Pirates – Reality Check

By Richard Pattison [i]

Pirate themed events and parties are popular and fun.  After all pirates are romantic swashbuckling heroes; aren’t they?  Chuck in some desert islands, battling the odds against officialdom and authority, some treasure and you have the makings of the pirate story.  Popular pirates from Treasure Island’s Long John Silver to Jack Sparrow represent mystique and appeals to our rebellious and independent nature.   As a bonus, it’s easy to dress up as a pirate, a stripped tee shirt, eye patch then a bandanna, tricorn hat and a neckerchief.  A bit of “yo ho ho”, a stuffed parrot, some “pieces of eight” or other treasure and you are away.  Party on!

This popular image though hides a sinister reality; pirates were and are some of the most barbaric and unpleasant people who roamed and still roam the seas.  The romantic notion of piracy masks a harsh reality.  For hundreds of years pirates were the scourge of the sea, ruthless and vicious they respected no one and attacked the weak and lawful for their own pleasure and robbed them to line their own pockets. Their victims were often abused before being killed or condemned to misery as slaves for the pirates themselves or sold to the highest bidder.

As an island and trading nation, we have always maintained a strong interest in maintaining the freedom of the seas and have often been at the heart of coalitions in antipiracy.  The Barbary pirates of the Mediterranean were active for several hundreds of year and as well as the “Med” ventured far into European waters, even raiding English coastal towns to capture slaves.  By the early 18th Century The Royal Navy and others had virtually stamped out their piracy and although it briefly resurfaced, it was finally eliminated by a combination of treaty and Naval action.  But just as one threat was ebbing, so another was rising, this time in the Caribbean.  Several European nations had interests in the Caribbean and the story is more complex.  In particular, Britain, France, Spain and The Netherlands had established trading colonies in the region and its borders and each sought to strengthen its own position whilst weakening the others, reflecting the battle for supremacy that was being fought out in Europe.  Each licensed Privateers – a sort of unofficial navy – to further their own interests and these often behaved little better than pirates.  One such was Henry Morgan who despite several atrocities was eventually knighted and made Governor of Jamaica.  On top of these were the pirates themselves who owed no allegiance to any country but were only interested in their own self-interest.  Infamous pirates like Captain Blackbeard and Bartholomew Jack, thought to have attacked more than 400 ships, were hunted down by the Royal Navy and killed in battle.

Piracy though has never completely gone away and continues to this day.  In 2009 Paul and Rachel Chandler from Kent, a couple in their late fifties were sailing off the East African coast when they were attacked and kidnapped by Somali pirates.  They spent over a year in captivity and were only released after a ransom of over half a million pounds was paid to secure their freedom.   A few years later Judith Tebbit from Bishop Stortford was held for 6 months and only released after an undisclosed ransom was paid. Her husband Paul had been murdered by the pirate gang that kidnapped them.

As aspiring sailors you may well have heard of the extraordinary yachtsman Sir Peter Blake.  He competed 5 times in the Whitbread and was race winner in the1989-90 race when his yacht, “Steinlarger 2”, took line, handicap and overall honours in all 6 legs.  He held the Jules Verne Trophy from 1994 to 1997 and led New Zealand to successive victories in the America’s Cup.

He was shot and killed by pirates while monitoring environment change on the Amazon River on 5 December 2001. He was 53 years old.

So enjoy the party, but in the morning remember the party was fun but pirates aren’t.

[i] RP is a local sailor who was once involved in considerations as to whether to carry arms and ammunition as an antipiracy measure along the South American coast including the Amazon Basin.  His skipper had been a friend and competitor of Sir Peter Blake during the 89-90 Whitbread.  When Sir Peter was killed they were mid way across The Drake and off the Amazon only about 3 months later.  The article is the result of a chance meeting with Dominic Barnes on the hard.)

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