Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, a queer and women’s history podcast with your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: Welcome back! In our second season, we’re taking a deep dive–get it–into the untold history of pirates.
LC: We are joined today by our now-pirate expert, Alyse Knorr. Welcome, Alyse.
Alyse Knorr: Hey, y’all. I feel honored by the title “pirate expert,” but I don’t think I deserve it.
LC: We saw your research, you deserve that title.
EB: So much research. And we are all trying to be experts on pirates. I’ve been reading, I’ve been reading and reading this, like–I feel like I’m in a history class, but a fun history class, you know? Like, I’m like, “Okay, I got my outline. I’m gonna start reading and learning this cool stuff about pirates.” So we hope you also feel that way when you’re listening to this show. Alyse, obviously, you don’t have a poem for us today. But we do have a fun new segment for season two. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
AK: Yeah, we thought for this season, it would be fun to do pirate “fact or fiction,” because there’s a lot of ideas about pirates in pop culture that aren’t necessarily true–but some that are–and it can be hard to tell the difference. So I have, for every episode, a fact about pirates, or it could be a fiction about pirates, that I will make y’all guess, and then I will tell you whether it’s real or not.
EB: I’m ready.
AK: Okay, so the very first one is: did pirates really wear eye patches and hooks and peg legs? What do you think?
LC: I mean, I definitely think they lost limbs and eyes. So it’s not outside of my belief. I don’t know about hooks. But I would say eye patches and peglegs, I would believe. I mean, what else are they doing back then?
EB: I feel like this is slightly unfair, but not because we just did a Patreon episode on Peter Pan where we talked about this.
LC: You can’t give it away in the episode.
EB: I feel like it is. It’s somewhere in the middle. It is sort of true.
LC: What does that mean?
EB: Don’t worry about it. I’ll go through.
AK: Yeah, what parts do you think are true, and what’s not?
EB: The hook is not necessarily true. Like there’s no evidence that a hook was on somebody’s hand. I feel like that has come into our general zeitgeist because of Captain Hook, one of the most famous pirates of all, in the same way that, you know, like the red Santa is because of Coca Cola.
EB: In the same way that the red Santa suit has come into our zeitgeist, I feel like the hook has come in because of films we’ve seen. But it’s not necessarily historically accurate.
EB: That’s my short answer.
AK: Okay, you’ve committed? Yeah.
LC: Tell us. What is the answer?
AK: You’re both wrong, actually. I hate to say it, yeah.
LC: What! This is not a good way to start season two!
AK: I know! But it’s so fun, because who knows. Okay, so let’s take it one item at a time. First of all, they did wear eye patches, but not because they lost eyes. They did lose their eyes a lot, but on a ship, there’s all kinds of accidents that can happen and they’re in battle all the time. They wore eye patches for a really interesting reason, which was to help them with their night vision. So pirates would have to really quickly transition from being below decks, right, where it was very dark, to above decks where it was very, very bright. And they were–they’re going in and out doing battle. Sometimes they’d be up above deck in the pitch black, you know, fighting at nighttime. And so if they wore an eyepatch, it would allow them to more quickly adjust their eyes when they transition between below decks and above decks. So like if I’m reading a patch below deck, and then I go up above deck, I switch what eye it is, and this–the eye that was covered by the patch–is already adjusted to the darkness.
LC: Oh my goodness. How cool is that?
EB: That is so cool. Pirates are smart little things, huh?
LC: Very innovative, yeah.
AK: They’re very, very–yeah. Okay, so hooks is probably the one that they did use the most, because hooks were, you know, for a very long time throughout history, have been the standard prosthetic. And pirates would have lost a lot of hands in sword fighting battles and things like that, or with issues with the rigging on the masts of the ships. So hooks probably was true. And then peglegs.
LC: So wrong!
AK: I know.
EB: So wrong.
LC: I could not be more wrong.
AK: I know. And then peglegs is like–okay. So the thing is in the–by the, like, you know, late 19th century, peglegs were a thing for prosthetics vendors. They would offer them because they were cheaper and they were a more, you know, a cheaper alternative to intricate, you know, lifelike artificial legs. In some ways that would mean the pegleg would have been really available to pirates on their ships. But the thing is, if a pirate lost the leg during battle, they were very unlikely to survive that injury, because it’s a massive amputation, probably would be infected. They’re more likely to survive a hand amputation than a leg amputation. So I’m on the Wikipedia page for pegleg right now, and there is a list of notable pegleg wearers, and that includes a couple of privateers. A privateer is a pirate that was getting paid by governments to raid certain foreign entities.
