Every age reinvents pirates in its own image. When they first caught the public imagination in the early 17th century pirates attracted a mixture of loathing and admiration. After all there was precious little difference between the activities of a pirate and a privateer other than the fact that the latter operated under a government licence and gave a share of his loot to the crown.
Pirates like Englishman Jack Ward and Dutchman Siemon Danziger operated out of the Barbary ports under the patronage of the Bey of Algiers. Often as not they relied on bluff and cunning rather than violence and preyed on ships from Catholic states, such as Venice, which went down pretty well in Protestant England.
The subject of lurid pamphlets in London they became folk heroes in much the same way as the Krays did in the 1960s – ordinary men made good (or at least rich) in a world where ordinary men weren’t offered many opportunities to gain wealth and advancement.
By the turn of the 18th Century pirates were flourishing in the Caribbean, as the European powers used their services to fight trade wars with one another. Some, like Henry Morgan, were even knighted and retired to England to lead the life of gentlemen. But by the 1730s, as the reach of the British state extended, pirates were no longer needed.
Robert Louis Stevenson set Treasure Island in the 1740s and though, for his readers in the 1880s, it harked back to a period that had long since passed into legend, it’s themes were in many way Victorian.
In the Twentieth Century interest in pirates came in waves. There was a whole slew of pirate movies in the mid 1920s. After a slick, swashbuckling Errol Flynn starred in The Sea Hawk in 1940 interest waxed again peaking in the late 1950s and early 60s. Pirate movies were thoroughly out of fashion in the seventies until they were again revived in the mid 80s. And while it might feel that were in the middle of another upsurge of interest in reality it’s pretty much just Captain Jack Sparrow and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Just as movie goers in 1940 might have imagined Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn’s character) enjoying a dry martini, today’s popcorn muncher wouldn’t be too surpised if Cap’n Jack didn’t roll his’self a Camberwell Carrot. Depp said the character is part Keith Richards and part Pepe le Peu. I’d say he’s a goodly dose of Danny the Dealer too.
All of which is a very roundabout lead in to Hastings Pirate Day 2012. Two years ago they set a new world record by getting more than 6000 pirates together on the beach. This year, I believe, they broke that record.
The town was certainly heaving and every other person was a pirate. There were token pirates with just a bandana or an eyepatch to distinguish them from regular seaside holiday makers. There were pirates kitted out from cheap fancy dress shops. There were Goth pirates who’d clearly figured that all that black and lace could quickly be pirated up with a couple of added accessories. There were a few quite serious pirates with great boots. There were also quite a lot of sexy pirates for whom dressing up was clearly licence to let their hair down and flash a bit of (generally rather ample) flesh.
If the pirate of the 1930s was brave and dashing, the pirates of our age are scruffy and beyond the law, if fundamentally rather more loveable than cutthroat. We don’t want glamour so much as we want the ever watchful state off our backs. We want to be able to choose between good and bad for ourselves without its being a simple calculation; ‘will I get caught?’ We want to be a bit wilder than life allows these days. We want to have a bit of fun and pirates know how to do just that. We want to be free.
Maybe that’s why things like International Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19th) have snowballed (not that pirates generally liked snow, opting more often for tropical beaches). And maybe that’s why while for 364 days of the year Hastings has no R in it, for one day a year thousands of pirates put an almighty great Aaaaaaarrrrrrrr into the place.