5 Ways Pirates Were Way More Modern Than You Realize
We tend to think of pirates as bloodthirsty thieves, brutal rapists, and vicious murderers, concerned only with indulging their every whim and amassing as much wealth as possible, forever living at the expense of others. And this is absolutely true. However, in some ways, pirates were bizarrely ahead of the societal curve. In fact, some of their viewpoints would be heartily endorsed by the campus newspaper of a liberal arts college.
Pirates Had Health Insurance
You probably feel safe in assuming that pirates didn't have much in the way of medical benefits, because the 16th and 17th centuries didn't have much in the way of actual medicine -- the most effective treatment for gangrene was a woodcutter's ax, a bucket of hot tar, and a bamboo reed to bite down on. Beyond that, when a typical workday consists of shooting terrified sailors in the face while rival pirates hurl themselves at you with blood-tarnished daggers clenched between their teeth, you'd imagine you'd be expected to cover the cost of any lost limbs or eye gougings on your own doubloon.
But you would be wrong. In reality, the crew of renowned pirate/liquor mascot Captain Henry Morgan had one of the first comprehensive, all-inclusive health insurance systems in recorded history. Before the assault on Panama, Morgan drew up a charter for his crew that guaranteed certain benefits for any man who was injured in battle. Any one of his 2,000-strong pirate crew was entitled to 600 pieces of eight for the loss of a hand or a foot, 1,800 pieces for the loss of both legs, 200 pieces for one eye, and 2,000 pieces for total blindness -- that's about $153,000 in modern currency. We assume peg legs and eye patches were covered by a joint flex account.
Also, any member of the crew could opt to receive his de-limbing payout in slaves rather than money (we said they were progressive, we didn't say they were paragons of virtue). So, you can probably go into your boss' office right now and announce that your health insurance policy is worse than that of a 17th century marauding sea criminal and be totally correct in your assessment. You would likely also start noticing your photo hanging up everywhere next to a list of emergency page codes for the entire building.
Pirates Had a Form of Gay Marriage
To be sure, there was a certain amount of situational homosexuality that occurred among the all-male crews of buccaneer ships back in the golden age of piracy, much like there is in modern-day prisons and professional wrestling organizations. But it's not as though those super grizzled, hyper-masculine throat-slitting machines engaged in same-sex coupling, right? It's a fiercely divisive subject even today, so 400 years ago it must have been absolute insanity to even suggest two men getting married, much less two pirates.
On the contrary, some historians claim that the original "Pirates of the Caribbean" (pirate crews who docked, traded, and intermittently lived in port towns in the West Indies during the 17th century) had entire communities where homosexual couples were considered perfectly acceptable. Picture that scene in Tortuga from the Disney movie, only loaded with gay men.
You see, pirates had a form of civil partnership called matelotage, a marriage-like institution wherein two male pirates shared all of their ... OK, we need to think of another word for "booty" here -- let's go with "loot." Additionally, each would name the other as his sole inheritor. While this makes a good I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry kind of economic sense, in as much as it was essentially the only kind of financial security a pirate could hope for, some commentators argue that these relationships were also romantic in nature, possibly because matelots could routinely be observed having sex with each other.
In 1645, the French government of Tortuga decided to import thousands of prostitutes to try to neutralize the rampant homosexuality, because this was the type of response that governments had to things. Not that it's likely to have made a great deal of difference, though -- pirates in a matelotage shared everything, including wives. Adding mixed threesomes to the gay love-in was probably not the outcome France was going for, but, France being France, we can never truly be certain.
Pirates Practiced Religious Tolerance
Pirates have been portrayed throughout history as a superstitious lot of miscreants, so it stands to reason that they would greet any practitioner of an exotic or unfamiliar religion with the same courtesy they would extend to a cannibal bone shaman trying to flay their souls from their bodies with the ceremonial Stoneblade Dagger of a Thousand Screams.
After all, the golden age of piracy began in the 16th century, a time when European Christians were still crusading to Jerusalem to try to kill every Muslim who had the audacity to live there. It wasn't exactly a period of religious tolerance. We can only imagine how pirates would have reacted to, say, a bunch of Muslims.
Actually, as long as there was gold involved, they really didn't give a shit.
For example, Captain Siemen Danziger brought his pirate squadron to Algiers, an Islamic city in North Africa and one of the main strongholds of the Ottoman Empire, to set up a safe home base for him to pillage the shit out of the Mediterranean. Danziger was a Dutch Christian, but he didn't hesitate to offer the Turkish rulers his services as a shipbuilder. And they appointed him their chief naval architect, because it turned out they liked money also.