LC: So like a mercenary?
AK: Yeah, exactly. There are a couple, but it’s much less common than pop culture makes us think it is, the pegleg.
LC: My goodness. I’m gonna learn so much this season.
EB: So much. I feel like I want a pegleg. I just like–
LC: I don’t know if you want to lose a leg, Ellie.
EB: No, but I just want a fake pegleg.
LC: Well, Halloween thing, and you can–
EB: I told Alyse this, you haven’t heard this, Leesa. And if you’re on our Patreon, you’ll hear more about it. But I was Captain Hook and my ex-girlfriend was Smee for Halloween one year.
LC: Oh my goodness. And also really accurate that you would be Hook and whoever you’re dating would be Smee.
EB: Exactly, I was like, “You be Smee.”
AK: When I first started dating Kate, I really liked to be Batman at Halloween. And so when I first started dating her, I proposed that she be Robin for our couples costume. And she was like, “I’m not your sidekick. I will not be your sidekick. I will not be your subordinate.” And so I was like, “Okay, you’re going to be the Joker or something?” You know what you went as?
LC: Tell me.
LC: Okay, okay.
AK: Yeah, the rival.
EB: And you’re like, “I guess I’m marrying this woman.”
AK: Yes, oh my god. Let me tell you, she slicked her hair back, like Superman, you know, and did a little curl on her forehead.
LC: Oh, my goodness.
AK: She looked so good. Good thing I married her.
LC: Now, that’s a movie that we could get behind. Like Batman and Superman as a queer women couple. That would be amazing.
EB: I’m here for it.
LC: Someone make that.
EB: There is a lot of tension.
LC: DC is really flailing. I feel like maybe they could use some fresh ideas like this. We should write to them.
AK: We should pitch them. Yeah.
EB: Yeah. We’ll pitch to them.
AK: I love it.
EB: Well, we’re not here to talk about DC.
LC: Not yet!
EB: We are here to talk about–this is our first episode of season two. And we want to talk a little bit, give you a little bit of an intro, to pirates, which is what we’re talking about this entire season. We’re going to be talking about queer pirates, women pirates, the untold history of pirates, pirates we don’t necessarily get to hear as much about. But we want to tell you all about: what are pirates? What are pirates?
LC: Alyse, I feel like this is–this is you, right? Our resident pirate expert.
AK: Yeah, we’ll have more from, you know, actual historians on this bit. A pirate is basically anyone who–and this job has existed since ancient times, it’s one of the oldest jobs–but it’s someone who steals stuff in water. Someone who makes their living by taking things that aren’t theirs in a maritime environment.
EB: Yes. And I love–I mean, piracy is one of the oldest jobs pretty much ever, right, like, it is–
LC: I love that stealing stuff and having sex for money are, like, two of the oldest profession. Humans are great, we’re just great.
EB: Yeah, two of the most human things ever, like taking things from others. But I do love–I know we’re gonna get into this later–there’s this, like, Robin Hood type version of pirates, right, of like–and then there’s the, like, pirates are evil, right? There’s like a, pirates are stealing things because they’re bad. And then there’s like, pirates are stealing things because capitalism sucks. And like they want to reinvent our economic system to benefit themselves. Like there’s like–pirates are very nuanced, and I’m excited to talk about them.
AK: Yeah, I mean, even amongst scholars, there’s those diverging opinions. I read one book, a great book by Marcus Rediker, and he makes the argument that pirates are basically like radical Marxist heroes. They had some of the earliest, like, you know–I mean, way ahead of their time examples of democracy aboard their ships, they had health insurance, they had same-sex marriage, which we’ll get into. So they’re very progressive in that sense. They didn’t operate like the monarchies of their time. Captains didn’t have that much power on the ship. But then other scholars are like, “By the way, they were raping and murdering everyone they came across, and like they were basically terrorists, you know, responding to state acting terrorists.” And so yeah, there’s like a lot of disagreement about that. I think it’s cool.
EB: Which we will get into.
