Don’t Be a Pirate

October 6, 2020 — 15 Comments

Pirates make for interesting reading. The Inklings thought so. In a 1932 letter to his brother, C.S. Lewis mentions Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Pirate.

“I am now reading through [a Scott biography], and am just at the Shetland and Orkney diary:89 which you will constantly have been reminded of if you have read The Pirate.”

In 1952, Lewis mentioned to a colleague another pirate story. “High Wind in Jamaica which I’ve just read is better than I expected. . . . A grim book but good in its way.”

This is not to say that Lewis regarded pirate tales, as a genre, as very good. His praise of Ray Bradbury’s work includes an entertaining aside in this regard.

I have just read two books by an American ‘scientifiction’ author called Ray Bradbury. Most of that genre is abysmally bad, a mere transference of ordinary gangster or pirate fiction to the sidereal stage, and a transference which does harm not good.

Bigness in itself is of no imaginative value: the defence of a ‘galactic’ empire is less interesting than the defence of a little walled town like Troy. But Bradbury has real invention and even knows something about prose. I recommend his Silver Locusts.

With the recent exception of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, piracy does not seem to capture our cinematic imagination as it once did. Onscreen, buccaneers are often treated as heroic swashbucklers, as in the delightful Princess Bride.

However, in reality, we know real pirates were merciless.*

Some were “privateers,” authorized by a government to prey on the shipping of other countries. (Privateering was not banned until 1856.)⁑ They were simply pirates with papers, although they possessed a veneer of respectability in some circles. If you are interested in a recent argument for privateering “to fight Chinese aggression at sea,” You need to read “Unleash the Privateers!”

These oceanic criminals were not confined to exotic ports. As recently as 1614, the coast of Ireland was home to a major “pirate alliance.”

[In 1604] James I of England ended the long English naval tradition of “privateering” as part of a peace agreement with Spain. . . . Though it was risky work, many sailors preferred it to more official service on the King’s ships, which offered low pay, poor sanitary conditions, and an aging fleet.

Over time, English privateers grew in numbers, with the more successful commanding well-armed fleets of multiple ships. . . . as a consequence of the decision by James I, thousands of mariners suddenly found themselves out of work. Used to operating independently, they became prime targets to drift into piracy. Unsanctioned piracy, that is.

Long before Jack Sparrow ever considered wearing an eyepatch, pirates had become a staple Hollywood trope. In 1935 Errol Flynn appeared in Captain Blood, where he portrayed a gentlemanly physician who is falsely imprisoned and ends up becoming a hugely successful scourge of the seas.

A decade earlier, Douglas Fairbanks starred in The Black Pirate (1926) where his dashing athleticism entertained audiences. Here too the protagonist is actually a “good” person, enlisting in criminal ranks merely to punish those responsible for his father’s death.

Pirates in Inkling Literature

Both of the most famous Inklings included pirates in their best known works. J.R.R. Tolkien included an entire nation of pirates in Middle Earth. The Corsairs of Umbar were utterly despicable, and aligned along with the Haradrim on the side of Mordor. Even before we see them portrayed in the film set in the Third Age, they had carried destruction to the people of Gondor.

The second and greatest evil came upon Gondor in the reign of Telemnar, the twenty-sixth king, whose father Minardil, son of Eldacar, was slain at Pelargir by the Corsairs of Umbar. . . . a deadly plague came with dark winds out of the East. The King and all his children died, and great numbers of the people of Gondor . . . When King Telemnar died the White Tree of Minas Anor also withered and died (Annals of the Kings and Rulers).

C.S. Lewis also incorporated pirates into his own Narnian saga. The entire Telmarine population, which figures prominently in Narnian history, is descended from pirates who arrived there from Earth. In the following passage, Aslan explains this arrival to Prince Caspian.

“You, Sir Caspian,” said Aslan, “might have known that you could be no true King of Narnia unless, like the kings of old, you were a son of Adam and came from the world of Adam’s sons. And so you are. Many years ago in that world, in a deep sea of that world which is called the South Sea, a shipload of pirates were driven by storm onto an island.

And there they did as pirates would: killed the natives and took the native women for wives, and made palm wine, and drank and were drunk, and lay in the shade of the palm trees, and woke up and quarreled, and sometimes killed one another. And in one of these frays six were put to flight by the rest and fled with their women into the center of the island and up a mountain and went, as they thought, into a cave to hide.

But it was one of the magical places of that world, one of the chinks or chasms between that world and this. There were many chinks and chasms between worlds in old times, but they have grown rarer. . . . And so they fell, or rose, or blundered, or dropped right through, and found themselves in this world, in the Land of Telmar which was then unpeopled.

But why it was unpeopled is a long story: I will not tell it now. And in Telmar their descendants lived and became a fierce and proud people, and after many generations there was a famine in Telmar and they invaded Narnia, which was then in some disorder (but that also would be a long story), and conquered it and ruled it.

