Monday, July 5, 2010

More faux pirates than you can shake a saber at

A week ago I put on my boots and my puffy white shirt and sailed up to the NorCal Pirate Festival, a pirate-themed event at the docks on Mare Island in Vallejo California. There were vendors selling piratey wares, musicians playing sea shanties, games of all kinds, and more pirates than I’d ever seen! Perhaps more pirates than the world has ever seen: the festival unofficially broken the Guinness record for the largest pirate gathering in history.

Amidst all the revelry, I spied a tent with some well-dressed looking folks who didn’t look like pirates to me. Curious, I struck up a conversation with a man who introduced himself as William Fairfax - not a pirate! He explained that I was in the Bahamas and I’d stumbled upon the Governor’s House at Nassau harbor on the island of New Providence, a British colony. The year was 1781. He introduced me to the honorable Governor Woodes Rogers who told me the story behind their camp.

According to the Governor, in the 1780s Nassau looked not unlike our 2010 Festival: a haven for all manner of pirates. These were the real pirates of the Caribbean. Many of them had once been legal privateers, and some upheld a code to only plunder ships with foreign flags, but nevertheless they were thieves and British merchants were losing most of their ships’ cargos to pirates. Something had to be done.

And that was where Governor Rogers’ plan came in. An ex-privateer himself, Rogers won the favor of pirate governor Benjamin Hornigold and together the two led a pirate recovery program.

It was refreshing to see the other side of the law represented at the Pirate Festival and I told Governor Rogers this. He nodded and said that he’d wanted to “even things out a bit” and this was his way of adding an educational dimension to the festivities. He lamented the lack of historical accuracy in popular pirate movies featuring sea monsters and zombies. “History is more interesting and fantastical than fantasy,” he said. “It’s some pretty strange stuff.”

At this point, Rogers asked me if I would like to renounce my piracy and sign a pardon. I figured that it sounded better than being hanged and he even said I could keep my booty, so it seemed like a pretty good deal. The governor signed and stamped my pardon and I was no longer pirate. A good thing too because Mr. Fairfax informed me that another lady pirate, Anne Bonny, was due to be “given a fair trial and hanged” that very day.

~ Margaret Middleton


  1. Let me say up front that, as someone who is interested in Atlantic World history, enduring the late pirate craze has been no small torture. That said, even I understand that the kind of histrionics you describe have great potential to engage a broad audience. In this "age of ubiquitous display," though, isn't it worth urging events like the NorCal Pirate Festival to provide visitors with at least the option of a legitimate historical narrative (even if just via QR codes, for example)? After all, even though I applaud Governor Roger's desire to "even things out a bit," I'd much rather he do that by, say, reminding us of his own complicity in a ferocious plantation economy. And, William Fairfax at a pirate party!? What would his pal, G. Washington, say? There's also an important story here about the persistence of piracy, and its terrors, in our own time. Am I naive to think that these issues should be part of our pirate discourse, no matter what Johnny Depp has to say about it?

  2. The focus of the Pirate Festival was most certainly histrionics, not history, and most of the folks there were indeed actors, not re-enactors. And that was intentional. We were there to dress up, swig ale, and revel, not to get a history lesson. As someone who has always enjoyed historical fiction in its many forms, I was pleased to see any historical thought at all being given to the day's offerings. The Governor did a great job of bringing a little history to the event without being a total party pooper. Seriously, who wants to talk about real Somali pirates on a weekend family outing to a festival?

  3. posted on behalf of Matthew Barlow:

    I find myself, I must admit, rather confused by my colleagues in the academy. On the one hand, we grumble when our students, the common person on the street, whatever, doesn't know anything about history. And we grumble when they come to us with an imperfect understanding of the history. When I teach Western Civ, I find myself battling with the movie "300", or the TV show "The Tudors," and so on and so forth. But, what's the harm in that? It's an interest in history, and, even if it is imperfect, so what? But it can't be both ways.

    The actor Governor Rogers is doing his bit to set the historical record straight, explaining the legal ramifications of pirating in the 18th century in the British Empire. This, I submit, is a brilliant strategy: we are a culture obsessed with law & order. We sympathise with the cops on TV, and "Rogers" is approaching piracy in the 18th century British Empire in that way. So what if he doesn't discuss the "ferocious" plantation system?

    As Margaret notes, it is a great thing that people are giving thought to history. It is our job as teachers to encounter and challenge the popular historical narrative our students bring to the classroom.

    But to suggest the people at the pirate festival weren't there for a history lesson, I'm not so sure of that. Why else would they be dressed up as pirates in the 18th century?

  4. Matthew:

    As a non-historian layperson, I think I am best qualified to answer your question about why the public might dress up as pirates in the 18th century: Eye patches! Arrrgh!

    Dressing up like pirates (even, or perhaps especially, fictional pirates) is FUN! It's not about history for most people. In fact, I doubt many people would have even been able to place themselves in the proper century when asked. We dress up like "pirates" because there is a fun culture and narrative associated with pirate lore--even if it's fictional.

  5. As an early vendor of pirate accouterments, I am aware of quite a large following that take their pretend pirating quite seriously. Accuracy in the portrayal of historic pirate figures is no less than that followed by Civil War or other military reenactors. That said, they also like to have a good time. Those interested in learning more can go to

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