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A lot we know about pirates is not true, and a lot of what is true is not known (neh.gov)
269 points by nkurz on May 7, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 90 comments

An interesting comment on studying pirates, from /r/AskHistorians:

"Pirate questions are often difficult, because pirates as a group have been so heavily fictionalized -- and were often fictionalized even in the "golden age" of piracy (or shortly thereafter) -- that it becomes hard to separate reality from fiction. Indeed, there is evidence that later sailing crews, including pirates, took on behaviors that they may have read or heard that "pirates" did -- even if these accounts were fictional, meaning that fictional accounts of pirate activities actually became reality due to people acting out what they'd seen in fiction." https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/60deda/how_h...

Pirates are not unique in that respect. All mass media is heavily fictionalized. Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell(1807): I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mtj1.038_0592_0594/?sp=2&st=tex...

OT, but, Jefferson appears to have anticipated fake news and the thirst for eyeballs.

>To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it's benefits, than is done by it's abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.

I think it's less that he anticipated fake news, and more that it's always been a problem. Journalism has always been self-serving - after all, it's a business.

But politics and industry are similarly self-serving, and that's what journalism is supposed to balance. Everyone lies all the time, and that's always been the case - after all, they are human.

Certainly, I think it is borderline madness that entities such as facebook are being called out in the current "fake news" discussion, this is far from anything new and does not come from media centralization or the internet.

The actual fake news problem is purely a product of the internet though. Traditional media often contains biases of some kind, it's inevitable, but good journalists genuinely try to minimise the impact of that.

Previously the only way to get news was through these slow, controlled channels. And the people controlling these channels were responsible for the content being delivered, so if a slanderous lie was published they could be held accountable.

But with Facebook I can make up anything I want, frame it as fact, and get it seen by millions of people. Many of whom will believe it if it is convenient for them to believe it. And many of whom will never realise or accept that is a lie. And nothing bad happens to me for sharing these lies, I just make a bit of money from the ads.

This is a phenomenon that can only happen with the awesome communication enabled by the internet. And it's much worse than minor press bias.

Its a level of degrees, though

Volume of available information has certainly increased drastically, that is for sure.

He was Hamilton's contemporaries, of course he know a thing or two about fake news.

It's not that all mass media is fictionalized so much as the popular stories about pirates have been fiction.

There's no need to conclude that a PBS Newshour story about Somali pirates is fake news because "Pirates of the Caribbean" is so much more popular.

While that is perhaps true, you cannot assume the people around you hold similar views about truth. It is still valuable to understand the mainstream perspective.

I say this as someone heavily dissatisfied with the media I pay for.

> While that is perhaps true, you cannot assume the people around you hold similar views about truth.

Which is sad because really, truth is a simple concept. For some reason, many people don't feel like their beliefs should in any way correspond to reality.

> It is still valuable to understand the mainstream perspective.

I agree that the role of media as social objects (shared things to talk about) is important, but there's a tradeoff here - the more junk you put in your head, the easier it is to hold a conversation with random strangers, but you're still puttting junk in your head. Is socializing really worth it?

Interesting because alot of modern day pirates/hackers are exactly the same. Co-opting their identities from movies like "Hackers" and "Sneakers". If you read any of the interview sections of Phrack articles these movies and their aesthetics are all referenced heavily. I think it was ironic/toungue in cheek at first but then turned into something sincere as new generations looked up to the old without context.

Great point. V for Vendetta / Anonymous would be the most visible example

Indeed. I'm quite sure many of today's Anons wouldn't even know that the mask is a symbol of failure in their own lore.

Can you elaborate on this? I'm not a member of Anonymous, but I've read the graphic novel version of _V For Vendetta_ as well as seen the film, and I didn't get that impression at all.

The mask didn't originate with V for Vendetta. It comes from a likeness of Guy Fawkes, whose 5th of November (Gunpowder) plot to blow up the British parliament and impose a Catholic theocracy was thwarted.

To celebrate that failure, Brits light fireworks and burn dummies wearing that mask every 11/5.

Yes, but the `Anonymous`/4chan usage is inspired from V for Vendetta, at least to my knowledge of chan history. It just so happens to be the Guy Fawkes mask which holds another meaning for Brits. It might change how some people, especially British people, see the mask but that isn't the intention.

For example, a pink triangle means something different now than it did during the 40s and pointing to its historic usage instead of its reclaimed/new usage would be disingenuous and missing the point of how it is being used in the modern context. Pointing to Guy Fawkes instead of Vendetta for Anonymous' usage of the mask is missing the point.

However, Alan Moore and David Lloyd did not choose that V wears Guy Fawkes mask by coincidence.