Epilogue: Don’t Be a Pirate

In a 1950 letter to a correspondent who had apparently argued that institutional loyalty is actually loyalty to individual leaders, Lewis disagrees.

No, I don’t agree that loyalty to an institution is simply loyalty to the personnel and their policy. If I join a ship because I like the captain I am not justified in deserting the moment he dies, nor because I dislike his successor.

There might come a point (e.g. if the new captain were using the ship for piracy) at which it would be my right, and my duty, to leave: not because I simply disliked him and his polity, but because the particular duty (keep your contracts) would now conflict with, and yield to, the higher and more universal duty (Don’t be a pirate).

Like C.S. Lewis, I assume most readers of Mere Inkling would agree that we must follow our conscience, should our earthly loyalties be directed toward an institution or person devoted to an evil end. In the military, this conundrum was addressed in the legal freedom—even mandate—to disobey “unlawful orders.”

No doubt many people are challenged on a regular basis to compromise their conscience in order to succeed in their morally-challenged environment. I would add my own voice to Lewis’ in urging them not to become a pirate.


* Much has been written about piracy, an ancient plague that still afflicts the world today. You can download a fascinating piece of history in the form of a 1724 London publication of A general history of the robberies and murders of the most notorious pyrates, and also their policies, discipline and government, from their first rise and settlement in the island of Providence, in 1717 to the present year 1724.

⁑ The vast extent of Atlantic piracy is sobering. One history site describes it thusly:

The Golden Age of piracy (c1680s–1726) was the most dramatic era of maritime marauding the world has ever known, a period which at its peak saw as many as 4,000 pirates a year wreaking havoc across the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

The age of colonial expansion meant that huge quantities of valuable cargoes were being shipped over vast ocean areas and, as European navies were reduced, many experienced sailors who were out of work turned to piracy.

15 responses to Don’t Be a Pirate

  1. 

    For some reason, I now find strains from “Pirates of Penzance” running through my head.

  2. 

    Interesting post. The really interesting thing about pirates is that they were apparently broadly egalitarian and democratic; the spoils were (allegedly) divided equally among the crew. Their brutality was awful, but so was the brutality of the law and states and colonialism in those days.

    Also have a read of Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean which explains that many pirates were Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism, and had fled Spain for a life of freedom elsewhere. So if they were robbing Spanish treasure ships, I would count that as entirely justified.

    I agree with the general principle of leaving organizations whose activities don’t sit well with one’s conscience, of course. I’ve refused interviews with both tobacco companies and weapons manufacturers. I also wouldn’t work for anyone conducting animal experiments.

    • 

      Responding (in reverse) to your observations. It’s nice to see people whose convictions would prevent them from endorsing activities they find morally objectionable. Too many people compromise their souls, cutting moral corners.

      Jewish pirates… I’ll read a bit about them after finishing this comment. I might agree with you on the capture of governmental ships, but not private property. Also, I’d need to see they treated captives decently.

      Yes, pirate crews are alleged to have been strikingly democratic. They would agree on the “Pyrates Articles” for their ships, which were fairly consistent. These would include the way they divided their booty. The 1724 book I linked to at the bottom of the column includes several references to such Articles. Howell Davis was a despicable Welsh pirate who had been engaged in the slave trade.

      When Howell led a mutiny. “As soon as he was possessed of his Command, he drew up Articles, which were signed and sworn to by himself and the rest, then he made a short Speech, the Sum of which, was, a Declaration of War against the whole World.”

      • 

        Yes I agree re: private property.

        Slave trading is utterly despicable, but it doesn’t make pirates any worse than their contemporaries.

        I would like to think a lot of people would refrain from working for companies whose morals they disapprove of. Certainly a lot of people invest in ethical pension funds (so I’m told).

      • 

        Slave trading is one of our world’s most grievous sins. Human trafficking is so common today, and people prefer to pretend it is rare… It’s frequently related to so-called “victimless crimes,” which is another terrible lie.

        My personal feeling (unenlightened though some would consider it) is that holding people in slavery should be a capital offense.

  3. 

    I wonder if masks and presidential elections inspired this post?

    • 

      Actually, they didn’t. The Atlas Obscura daily mailing included an article about the Irish piracy (a subject with which I was unfamiliar). That got me going.

      Now, as to my subconscious motivations…

  4. 

    I join you in that plea.

  5. 

    An interesting read, Rob! My knowledge of pirates is rather lacking, though I do recall a scourge of piracy along the African coast a decade or two ago, and even a U.S. naval ship was attacked. Pirates need to stay within the pages of our literature or on the silver screen!

    • 

      The pirates you recall were referred to as “Somali pirates,” most the vast majority hailed from that troubled land. I think their last hijacking was in 2017, but no doubt they continue to prey on local fishermen and commerce not protected by the world’s major powers.

      It certainly would be wonderful if such people were confined to works of fiction.

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