The Real History of Pirates
Manushag N. Powell is a Professor of English at Purdue University, where she has been a University Faculty Scholar and has served as Director of Graduate Studies in English and Secretary of Faculties. She received a BA in English from Yale University and an MA and a PhD in English, specializing in 18th-century British literature and culture, from the University of California, Los Angeles. She also taught at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Professor Powell is an 18th centuryist and a cultural historian of literary form. She serves as the director of the Defoe Society, secretary-treasurer of the International Eliza Haywood Society, and treasurer of the Women’s Caucus at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. She is also a member of the Johnsonian Society. She is the recipient of multiple teaching awards, including Purdue’s College of Liberal Arts Outstanding Graduate Teacher Award, College of Liberal Arts Outstanding Undergraduate Teacher Award, and Kenneth T. Kofmehl Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award.
Professor Powell’s books include Performing Authorship in Eighteenth-Century English Periodicals, British Pirates in Print and Performance (with Frederick Burwick), and Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1690–1820s (coedited with Jennie Batchelor). She is also the editor of the Broadview Press edition of Daniel Defoe’s Captain Singleton.
01: What Is a Pirate?
Explore the reasons piracy has endured from ancient times until today, and why it is so difficult to both define and eradicate. How do we understand the rule of law and the rights of nations and individuals—not only on the high seas, but in other borderless realms stretching from cyberspace to outer space?
02: Pirate Facts and Fictions
Examine popular pirate legends, and discover which aspects include some truth and which contain none at all. While much of the information we have about pirates and piracy comes from fiction as opposed to historical texts, pirate literature can teach us a lot about the jolly roger, gold-filled treasure chests, the pirate Edward Thatch (also known as Blackbeard), and more.
03: Real Pirates of the Caribbean
In the 16th century, the Spanish had the largest European presence in the Caribbean. Learn how that power hold was broken and which nationalities joined in the subsequent piratical free-for-all. How do we know what happened there? Discover the historical importance of Alexander Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America and A General History of the Pyrates by “Captain Charles Johnson.”
04: Pirate Attacks and Tactics
What did pirates want? Money—or anything they could turn into money. Consequently, they usually wished for a speedy surrender, didn’t particularly want a battle, and rarely sunk the ships they captured. Consider the many tactics pirates used to apprehend their prey in the age of sails, from understanding the weather gage to deceptive flag practices.
05: Buried Treasure and Pirate Economics
Acquiring loot in one form or another was, and still is, a key part of pirate life. But very few would ever hit it big or try to bury their treasure on a deserted island. Explore the business aspect of piracy—incentive pay, expenses, and insurance—the few aspects of life pirates could control. Piracy was a "no prey, no pay" system, and the risk of no pay was very real.
06: Pirates as Freedom Fighters
While it was a common tale that pirates were motivated to revolt against cruel masters and a desire to spread democratic principles, the complex truths of piracy and the pirate life were much different. What were the real goals of those pirates who attacked and overthrew maritime powers? And how did the pirate motto, “A merry life and a short one,” come to be?
07: Pirates and Enslavement
Pirates often let their captives go. After all, many pirates were mutineers themselves, and they certainly knew what could go wrong with too many unhappy captives on a ship. But did that prisoner release also apply to Indian and African men—or just to Europeans? Reveal the deep and complex relationships between pirates and enslavers.
08: The Sea Dogs of Elizabeth I
The privateers and pirates at the time of England’s Queen Elizabeth I—known in Spain as “The Pirate Queen”—thrived because they could fairly easily find merchants with whom to trade and politicians to protect them. Discover the individual histories of the most famous, ambitious, and wealthiest of the Sea Dogs—John Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir Walter Ralegh.
09: The Corsairs of the Maghreb
The privateers of the northern African coast, called corsairs, were commissioned by their governments to make war primarily against non-Muslims and did not consider themselves to be pirates—although the English certainly thought of them that way. Learn why the English eventually found it easier to negotiate with the Barbary powers than to fight the corsairs at sea.
10: The Buccaneers of America
In the West Indies, the English and French governments encouraged piracy (called “buccaneering” in that area) as a strategy to weaken the Spanish. Learn about the most famous buccaneer of all, the Welshman Henry Morgan, whose extreme exploits from Venezuela to Panama to Jamaica contributed to our concepts of piracy in popular culture today.