The use of the mask finds its roots in the Epic Fail Guy meme, a character destined to fail at anything he does. At one point EFG finds a V for Vendetta mask in a trashcan and starts wearing it.

Still, the actual pirates (the naval boarding ones, for example in Nigeria) are not romantic. They have families at home and would prefer a peaceful life.

Well, that's something they have in common with ninjas then. :) Ninjas had lots of rumored abilities and practices ascribed to them which they didn't really have, and the ninjas of the day did nothing to counter the rumors. In fact they helped spread the rumors since it enhanced their fearsome reputation to do so.

Also: Samurai. They're know for their Bushido code of honor but there seems to be evidence that the code came about much later, perhaps as a result of the elite trying to get some control over them.

A note, you seem to have linked to the whole thread, rather than the specific comment you mention: https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/60deda/how_h...

My favorite read on pirates and historical events is probably the book about an actual pirate raid on Ireland in 1631 where most of the inhabitants of a coastal village were carried away to slavery by Barbary pirates.

[The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates](https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0862789559)

The book ends up giving the reader background on the Barbary pirates - a mix of Turks, Dutch, Algerian, and Moroccan pirates led by a Dutch convert to Islam (from Catholicism). It also attempts to tell the stories of as many of the slaves as possible using historical information from people known to suffered a similar fate.

It details some of the stories of Algiers and the Ottoman empire and how Europeans were enslaved by the Muslims who controlled the Mediterranean at the time and who targeted English shipping and later American shipping leading us to dispatch Marines to the shores of Tripoli.

In the end it describes the roundabout way that one of the pirates may have ended up on Manhattan and may be one of the founders of some of America's oldest monied families with descendents that may include people such as Kasey Kasem and Jon Voigt. Really a great story.

I'll have to check out some of these other books mentioned on this thread since history is one of my favorite subjects.

By far the most interesting book I've ever read on piracy was The Invisible Hook, by Peter Leeson. It's an analysis on the economics of piracy.

It was so profound in fact that much of it was the inspiration for our business model:


I suspect this probably works well for you because you're a studio model -- you're billing for hours.

In the case where there is disagreement about what product to build, I could see this more rapidly going sideways. Sometimes having one person with a specific vision can be very helpful.

Not the parent, but what I learned about this is that when it comes to decisions that really matter, most people are afraid of the responsibility. Any working system of politics has to take the few ambitious people that remain and work out a bloodless system of resolving disputes between them.

My favourite read about piracy was "Pirates and Emperors" by Noam Chomsky. Piracy was sponsored by states who plundered and raided coasts, such as Sir Francis Drake, who was sponsored by the English government. Only it wasn't called piracy of "we" did it, only when other countries did. Kinda similar to today with international terrorism.

I recall reading fiction in which there was a big difference between a privateer and a pirate. Privateers were 'licensed' pirates, given a letter of marque that allows them to attack enemies of the state.

The point being that, plundering french ships under an English letter of Marque will prevent the french from calling you a pirate. Instead, you are simply an enemy combatant.

I think this was from a Wilbur Smith novel.

I agree with the distinction, but I'm not sure it matters much to those being plundered.

Obviously, but it might explain how governments supported privateers whilst despising pirates.

What's always surprised me is how much of the cartoony image is real. There really were pirates with peg legs, hooks for hands and eye patches, pirates that talked with lower-class English accents and kept parrots as pets. There were swashbuckling captains feared all over the seas that held their crews of convicts and scalawags to surprisingly strict codes of honor. As the author says here, a lot of these things only happened in certain places and times, but the fact that these people did really exist is pretty fun and amazing.

Well, accident prone work places and rudimentary medical practices lead to those kind of prosthetic devices (and not exclusive to them)

Is it really an accident if someone slashes half your leg off or bursts your eyeball whilst you're trying to murder them? :-)

It seems like a gray area. Accidental Death and Dismemberment insurance generally covers death by homicide, although it can have an exclusion for homicide or dismemberment that occurs in self-defense (for example, war injuries are usually excluded). So in this particular legal sense, the "accident" can be seen as on the part of the assailant, who did not intend to be injured (regardless of their victim's intent to injure). But in general, accident is not a very well-defined term; in this case "occupational injury" may be more appropriate.

It's an interesting read, though to be fair a lot of what popular culture and fiction says about any romanticised group is not true/heavily exaggerated. Most of what people think they know about ninjas isn't true. Most of what people think about the wild west isn't true. Same with everything from medieval times to Roman soldiers to ancient egypt.

And also like mentioned in the article, much of what we think about when we hear those words/terms is based on a subset of these groups/populations as well.