So, alongside an English pirate captain named John Ward, Danziger showed the Algerians both how to build European style ships and how to defeat them in combat, allowing Algiers to extend its piratical reach all over Europe.
Keep in mind, this was during an era of European history where the pervasive belief was that all non-Christians should be punished with considerable jail time at the very least, and that any Muslim should be killed on sight with anything in the immediate vicinity that could be crudely fashioned into a weapon. But pirates didn't cotton to any of that nonsense, particularly when there was booty to be plundered. The Algerians felt the same way, and the two routinely worked together with quantifiable results being the only criteria either side gave a shit about.
Again, maybe not a great reason for tolerance, but tolerance nonetheless.
Pirates Were Equal-Opportunity Employers
In a time when the job options for women consisted of "servant," "wife," and "prostitute" (and all three of which were variations of the word "property"), piracy was an attractively viable career choice. This is because some pirates didn't give one peg-legged starfish fart about gender roles when they crewed their ships -- if you could murder and pillage with remorseless glee, they'd happily take you aboard. And if a woman wound up out-pirating her scurvy comrades, she could even become captain, as depicted in the historical document Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
Chin Shih, for example, was a Chinese prostitute who married a pirate captain. When her husband died, she decided to seize control of his fleet, which at the time consisted of more than 1,500 ships and over 60,000 pirates, because that was a way better option than going back to work at a terrifying hooker barn. Over in Ireland, lady-scoundrel Grace O' Malley commanded 200 men and an entire fleet of pirate galleys, which seems to pale in comparison until you remember that we're talking about 200 heavily armed Irish career murderers obeying a woman's orders in the 16th century, at which point it becomes downright inspirational.
But arguably the most famous female pirates were Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who joined the buccaneer crew of Captain Calico Jack. Bonny was married to Jack, and the two of them found Read disguised as a boy and working on board a Dutch merchant ship they were in the process of robbing. The two women quickly bonded because, equal opportunity notwithstanding, pirates are still goddamned pirates, and being the only female among them was probably no easy task.
As a result, Bonny and Read became one of the most hardcore duos in swashbuckling history, wielding their ferocious craziness like a pirate-themed version of Natural Born Killers, if Woody Harrelson had played both lead roles and was also a woman. They had a frightening reputation even among pirates -- when Bonny's less-than-courageous lover was challenged to a duel, she killed the challenger herself, because she knew her knee-knocking sex dispenser had no chance of winning. Later, when their ship was finally boarded, it was Bonny and Read who stayed on deck fighting off the king's soldiers, while Jack hid below with the rest of the men and shattered a lot of illusions.
The three of them were captured, and as Calico Jack was being led away to his execution, Bonny lovingly told him, "Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang'd like a dog." We can only assume some sassy bailiff overheard and whistled "DAAAYUM" in response.
Pirates Had Democratic Elections
Back in Piratey Times (the official historical term for the 17th century), less than 3 percent of the population in England had the power to vote. In general, unless you owned a ton of property and your skin was the same color as your powdered wig, nobody in Parliament gave one rusty chamber pot lid about your opinion. And that was the rule for gentle, educated, law-abiding citizens, so there's no way illiterate stab-happy pirates would've seen the value in the democratic process unless it was voting on how many punches to throw into a prisoner's solar plexus before tossing him overboard into a cloud of sharks. Right?
Actually, Jack Ward, a wildly successful pirate captain who deserted from the Royal Navy along with 30 of his shipmates (because high-seas robbery is way more lucrative than being in the military), was elected captain by popular vote of his crew. This pretty much became the process by which every pirate captain was selected -- after all, it's difficult to convince a band of thugs with charming wooden prosthetics to take orders from you while you're all floating in a boat hundreds of miles from any sort of legal consequence if they don't unanimously agree you should be in charge.
Some of these grizzled pirates no doubt grasped the complex relationship between elected officials and their constituents, and realized the value in having a leader who both understood and represented their best interests. Others probably based their vote more on who had killed the most men with his bare hands and/or had the gnarliest fanged-mermaid tattoo. Either way, every pirate had a say, regardless of how frivolous or ignorant, and that's pretty much the literal definition of democracy.
When Paige Turner isn't writing about dicks on the Internet, she's ... writing about dicks elsewhere. David is waging a one-man war to be the funniest phone number on the Internet. See the videos for his phone number on his YouTube channel here.
For more things you have wrong about history, check out 6 Things From History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly and 6 Ridiculous History Myths (You Probably Think Are True).