Pirates: scoundrels or heroes?

From Nights, 7:07 pm on 24 November 2016

Pirates have captured our imagination from their inception with one person’s bloodthirsty marauder another’s hero of the realm.

Pirates, or privateers, played a major role in the formation of European empires, until they outlasted their usefulness.

New Zealand-born lecturer Simon Layton teaches early global history at London University.

He told Nights Francis Drake and Henry Morgan were considered to be pirates by the Spanish, but they were knighted by the British as great heroes of the realm.

That is a debate that remains prevalent today, Dr Layton says.

“Terrorism is something that people apply a similar idiom to. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter … it is entirely a matter of perspective and opinion."

Piracy was romanticised from the get-go, he says.

The first published book on the pirates of the Atlantic and the Caribbean: A General History of Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, was by a man whose identity remains disputed, but who called himself Captain Charles Johnson.

He wrote fanciful tales partly based in truth, and it is from these accounts that the iconography of pirates – eye patches and peg legs and parrots and monkeys – evolved from.

The appeal of piracy – the life and the myth – was in the chance to make a better life for oneself than was generally possible for common people at the time.

“There was some kind of escapism and a seizing of ones destiny that gets wrapped up in the pirate myth," he says.

However, once the nation-state was consolidated there came the establishment of international norms, and an acknowledgement between states that piracy was an international crime.

“In the world of the nation-state the pirate is very much is an endangered species.” 

Piracy is cyclical and still happens today, off the coast of Somali or Nigeria, for example.

In fact, he says, we are living in an age where more pirates roam than ever before. Pirates thrive in the spaces free from control of the nation-states, where there are no borders.

Today that’s the internet.

There is an irony, he says, that when states attack pirates in international waters they do so outside their own legal jurisdiction.

“To capture and to kill a pirate one must sacrifice one’s own sovereign rule of law … one must essentially become a pirate oneself", Dr Layton says.

“Because you have to put the law to the side to kill a pirate.”

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