Heck, most of what people know about any other group (romanticized or not) isn't true. For instance, visitors to the United States often worry that they're going to see running gun battles on the street on a daily basis.

I mean, within a month of my moving to San Francisco somebody got shot and killed on my street corner. And within the first two months I saw police barricade an intersection walking around with shotguns and automatic rifles due to a bank robbery of some sort. We were told to just walk around and in general nobody seemed to find this event to be anything special.

I've since stopped paying attention to these things. Better that way. Feels more peaceful.

Then again, just last week a guy got shot by police in broad daylight 3 blocks from me because he was actively in the process of stabbing someone.

No running gun battles yet that I know of. It's been 2 years or so.

Here is the thing: your neighborhood is only a very, very, very small portion of the United States. in 2014, 2% of the counties in the United States accounted for about 51% of the murders, and 54% of the counties had zero murders.

> in 2014, 2% of the counties in the United States accounted for about 51% of the murders,

But what percent of the population did those counties represent? "Counties" are fairly arbitrary divisions, after all. New York County, NY (better known as the burrough of Manhattan) has a population of around 1.6 million.

Kalawao County, HI has a population of 89.

It doesn't really make sense to compare homicide counts by county.

"It doesn't really make sense to compare homicide counts by county."

It does if you're a tourist needlessly worrying about getting gunned down while you're visiting the Grand Canyon, or a student needlessly worried that you're going to encounter open gang warfare in a small midwestern college town.

As it happens, the worst 1% of counties have about 19% of the population but about 37% of the murders, so it's not just that these counties are more heavily populated. They really are more dangerous.

Even within those counties, murders are heavily concentrated by neighborhood.

Edit: here's a map that lets you zoom down to the individual census block level, and which shows the rate (thus controlling for population).

Note how much of the country is in the 0-50 category.


> It does if you're a tourist needlessly worrying about getting gunned down while you're visiting the Grand Canyon

This kind of example is really stacking the deck. It's not like there are real people out there being tourists and getting scared of being involved in a drive-by at the Grand Canyon.

> As it happens, the worst 1% of counties have about 19% of the population but about 37% of the murders, so it's not just that these counties are more heavily populated. They really are more dangerous.

Urban areas with higher population densities have higher crime. Fact of life. Rub people together more often and they'll cross each other more often.

In any case, when 1% of the counties hold 1 in 5 members of the public, it's a gross mischaracterisation to call them 'a very, very, very small portion of the United States'

But a tourist visits cities and regions, not counties and census blocks. Differences between cities are rarely dramatic, while differences between safe and bad neighborhoods within a city are usually obvious and easily researched.

The linked map informs about land use, by precisely locating crime on the map; it isn't a valid guide for the tourist. For example, look at New York: who would avoid Central Park because of the higher crime rate and prefer a "relaxing" walk through the almost crime-free dense city blocks surrounding it? Reasonable tourists are aware of what can happen in a park. Who would reserve an hotel out in the middle of Long Island because it's safer than in the city?

wait is that map weighted per capita?

It appears not. Nor does it account for the severity of the crime among the included indexes.


I misread. Does seem to be a rate.

Not totally clear to me how per capita adds. On the one hand it captures the family member or neighbor known person assault. On the other hand, it's not terribly comforting to know that there are lots of murders somewhere but there are lots of people so you'll probably be OK.

It sounded like it was weighted by population (i.e. it compares the crime rate, not the total number of crimes), but it doesn't weight by the severity of the crime.

Colma has an index equal to or worse than most of Oakland, which only makes sense if there's some form of population-weighting, since Colma has only 1500 or so living inhabitants (and doesn't have a particularly bad reputation for crime, except for most "residents" being already dead when they get to Colma).

Just occurred to me that I've lived in the US for decades and have never heard gunfire (outside of a range), and have never seen any violent crime despite working in a few major cities.

Not disputing crime exists, but just, this place is vast, so there are lots of different experiences.

Interesting, where do you have those stats from?

You likely live in the Mission, one of the worst neighborhoods for gun violence in the United States.

when we visited DC from the UK, we heard gunshots at night a couple of times. When we visited Florida, when we got to the Hard Rock Casino an area was cordoned off because someone had hijacked a golf cart and driven around and had a gun battle with the police. I hear Florida is a special case though.

Being from the UK, do you really have confidence that you can tell the difference between a gun and a backfiring engine? I own and target shoot guns, and I still would not be 100% confident that I could tell the difference if I heard a loud bang.

Might be true for DC- probably as much or more a special case than Florida, though :)

not for sure, no - and I used to regularly shoot rifles with the Air Cadets. I've never heard an engine backfire in the UK - is it common State-side?

