Piracy in Early British America

Simon Smith questions our image of buccaneers as bloodthirsty opportunists claiming they were often highly organised and efficient businessmen in the waters of the Caribbean.

Pirates are one of history's most colourful gifts to literature: around a few certain facts, myths and legends have been woven by story-tellers. The lives of the most notorious pirates of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth century attracted attention from contemporary writers, such as Daniel Defoe, and in the next century inspired artists as diverse in range as the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, the poet Lord Byron, and the composer Hector Berlioz. Pirate tales encompass the timeless and highly marketable themes of escapist adventure and rebellion against authority, motifs equally adaptable to both blood- thirsty and comic interpretations.

Tracing the different representations of pirates it is fascinating to see how the pirate persona has changed over time. The images pirates chose for themselves, epitomised by the symbol of the Jolly Roger, emphasised violence and menace so as to strike fear into the hearts of victims. These psychopathic leanings are a world apart from the romantic image generated by writers such as J.M. Barrie, reinforced later by Hollywood, of pirates as either gangs of ruffians led by civilised gentlemen with a sense of honour or bands of rough diamonds led by cads.

The public's appetite for new material on piracy has been fed by historians as well as fiction writers and film makers. Most historical contributions re lively accounts whose primary aim is to entertain, yet the best work has been written by scholars who have not simply viewed the subject of piracy as an excuse to let one's hair own and have retained a sense of responsibility about representing a past that has been often grotesquely distorted.

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