Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter Season Two, where we explore the untold history of women and queer pirates. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’ll be giving a general overview of pirates. What is a pirate? What were they like, and how do they operate?
LC: But before we get into that we are joined by our resident pirate expert, Alyse, to play our new favorite game: Fact or Fiction.
Alyse Knorr: Hey, y’all.
LC: The suspense!
EB: I know this is killing me! What’s the fact or fiction? Tell us, Alyse.
AK: Yes. Okay, so today’s pirate fact or fiction is: buried treasure. We hear a lot about pirates burying their loot. Did that really happen or not? What do you think?
EB: All right, so I’m gonna go for this, because I am pretty positive about this. And if you tell me I’m wrong, then I’ll feel like an idiot, but it’s fine. That’s the point of this. I’m pretty positive that this is fiction. They did not bury their treasure because pirates–they got their treasure, and they spent it. They used it. There are no banks, right? Like, where are you going to put your money? Because there are no banks, if they did bury their treasure, they would have to hide it very well. And so burying it would be a way to hide it, and only one person would know where it was. But I just don’t think that’s actually true. That’s my answer, because they didn’t have enough money to bury. They just spent it.
AK: Okay, we got Ellie’s answer. What about you, Leesa?
LC: I’m disqualified because I am the one who interviewed Jamie Goodall, who we’ll be hearing from in this answer.
AK: Yeah, we thought we’d let pirate expert historian Jamie Goodall explain this, here she is.
Jamie Goodall: So there are quite a few. Most of them are the direct result of the release of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The first is that pirates buried their treasure. We actually have little to no evidence that pirates buried their treasure, with the exception of Captain Kidd’s claims that he buried his treasure–even though he claimed it, though we have no evidence for it, because nobody’s ever found Captain Kidd’s treasure, right. But it also doesn’t make a lot of sense that a pirate would bury their treasure, right? Because, yeah, first, you would have to deal with shifting sands and tides. So your treasure could easily be uncovered and discovered by somebody else or washed out to sea. You’d have to trust all the members of your crew not to go back and take it for themselves. And besides, most of the stuff that they’re stealing isn’t gold and treasure. They’re stealing commodities, because the Spanish learned very quickly to secure their treasure ships and they sailed in these large fortified convoys. So most of the ships that they’re attacking are just regular merchant ships. So they’re stealing timber, linens, silk, spices, enslaved peoples, and then they are taking those to various islands to get money. And then of course, they’re going to spend their money as quickly as possible or, for those that decide to retire, they take that money and they invest it back into themselves through land, and other types of properties. So it just doesn’t make a lot of sense for them to bury their treasure.
EB: Alright, so what else do you have to say about buried treasure? I’m right, that’s all that matters. But we’ll talk more about it.
LC: I mean often Ellie, often. Let’s be real.
EB: I did–I feel like people have–we’ve talked about this in our Patreon episodes so many times that I was like, “I feel confident about this.” And if I don’t then I was completely misremembering everything we talked about. But, what are your thoughts on this, Alyse?
AK: Well, one thing I think’s really interesting is that while pirates at the time didn’t bury their treasure, we did hear from one of our sources that they kind of inadvertently buried their treasure by sinking certain ships. So if a ship sank, it might have a bunch of, like, coins on it or just artifacts. And so people are really into maritime archaeology today. And they’re constantly finding more ships, pirate ships, merchant ships, things like that, that sank and are full of like weird, cool artifacts.
LC: All I’m thinking about right now is The Titanic.
EB: As you should, because, well, I guess that does make sense. So it’s like, medium true, where like some of the things we see where people are searching desperately to find the treasure. Like they could find this treasure. But a pirate wasn’t like, “Here’s a map and here’s the X and you can get it here.” That’s my pirate voice. But they weren’t trying to have people find their buried treasure. They accidentally lost their treasure and you can find it.
AK: I think I also read somewhere that a pirate, when he was on trial–because you know, if you were convicted of being a pirate, you were going to be hanged and your body was going to be put out on display as a warning against piracy. And I think I read somewhere that at least one pirate sort of tried to make the argument that he knew where some buried treasure was to, like, stay alive a little bit longer, which seems like a good strategy.
LC: It’s a pretty good get-out-of-hanging strategy.
EB: For sure, for sure. Well, thank you, Alyse, so much for talking to us about buried treasure.