LC: Yeah, for those of our listeners who don’t know, my whole degree was on extremism and identity. And so I studied terrorism, and it’s kind of similar. There’s a lot of similar things in piracy, from what I’ve seen so far. Like, it’s like a lot of terrorist organizations, especially long-running terrorist organizations, have health care and provide services for the communities that they’re a part of that the state fails to provide. And so that’s why they get a lot of implicit support. And so you can kind of see the same sort of thing. So quite often, these groups that exist outside of society end up being very innovative and forward thinking in some ways, and then like, obviously–we’re not condoning all pirate behavior, but it’s just, you know, an interesting…
AK: Yeah, they had very creative ways of murdering people that have come up. To be honest with you, there are some things where I’m just like, “Are you serious? That’s what you did?” One of my favorites from, like, ancient piracy is that Plutarch wrote that some pirates found out during Roman times–shout out to season one, the Classics!
LC: Shout out to Classics!
AK: So these pirates captured this person, and the guy was like, “I’m a Roman, like, you can’t do this. I’m a Roman.” And so then the pirates were like, “Oh, oh, oh, we’re so sorry. We didn’t realize you were a Roman.” And they give him a toga, and let a ladder down into the sea and say, “You’re free to go.”
LC: Into the sea?
AK: Into the sea.
EB: So basically, they were like, “Oh, you’re a Roman, you can walk the plank, quote unquote, but not the plank. You can go down this ladder into the shark-filled water.” It is like–it’s just like the ultimate prank, right? Like, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, here’s a toga. You can die like a Roman, since you are a Roman.” Like, that’s horrible. Yeah, but also funny. I mean, there also was this whole thing, right? I mean, as we’re talking about, like, toga, toga parties, toga everything. Peter Leeson writes that pirate culture was “energetic and testosterone filled, probably similar to a college fraternity only with peglegs, fewer teeth and pistol dueling.”
AK: They gave him a toga, like that’s so–
LC: I mean, it doesn’t sound so different from college fraternities, even with those things.
EB: Yeah, exactly, I’m like, “What do you mean?”
LC: I mean, if we take pistol dueling in a different way.
EB: Yes, exactly. Lots of pistol dueling in college fraternities.
AK: Also the, like, homoeroticism of college fraternities, which is one of the main things we’re going to be getting into in this season. Just like, when you have a bunch of, like, young, probably super buff men on a ship for years–they tended to be out there for up to three years. Like, some gay stuff is gonna happen. And that’s kind of the argument of scholars of pirate homosexuality, is that there’s no documentation, but just think about the conditions, like, duh.
EB: Like if they didn’t, then like you’re going to really say that pirates are celibate, right? Like these pirates, who are so testosterone filled, as like, so riled, are completely celibate.
LC: They’re just good friends. Just good friends.
EB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course.
LC: Guys being guys.
EB: I just feel like it’ll be really interesting to dive into, like, the culture of pirates, like who they were and who they were as a community. We talked a little bit about, like, they’re Marxist socialist heroes, or not, but there definitely was a lot of cooperation on the ships. I don’t know if we’re going to talk a little bit–like I know, Alyse, we had talked about all of the portrayals of pirates that are like, “There’s a captain and everyone else is subordinate to them,” is not really that accurate, right? Of like, they really–the captain had a certain role, but most of the people on the ship were working together to do something not, like, there’s that one person who’s getting all the treasure, who’s getting all of the glory, and everyone else is just beneath them, right?
AK: Yeah, they had really intricate systems of voting on who their captains would be. And then the captains really just only made decisions on their own if the ship was in the middle of battle or flight.
LC: So no electoral college is what you’re telling me, on the pirate ship?
AK: No, they had direct democracy, they voted on stuff. And the captain wasn’t even allowed to distribute the food and the plunder. That was the quartermaster’s job. So they had this whole system, they had health insurance, like we mentioned. And also, I think another reason scholars sort of positioned them as the socialist heroes is that they were disrupting these imperialist capitalist systems, right? So governments hated them, because they were messing with their merchant economic system. And so they were rebels that were challenging the idea that–I mean, because if you were a sailor at this time, a merchant sailor, or even a navy sailor, you were getting paid abysmal wages, you were working in awful conditions, you were probably starving on the ship, they wouldn’t even feed you. And you probably had a captain who abused you and beat you. And so pirates oftentimes were just sailors who defected and said like, “Fuck this, I’m done being treated like this. I want to be treated more fairly.” This even played out in the sense that if a pirate ship captured–some pirates, if they captured a merchant ship or a navy ship, they would ask all the sailors on the ship, “Is your captain a cool guy or not? Does he mistreat you? Or is he a cool guy?” And if the sailors were like, “Yeah, he’s a cool guy,” the Pirates wouldn’t hurt the captain. But if the sailors were like, “Oh, he beats us and flogs us and he doesn’t feed us,” the pirates would torture and kill the captain.