Somewhat common in (or near) poorer communities, due to bad maintenance. Of course, that is only one thing that can make a loud bang that sounds somewhat similar to a gun going off.

> someone had hijacked a golf cart and driven around and had a gun battle with the police

OMG everything I imagined is true!

Anywhere: someone steals a vehicle.

America: the thief leads a chase and conducts a gun battle with police.

Florida: the vehicle is a golf cart.

I occasionally read the news and catch up on the exploits of legendary anti-hero Florida Man, and somewhat more rarely his intermittent girlfriend and permanent babymama, Florida Woman. Their stories can often be ended by the punchline, "The Aristocrats!"

So yes, Florida does appear to be a special case, but the state does make a special policing effort to keep Florida Man away from the tourists. So as long as you stick to the mainstream areas, you are unlikely to encounter him during your trip. But stray too far from the beaches, parks, and tourist traps, and you might just catch a glimpse of him or his exploits. And sometimes, you can still see him whitelining past your rental car on a motorcycle at 90 mi/hour (145 km/hour) in a 50 mi/hour (80 km/hour) zone. And if you ever see a naked man throw a Burmese python at a police car, that's definitely him.

I thought I knew nothing about ninjas, since I had never actually studied ninjas, only got information from movies and manga, then I heard a historian supposedly specialized in ninjas give a talk titled "Everything you know about ninjas is wrong" or somewhat like that. 90% of what he has said met what I already knew and believed (even though I wasn't very sure of what I knew).

This is technically true, but given the particular topic, it's unreasonably dismissive. As Turing_Machine points out this can also be true of modern cultures. Unremarkably. As fiatjaf points out, this can (sometimes) be untrue of ninjas.

The interesting distinction here is the almost self-fictionalisation of pirates. Many pirates would go from port to port spreading rumours and horror-stories about themselves simply to make raiding an easier (and less violent) process; fearful captains being all the more compliant.

> Roman soldiers to ancient egypt

Do you have some examples for these two, or maybe a link? I am interested in these subjects in particular.

For roman soilders there is the main problem that the Roman empire existed for so long that almost nothing is true for all of them.

The uniforms they are always wearing in movies are probebly only really standardised like that for a small part of the empire, and even the not completly.

"The Complete Roman Army" is the best book on the subject.

My favourite story about pirates is what happened when they captured Julius Caesar:

"Not everyone, though, should take the Julius Caesar approach to kidnapping. As a young man, reports Plutarch in his biography of the great man, he was kidnapped off the Dodecanese islands en route to learn rhetoric under the famous teacher, Molon of Rhodes. The Cicilian pirates (from the area of modern Anatolia north and north-east of Cyprus) he treated high-handedly. They asked for a ransom of 20 talents – he laughed at them for undervaluing him and offered them 50. While he was kept captive he treated them like bodyguards rather than prison guards, and frequently told them he would crucify them after his ransom was paid. (Better than that, "He also wrote poems and sundry speeches which he read aloud to them, and those who did not admire these he would call to their faces illiterate Barbarians.") In due course the ransom was paid, Caesar was set free – and, as promised, he crucified them to a man."


"A History of American Privateers" (1899) https://archive.org/stream/historyofamerica017401mbp/history...

A few blog posts on Baltimore's history as a "nest of pirates" and stories about privateering: https://maryland1812.wordpress.com/category/privateers/

Black Sails a good tv series.

There are a handful of good performances involved -- e.g., Stephen's Flint -- but by in large, the acting is terrible. Which is such a shame because the actual story is pretty decent. If you can make it through the first season, you'll be rewarded.

I wouldn't say the acting was horrible, though some actors/actresses weren't great.

Yeah, I was really surprised how good it is.

Besides all the Pirating action, I'm really surprised how credible the economics and politics of the show is. I'm often embarrassed by how naively those things are treated in TV, but here it mostly makes sense on at least some level.

Aside for 1 or 2 miscasts I find the acting pretty damn great. All the 4 captains are a joy to watch.

I did stop watching for a time after a really dumb plot development at the end of Season 2, but I'm glad I picked it up again.

I loved that show.

The headline could be shortened to "A lot we know is not true, and a lot of what is true is not known." That's an unfortunate reality but on the other hand, it keeps life interesting.

Both halves of the sentence contain wrong and rendundant statements. Since truth is a relation of correspondence between a proposition and reality and knowledge is justified true belief or it is not knowledge; it is both impossible for us to know untruths if we believe them to be true (we can believe falsehoods but we can only know truth), and likewise truths, being essentially propositions, cannot not be known (can only be known by someone, or there is no one proposing them therefore no truth relation subsists - ergo no 'truth' can be wholly unknown to everyone.)

