Classic Pirates, Whalers, and Modern Pirates: The Similar Creations of Three Institutional Enemies

Whalers and modern pirates are most like the classic pirates we read about in Rediker in that they have all, at one point or another, been involved in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and abuse, which additionally is made no better by a constant need for higher wages and a lust for a better, more fulfilling life. This is shown by examples of inherent violence in the systems that are created by these seafarers. The violence is not rooted in sadism or a lust for bloodshed; rather, it is a tool—albeit a horrible one—that is used to achieve a certain goal. These goals are mostly monetary, but ultimately, they strive for an acceptable living situation in a world where classism and third world poverty is incredibly prevalent.
Marcus Rediker, author of Villains of All Nations (2004), gives us a few tales of infamous pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy who live by this ideal of creating a better life for themselves. William Fly, a sailor-turned-mutineer-turned-pirate, said at his execution that he wished that “all Masters of Vessels” should “pay Sailors their Wages when due” and to treat them better because “their Barbarity to them made so many turn Pyrates” (Rediker 2). Sailors were often paid horrible wages, and were abused by their officers and their Captains, even in the Royal Navy. Rediker mentions that “The High Court of Admiralty records for this period are replete with bloody accounts of lashings, tortures, and killings,” so we can absolutely see that a major reason why sailors would have wanted to turn pirate is because of the horrible abuse from the officers (Rediker 17). One of the most famous pirate quotes is from Walter Kennedy, who “declared War against all the World,” which we can in turn understand to mean that the processes, governments, economies, and political powers which were in place at the time were all failing the working class sailors (Rediker 46). Not just their officers, but also their economies and governments in general were specifically failing this specific part of the working class.
Whalers, even though their actions were considered admissible by the government, often went through the same abuse. In Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise(1846), the officers are documented mistreating their sailors. For example, the captain beats Smith, saying he would “whale the stubbornness out of [him]! (Browne 49). Even though the narrator describes that this violence was most likely to create “a sense of awe toward the captain, and a proper respect for his authority and personal dignity,” he also mentions that “there was something horribly brutal in it” (Browne 50). Fearmongering aboard a whaling ship, for the purpose of creating a community where a tyrannical captain is over a minimally paid crew, is incredibly similar to the reasons why classic pirates in the Golden Age became pirates in the first place. In this way, we can think of whalers as sort of pre-pirate. Although, one could make the argument that as whalers were purposefully killing sea life, that their version of piracy was a threat to the environment. Whalers, ultimately, were living an abusive lifestyle, and paid very little while doing horrible gruesome acts like skinning and boiling whales. Striving for a better life, whalers are pseudo-pirates, clinging to the protection of the governing party who allows them while simultaneously advocating violence and suffering through gore in order to make better lives for themselves.
Modern pirates, for reasons not just connected to the name, were also related to pirates of the Golden Age in that they are invariably linked together by violence and a thirst for a better life. The taking of the Alondra Rainbow, explained by William Langewiesche’s The Outlaw Sea (2004), is a good—albeit terrifying—example of how modern piracy and classic piracy link together. The pirates in control used violence to get their way; they ordered the captives to “be silent” otherwise “anyone who tried to stand or look outside would die” (Langewiesche 56). The hostages were only given two meals a day, given dirty drinking water, and were marooned on the open sea (Langewiesche 57). These pirates used these violent means in order to get money, steal from countries that were richer and more powerful than the third world, and try to survive. The pirates sang a song on their way to being executed: “the chorus from a pop song called “Cup of Life” (Langewiesche 76). These pirates wanted nothing more than a sustaining, thriving life, and they were forced into it by the third-world governments they came from who could not reasonably sustain them. This hearkens back, absolutely, to the phrase said by Kennedy: “war against all the World.”
From a moral standpoint, it is our obligation and duty as human people to provide for others and to try to create a world that sustains all people. This task, which is seemingly impossible, has been attempted many times throughout the years, without fruition. The point that stood out to me most in this course is that pirates had to come from somewhere. Nothing comes into being that isn’t necessary, especially in a politically divided world such as this one. Pirates, including whalers, did their job because it was necessary for their lives. Classic pirates, whalers, and modern pirates, all consistently were forced to use horrible alternatives such as violence in order to sustain themselves and create a better life. We should, therefore, create a community where violence is not necessary in order to pay for food or shelter. No one commits crimes unless they need something or are lacking something. Before we condemn pirates for being needlessly violent, let us first condemn the institutions that made them come into being. Classic pirates became so because of the mistreatment and low wages. Whalers became whalers to sell an important commodity, but were then stuck in a cycle of violence, gore, and underpaid blue-collar work. Modern pirates, the pirates of today, became pirates to escape the third world. Piracy was created because the institutions we have built failed them. All sorts of piracy, such as the three I’ve listed here, warrant serious thought, before serious condemnation.
Works Cited
Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Beacon Press, 2004.
Browne, John Ross. Etchings of a Whaling Cruise. Harper & Brothers, 1846.
Langewiesche, William. The Outlaw Sea. North Point Press, 2004.