By: Dr. Louise A. Hitchcock
When we think of pirates, we think of eye patches, peg legs, and hook hands; the Jolly Roger, drunkenness, wenches, good times, and buried treasure in the form of gold, pearls, and jewels. In researching historical piracy to develop an anthropological model to further develop our understanding the Sea Peoples as pirates, we are struck by several things. Firstly, there are behavioral patterns among pirates that cross-cut time, space, and culture. Secondly, our ideas about pirates as shaped in the mass media do not present an accurate picture of early modern or of ancient piracy, but like all stereotypes, they do contain a kernel of truth. A more realistic account of how pirates might behave is to be found in the film Master and Commander rather than in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Piracy was an attractive alternative to serving in a legal maritime role such as the Royal Navy in the 18th century. In the navy, seamen were treated little better than slaves, sometimes spending years on board a ship outfitted with minimum numbers of personnel, who were provided minimal rations in exchange for maximum labor. It’s difficult to regard ancient times as being much better. In contrast, life aboard pirate ships was a bit easier. As pirate groups attracted more followers, the ships would be outfitted with larger crews so that labor would be minimized, and profits were maximized for all through a practice of egalitarian sharing. Only specialized personnel such as doctors might receive extra shares of goods. Thus, pirates were generally better fed than legal seamen. Gold and jewels were of little intrinsic value to pirates and were only of value insomuch as they might be exchanged for food and grog. Indeed, in the Odyssey, feasting was second only to fighting as an activity (figure 1).
The infamous Jolly Roger was a feature with a variety of designs that characterized 18th-century pirate identity. In fact, piracy might be seen as a unique ship-borne culture that formed a kind of melting pot for many ethnicities and religions. For example, the Barbary pirates included English Christians, who assumed Muslim names and took on a mixture of dress types. It has been suggested that the Cilician pirates had multiple origins, but took on the label ‘Cilician’ as a marker of identity. We have similarly argued that Aegean style drinking ware and feasting, along with particular types of headgear, were used to create social cohesion among the multi-ethnic and entangled Sea People.
Perhaps the stereotype about piracy that is most faithful to the truth is the preference for island hideaways. Certain geographical features lent themselves to piracy including promontories to spot prey, river valleys from which to conduct ambushes, choke points that spread out groups of ships making them more vulnerable to the hit and run tactics of pirates, and hidden bays for undertaking refuge and ship repairs.
Although less common, there is a growing body of evidence that indicates the participation of women in piratical and seafaring activity. This includes female pirates of the 18th century who took on the male dress when they engaged in piracy, women fighting alongside men in the royal navy, and warrior graves of female Vikings. This has led us to suggest that women may have fought alongside the infamous Sea Peoples.
Finally, not all of our findings were applicable to understanding piracy in the prehistoric era, as piracy also had unique practices throughout time and space. One such finding that is unusual, though not useful for our research was learning the extraordinary distances both Mediterranean and Caribbean pirates would travel to provision themselves in the Galápagos Islands. One main reason for this was the Galápagos tortoises, which not only provided a great deal of nutritional value but which could be kept alive for long amounts of time without food or water simply by storing them on ships on their backs. While this is certainly cruel and inhumane by today’s standards, we must recognize life for seafarers and pirates was cruel and inhumane as well.
Dr. Louise Hitchcock is an Associate Professor with the Centre of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Melbourne. Hitchcock has extensive archaeological experience in the east Mediterranean and has authored more than 30 articles on architecture and gender in the east Mediterranean.
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To learn more, see:
HITCHCOCK, L.A. and MAEIR, A.M. “A Pirate’s Life for Me: The Maritime Culture of the Sea Peoples,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 148.4 (2016) 245-264.