September 19, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I suppose it is no more unusual than days dedicated to librarians, teachers, dentists, or family pets. The origin of this special day can be found in a great website www.talklikeapirateday.com. Seems as thought 2 friends John and Mark started, in jest, the notion between them and a few friends joined in. Later they emailed Dave Barry, the syndicated columnist, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Actually, the history of pirates is a well- documented account of profiteering, violence and the dangers of the sea. Mostly, we hear the romanticized version, of swashbuckling seamen and buried treasures on deserted islands.
Let us look at some facts about these guys. Firstly there is a difference between privateering and piracy. Privateers were privately owned and manned armed ships commissioned by a government to attack and capture enemy ships, especially merchant vessels. They flew the national flag of the country sponsoring them, adding additional symbol flags, such as red flags for warning and, good old, “Jolly Roger”, meaning bad things were coming your way if you resisted. Without flying a national flag, these ships were considered pirate vessels acting on their own. There are some accounts of ships flying national flags and banners of other countries (not their own) to entice unsuspecting ships and although this smacks of cheating, as long as they replaced the false flag with the correct national flag, this was considered ok under the rules of war. Privateers were also known as “sea beggars”.
Pirate crews were not “shanghaied” and dragged into service, rather, when a well-known captain announced his ship was “going on an account”, members of his previous crews were given first preference and then others who wished to join came next. Another interesting fact is that these crews were actually very democratic. The Captain and the quartermaster were elected, this insured the fair treatment of the crew. Further, subsequent votes could be taken at any time. Articles of Agreement, signed by all, spelled out various duties and shares of any spoils. The crew pledged not to betray each other, desert or abandon ship in battle. In reality, most pirate crews preferred taking a prize ship without a fight. If the warned ship surrendered, there was little danger to the crew, however, if there was resistance it was met with much violence, the crew, to a man, would be slaughtered.
Of course there needed to be a factor of intimidation to the victim ship. Pirate flags conjured up fear, accompanied with the reputation of the pirate captain. Each captain had a variation of the skull and cross bones and additional symbols were often combined. The skull was s symbol of death as was the crossed bones, dancing skeletons did a jig with death and weapons such as spears and swords promised violence was a’comin.
Pirate flags were sewn by the crew, and some, were commercially made by widows of sail-makers, who often accepted payment in brandy
Calico Jack Rackman
Edward Teach ( Blackbeard)
So, avast maties, think Johnny Depp, and unlock your treasure chest, get your map, and feed your parrot!