AK: Thanks for having me.
EB: We’ll be back after a short ad break. I’m so ready to dig in to: what is a pirate? Leesa, what is a pirate anyway?
LC: Well, I’m not a pirate expert, so I’m less qualified to answer. But we spoke to pirate historic Rebecca Simon about this, so I will let her explain.
Rebecca Simon: The definition is–I kind of go with the official definition from the 17th and 18th century, which is someone who commits murder and robbery on a body of water. And this could be anything from a lake, a stream, but most commonly, of course, an ocean. Since ancient times, some of the first real recordings of deadly people from the sea are known as the Sea Peoples, who essentially destroyed all the major kingdoms in Mesopotamia in the ancient period: Babylonia, the Assyrians, etcetera. We don’t know where they came from. They could have been pirates, they could have been Vikings, they could have been anybody. And then in Ancient Greece, I forget the name of the historian, maybe Herodotus, I forget–but did record, you know, these pesky, obnoxious pirates coming in and bothering us? And then in other places in the Mediterranean or amongst the Illyrians, perhaps, they actually liked–kind of valued pirates for their bravery and fighting skills at sea. Of course, caveat, that’s only if those pirates are actually fighting for them, not against them.
LC: Shout out to Season One!
EB: Ancient Greek pirates, we’re here for it. But I mean, as we discussed in Episode 0, as long as people have sailed on the water, there have been pirates.
LC: And some of them were even government-sanctioned mercenaries.
RS: Yes, so the definition of a privateer is basically some one who has what’s called a “letter of marque.” And this is essentially a contract between a specific government and a pirate ship. And they’re usually active during war time, or in times of any sort of conflict or competition, where they’re trying to weaken a competing nation of some sort. And so they essentially act as mercenaries. And the way they’re paid for the most part is by being able to keep whatever they can loot and sell.
EB: So we know what defines a pirate, but who were they?
LC: Well, we’re getting really deep here. Get it, deep, sunken treasure.
RS: Well, the average pirate was usually in their 20s and 30s. Young men, for the most part. You did have some younger than that, but not nearly as many. If they were younger, they might have either been like coerced into it, forced into it, just didn’t quite know what they’re getting into. So about 50% of pirates in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy were British or British-American colonists. The rest–it was very diverse. You have Africans–both freed or enslaved people who had run away. So you got Africans, Germans, French, Portuguese, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, you got some Indian, as in the East Indies, you got some who are Southeast Asian, even, pirates, Native Americans sometimes showed up on pirate ships. So you had a huge kind of hodgepodge. Pirate ships were more diverse than many other ships of the region. And so they were quite multilingual. And in terms of pop culture, I think one of the best representations of this are either in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, when you see kind of the pirate crew and how diverse it is. People of kind of all colors, all regions, even a woman–I forget her name–played by Zoe Saldana. And then the show Black Sails also shows a very diverse crew and pirates all over Nasau, and even an Asian pirate from Southeast Asia. So those are pop culture representations that do it very well. So most pirates go in and they get moderately wealthy if they’re lucky. The average lifespan of a pirate was about two years and because within two years, one of three things probably happened. One, you’re probably captured. Two, you probably died in battle or infection or disease. Or three, you were able to escape or leave the pirate career and go home, or something like that. That was pretty average. People were–the average person was in it for adventure, and to get rich quickly. They would go back to islands, mostly in the Caribbean, probably places like Nasau, maybe Jamaica, areas where pirates tended to congregate–they would sell their goods and they would spend their money. You know, pirates were known for drinking. That is not just a stereotype, it’s very true. Sailors in general, were known to be very heavy drinkers. Part of it because, you know, having, you know, a daily ration of grog which is–it’s not just a pirate drink, it is a maritime drink of one part rum, several parts water, a lime, some sugar, and that was a very common drink. There’s lots of periods of boredom, and so drinking would alleviate that, to the point where they did kind of make lots of rules on ships where you couldn’t drink. And so people drink very excessively on land. There were even laws against public drunkenness–that’s how much of a big deal it was. So lots of drinking, lots of time at brothels, which is very true, selling their goods, getting money, and then some would go home. For the most part, they were spending their money and kind of having a good time until they ran out of money and started looking for maybe another crew to join, or their crew would be spending time kind of re-outfitting themselves to prepare for another journey. It really depended, but for the most part, they’re having a good time spending their money.