You may say instead: A lot we believe is not true, and we don't know much.

A fun book I recommend is the 'Invisible Hook' by Leeson.

Excellent as a summer book, a Libertarian view on the subject with good info on pirates even if you don't agree with the author's view.

The real history of the "golden age of piracy" is pretty fascinating. Basically you had Spain trying to claim the entire known world and everyone else fighting back by any means available. Provided a pirate limited himself to Spanish shipping, he could easily become a legitimate member of (even a hero in) one of the other Western nations.

I believe we are all "pirates" at heart, which is why they so easily assimilate into society and why we usually ignore them around us as long as they no longer overtly act in that manner.

Obviously, the magnitude of our decent in piratehood varies from person to person, and at some level (murder being obviously a issue) we stop accepting them post-haste.

I find a close analogy to doing drugs and drug dealers in modern society. A lot of upstanding citizens enjoy doing drugs and actually like and feel safe around their drug dealers, but rarely if ever does popular culture show that side of reality.

I don't think its any coincidence that TV and movies show the murderous and thieving side of piracy as to condition us to be appalled by them, in general.

Pulp Fiction was a popular (and extremely violent) movie which depicted exactly what you're describing. John Travolta is comfortable with his heroin guy - they banter, talk about travel, and then discuss the dope in genial terms. When money changes hands, it's practically a formality between two people who are acting out a ritual, like a regular at a coffee shop.

I guess it doesn't end up too well for Travolta, but I think his dealer made it out okay. Come to think of it, that guy had a negative body count by the end of the film; he saved Uma Thurman's life.

Economist and political sience study markets without third party enforcment. There many ways to do it, one of them is to use personal investment to build trust.

Invitation to ones house is building up a trust relationship, both offer each oother higher risk of exposure but build up a long running buissness relation.

> I find a close analogy to doing drugs and drug dealers in modern society. A lot of upstanding citizens enjoy doing drugs and actually like and feel safe around their drug dealers, but rarely if ever does popular culture show that side of reality.

There are dealers and then there are dealers. A hippy friend who can get you MD, acid or DMT (which he orders on darknet) is very different from someone who pushes crack for a living in a bad neighborhood.

> I don't think its any coincidence that TV and movies show the murderous and thieving side of piracy as to condition us to be appalled by them, in general.

Is this really true? There's a long history of sympathetic portrayals of drug culture, from Trainspotting (novel and movie) to A Scanner Darkly (novel and movie) to Jesus' Son (novel and movie) to Pineapple Express (mainstream movie), and a whole lot more.

Trainspotting's characters may be sympathetic, but it certainly doesn't portray drugs in a positive light. (Though of course heroin is a far cry from weed.)

I'm not sure A Scanner Darkly portrays drugs in a friendly light. The main characters are taken straight out of a stoner comedy but they're set against a backdrop of a country that's descended into rampant drug abuse, gang violence and poverty. Not only that, but without wanting to spoil the film, the ending doesn't paint a pretty picture of long-term use.

From the little of "How i met your mother" I have seen, the show didn't take a harsh tone about their weed-smoking in college. In fact there is a light-hearted scene where Marshall tells some character's sister "Don't do drugs except weed".

But yeah i am yet to see a drug-themed kids show or cartoon.

One of my favorite books is about Captain Kidd. It's a well researched take on his life and it argues, strongly in my opinion, that he was not a pirate and goes into great detail how he (supposedly) led his life. It's a surprisingly captivating read.


A fascinating article. There are similar parallels with the smugglers and poachers of my area of the UK - rural Dorset. Characters like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Gulliver managed to become respectable, but at the same time are subjects of a lot of folklore and tales.

Since a few are mentioning pirate books.

My favorite ones are the books written by Ambroise Louis Garneray, which also served under Surcouf, before eventually becoming a painter after his life as pirate.

However even back in his lifetime some would state he colored his memories a bit, so that they were more interesting to read.

Of course, only he knew how much that was actually so.

I highly recommend Of Captain Mission by Daniel Defoe.

And Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs :)

> I highly recommend Of Captain Mission by Daniel Defoe.

The authorship sometimes attributed to Defoe, but also to a Nathaniel Mist. (It was published under a pseudonym). [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_General_History_of_the_Pyrat...

The_Buccaneers_of_America https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/169961.The_Buccaneers_of...

An insightful, nevertheless, somewhat dullfull read.

I do wonder how many of these newspaper article were a realistic report -


I blame https://damnationkane.wordpress.com/ the time-traveling pirate.

I thought this was about software pirates...

Just about pirates?

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