Pirates: Fantasy’s Forgotten Scoundrels

I’m going to start you off with a quiz this month. Nice and simple, five questions, just to see what you really know about pirates.

Pirates by *Hamsterfly1. Apart from as a propellant in their frankly dodgy weaponry, what other use did pirates have for gunpowder?

2. Why did Blackbeard appear to be “an apparition from Hell”?

3. Where did Captain Kidd bury his treasure before being twice-hanged?

4. If you wanted a drink after 8 o’clock on a ship, what did you have to do?

5. What was the main reason for men to turn to piracy?

Jack SparrowThe usual image people have when you ask them to describe a pirate is a heavy drinker, well tattooed, often with dreadlocks and various jewellery decorations. A good man at heart, driven to what he does through hard times, or a misguided youth. In short – Jack Sparrow.

Whilst there are some elements of truth in some of Sparrow’s characteristics, there is a great deal of romanticism in the image we’re fed of pirates in most fiction. Even Stevenson’s Long John Silver, probably one of the most famous pirates in literature, although based on several real seadogs, has the edge taken off him, so as not to scare the children.

And what have pirates got to do with fantasy, I hear you ask? They are ready-made scoundrels, superstitious, battle hardened, well-travelled, perfect for adding a bit of spice to your story. Yet they are so often overlooked, which I personally feel is a real shame. Hopefully by the end of this article, I will have convinced a few of you to look a little closer into their dark world.

So, the answers to that quiz:

1. A prophylactic. Blackbeard used to add his to his morning rum, most would drink it with alcohol like this, as the water on board would often be highly unsanitary, so drinking spirits was the safer option. Pity so many pirates were too riddled with syphilis for it to work. In fact, the sulphur in the saltpetre mix would likely poison them long before it cured them. The wonders of shipboard medicine. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunpowder)

Blackbeard by GENZOMAN2. As well as the crazy eyes and beard after which he was named, which was often braided to make it fan out around his face, Blackbeard used to often add lit fuses to his get up. That’s right, he literally set himself on fire to scare people.

3. Nowhere. There are legends to this day of Kidd’s buried treasure, which likely started the craze in pirate stories, but there is no proof whatsoever that any pirate ever buried anything. They most likely hid their goods in caves tucked away in uninhabited coves, transporting a little at a time so that if they were attacked, they didn’t lost their whole haul.

4. You had to drink in the open air up on deck. Lights went out at 8 o’clock below deck, so that everyone but those on nightwatch could sleep. That’s right, pirates had a bed time, and it was early.

5. The Royal Navy. Many pirates started their careers on Navy ships or Privateers, which were essentially pirates with a license. But the conditions and pay were so bad many felt they could better provide for their families on the other side of the law, so ran off at the first chance.

Flying Ship by Ben WoottenIn fact, many pirate vessels were better run and equipped than their Navy counterparts; morale was higher, as every man was treated as an equal, to his station, and all on board were given an equal share of any loot, the remainder going to maintaining the ship. In the Navy, the majority of anything the ship made went to the Crown.

There were strict rules on a pirate ship, and these were strictly enforced. Men were not allowed to gamble on board, and as stated above, drinking for drinking’s sake was kept to a minimum, because you couldn’t drink if you weren’t meant to be on deck. Boys and women were not allowed on board, and anyone caught smuggling a person aboard was more often than not put to death.

The Pirates’ Code, as mentioned in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, did in fact exist. It was added to over the years, and made for rather orderly living. Rules and their punishments were clearly laid out, and when followed, allowed a ship to run smoothly.

So where did the fearsome reputation of pirates come from? The pirates themselves, more often than not. They knew they were the scourge of the Caribbean, the bane of the English Navy, and the stuff of nightmares, and so they did their best to uphold this image. In revenge attacks, whole crews could be slaughtered, ships burned, corpses desecrated and left outside townships where they could be discovered, thus creating the legends.

Pirates of the Astral Sea by William O'ConnorIn most raids however, there was relative little damage done to a ship or crew. One crewman may be singled out to be tortured until the captain handed over the location of the ship’s treasures, but then often the pirates would just take their loot and leave, the raided vessel free to carry on its journey.

Of course there were exceptions to this, the men whose names made it into legend; Blackbeard, mad bastard extraordinaire, man of fourteen wives, pirate of short career, killed on his ship by having his throat slit. Captain Kidd, Scot, ran off with a Navy vessel, terrorized ships off the coast of Madagascar, though this wasn’t particularly lucrative, then ran back to the Plymouth Sound to hide. Caught and transported to London. Twice hanged on Execution Dock, as the first rope couldn’t take his weight.

Now, imagine men like that armed with magical weapons, with slave wizards, attack dragons. Ruthless, driven individuals thrown into a fantasy world. It’s something we as an audience have craved for years, and constantly complain about when we don’t get, so why don’t more people draw on this open source? Of course, I am not asking for every single fantasy novel ever written to involve pirates, but they do make a nice change from the usual bad guys.