EB: Okay, so this is very different from the image we have of pirates in pop culture, though. If pirates were so diverse and have been around for so long, why is there so much attention on the Golden Age of pirates?
LC: I will let Rebecca answer that.
RS: So the Golden Age of Piracy is a period of time between approximately 1670 and about 1730. And there’s three rounds of piracy. So the first one is the 1670s, and this is known as the Buccaneering Period in the Caribbean, mostly by French pirates, as there is a lot of kind of political issues and infighting between the English and the Spanish who were trying to control different plantation islands within the Caribbean. During times of a lot of political unrest, it was a great time for pirates to go in and disrupt things and find places to stay. And in this case, it was a lot of French pirates. And then the second round has to do–takes place in the 1690s, and this refers to piracy going on in the Indian Ocean. And these are pirates such as Henry Avery, who was active around 16–in the early 1690s, up to about 1695, attacking Indian Mughal ships. And then what’s interesting about him is pretty much all of his crew was captured and put on trial, but Henry Avery himself went missing. And then of course, a few years later, there’s Captain Kidd, who operated about 1698, 1699, and essentially robbed the wrong ship and got in a fight with one of his crew members and killed him. He says by accident, probably not. And that was kind of the subject of like a big manhunt, kind of looking for him, which was documented live in newspapers. He was lured to Boston by a friend and former financier who didn’t want to be associated with him as a pirate. So he’s arrested as soon as he’s brought to Boston, he’s in prison for two years before they send him off to England, and he has a big show trial, and then is executed in May of 1701. But then we have what’s called the third round of piracy, and this is the most well known. When people are thinking of pirates, particularly in the Caribbean, they’re thinking of this third round, and this takes place approximately from about 1713 until 1726, according to a historian named Marcus Rediker, but if you kind of round that up, about 1730. And this is a period of time when a whole bunch of privateers were now out of work after fighting in a war called the War of Spanish Succession, which lasted about 1701-ish until about 1713-ish. And when it ended, these privateers are out of work. And so a lot of them become these organized bands of pirates who settle in the Bahamas on the island of Providence in a city called Nassau, or Nassau. And they’re organized, they’ve got captains who command large fleets, lots of loyalties, lots of competitions, until the Royal Navy becomes a lot more powerful and Britain starts essentially what’s known as a war on pirates, where they put in as much of their resources as they possibly can to capture pirates, put them on trial, and execute them in the Caribbean, North America, and London. And it got to the point where pirates became so numerous, it wasn’t possible to transport them to London. That’s why they set up courts in the colonies. Colonists did have interesting relationships with pirates, because pirates would bring in goods from a lot of trading restrictions that colonists couldn’t get otherwise. But then the British officials were saying, “If you help pirates, you’ll be considered a pirate.” And this makes everything very, very complicated. And this period of time is said to have ended around 1726 because by this point, most of the major pirate leaders such as Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Ed Low, have all been executed, and the last major, major public execution of a pirate was William Fly, which took place in 1726. And this is why Marcus Rediker says the golden age of piracy ended in 1726. Also, around 1730-ish we start seeing more conflicts starting to happen on sea, which will lead into the War of Austrian Succession. And Britain and other European nations need skilled fighters and skilled sailors on sea. So they offer pardons to any former pirates who agrees to work as a privateer. So they’re like, “We’ll pardon you for your crimes. It’s all erased, blank slate, if you work for us as a privateer.” And many pirates chose to do this. It just wasn’t feasible. It wasn’t worth it to be a pirate anymore. The risk was too high, the momentum was gone, and so many of them turned back into privateering, and we never, ever see such an organized period of piracy again, essentially. Piracy doesn’t disappear. Not at all. There’s many pirates after. But we don’t see such large organization like we did during this time period.
LC: Although many scholars use the phrase Golden Age of Piracy, we do want to add a caveat, which is not everybody agrees with this term. Historian Wendy Bracewell, who we’ll be hearing more from in future episodes, for one.
