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The Rarely Told Story: Pirates as Radical Commoners
Tue, 06/25/2013 - 17:02
Kester Brewin, a teacher of mathematics in South East London, was wondering why his son has been invited to countless pirate-themed birthday parties, but not any aggravated robbery themed parties. What's the reason for our fascination with pirates?
Brewin’s answer is an amazing 13-minute video talk for TEDx Exeter (UK) based on his 2012 book, Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How they Can Save Us. The talk is a powerful account of 18th century piracy and a plea for all of us to become pirates as acts of radical emancipation.
For the full effect, I urge you to watch the full video....but here is a key excerpt transcribed from Brewin’s talk:
What I want to propose is that whenever we see pirates, we see a system in some kind of trouble, whether it involves politics, economics, spirituality, culture or the arts. Pirates send us a signal that something that should be held in the hands of common people, has been taken away.
Now if we look back in history, the golden age of pirates, the early 1700s, we see England, Spain, France and Holland trying to enclose the new world of the Americas into their empires. At this time we are right at the birth of emerging global capitalism. The engine of this movement is the ship. And the petrol in the engines are sailors.
Like Blackbeard here [powerpoint slide], they are combustible characters. But exploding because of the huge pressures they were put under. Sailors were brutally treated. Whipped, beaten, fed rotten food. Sailors at this time were rarely paid and regularly injured. One writer of the day wrote that to be a sailor was to be caught in a machine from which there is no escape except incapacity, desertion or death. To be a sailor in the navy was to be close to death. The mark they used in the ship’s log to show a sailor’s death? The skull and crossed bones.
You see, sailors turned to piracy because of the brutal lives they lived under these captains. A sailor’s life was going to be a short one. So if it was going to be a short life, why not a merry one? And when sailors turned to piracy, they lived a very different life at sea. Pirates could vote for their own officers. They ate and drank well. Pirates were compensated from the common purse if they were injured. But most importantly, pirates shared equally among themselves the profits of their labors.
You see, the common misconception is that pirates were just thieves. But what this misses is that everyone was thieving – the English navy from the French. French from the Spanish. The Spanish from the Dutch. And all of them from the land.
Very importantly: Pirates were not hated because they stole. No! Pirates were hated for refusing to pass on what they stole to the king. Pirates were hated for refusing to be more than just scum. That’s what the Jolly Roger screams loud and clear. The brutal treatment. The dehumanizing work for no reward....
Pirates come to us as an act of radical self-determination. To move to piracy is an act of emancipation -- stepping out from under oppression. And that is why we dress our children up as pirates – to give them a taste of freedom that we should all be thinking of.
Pirates of the 18th Century tell us important things about piracy in general, which is this: Whenever the resources of the many are enclosed for the benefit of the few, pirates will rise up, break that down, and put riches back into the hands of common people.
Brewin's talk brings to mind the pioneering history of the Atlantic slave trade, piracy and English merchants that Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have written, The Many Headed Hydra. Highly recommended. Brewin's version of this history has a passion and clarity that is quite moving. .
More on Brewin? The notes for his talk explain that besides teaching math in the UK, he is “a freelance writer, poet and consultant for BBC education. He writes regularly on education and technology for the national educational press, and has published a number of highly acclaimed books on the philosophy of religion.”