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Section 6: Myth or History?


The modern view of pirates is shaped by their media representations, from Pirates of the Caribbean to the Pirates of Penzance. Often, they are in direct opposition to the imperial British navy, which is depicted as bumbling at best and overwhelmingly cruel at worst. The pirates in these stories, whether historical or fictional, are heroes, eking out a living on the seas. Such depictions are over simplified, and lack the nuance of what piracy meant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In addition, they glorify pirates, turning them from sailors looking to make a profit into champions of democracy and equality. These notions, however romantic, are incorrect. However, the violence often ascribed to piracy in the eighteenth century was exaggerated in newspaper reports of pirate activity; first person accounts from captured sailors paint a very different picture. Piracy was condemned to serve imperial and commercial interests; merchant shipping to colonies in the Americas was damaged by rampant piracy, and imperial powers sought to protect their colonial acquisitions. The Golden Age of Piracy was not a time of democracy and equality on the high seas, but a time of treasure-seeking and unrest between imperial powers, where sailors hedged their bets to make their fortunes. Pirates were not as violent as post-Golden Age propaganda made them out to be, nor were they as egalitarian as modern people imagine them.

About the Author

Alexandra Wisner is a senior history major from Paducah, Kentucky. She has been a member of Harding's Delta Nu social club for the past five years. After graduation, she plans to move to the east coast and work in U.S. history museums, and continue her studies.