Wendy Bracewell: Well, first of all, I take issue with the idea of a Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean, partly because there’s piracy everywhere. Everywhere there are shipping routes, there has been piracy. You could say that there’s a Golden Age of Piracy in the Mediterranean in Classical times, you know, there’s certainly very active piracy then. And I think probably the 16th and 17th centuries in the Mediterranean, and certainly in the Adriatic, are another Golden Age of Piracy. Just think of the Barbary corsairs, think of the Knights of Malta, the Uskoks are not unlike all of these, but they’re part of a great phenomenon of piracy at this period, piracy that’s made more vital, first of all, by the liveliness of the trade routes going back and forth. Mediterranean has always been a trading sea. And secondly, by the religious and political boundaries that cross the Mediterranean that gives pirates or corsairs–maybe we should say, in the Mediterranean–reason to plunder and an excuse to plunder. I would claim, you know, “A” Golden Age for the Mediterranean this period. Everything is not, you know, Blackbeard with firecrackers tied into his beard. There are pirates today, think of the South China Sea. It’s so, you know–this is not a phenomenon really that’s gone away. So take your Golden Age.
EB: I love that from Wendy, because that’s the point of this podcast, right? Like, we don’t want to just talk about the Golden Age of Piracy, quote, unquote, because there are so many other particularly cool pirates throughout all of piracy.
LC: Yeah, I think people just like to put “Golden Age” on things. Like, people just like to be like, “Hey, it was the Golden Age of the Golden Age.” Like, what is “golden age”?
EB: Every age is golden.
LC: Exactly. So many ages. So Ellie, you know me, I’m all about operations.
EB: Of course, of course. Yes. When I think Leesa, I think operations.
LC: How about the operation of pirate ships? How did that work?
EB: Well, Rebecca had some insight on that.
RS: Attacks and intimidation. That was the really big thing. And so what pirates would do is they would often kind of hail another ship, whether by hoisting a flag of where the other ship was coming from. That’s how pirates hailed each other. You know, they had to kind of have a flag race, so you knew where the ship was coming from. So Britain, they’d have a British flag, French would have French flag, etcetera. And you can hail ships kind of as if you’re in distress, and pirates would do things like this, or they’d sneak up on the ships and attack them. And there was actually a pirate flag that was developed. And this was, you know–we think of it as the skull and crossbones, and that is kind of a later iteration of the flag. Originally, it’s an image of the devil kind of holding up a trident, and next to it is a bloody heart with an arrow through it. So this is kind of how people knew like, “Oh, god, we can’t turn back now, we’re about to be attacked.” Pirates go on and they attack. Some are very deadly. And to the point of being complete sadists, such as Charles Vane and Edward Low. Edward Low was known to torture his victims by cutting off their lips or their ears and forcing the victims to eat them. Charles Vane was known for being extremely violent, he owuld mutilate his victims. And then you have pirates like Jack Rackham, and Blackbeard, who would go on ships and they’d fight and blah, blah, blah. But they wouldn’t really kill very many people. Pirates generally wanted to kind of get in and out as fast as they could, because you know, they kill lots of people. A lot of pirates will be killed, so they’ll have to take hostages. Hostages can be tricky, because they might betray pirates. It’s a complicated situation. So the majority of the pirates, they were violent. Yes. They didn’t kill as many people as we think, though, but we do have pirates like Charles Vane and Ed Low, who were very violent. So it really just kind of depended, but attacks and intimidation. A major privateer named Benjamin Hornigold was a very powerful figure during the War of Spanish Succession. And after it ended, he felt that a lot of pirates kind of needed a place to organize themselves. And he went to Nassau, which was a place in the Bahamas, right in the middle of major shipping lanes, but also kind of nestled in between lots of small islands so it could be tricky to get to. And close proximity to Florida close proximity to the Caribbean, so good spot. He goes in and it’s kind of like a lawless place. You do have a big planter colony culture there, a lot of settlements within Nassau itself. But there’s a lot of lawlessness, lots of issues. And so Benjamin Hornigold goes in and is like, “This is the perfect spot for pirates. And we’re gonna organize this up.” And so he actually becomes known as a pirate king of this pirate kingdom. And so as a result, a lot of pirates gravitate towards there. They get new crews, they know each other, or know of each other. They communicate with each other. And so this is how they kind of start to organize themselves. You have people like Blackbeard, who command a large number of ships. You have Bartholomew Roberts, who is known to actually be the most successful pirate of all time. In today’s currency, he amassed over a billion dollars in his goods, yes. And he commanded fleets of ships of like over a hundred ships. So this is kind of in terms of the organization that’s happening during this time period.
LC: I am now personally very devastated that we don’t have a devil with a trident and bloody hot with an arrow through it rainbow pirate flag, because that sounds way cooler.
