Philadelphia University professor explores pirate lore

Denys Nazarov

The movies often portray pirates as half-witted villains or noble heroes, but in reality many were ordinary sailors and fugitive slaves who joined the pirates’ ranks to trade the hardships of the merchant marine for a life of danger and pillaging on the high seas. Though these were the real pirates of the Caribbean, their short lives were less glorious then those portrayed in Hollywood films.

Dr. Marcus Rediker, author of the book “Pirates in the Atlantic World: The Real Pirates of the Caribbean,” and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, explained to the large audience that filled the Whitsett Room in Sierra Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 11, how the myth differs from the truth.

“I know why you are here,” Rediker said. “I have been dealing with this national obsession for 26 years now.”

“Pirates of the Caribbean,” Hollywood’s latest cinematic take on the theme of piracy, is an example has reduced complex history down to the stereotypes with little attention to what really happened.

“The series is almost completely innocent of historical facts,” Rediker said.

The facts, however, can seem even more fascinating than fiction. Collecting data from legal documents, Rediker tells the story of real pirates, who did not leave any other records behind for historians to study.

“Turns out the real history is more interesting then Hollywood’s representation,” Rediker said.

During the era of racial segregation in Europe and in the American colonies when the slave trade thrived, Rediker said Europeans and Africans worked side by side on the pirate ships and that women at times joined the ranks of the free-roaming bandits to escape the constraints of the

social order.

“And yes, there were gay pirates,” Rediker said. “Pirate ships were free places.”

Although pirates enjoyed a freedom that was unknown to sailors who were kidnapped and pressed into service on British merchant ships, life was often short and perilous for those who sailed under the Jolly Roger, the infamous flag adorned with skull and crossbones. Rediker explained that the Hollywood stereotypes of a pirate without a limb or an eye “arise from the fact that sailing was a very dangerous thing.”

To prevent the kind of abuse many former sailors and slaves faced aboard merchant ships pirates would often elect their own captain and vote on important issues.

“I think a pirate ship was as close as any working sailor would ever get to Utopia,” said Rediker.

A graduate student in the teaching credentials program, Josh Sterns said Rediker hinted at Marxist ideology in the presentation.

“He really puts out the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat conflict,” he said.

Sterns also added that Rediker’s critique of Hollywood is a good thing because, “it makes history more relevant.”

A senior English major, Erin Austin attended the event to take notes for her boyfriend who she said enjoys history and anthropology but could not come to the event because of a night class. She said she enjoyed Rediker’s performance and was surprised to learn about the solidarity and fairness among pirates.

Austin added that there was not enough information available about the event.

“It was not very well publicized,” she said. “There were only a few posters here and there.”