On the High Seas: Pirates or Heroes?

Posted by Claire Percy, Senior Marketing Executive

Adventure films such as Pirates of the Caribbean seek to stimulate the stereotypical romanticized views of piracy, but as we know from cases such as that of the captured British couple Rachel and Paul Chandler, who have been held by so-called “Somali pirates” since October 2009, the Jack Sparrow stereotype is almost certainly confined to Hollywood.

The British Government has, publicly at least, refused to negotiate with the Somali pirates holding the British couple. This hard-line approach has been repeated throughout history.

Claire Jowitt, Professor of Renaissance English Literature at Nottingham Trent University, UK writes in an in-depth and fascinating Buccaneer of State article in this month’s prestigious BBC History magazine (cover and leading feature) which includes how King James I refused to negotiate with John Ward, one of the most successful and notorious pirates of the Renaissance period. Even Ward’s offer to the King of the then huge sum of £40,000, was refused by James who saw Ward’s capture as a test case in his determination to eradicate piracy.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Elizabeth I who regularly made use of pirates, arguably Francis Drake of whom depictions and opinion vary wildly. It’s a controversial argument, but as much as Osama Bin Laden is widely deemed a terrorist in the West, but hailed as a hero in some Muslim countries, Drake was a menace and infidel criminal to the Spanish but at home, a figure of celebration and national pride.

Jowitt’s article is entertaining and brilliantly written, with her sources cleverly woven into and well-represented in the story. It’s worth a visit just to read her section on “Pirate Portraits: The fates of England’s most notorious pirates.”

Claire Jowitt’s new book The Culture of Piracy, 1580–1630 is available to order now from Ashgate Publishing. You can also hear Claire Jowitt discussing piracy on BBC History magazine’s July podcast from 9th July.

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