia ago in the Mediterranean, to Madame Ching’s domination of the China Seas in the Qing Dynasty, to the Barbary pirates of North Africa, whose enslavement of captives and stranglehold on trade in the Mediterranean was eventually ended in the 18th century by Great Britain, France and the newly independent USA.

The ‘Business Model’ of Piracy

However, is there any grain of truth in our strange cultural sympathy towards pirates, and does it apply to modern piracy? In our opinion, our collectively sympathetic ideal of pirates is not entirely unjustified. Although there are major differences in the factors driving piracy throughout human history, certain contexts are consistently present. One is the economic drive towards piracy. According to maritime security scholar Christian Bueger, “rightfully piracy has often been described as a business model and seen as an activity that is primarily economically motivated” (5). Although a direct link between poverty and piracy cannot always be made, what is clear from the research is that communities that engage in piracy are economically dislocated or marginalised. Thus, Somali piracy can be “understood as creative (and profitable) attempts to develop a vibrant economic sphere within places marginalised from the world economy for more than a century” (6). Nowhere is this better shown than through pirates creating their own stock exchange in Harardhere, Somalia, where all can share in the profit of piracy (7).

Somalia represents a perfect breeding ground for piracy: a country beset by desperate poverty and weak rule of law, and bathed by the waters of the Gulf of Aden. This is a major global trading route connected to the Suez Canal, where ships sailing through every year contain a significant portion of the world’s crude oil. Furthermore, Somalia’s coastline provides remote inlets and dens that allow pirates to create hideouts and keep hostages. Similarly, in the Golden Age of Piracy, many pirates came from poor urban areas and included the unemployed, escaped bondsmen and criminals. Others began as sailors in the miserable working conditions of the Transatlantic trade in sugar, cotton, rum, textiles and slaves. The temptation to escape and seek fortune by alternative means was strong, alongside the clear excitement and sense of purpose provided by piracy to desperate youths with nautical skill.

The economic drive towards piracy is understandable, but it is hard to sympathise with it when we consider related effects such as the consequences of Somali piracy on humanitarian aid to the country. In March 2008, “some 40 relief agencies including World Vision and Oxfam said they were unable to help millions of Somalis due to dangers and other impediments to their work” (8). Part of the reason for the decline in Somali piracy over the last few years is due to the decreased cultural acceptability of piracy among the Somali population, who are affected by the loss of this aid. Many had previously defended pirate operations in what is known as the “coastguard narrative”, in which the pirates were defined as the ‘coastguard’ and defenders of the locals against foreign threats (9). As an example, Somali MP Mohamed Mohamoud Heyd stated that “the pirates are…fighting the foreign ships that are plundering our fish and other marine resources“. Once again, we have an unjustified romanticisation of piracy, followed by an acceptance of its cruel reality.

Blurred Lines: Pirate Violence and State Violence

A second recurring feature in the history of piracy is the deep interconnection between government ‘non-criminal’ and pirate ‘criminal’ violence. This was seen as far back as Pompey’s campaign against the pirates. During this event, a new law was devised to defeat the pirates “which gave him, not an admiralty, but an out-and‑out monarchy and irresponsible power over all men”. In the Golden Age of Piracy, government officials often paid pirates to do their dirty work, giving them ‘letters of marque’ that allowed them to raid and loot ships of an enemy country and remain exempt from piracy charges. If a pirate operated consistently in favour of a certain country, such as Sir Francis Drake, the Queen of England might reward him with a knighthood. Only those who refused to operate under a particular crown were labelled as ‘pirates’ by all.

In modern day Somalia, due to both excessively brutal and short-sighted anti-piracy policies, as well as corrupt law enforcement, appropriation of pirate ‘services’ continue to occur (5). For example, international law currently prioritises a securitisation framework allowing defence by any means necessary, so that any warship of any state has the right to board any Somali ship. These dangerous, slippery slope policies are much like Pompey’s “irresponsible power”, and also fail to address the underlying political issues that drive piracy in the Gulf of Aden such as internal terrorism and weak rule of law. It is much easier to sympathise with piracy in this context compared to the economic drive: the illegal, highly risky brutality of piracy becomes, in this sense, not only a reflection, but even a consequence of the legal, sanitised, ‘justified’ brutality of the state and international community.

Pirates. Cartoon @ Simon Kneebone for Culturico (copyright).

‘Black Sam’: Piracy as Libertarian Ideal

The third ever-present context in piratical history is that piracy, with all its evident side-effects of oppression, death, and rum-soaked debauchery, represents a potentially libertarian and democratic ideal. It will remain a profession of inescapable fascination to all who suffer under some form of oppression. We should make clear that this is distinct from the ‘coastguard narrative’ mentioned earlier, which is a ‘fake news’ strategy claiming that pirates are the defenders of the national interest in Somalia. Our claim is not a justification of senseless violence and greed. If anything, the ‘ideal pirate’ must be looked for not in reality, but back in the fiction of ‘Captain Charles Johnson’. In particular, we want to look at his arresting portrayal of Samuel Bellamy, the Devon-born sailor who became the wealthiest pirate in recorded history before passing away in a violent nor’easter storm off Cape Cod at only 28, as he sailed to his beloved Goody Hallett, also known as ‘the Witch of Wellfleet’ (4).