EB: It’s so cool. And also so much more gory and violent. Like jeez, we really sanitized, we’ve sanitized the pirates, right? I mean, that is sort of the point of this show in general, right? Like a lot of pop culture has sanitized pirates or like glorified them. Where’s the truth? Where’s the middle ground?
LC: That’s what we’re here to find out, Ellie. We’re here to find the truth. We’re here to put the arrow through the bloody heart. The arrow of truth.
EB: I’m here for it.
LC: So we heard a little bit from Jamie Goodall before, and I just want to offer her bit of more of an introduction because I was absolutely delighted to speak with her. She has more insight to offer on pirate tactics. I do also want to mention that Jamie works for the US Army Center of Military History and made it very clear that her views on all of this are her own, and not that of the US government.
JG: So primarily, they’re using taverns to their advantage, and they would go in, and we tend to think of them just going to taverns to get, you know, ridiculously drunk. But a lot of business is conducted in taverns, and so they could learn about a ship that was getting ready to leave port or ships that were about to come into port. So they would primarily operate that way. But they also would cruise the traditional trade travel lanes, if you will. There was a very specific set of travel lanes throughout the Atlantic world that ships would use because they had to go with the current. So it was pretty easy for them to sort of guess where a ship might be. And pirates typically voted on which ships they would attack. They had to come to a consensus in order to launch an attack.
EB: Wait, they voted?
LC: Yes. And, in fact, their egalitarian societies have been a huge point of interest for lots of researchers. Here’s Rebecca.
RS: There is a huge debate in the field of piracy, because here’s the thing about researching piracy is we don’t have very many documents to go on. So we’re all looking at the same things, you know, the calendar of state papers, which is kind of the organization of letters written between plantation owners and maritime officials, or the parliament, etcetera, etcetera. Where there’s lots of reports about piracy. Trial transcripts, last dying speeches–pirates, you know, those who were going to be executed had to give a speech kind of atoning for their crimes and warning people against it. Yeah, very interesting stuff, especially because a lot of these are coming from pirates, but we don’t know how much they might have been coerced to say. So they’re complicated documents. Newspaper reports, again, could be exaggerated. News back then is just as nuts as news today. So, I mean, really, it was. So those are also interesting sources. So, but we’re all kind of looking at a lot of similar sources, and we’re all interpreting them in different ways. And so this is how we’re able to create such interesting dialogues. No two pirate historians are the same. Some of us, we subscribe into either, you know, pirates were this fully democratic society or no, pirates were these vicious, violent, horrific people. I tend to kind of fall in between, because I think it’s not black and white. And I think there were some pirate ships that were definitely known to be a bit more egalitarian than merchant ships and naval ships. Pirates could have a say in who their captain was, there were rules about distribution of goods. And these are in records of trial transcripts, naming who got what and how much each person got depending on their rank, because it’s on the pirate ship. And then you have those, again, who were just very violent, went after any ship possible, didn’t care about leaving any survivors behind. So it really kind of is in individual cases. But I fall into the camp of like, no matter what, no matter what the reality was, very complicated people who all kind of had it in for their own specific reasons. Some of them because they wanted the adventure, some because they were very marginalized, couldn’t get work anywhere else. Some because they were already criminals, and this is a way for them to continue that. And, you know, many pirates, though, would go and work as a pirate for maybe a couple of years, and then hopefully go back home and retire a bit wealthier than they would have otherwise.
LC: One of my favorite things so far has just been hearing all the different people we’ve interviewed and how very different their views are on this. So we have some people, like the person we’re going to talk to next, who kind of see them on, I guess, look at the–more rosy side of pirates. Then we have others who are like, “No, absolutely not.” And it’s–I mean, after the Sappho season, it’s just really interesting to have these, like, very different views of pirates from everybody. I’m super excited about it.
EB: I love it. I mean, that’s what I love about history in general, right? There’s two sides to every story. There’s like more than two sides to be honest. There’s, like, a million sides to every story, right? And we’re going to try to give you as many of those perspectives as we can here.
LC: Yes, absolutely. So speaking of the sides, Alyse and I had the chance to speak to philosopher Clint Jones, who has a different perspective on pirate life as a blueprint for utopian societies, as they live totally outside of the norm. So I’ll let him explain.
