When you hear the word pirate, what comes to mind? For many, it conjures images of bearded men with peg legs and eye patches, guzzling drinks as a shoulder parrot bellows “Pieces of eight!” over and over. Thanks to cartoonish portrayals of pirates in everything from Treasure Island to the recent Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the term tends to invokes lovable, roguish figures.
We use pirates as mascots and birthday party characters. We’ve even given them their own holiday, “International Talk Like a Pirate Day,” which you can celebrate annually on September 19. But just how different actual pirates are from their modern-day image depends on which kind of pirate you’re talking about.
“We make the 16th- to 18th-century pirate lovable,” says Gail Selinger, a pirate historian and the co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates. “I think it is because the clothes were flashy, and swords are cooler than guns to many. I think there would be more harm if someone tried to make modern pirates lovable characters.”
Selinger became interested in pirates after watching a pirate movie when she was nine with her older sister. “She mentioned the character we were watching was a real person,” she says. “I lived two blocks from the Atlantic ocean. It fascinated me. I started reading history books concerning them.”
Selinger says that pirates have captured our imagination because they symbolize “the freedom to choose how you will live your life, ignoring all government authority.” And believe it or not, many of our pirate stereotypes are rooted in actual fact. “The peg leg, et cetera, comes from men engaging in political wars between countries and being mutilated,” she says. “Parrots and monkeys were taken and generally sold in pirate-friendly ports as luxury status symbols. Much of ‘pirate talk’ is maritime seaman and sailor talk.
Not all pirate lore is based on fact, though.
“The argh is from the imaginative mind of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.”
Now, we have even more pirate phrases and jargon, thanks to two friends who came up with a crazy idea 23 years ago.
Talk Like a Pirate Day
International Talk Like a Pirate Day was started by two men, John Baur and Mark Summers. They randomly came up with the idea while playing racquetball together at a YMCA in Albany, Oregon.
“One day, for no apparent reason, while we were playing, we lapsed into pirate jargon a la Robert Newton in Treasure Island,” says Baur. “‘Prepare for a broadside!’ ‘Ya slapped that off me mizzen!’ That kind of thing. By the time the game was over, we realized we’d had more fun than we ever had before on the court. We decided right then and there that the world needed a holiday—one day a year—when every man, woman, and child on the planet was encouraged to talk like a pirate, just for the sheer anarchic fun of it. The idea of millions of people around the globe all talking in their best pirate patois struck us as funny.”
That was June 6, 1995. Not wanting to denigrate an…er…actual holiday, Baur and Summers chose another date instead. “I told Mark, ‘We need another date for International Talk Like a Pirate Day,’” says Baur. “Without hesitation, he said, ‘September 19.’ ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Why?’ He replied, ‘It’s my ex-wife’s birthday. It’s stuck in my head and I’m not doing anything with it anymore, so maybe this way we’ll remember it.’”
For the next several years, Baur and Summers half-heartedly observed the holiday among close friends and family. It didn’t really take off until they wrote humor columnist Dave Barry an email in 2002, inviting him to take part.
“He wrote a column, and the rest is history—or at least a good story,” says Baur. “The Sunday that his column came out, I thought, ‘Well that’s nice. There’s our 15 minutes of fame. It’ll probably be over by noon.’”
But then the calls came pouring in. “Within the next two weeks, we had been on the radio in Phoenix, Cleveland, Ireland, Australia and, to top it off, on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered,’” says Baur. “Over the years, the attention grew—to the point where in the 20 hours from the evening of September 18 to about 6 p.m. September 19, we’d do as many as 80 radio interviews all around the globe. Our website, talklikeapirate.com, has taken millions of hits on the holiday. It was and is surreal.”
Kinda glad i won't be near a mic tomorrow for National Talk Like a Pirate Day. BTW, what's a Pirates favourite letter???? Now imagine hearing this as a pirate would say it.. "it's the "C" matey" sp.
— Daren Millard (@darenmillard) September 18, 2018
Baur now goes by the pirate moniker “Ol’ Chumbucket,” while Summers is known the world over as “Cap’n Slappy.” He says that inquiries have calmed down in recent years, and Talk Like a Pirate Day is likely to survive on its own.
“Now people know the holiday is there, it’s achieved critical mass, and I think will go on, at least for a while, even if we suddenly completely dropped out of it. It’s our gift to the world, so to speak.”
According to Baur, popular culture loves pirates because we love the outsider. “Pirates are the ultimate outsiders. They are damned—and damned by their own hands. They chose to flout the convention of their age and opt for ‘a short life and a merry one,’ as Black Bart Roberts said.”
“Historian Marcus Rediker said of the classic buccaneers: ‘Pirates were the enemies of mankind. But they were also the freest people on earth.’ And it’s that freedom that appeals to people,” Baur notes. “They swagger, and how many chances do you have to swagger in your regular life? They lived life on their own terms, and while the actions they took are obviously beyond the pale, that freedom, that sense of ‘I’m living my life for me, not for society’s expectations of me,’ is appealing.”
The Realities of Modern-Day Piracy
Pirates might not look and talk like Jack Sparrow anymore, but they’re certainly not a thing of the past.
“Modern pirates generally operate in three places around the world, although there is always a risk of armed robbery at sea at any number of ports or choke points,” says a spokesperson for the Combined Maritime Forces, a naval partnership between 33 nations which aims to prevent piracy in international waters. “The main areas of modern piracy are the Malacca Straits near Singapore, the Somali Basin/Bab al Mandeb … and the area around the Nigerian Delta.”