LC: Oh my god, what would they do to Jeff Bezos if they met him? I just had a vision of pirates sailing up to some Amazon employees being like, “Hey, your boss, is he in the back?”
EB: “How does your employer treat you?”
LC: Honestly, maybe we could use some pirates, I don’t know.
AK: They were also really multicultural, so they were like–they were called “villains of all nations.” And so they were, you know, from all European backgrounds, but also African, African American, Native American, former slaves. Just if you were on a pirate ship in the Golden Age, which is the, like, 17th century, you would have heard just all these languages on the ships and, you know, just a very, very, you know, diverse group of people on these ships.
EB: Very cool. I have a question. Pirates still exist today, correct? Yeah, I’m like we’re talking about them in the past, but we still have pirates out there in the world. I feel like we think about pirates, right, in that very Golden Age of Piracy way.
AK: They sure do. Totally, yeah.
EB: But pirates still exist.
AK: Yeah, one of the most famous is the Somali pirates, right. And so in a recent article that I read, a Somalian pirate told the publication, “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our oceans.” So they are violent pirates. They are dangerous, just like the Golden Age pirates, but they don’t hurt cooperative hostages. And they really are doing it–and I think the movie Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks makes this really clear–they do it out of poverty, like, extreme poverty. And they regulate their own behavior, and they–with written rules–on their ships, and they really believe that their cause is just.
EB: Super cool. I mean, violence is not cool. But also it is just a very–I’m so excited to dig into the economic nuances, like the societal nuances of pirates.
EB: Not for or against, but just interesting to talk about why they’re doing what they’re doing. I’m excited for that.
LC: I mean, I think it’s always interesting. And I think that’s always an interesting conversation to be had about what we deem legitimate violence, like states commit a lot of violence in the, you know, for democracy, or for economic stability, or for a bunch of reasons that they give, and we allow state sanctioned violence, but when it’s non-state actors, the opinion changes. And it’s been interesting, like living through this political time and trying to have conversations with people, especially when we had the last president and seeing, like, what means they thought justified the ends when it was for things like, you know, queer rights, or you know–like, I mean, pride started as a riot, right, for peoples’ rights. And so I think those conversations are always really interesting, and it will be interesting to have them this season.
AK: Yeah, I mean, one thing Marcus Rediker talks about a lot in his book is that if you think about the merchants and colonial ministers and royalty of the 17th century, during the Golden Age of Piracy, they were using terror to try to eliminate piracy, so hanging people publicly at the gallows and then displaying their bodies outside of ports. Like that’s terror, and they were doing this to punish and protect their mercantile property. So these keepers of the state were kind of terrorists and pirates in turn use terror to get revenge, to get money. A lot of times they use terror to avoid fighting. So if they can intimidate a ship with their scary flag, or with, you know, scary stuff that they were doing, the way they dress, they could force people to just surrender and tell them where their plunder was and all of that, and not have to fight or hurt anyone or risk anything. All that being said, like they were violently misogynistic in general. They were–so like, yeah, it’s always like this weird, like, “Yeah, they were really cool. And they were really awful, also.”
LC: So you lied in your TikTok song is what you’re saying, Alyse? Pirates weren’t all gay. I thought it was so funny reading the comments of that because a lot of people were like, “Um, I don’t believe they had, like, rainbow skull and cross.” And we were like, “It’s poetic license!”
EB: It’s a joke. Like, it is clearly satirical.
AK: I love those comments. They’re like, “I’m a descendant of pirates, so how could they all be gay?” And it’s like, “Uh, queer people have babies all the time, like…”
LC: Yes. Yes, it’s true. People took it very seriously. But also, Alyse, you blew up on TikTok, and absolutely didn’t want to. Sorry.
AK: I really regret not posting it under the Sweetbitter account, because now I feel like I can’t post another TikTok video of me, like, you know, singing a song with you, Leesa.
LC: Because you have, like, 20,000 followers.
AK: I don’t know why they’re following me. I’m not–I don’t have any more content.
LC: We should just change it to a Sweetbitter account. But, I mean, so this season, we would really love to do some sea shanties. But, we need your help.
EB: Yes, we do. Alyse made an incredible sea shanty, “Pirates All Are Gay,” which we will post at the end of this episode, maybe.
LC: We’ll play it at the end of the episode.