Clint Jones: First and foremost, I think it’s the egalitarian and democratic nature of pirate society. And I guess I should be very clear here. I’m talking about Golden Age Piracy, which I would date 1650 to 1725. Those dates are disputable, and there are scholars who would sort of cringe at such a broad scope. But I think if you really dig into pirate history, the Golden Age starts in 1650. It comes sort of to a crashing halt in 1725. And in that short 75-year period, you have a group of individuals that sort of dominate popular imagination. Like when you say “pirate” to somebody, they’re thinking of Blackbeard or Bartholomew Roberts, right? They have this sort of Caribbean pirate ideal, even though piracy has been around since humans have navigated waterways, right. I mean, there’s the apocryphal story of Julius Caesar being captured by pirates. He woos them with his rhetoric and his poetry and they turn him loose on the promise that he’ll let them go. And you know, they’ll sort of let bygones be bygones. He goes and raises a small army, tracks ’em down, crucifies them all. Those aren’t the pirates we think of. And I don’t think we actually–even though there have been, you know, modern instances of piracy that have been sort of famous in the media, Somali pirates come to mind, or internet pirates, internet piracy–that’s not what we think of. And I think when we’re looking at why Golden Age pirates stick out for us, I think it’s, you know–there’s this egalitarian, democratic, “one pirate, one vote” situation that doesn’t exist anywhere else at the time. You know, I mean, the Enlightenment is going on. And there’s clearly talk of liberty, and there’s clearly this sort of rising notion of a better ideal of government that the age of kings is coming to an end. But pirates are way out ahead of that. They also have insurance against injury. And so if you’re injured in a fight, you get paid for your injury. And depending on the pirate crew, it can be as specific as how much you get per finger, or how, like, a leg versus an arm versus a hand versus an eye. They had all this stuff worked out, so everybody was compensated fairly for injuries received while working. Like it’s, like, this prototype of workman’s comp. They have a recall protocol in place if a pirate captain isn’t doing his job well. So that is to say, the captain isn’t bringing in enough plunder, if the captain is abusive, or in other ways, derelict in his duties, maybe the captain becomes a drunkard–they can recall the captain, mid-cruise. They can just have a vote and just be like, “We’re done with you.” And the other thing that I really think is important is that when the ship–when a pirate ship comes to the end of its voyage, all members of the crew are equal. Once they’re on land, you know, there is none of this, like, existing hierarchy. They’re all equals. And they could, if they chose, once they resumed their voyaging, elect a new captain. It can just be someone else’s time. And you don’t really–when you look at parallels in society, at this time period, you don’t really see any other society that has benchmarks like this built into it. This is really ahead of its time in terms of conceiving how to organize themselves. They also, of course, divided plunder equally, some crews going so far as to ensure that the alcohol was divvied up equally, and you could get in serious trouble as a pirate if you drank before the plunder was divided, if you pocketed something that hadn’t been accounted for–severe penalties.
LC: So it seems to me that pirates had a more civilized healthcare system then America, maybe.
EB: Surprise, surprise. And I guess that’s why Clint would say that it was a utopia. Because obviously, there are some things about pirates that we would love to have. But also, we have to keep in mind that during the time of pirates, it was a time of kings, and a complete aristocracy. So pirates were living completely out of the norm, which for today’s society that is supposedly democratic–
LC: A perfect democracy, Ellie.
EB: I will say, an oligarchy–there are some things about that perfect democracy that are utopic.
LC: Truly. Clint had more things to say about how pirates were completely ahead of their time, in some ways.
CJ: They have what’s called a pirate code or a Chasse-Partie. And the pirate code is unique to every crew and every ship. Because crew members could move between ships, depending on where they were in port, every time a ship took to sea, they had to reinvent the articles. And everybody had a say in what would be in the articles and what the punishments would be for violating the articles. So it’s this incredibly democratic–almost to the point of being full blown anarchism in its nature–organization of the crew. And so you can have everything from curfew–you know, lights out–to what the punishment is for not keeping your sword sharp. They had all sorts of stuff. And when you juxtapose that against what’s taking place, say, in Europe, in an imperial culture throughout the New World, you don’t see the inclusion of the lower classes or the working classes as decision makers. And so I think there’s something about pirates that you can really point to, at this time period, and say, not only is this unique, but it’s socially advanced and constructive in a way that I think pulls threads from different utopian models, and really sets a standard for what life could be.
