Sunday, May 2, 2010

FTA: Pirates

Fantasy Trope Analysis: Pirates

Drunken Pirate pic from Halloween 2005.

Today, boys and girls (gentle readers!), we're going to talk about pirates.

Pirates, in my observation, are a fairly common occurrence in the fantasy stories I've read (and space pirates, in sci-fi, too). Are they a legitimate trope?

Should pirates exist in any fantasy story involving ocean voyaging and distant ports-of-call, that has the naval technology, i.e., boats that could support an aggressive sea warrior crew while also having enough cargo room to carry booty long enough to be sold (can't raid with canoes or rafts, eh)?

Are they overused? Should there be more pirate perspectives, more stories? Is it better to include them as part of the world events, but not build a story around them?

I assume that they are a common element in stories, one way or the other, because they are actually a historically based profession. So, let me share some of what I learned with you. (I'll provide a list of links that I plagiarized and used and such at the bottom, no worries.)

The earliest documented instances of piracy occurred in/around the Aegean and the Mediterranean Seas, as early as the 13th Century BC, during the Bronze Age.

These first pirates were categorized by the Egyptians as Sea Peoples, and they were made up of migratory tribes who formed (relatively undocumented) groups that sought to harass and deter the growing Egyptian empire.

In Classical Times, Illyrians and Tyrrhenians were known as pirates, as well as the Thracians, very resistant to Greek influence. The Phoenicians sometimes resorted to piracy, specializing in such to obtain slaves. Plutarch is said to have given the first definition of piracy as -'an illegal attack on a ship or coastal town, that was not of a warring nature, but for plunder of monetary gain alone'.

The Illyrian raids were detrimental to the Roman Republic, until they were defeated in 168 BC. By the 1st century BC, several pirate states along the Anatolian coast continued to plague the Romans. Julius Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates in 75 BC, and held prisoner. They opted to ransom him for 20 talents of gold - and he insisted he was worth 50; the pirates conceded. Afterwards, Caesar raised a fleet, found the pirates, and put them to death.

As the Roman Empire expanded north into Europe, Frankish and Saxon pirates raided the coasts of Armorica and Belgic Gaul. The word we know today as 'pirate' or 'pyrate' comes from the Roman historian Polybius around the mid 100 BC era, who used the word 'periato' to describe sea marauders.


From there, we get into Vikings, which is a whole new discussion. Vikings attacked as far as the Baltic Sea, Persia, the coast of North Africa and even Italy.

Muslim pirates were common in the Mediterranean Sea towards the end of the 9th century.

Piracy seemed to rise in the orient at the time China was enduring great political change in their central power beginning at the end of the 13th century. During the Ming Dynasty(1368-1668) Chinese pirates ruled the China Sea. Pirates using huge ships that could carry over 300 men pillaged the China coastal cities for several centuries.

The Dutch East India Company tried to recruit Chinese pirates as privateers to help them control the Asian market trade. The European traders created a base in Jakarta and enlisted the Chinese pirates to help them expand their interests. Eventually the Chinese pirates, who were always out for their own self interests, formed their own trade companies and made double the money on their looted goods.

The 15th century and forward contains the gist of what is considered the pirate trope, by modern day standards. The time between 1519 and 1780 was known as the Golden Age of Piracy.

Pic of CBS cast of "Pirate Master", from this link.

A few descriptions:

Pirate: A pirate is really a robber who steals from other ships out at sea.

Privateer: A privateer was a captain of a ship that attacked and captured other ships and stole valuable items from them. A privateer was not considered to be a true pirate because they were given special licenses called a Letter of Marque from a nations government. Of course they were hunted down and punished as pirates by the countries who they stole from. Many of these captains who were sent out to capture pirates soon became pirates themselves. They saw how much money a pirate made and could not resist the chance of getting rich.

Corsair: A corsair is a French seaman or privateer who sailed mostly in the South Mediterranean Sea.

Sea robbers:These pirates roamed the open seas and were not loyal to any particular government, but only wanted to capture riches for themselves.