EB: So we will play Alyse’s beautiful “Pirates All Are Gay” sea shanty at the end of this episode. A lot of you have been asking us, “Are you going to do songs for season two? Please, we want more songs.” We will say, we want to do more songs. However, our bandwidth is stretched very, very, very thin, because this year, we just have a lot going on. We want to do songs, but we also need to be able to afford to do songs. And so that’s where you come in. If you can help us and join our Patreon, once we get to 100 patrons, we will start doing sea shanties at the end of each episode. We have been working very, very, very hard on this show for $0 for the past year, and as much as we love creating for you, we also need to set some boundaries with ourselves financially and with our time.
LC: Yeah, and patrons also get a lot of really cool bonus content. So this season, we’re doing episodes with some of our favorite other podcasters and we’re talking about pirate movies. So as Ellia and Alyse said earlier, in the episode, they covered Peter Pan with Allie from HERstory on the Rocks. I think we’re gonna do some episodes with Leigh from History is Gay and Liv from Myths Baby, who you know very well. Kristin from Buffering the Vampire Slayer, a whole bunch of people, we’ve got them all lined up, it’s gonna be so much fun. I’m giving them rainbow flag ratings for how gay they are.
EB: And just generally having some really interesting conversations. I mean, we’ve only really done the one with HERstory on the Rocks so far. But we had some really interesting conversations about Peter Pan, and like the context of that film from 1953. There’s a lot of really interesting societal things to talk about with Peter Pan. Also talking about Captain Hook as a representation of pirates from however long ago and sort of what we still think about as pirates because of Captain Hook. So we have lots of thoughts on pirates and pirate movies. So if you want to hear those, you can hear those on our Patreon. So we have a lot to cover this season for pirates. What is everyone most excited for? I will start. I’m really excited for Mary Read and Anne Bonny, because we love queer pirates, and I want to hear all about them.
AK: I’ll go next. I’m really excited to think about pirates in pop culture. So like, Pirates of the Caribbean, and sort of why they’ve captured our attention for so long in movies and plays and books. And what is it about pirates that just, you know, holds our imagination?
LC: I’m excited. Yeah, I’m really excited about our bonus Patreon content with our guests. It’s really fun to have, like, conversations with our friends, like the people we made friends with last season in the podcasting space. I think that’s going to be really fun. And just, like, singing sea shanties, hopefully.
EB: Fingers crossed. We are very excited about season two, and here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter, season two.
Laura Duncombe: Since the beginning of recorded history, there have always been pirates. As long as there is a body of water and something to sail, there will be pirates.
Rebecca Simon: I think that they’re very popular because these are people who are essentially, you know, they’re going against authority. They don’t care what people think, they take control for themselves. A lot of them are portrayed as kind of being these very morally ambiguous figures. So kind of both villains, but also kind of the good guys at the same time. And that, I think, has always been a very fascinating type of character in pop culture. And I think also they’re very anti-establishment, and I think, depending on what’s going on politically, we tend to become more attracted to anti-establishment at certain times. So I think, you know, we’ve had lots of times of conflict since 9/11, of course, and, you know, so of course, and that’s kind of around the time pirates got very popular again. And so kind of some more anti-establishment times. And then I think it’s just kind of, you know, the idea of people sailing on these adventures, you know, looking for buried treasure, you know, treasure maps, X marks the spot, like, you know, they’re sexy, they’re fun, they’re, you know, these characters that we might not meet otherwise. That’s what it is. They make very intriguing, morally ambiguous characters in fiction. And people are just kind of generally very attracted to that.
Clint Jones:For every embellishment, there’s got to be a kernel of truth. And I think someone like Anne Bonny or Mary Read, obviously, with individuals like Grace Kelly and others, it would have been, I think, unfair for us to sort of not make space in our arguments for pirates that they would have included women in some way that was more representative and inclusive than what the historical record relates to us.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our first episode will be released on September 2nd.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps other people find the podcast, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. You can also support us on Patreon at patreon.com/sweetbitter.
LC: Thank you to the people who joined our Patreon while we were away. It was really exciting to see you supporting us on our off time. We had not one, but two Emmas. So thank you to both of you. Justine, Efrat, and Luna. You can find us, as always, on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Our research assistant is Thea Smith, and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you also to Chloe Duckart on vocals and Joshua Nelson on the banjo for their contributions to our “Pirates All Are Gay” sea shanty.
LC: Without further ado, let’s hear Alyse’s world famous sea shanty, “Pirates All Are Gay.” Which is not all completely factual. I feel like we need to tell you.
EB: Some of this song has been exaggerated for dramatic effect.