EB: Talking about democracies, pirates had a direct democracy, right? As Clint said, like, one vote per one pirate, right? Like everyone’s voices mattered on this pirate ship. And there are all kinds of ways that pirates use their votes, and Clint’s gonna tell us a bit more about their voting process.
CJ: Yeah, I mean, you could choose the ship you want it to be on. I mean, you could join any crew. And once you were a member of it, you were expected to be a full participant. And I think that’s something that we’ve lost in modern day democracy, is this idea of citizenship requires us to be fully active citizens, right? And so every election cycle, we have this conversation about how many people voted, like 48%. And like, that wouldn’t happen in pirate society, because you couldn’t sit out, like you just couldn’t. The flip side of that is, you know, the right to vote includes the right not to vote. But in a pirate society, it wouldn’t be a functional way to exist, because if you were constantly exempting yourself from helping to develop the culture of the pirate ship, then you might find yourself at the mercy of a greedy individual, or someone who was sadistic, which was a commonplace in the navies of the time. Captains were well known as sadistic figures, very abusive, domineering authoritarian figures. And a lot of the pirates who came out of the Royal Navy had such a negative attitude toward the captain and, you know, the officer corps, that part of why they institute things like we can recall the captain, is because they had no such recourse as seamen in the Royal Navy. And so a lot of their baggage, and, you know, their anger about it comes out in their experience. So if you’re subject to the will and whims of an authoritarian captain at sea, it makes sense that once you’re free of that, you would take every measure possible to prevent that from happening again. And I think each individual took that seriously, because one of the things, I think, that’s also interesting about pirate society is that even though the code, such as it was, was specific to each ship, it also existed in this larger ephemeral recognition, right, that we have a code, and it was communally enforced. And so it wasn’t like it fell to one person to be the enforcer of the code. Everybody was responsible for the code and upholding it. And so it’s, you know, it becomes this aspect of their life that it’s, you know, part of being a pirate, what it means, is to be always a pirate. You’re not never a pirate, which, again, I think is a very clear difference between modern pirates.
LC: So, Ellie, I don’t know if you know this, but Australia actually has mandatory voting.
EB: I did not, because what a novel idea. For something to be mandatory for the entire population, in the United States, huh?
LC: Yeah, I don’t think that people would really, you know–I don’t think people would vibe with that here. But it’s interesting. So, I mean, obviously, the recourse really is, if you don’t go in and vote, you get a fine. So they can’t, like, drag you to the voting booth. But there are some really interesting cultural phenomenons that happen as a result of this. For example, there have been a bunch of studies on people drawing dicks on their ballots. So it’s like a donkey vote. Like they’ll go in because they have to go in, and then they’ll, like, draw a dick, or like, some people will go in and just write “1234,” without any idea of who they’re voting for. So it’s kind of like, it’s good in some ways, because I think that for people who are, you know, responsible citizens, they will take the time to like, research and make sure they’re voting for who they want to vote for. And then some people will just take the piss, as we say, in Australia. So it’s an interesting system. But yeah, I don’t know how I feel about it. We’re a much smaller country than America. So I guess it works for us.
EB: Very interesting. But I mean, Australia is close to pirates.
LC: I mean, yeah, criminals who came by sea, I guess.
EB: Australia for ya.
LC: Basically the same thing.
EB: Speaking of criminals, Clint has some more thoughts about pirates.
CJ: We tend to think of pirates as bloodthirsty, but a lot of times pirates would turn their captives loose. They would steal their ship, but they’d put them on a beach somewhere, or they put them in, you know, the little lifeboats and set them free. Sometimes they would take all their stuff and leave them the boat, they wouldn’t even take captives. And we don’t ever really hear about that we always hear about, you know, the murder and mayhem and the debauchery in the most negative sort of instantiations. But I think there are plenty of examples of pirates not doing those things that you could have said on a pirate crew, “I’m against murder,” and there might have been some grumbling, but if you could make a good argument, I think you could carry the day. Yeah, I feel like, “Under extreme circumstances, we might have to kill somebody. But otherwise, let’s avoid it.” I think that argument could, on some crew, have been totally functional, if for no other reason than if you get captured, you have an ace up your sleeve: “We didn’t kill anybody. We stole a bunch of stuff. But we didn’t murder anyone.” That seems like a pretty solid sort of position to fall back on. And even beyond sort of questions about sexual relationships, I think there’s just, you know, you could do the same thing with class or race, and find similar moments of multidimensionality amongst these communities that just doesn’t exist the way we want to imagine it does today. And because they absolutely had to, and we make it possible for individuals and groups to collectively silo themselves, and not have to interact. You can’t do that on pirate ship. You can’t do that in a community of pirates, because there’s an expectation and a standard that as a pirate you’re expected to live up to, and I don’t know that we have gotten to the point, as a society, as a whole, where we’re capable of that. I think the conversation is happening. I think we’re seeing good movement in the right directions, but I still think we’re a ways off of what pirates were able to achieve.