Ruthless robbers:Most pirates who earned this nickname were very cruel and did not care if they killed their victims. They just wanted to be rich and tried to get rich by stealing as much as they could and left no witnesses.

Buccaneers: These pirates were made up of a group of men from Holland, England, France, and another group of pirates called the Barbary corsairs who were chased out of the Barbary Coast when merchant captains from France and England got tired of being captured and robbed by the French Corsairs. They went to the island of Hispaniola and lived with the Indians there. The Indians used special knives called "boucans" The pirates began to sail the Caribbean Sea and used the boucan knife as a weapon. It became the favorite weapon of these pirates of the Caribbean and they were eventually given the name of buccaneer. The Caribbean Sea became known as the Spanish Main.
Despite the mythology, pirates did not actually “bury their treasure” or make others “walk the plank” and they actually stayed within a very regimented code of conduct. They were paid a daily wage, and that wage was dependent upon their participation in raids and conflicts.

A few Pirates of note:
Sir Henry Morgan - sacked the city of Panama in 1671.
Barbary Corsairs - Privateers authorized by the Ottoman Empire
Sir Francis Drake - Privateer authorized by Queen Elizabeth I

Blackbeard - Edward Teach - Caribbean Pirate - he was caught in NC, so I have to share:

In November 1718, Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia, knowing that Blackbeard and his men had continued taking ships long after the period of amnesty had expired, sent a Royal Navy contingent to North Carolina, where Blackbeard was killed in a bloody battle at Ocracoke Inlet on November 22, 1718.

During the action, Blackbeard received a reported five musketball wounds and more than 20 sword lacerations before dying. Blackbeard had captured over 50 ships during his piratical career, and his death virtually represented the end of an era in the history of piracy in the New World.


In conclusion, pirates have a rich and sordid history in modern culture.

Have you seen them well portrayed in print or media? Poorly portrayed? And the questions I asked at the beginning, what do you think: Should they be a part of any story involving oceans - should they be a main perspective, or perhaps simply an aspect of the world building?

Hot XXX Pirates. Why not?

Links used in research or because they're interesting:
Wikipedia Article
Associated Content
Neatorama Pirate Lore
Pirate Flags

Talk Like A Pirate!
WikiHow - Talk Like A Pirate


  1. Uh I am probably not going to please you now when I say - it all depends on what sort of story you are wanting to tell! It seems to me like pirates would be a part of most world-building since they seem to be a part of seafaring in various ways. Whether someone choses to focus on them depends on how relevant they are to the plot development, or if they are going to be a big focus. Depends on what sort of characters you want and whether they need to be there for the tale that is being told.

    Dunno, it's like any sort of 'outlaw' really I suppose, in any world-building you are going to have the ones who play it straight and the ones who are more crooked. Of course being a pirate does not necessarily mean you are any more or less crooked than someone who is in a legitimate office for example.

    I am not too bothered by pirates on a personal level, unless you are offering to let me be Johhny Depp's wench (that might well interest me ;-), I don't find them that sexy really, like the concept of them.

    Having just done a quick mental inventory about how I have seen pirates portryed in the media, I would say they are often portrayed as sort of honourable thieves, actually they were probably bloodthirsty murderers but thats not as palatable.

    I think they could well be a good part of world building but unless they are necessary to the plot and characters then I don't see that they need to feature too strongly.

    Unless you are writing a book about uh pirates.

    On another note, I quite like that drunken pirate pic of you..I might be up for a bit of yo ho ho-ing in June ;-)

  2. I forgot to mention that thanks to pirates, we have 'cuba libre' (the drink). They added lime to their rum, to fend off scurvy.

    I guess the point of this series is to illustrate that what we call a "trope" is not always a trope.

    As you noted, pirates are an inherent part of any sort of worldbuilding that parallels the Bronze Age and forward. They gotta be there.

    I almost picked up a book today with some nautical tales, but I held off (for now). I do get a bit more excited about Vikings, than about Pirates, but that's because I'm writing closer to that technological parallel (10th century), rather than medieval/Renaissance period (not yet, at least).

    In studying this, though, and reading my other historical nonfiction books, I hadn't realized that slavery was such a big part of civilization back then. I thought it was only a few cultures, but it was more common than not.