We cannot of course know if the story of ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy is entirely factually true, or where reality and myth separate. According to Johnson, he was known by many as ‘the Robin Hood of pirates’; he avoided causing death and destruction wherever possible (no doubt also driven by the economic argument for maintaining his pirate crew in good shape). He gave generously to his crew and to others; he even gave to his captors, sometimes swapping ships to ensure they could return home safely. Bellamy’s most famous capture was of the Wydah Gally slave ship. Upon capture, it had just sold 312 slaves to the Americas (many others died on the way due to the infernal living conditions), as well as gold, Akan jewellery and ivory from Africa (4). Needless to say, many pirates in reality exploited the slave trade themselves. However, in the despicable moral context of the Atlantic slave trade, piracy offered another way of life. Due to its criminal nature, piracy can level all class distinctions. Its bringing together of social outcasts (including African and Native American slaves during the Golden Age of Piracy) may well have generated some of the least racist environments in the world in that period. Piracy is not benevolent, nor is it protective: however, it was without doubt a life of comparative freedom for slaves and outcasts.

Politically, pirates by definition ‘used the precapitalist share system to apportion their take:’ they seized the means of maritime production previously owned by the merchant, commanded the ship as their own property, and divided the (considerable) risks of adventure equally (3). The hierarchy between captain and crew, both for this reason and due to the high risk of mutiny, was almost always more democratic than on merchant ships. More than a communist, though, Bellamy is a forerunner of the individualist anarchism of Oscar Wilde and Max Stirner, which places the political liberty and flourishing of the individual above all else. This is evident in his famous quotation in response to a (spared) captain who refused to join his crew:

“…you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security; for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by knavery; but damn ye altogether: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?”

The sentiment was much like the one English poet Lord Byron later echoed in his 1814 poem The Corsair (10): “He knew himself a villain – but he deemed/The rest no better than the thing he seemed.Bellamy responded, when the captain refused to join his crew:

“You are a devilish conscience rascal! I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men in the field; and this my conscience tells me! But there is no arguing with such snivelling puppies, who allow superiors to kick them about deck at pleasure.” (4)

In these words – no matter if they were his, or a later embellishment by the author – we have a startlingly progressive display of political ideology, issued centuries before its time. Those ‘laws which rich men have made for their own security’ included all the indignity, baseness and evil of the Atlantic slave trade, and plenty more cruelty besides that still continues today. Considering this, is Samuel Bellamy, the ‘Robin Hood of the seas’, a poignant, politically visionary, and ultimately tragic figure? It is claimed he never forced a married man into his pirate crew. He died on the shores of Massachusetts, mere yards away from the woman to whom he had promised to return (4).

Ultimately, few pirates were or are like ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy; in fact, it is highly possible that not even the real Samuel Bellamy himself was like the mythologised ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy. However, in the context of my argument, it doesn’t really matter. The ideal of piracy becomes just as interesting and relevant as the reality. The long-term solution to ending piracy is a sustainable strategy for creating a secure maritime environment through law enforcement and international cooperation and helping coastal communities become financially resilient. Where this fails, however – and it is likely to fail again, somewhere or other – we will see how piracy mirrors the conflicts and abuses of its time. And throughout, we predict that the figure of the pirate, ancient or modern, will remain an object of intrigue and moral ambivalence for the public: on the one hand threatening and dangerous, on the other fully, dramatically liberated from any shackles the society or state in question has, replacing them with another, very harsh, mistress; the sea.


Alexander F. Brown & Magali Vagirault



  1. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Part VII, Article 101), 1982
  2. Wilson B. & Kraska J. “American Security and the Law of the Sea”, Ocean Development & International Law, 2009
  3. Rediker M. “Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age”, Verso, 2004
  4. Captain Charles Johnson. “A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates”, Bloomsbury, 2002 (originally published 1724-28), foreword by David Cordingly
  5. Bueger C. “Learning from Piracy: Future Challenges of Maritime Security Governance”, Global Affairs, 2014
  6. Kamola I. “Capitalism at sea: Piracy and “state failure” in the Gulf of Aden”, Syracruse University Press, 2012
  7. Hallwood P. and Miceli T.J. “The Economics of International Cooperation in the Apprehension and Prosecution of Maritime Pirates”, Ocean Development and International Law, 2012
  8. Nincic D. “Maritime Piracy in Africa: the Humanitarian Dimension”, African Security Review, 2009
  9. Bueger C. “Responses to Contemporary Piracy: Disentangling the Organizational Field”, Modern Piracy: Legal Challenges and Responses, 2013a
  10. Lord George Gordon Byron. “The Corsair”, Del Prado, 2003
Received: 14.10.19, Ready: 31.01.20, Editors. Rebecca Thereault, Robert Ganley.

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