11: The Red Sea Men of the Pirate Round
The pirate round was a sailing route that took pirates from the western Atlantic, around Africa’s southern tip into the Indian Ocean, and even north into the Red Sea with all its geopolitical complexities. Learn about “The Rhode Island Rover” Thomas Tew, Henry Every, and others—as well as their relationships with the British East India Company and the North American slave trade.
12: Piracy in the China Seas
In the early 1800s, just as piracy was on the decline in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, it was exploding in Asia as Europeans, Arabs, Persians, Filipinos, and many others vied for access to the Chinese markets. See how Cheng I and Cheng I Sao organized a vast and well-organized system of piracy, unlike the piratical chaos of the Caribbean.
13: Pirates as Explorers
Historically, pirates and privateers were often the first people from their home nations heading into uncharted waters, returning home with valuable charts, logs, and geographic information—as well as stolen market goods and coins. Uncover the convoluted reality behind the “adventures” of Francis Drake, William Dampier, and others.
14: Pirates and Empires
What created the conditions under which piracy flourished in previous centuries and still exists today? Explore the complex relationships between piracy and land-based merchants, governments, and imperialism. Learn how imperial politics in conjunction with globalized pressures on local markets provide fertile ground for piracy.
15: Life on a Pirate Ship
While it took talent, toughness, and significant knowledge to be a successful mariner in the Age of Sail, pirate crews tended to be even more skilled than those of other ships. Although life at sea might have seemed harsh and dangerous to the masses, discover the many reasons pirates viewed ship life differently. Were they attracted to more than just the potential for freedom and profit?
16: Pirate Music and Performances
While it might come as a bit of a surprise, pirates apparently loved their music. In fact, some pirates kept musicians as prisoners just so they could hear them play. Consider the many benefits music brought to the pirate ships, the musical entertainment produced by pirates, as well as the ballads and melodramas created by others about the pirates’ lives.
17: Pirate Kings
A few pirates moved beyond the business of plundering to establish themselves as rulers of a territory or to become part of a recognized government. Learn about numerous pirate kings, including the Americans Jean Lafitte and his brother, Pierre. Although they had a substantial piracy operation in the Gulf of Mexico, they fought with the States to defend New Orleans during the War of 1812.
Although the literature includes many tales of female pirates, the truth is there were only a handful of women pirates compared to the many thousands of men. When women were on board, they were more likely to be passengers, prisoners, or laborers. You’ll explore the exceptions to this rule as you learn about the famous Caribbean pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
19: Women as Pirate Commanders
Although almost all pirate captains and admirals were men, there were a few female authority figures in the world of piracy—most notably Queen Elizabeth I of England. Dig into the backstories of other “pirate queens” including Ingela Gathenhielm; Grace O’Malley; Sayyida al-Hurra; and Cheng I Sao, who commanded tens of thousands of pirates in her fleet of 400 ships.
20: Pirates in Literature and the Theater
Even our modern-day image of pirates has been greatly shaped by 19th-century literature and theatre, which managed to rehabilitate the image of pirates from criminals into sentimental heroes. Consider your own concept of pirates as you explore their portrayal in works by Lord Byron, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and more.
21: Prosecuting Pirates
While the British judicial system that oversaw pirate trials during the age of Atlantic piracy was highly codified, it certainly wouldn’t be considered fair or just by today’s standards. But even modern judicial systems find it extremely difficult to successfully prosecute piracy, as you’ll learn from the Maersk Alabama pirate trial of 2013.
22: Can Piracy Be Stamped Out?
If it is possible to make an individual ship fairly safe from pirate attack, why is it so difficult to eradicate the worldwide practice of piracy? Governments in the Americas and Asia have tried to eliminate entire pirate-friendly coastal settlements, but their efforts have never been truly successful. Explore the complex motivations that still attract individuals to “turn pirate.”
23: Pirates in Modern Times
While piracy today is more geographically confined than it was centuries ago—and often tied to large criminal syndicates—it still seems to be driven by “greed and grievance.” Learn about the socioeconomic forces that continue to perpetuate piracy off the coast of Somalia, in the Straits of Malacca and Gulf of Guinea, and in other locations around the world.
24: Pirates in Pop Culture and Beyond
Modern Western culture largely depicts pirates as romantic, freedom-loving antiheroes. But is that a harmless fantasy? Examine why scholars insist that the way we talk about piracy affects our world today. As we begin to examine the aftereffects of colonialism, can we afford to ignore the very real impacts of pirates on merchants, coastal dwellers, and Black and Indigenous peoples?