For this article, CMF could only comment on their joint operational area: “[This] can roughly be described as the Northern Indian Ocean, the seas around Oman and Somalia, and the Red Sea through to the Suez Canal. EU NAVFOR also operates under a counter-piracy mandate around the Somali coastline, Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea.”
The table below compiles instances of pirate activity in these regions over the last eight years:
“It is difficult to establish why there was a slight rise in 2017 with respect to the previous years,” says the CMF spokesperson. “There is a suspicion that some vessels were becoming complacent and not following the guidance laid down in Best Management Practice, [or BMP 5],” says the CMF spokesperson.
“This encourages the Masters of vessels transiting the area to utilize the Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor to maximize safety. BMP 5 also provides advice such as maintaining vigilance, carrying armed security teams, securing doors, hatches, external screens,” they continue. “BMP 5 is issued through the Maritime Security Centre for the Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) website specifically for the merchant shipping industry transiting through the Southern Red Sea. Ships are further encouraged to register with the UK Maritime Trade Organisation … and the MSCHOA so that we are able to track them through the region until they are in safe waters.”
So where modern-day pirates actually come from? Usually, they’re poor fishermen.
“In the case of Somalia, modern pirates largely come from a fishing or coastal background,” says the CMF. “Illegal fishing inside Somali territorial waters is widely regarded to have impacted the welfare and income of legitimate fishermen and forced them to look for other ways to gain income, such as piracy. The pirates we encounter in the region CMF operates in generally work in groups of four to five from small skiffs with powerful outboard motors and are armed with small arms such as the AK-47.”
“They’ll use grappling hooks and ladders to board ships. If they manage to get on board their targeted vessel, they often destroy the ship’s communication and Automated Identification System … as soon as possible and then take the ship, its cargo, and the crew hostage. They have been known to use larger vessels … which they’ve captured as ‘mother’ vessels and tow the skiffs behind them. This increases their range considerably.”
A Thrilling Story of Modern-Day Piracy
Every modern-day pirate encounter is different. The most famous story is probably the 2009 incident with Captain Richard Phillips, which was made into a movie, which starred Tom Hanks, in 2013.
Guy Wadge, an independent marine safety and security consultant, shares a personal story about his encounter with pirates with Urbo.
“Back in 2012, I was working on a survey for a total of about 120 nautical miles offshore southern Nigeria, near Port Harcourt,” says Wadge. “I had three support vessels working for me, contracted in from a company called Bourbon. These ships would go to and from Port Harcourt on a regular basis to fill up with fuel and provisions and then bring them back out to the main seismic ships to transfer them over. One of the issues with Nigeria is the difficulty in getting fuel permits as they cost money—often in a brown envelope! I could request 500 cubic meters of fuel and only get a permit for 120.”
“The Master of my ship advised me that their parent company had a fuel tanker further up the Nigerian coast in safe water, and it would be simpler and cheaper to send a support ship up there. This would also mean that I wouldn’t have to arrange the support ship being booked onto the armed security escort convoy to keep them safe in the dangerous area just outside Port Harcourt.”
“I agreed with the Master, and we both came to the conclusion that the support vessel would be vulnerable to a risk of piracy that close to the Nigerian Delta and the shoreline there. We specifically told the captain of the support vessel to make their way from our location to the tanker by steaming west and then north, [taking] bunkers on, and then [reversing] the route so that they were heading directly away from the Nigerian coast, back to us.”
“The Bourbon vessel took the fuel on and then promptly ignored our instructions and steamed merrily down the coastline, no more than 30 nautical miles offshore Nigeria. An hour later, they were boarded by armed Nigerians from two fast skiffs. They pirated the vessel and took them into the Nigerian Delta to their village port. They released the Nigerian crew from the Bourbon vessel unharmed and smashed up all the communication equipment on the ship. They kidnapped the 12 Russians and the Estonian and then issued a ransom demand from Bourbon. I forget the amount. When I was notified, I thought they were just after the fuel from the very full tanks and anything they could steal and sell rather than ransom the crew off.”
“The crew were held captive for three weeks while negotiations took place. The Russians then sent in some of their Special Forces to meet with the representative of the Nigerian security forces, and they went to the village to meet with the pirates. …The Nigerian security rep told the pirates that they had one chance and one chance only to release the sailors unharmed or another dozen Russian commandos would be sent in. Funnily enough, they agreed, and no ransom was paid.”
A Pirate’s Life for Some
Thankfully no one was hurt in Wadge’s story, but with piracy still being such a harrowing problem, is it inappropriate for children who love to play dress up to pretend to be pirates?
“I would say that it’s entirely up to the parents,” says Wadge. “It’s no different to children playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, playing at being soldiers. Children play and will learn the truth when they’re old enough.”
Baur agrees that it’s harmless to have a little fun with the idea of pirates.
“As Cap’n Slappy always says, the holiday is called Talk Like a Pirate Day, not Commit Felonies Like a Pirate Day,” he says. “We certainly don’t advocate anyone going out and looting a Caribbean port or capturing a ship or anything like that. We’re having fun with the stereotypes and the way they conflict with modern rules and societal norms. …Talk Like a Pirate Day is a chance to step out of the routine, imagine a different kind of life, and for one day, be unapologetically who you are and what you want.”
“See, now I’ve done it. I’ve gotten all smarty pants and pompous! That doesn’t fit at all with the image of the rambunctious rogue, the ‘gentleman rover,’ that the day celebrates,” says Baur. “Bottom line—Talk Like a Pirate Day is fun. That’s all the reason you need to do it. You’re not required to take part. Not everyone wants to be a pirate, and that’s fine. If everyone were a pirate, who would be the prey?”