    Anyway, I mentioned the Phoenicians, because I rather like the model of pirating with purpose, moreso because it was Pre-Viking, which will allow my version of the Vikings to improve upon the basic theme when their time comes.

    At this point, then, I can see including Pirates in the world building, but I don't see building a POV from them. Yet. That could change.

  3. You forgot the Irish and the Scottish west coast clans. They were all pirates upon occasion. :)

    Another fun group are the liekedeelers or Victualian Brothers, the pirates on the Baltic Sea in the 14th century who caused the Hansa leage so much trouble that they had to ask the Teutonic Knights to help them deal with the lot. One of the pirate leaders, Klaus Störtebekker, gets his own festival in several German coastal towns every summer. (The other have Vineta festivals in honour of that sunken city - gotta make the tourists spend some money. ;)

    My Fantasy NiP has the Irish/Scottish variant since it's based on 12th century Britain, Scandinavia, France and Germany. Though I'm tempted to have Agricola deal with some Irish pirates in the second historical fiction novel about the Romans. Agricola's fleet sailed around Scotland (thus proving Britian is an island indeed) and lost several ships - that must not have been a storm alone. *grin*

  4. Hi Gabriele, and welcome to our little spot on the web.

    I breezed over a LOT of pirates; I like the anecdote here about the Baltics.

    Moreso - you do historical fantasy I see - I'd love to see the portrayal you describe as your NiP - won't you keep us informed when it's all done?

    Stunning pictures on your blog, by the way. Great stuff.

  5. Thank you, Bill. I followed you from Larry's blog to your little corner, or is that pirate den? *grin*

    Well, my writing speed is more like GRRM than say, Brandon Sanderson or Steven Erikson, so it will be some time until that Epic Monster is in a shape for submission to publishers, but I'll keep people updated on my blog.

    BTW, our friend Störtebekker became so popular mostly because a legend about his death: When he was finally caught and sentenced to be beheaded, he asked for one last grace, that those of his men he could walk past after his head was cut off may be spared. It was granted, and headless Störtebekker walked past 9 (in other versions 13) of his men and saved them. Störtebekker started out as a privateer with a letter of marque from the town Stralsund to aid her in the war against Danmark. But after the war he and his crew found themsevels witout a job and continued the fun without permission. ;)

  6. This is like my favorite research *ever*. And that not-so scurvy pirate makes me giggle all over again.

    I needn't reiterate my position on pirates. They're just downright sexy...and hey, sexy sells.

    I say...if there is a need for a seafaring villain (outside the monster-from-the-deep sci-fi stuff), then who better than a band of treacherous salty dogs?? None.

    And while you may not spend much time on a POV, the descriptions of their mutinies could be an interesting aside.

  7. Gabrielle: Wow, that's a helluva headless feat! I do like the letter of marques angle, from privateering into privacy, from a historical angle. Good luck on the writing; hope you'll drop back here by on occasion.

    Luna: Though I grew up near water, my nautical knowledge, as a general rule, is mostly in the water-by-way-of-standing-on-the-shore perspective, moreso than voyages upon the ocean (though, of course, I've been out on a boat, many times).

    That noted, there's a story to be told, along the lines of which you've noted. One of my protagonists has an unnatural dislike of the ocean / fish ("bloodless creatures that live in an outhouse of their own piss and feces").

    I thought a good story would be to describe the circumstances and events of how he came to that perspective, so that's something that can/will be seen in future tales.

    So, throwing him in the middle of a mutiny, piracy, giant storms and sea creatures, would probably be fun.

    I'm glad you liked the research, it definitely planted some seeds for the inevitable nautical aspects of things as I get there.

  8. Very nice and informative post. But it deftly evades one of the timeless questions. In a confrontation between pirates and ninjas, who wins? The wenches are certainly a perk, but would they be a deciding factor when cutlass met katana?

  9. Hahaha! I was waiting for someone to bring that up, I should have known it was going to be you.

    The answer is....

    (dramatic pause)


    On land, ninjas win.
    On sea, pirates win.

    Good to see you about, Brian.


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