Grace O'Malley by Aly FellOr good guys; we like it when our protagonists are as clean-cut and proper as they could be. A pirate could be a good man driven by desperation, or an angry man looking for a way to channel his rage. Or even a reluctant pirate, pressed into service after his ship was raided. They are flawed by definition, and in being so can make for fascinating characters.

Naturally, in fiction we can bend the rules a little, and have female or child pirates if we so feel the need – the rules are there to be broken properly after all.

Hopefully this has given you a little insight into the real world of the pirates, of men who would be abed by the time a lot of us are finishing dinner, who were treated as equals in a time of slavery, and who, with a few exceptions, were just men doing their best to survive on the harsh seas, avoiding the Navy and creating legends while they were at it.

Title image by Delowar.


By Laura Graham

Laura is a warrior of Pictish descent. By that, we mean she battles not to burn every time the sun deigns to shine on Scotland. As a result, she spends a lot of time indoors, tearing through the books crammed into her bookshelves and storage boxes, or scribbling away in her notebook on various writing projects. All of which involve pirates. When not in a world of fiction, she can be found cooking, baking, knitting, sewing, playing Bb bass in a brass band, shouting at motorbike racing on the TV, or turning her young cousin into a nerd like herself. Heaven help us all.

11 thoughts on “Pirates: Fantasy’s Forgotten Scoundrels”
  1. As soon as I saw this, Lor, I knew who wrote it! I went through a pirate phase as a kid, and one of the ones that intereste me most was Barbarossa, and he was a little different to what most people think of when the word pirate gets mentioned, too.

  2. Great arrrghticle!

    Yeah, sorry. :o\

    I’ve always loved that swashbuckling era. I actually wrote a crew of pirates into my epic fantasy story, so did a lot of research to try and get past the legend to the reality. And funnily enough in a lot of cases, as you’ve mentioned above, the truth was far more interesting than all the detail that was added later. Anyway, I think you’re right, we need more of them. I’ve kept mine as background characters, but after reading this I am itching to give them their own story. I sense a spin-off…

  3. Thanks a lot for this article, it has given me a few ideas for the new world I’m just creating.

    It’s amazing how we can ignore what is right in front of our eyes until someone shows it to us. Thanks for opening my eyes, Mrs. Graham.

  4. Very interesting article! You see space pirates now and then in science fiction, but fantasy ones don’t seem to be very common do they? I’d definitely read a ‘pirates with magic weapons, slave wizards and attack dragons’ story! xD

  5. Arrrgghhh!

    I think Pirates have been a little wrecked for people by Walt Disney in recent years, but Robin Hobb and Scott Lynch have shown that there is a place for them in a good fantasy novel.

  6. Excellent article.

    But hey, you don’t even need to “bend the rules” to have women pirates. They were real! Just look ’em up on Wikipedia and you’ll quickly find lots. The best nicknames include the Lioness of Brittany (Middle Ages), the Sea Queen of Connaught (Renaissance); and Back from the Dead Red, Sadie the Goat, Gunpowder Gertie (early modern); and Sister Ping (modern and currently in jail). There are lots more, too, and these ladies were pretty darn tough. 🙂

  7. Well, the lack of good fantasy pirate novels (not a total lack, as there are a few I can think of) led me to write my own. Jolly Roger and Dragons, which would make Burrough and Sabatini proud if they had worked together, was the first result. Captain Carlos ‘Lucky Carl’ Cutler, the young peg-legged, hook-handed, patch-eyed commander of Satan’s Mistress in search of a treasure as great as the one taken by Avery. The crew of that brig get their treasure and far more than they bargained for on a forgotten island where the remnant of a lost race dwells and scaly behemoths from the dawn of time still prowl.

    The Treasure of Dragon Island is a fitting sequel, with a visit to Jamaica that results in the rescue of Anne Bonny, a stop-off at Devil’s Table and the secret harbor where the bones of eighty men lay scattered on the sands before arriving at Dragon island. A mutinous crew and daring escapes follow quickly, with more danger and humor.

    Ebooks for now, Kindle and Nook. Quite a bit of rollicking good fun, if I say so myself.

  8. Nice. I have a character that (before everything hit and life turned horrible. Though there was shit before) ran with thieves with rules a bit like this. Never steal from anyone who can’t afford it, because we’ve all been there and it gives us allies on the street. Watch each other’s backs and never take anything from a fellow guild member. Don’t kill except for a last resort, because we’re not assassins and it’s very bad for business. Lastly, this guild is a family, and never double cross it. They’re not Robin Hoods, but they’re not evil. Being in a coastal city, this could fit the story nicely. Add to the grey morality dealing with pirates like this, you know? Thanks for the information!

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