Pirates in Anglo-American Culture

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A Jolly Roger flag flown by the USS Ranger. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.

Hello again, readers, and welcome back to the Library blog. A quick look at modern popular culture will make it clear even to the most casual of observers that the Caribbean Pirates of the 17th and 18th century are icons in family entertainment. Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” series has been immensely successful, and the 20th century is full of films about swashbuckling heroes and adventures at sea. And yet, a sampling of our news headlines paints a very different picture of piracy: container ships are ransacked, crews held for ransoms, and tourists are kidnapped or killed. Indeed, the world recognizes this problem and has deployed dozens of warships to counter the pirate threat to commerce and personal safety. Why is there such a dichotomy on the subject of piracy?

As a historian, it seems to me that the issue of piracy meets its natural response in the modern headlines: piracy has been reviled and combated since time immemorial, as it should be. The catch is that people also like stories of adventure, romance and rooting for the underdog. English (and by extension, American) culture especially has always had a bit of a rebellious streak, with heroes like Robin Hood robbing the superfluously rich and thumbing their noses at a corruption. For the Anglo-American world, pirates served as an excellent source of rebellious fun once they had faded into the past a bit, and books like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island capitalized on this fun in the late 1800s. About two centuries had passed since the buccaneers had last prowled the Caribbean, and it seemed safe to feature pirates as a source of adventure.   Read more

A New Sentinel

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A Filipino Pirate poses with an M-14. Photo by Nitin Vadakul. From The Mariners’ Museum Library collection.

Hello there readers, and welcome back to the Library blog. Some of you may be aware that recent security measures taken by maritime shipping and military forces have contributed to a marked decrease in piracy across the globe, especially off the coast of Somalia. Measures such as arming ships crews, attacking pirate strongholds and increasing naval patrols have all helped reduce this blight on our waterways. However, many people are worried that one measure in particular – arming ships crews – may have a greater negative effect than it does positive gain. In response to arming crews, some pirates are increasing their own firepower and ruthlessness in order to capture their prize.

But hope is not lost! The new security company Marine MTS based in the British city of Aberdeen has developed a new remote vessel tracking system called Sentinel. Sentinel is a software package that monitors the location of a vessel on the water, and can compare this location to local weather and security warnings in order to help the vessel avoid them. In addition, if the vessel departs from its intended course, it can be tracked and followed by operators at Maritime MTS.   Read more

Pirate Stories

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This is what a 286-year-old book looks like. If you take care of it. From The Mariners’ Museum Library collection.

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Library blog. While perusing the Library stacks in search of an interesting volume on piracy, I discovered a khaki leather-bound book titled “History of the Pyrates” by Capt. Charles Johnston. Based on the condition of the volume, I expected it to date from the 1920s. Imagine my surprise when I opened the cover and discovered it was printed a full 200 years earlier, in 1726! This book tells the tales of all the traditional pirates of the Caribbean: Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackam, Mary Read & Anne Bonny, and Black Bart Roberts. Written less than 10 years after the last of these great pirates was defeated, this book provides a remarkable firsthand glimpse at exactly how British society saw these famous buccaneers.

First and foremost, a noticeable difference between this book and more modern works is the use of the long “s” in some cases. While the language is otherwise perfectly readable, the long “s” usage can nevertheless be distracting. On the bright side, it is particularly invigorating to read an account of Blackbeard’s defeat less than a decade after it took place in the language of the time. Historically, Lt. Maynard and his sloop Jane engaged Blackbeard’s sloop Adventure in hand to hand combat off the coast of Ocracoke, North Carolina, during which Blackbeard was slain and the pirates killed or captured. In Johnston’s History, a fellow British sloop arrived as reinforcements after Blackbeard died and helped capture the remaining pirates. To quote Johnston, “The Sloop Ranger came up, and attack’d the Men that remain’d in Black-beard’s Sloop, with equal Bravery, till they likewise cry’d for Quarters.” (p. 84).   Read more

An Old Claim

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The CSS Alabama was sunk by the USS Kearsage, but not before causing considerable damage to the American merchant marine. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.

Hello readers, and welcome back to the Library blog. Many of the posts on this blog over the past few months have concerned the SS United States. While this blog will by no means abandon the proud ship as a subject matter, it will nonetheless begin to focus on a new topic: Maritime Piracy. Piracy is an issue that comes up frequently in our news, especially in the past few years. Just yesterday, naval forces from France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands worked together to catch numerous pirates that had stolen boats and taken hostages in the Gulf of Aden. Read the full article HERE!

 During the American Civil War, the Confederates deployed several small ships of war as commerce raiders, bent on damaging the Union’s trade routes. Since the Confederate government was not officially recognized by the United States government, these commerce raiders were seen as pirates by Union ships. Perhaps no raider is as famous as the CSS Alabama, a British-built sloop-of-war that terrorized Union shipping all over the world. In fact, First Mate Joshua P. Atkins from the T.B. Wales filed an insurance claim for his lost property when the CSS Alabama captured and burned his ship on November 8th 1863.   Read more