LC: So on the call with Clint, we ended up getting into this really interesting conversation. Because when I thought about this, and I thought about people of all types mixing, it’s kind of why I love New York. And the reason I love New York is because of the subway system, because the subway is the fastest way to get anywhere. So whoever you are, whatever class you’re at, like it just doesn’t make any sense to not take the subway. And it’s a real like leveling thing, I think. And I think that people who live not everywhere in New York, but in a lot of New York City, have this sort of like, I don’t know, grounding element of the subway, and I think Clint was saying he’s been working in his community to get public transportation up and running for similar reasons. So that’s kind of how I thought about it.
EB: I love that. So the pirate boat is the same as the New York City subway.
LC: I mean, it’s probably the same level of cleanliness, to be honest.
LC: Could I get scurvy from the New York subway? Maybe.
EB: Maybe, maybe. I do love that. I do love that. You know, this is the last person we’re going to hear from in this episode. We’ve said a lot of different things about pirates. We hope that you’ll continue to listen to our episodes because we have so many more perspectives to give you, so many pirates that you may have never heard of before. And I’m just excited to dig into the nuances of pirate culture on this season. So in the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Clint Jones: Lots of pirates from indigenous populations wouldn’t have found homosexuality problematic at all. And so you have to believe, on a pirate ship, when they’re talking about homosexuality, there’s going to be a large contingent of people looking around like, “What the hell’s the issue?”
Rebecca Simon: There is a huge queer erasure in history. You know, perhaps, you know, straight people or non-LGBT people who just–it doesn’t even quite dawn on them, that maybe there could have been a homosexual relationship. Or maybe it is deliberate erasure. You know, I hear all the jokes of like these two women writing love letters to each other, living together, never having children, but they’re just friends, right.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our second episode will be released on September 16th.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. You can also support us on Patreon at patreon.com/sweetbitter.
LC: Thank you to our new Patreon supporter, Kim. Our patrons have access to all of our bonus episodes, and this season, we’re covering pirate films. So last week, we spoke about Peter Pan with Allie from HERstory on the Rocks. I think this week it’s going to be you and Alyse again, covering The Goonies with Jenn and Genn from Ancient History Fangirl.
EB: I’m so excited. Both of those episodes were really fun and interesting. It’s been really cool talking about pirate pop culture after knowing all the things we know from learning so much about pirates. It’s very cool. I hope you guys will check that out because we had a blast doing those episodes and such fun people to do them with, too. Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Our production assistant is Thea Smith, and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you to our guests this week, Jamie Goodall, Rebecca Simon, Wendy Bracewell, and Clint Jones. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website.
LC: You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: So Leesa, I know you know this, but something really exciting happened this week. I’m very excited to share: Joshua Nelson, who you may remember from Episode 0 on the mandolin, got in touch to volunteer to help us to write some sea shanties. So, Joshua is a Cleveland-based artist, musician, and school bus driver, who played for nearly a decade as lead singer, mandolin harmonica player in the Los Angeles pirate-themed band, Rillian and the Doxie Chicks. What a cool human being.
LC: I 100% agree. And also just a quick correction, I think last week we did say that Joshua played the banjo, not the mandolin. We did, to be fair, take a stab in the dark at that and we failed, but that’s okay. We’re getting used to failure this season. We’re getting used to it. Thank you so much for this incredible shanty, Joshua. And if any of our other listeners want to write a sea shanty for an episode, please let us know. We can be emailed at [email protected], or as I said before, through our website. Honestly, it’s just–it’s a super fun way to get involved with the podcast. It takes a bit of a load off our shoulders, we would just love to have some shanties from you.
EB: So here’s Joshua’s shanty!