Why Be a Pirate?

Rob Temple

Most visitors to Ocracoke know they're coming to Blackbeard's island hideout.

Why Be a Pirate?

The infamous Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, “slipped his cable” off Ocracoke's shores in 1718. Every time I sail a boatload of passengers through that part of Pamlico Sound known as “Teach's Hole,” I point out the location and briefly tell the story of Blackbeard's last fight. Most of my passengers already know at least a little about Teach but I'm often surprised at how few of them know about the 1996 discovery of his sunken ship off Beaufort Inlet.  Rarely do I encounter an Ocracoke visitor who has ever been to Beaufort.

Whenever I meet a Blackbeard enthusiast, I ask them if they've been to Beaufort and explored the maritime museum.  It's a veritable treasure trove.  Ever since the remains of Blackbeard's flagship, Queen Ann's Revenge were discovered in about twenty feet of water near Beaufort Inlet, a fascinating assortment of artifacts have been brought ashore and placed on display in the (free!) museum.  I've always made it a point to check out the museum whenever I pass through that area, even years before the discovery of the Q.A.R.  But since the schedule of my visits is so unpredictable, I'm not always sure what will be on display at any given time.  Last summer I told someone how great the Blackbeard exhibit was only to have them show up again a week or two later and tell me the Q.A.R. section was closed for remodeling. 

Well, last week I found myself in Beaufort with time to kill.  Turns out the Q.A.R. display was closed for a while but re-opened in mid-June, 2011.  It's fantastic and I was really impressed with it. I was discussing it with my wife over lunch a half-hour after my visit and decided to write a piece about it.  After retrieving the camera from the car, I walked back toward the museum for a couple of snapshots of the exhibit.  To my horror, a whole busload of fourth graders was parading down the block toward the museum.  Realizing that if they got in there first I'd never get a decent picture, I sprinted around to the back door and slipped inside.  By the time I departed with my mission accomplished, the noisy class of kids was just clamoring through the front door with their stressed out teachers loudly (and futilely) admonishing them not to touch anything.

Why Be a Pirate?

The Maritime Museum also has a small display addressing an issue that has been of interest to me lately.  Just when Disney and Johnny Depp had begun to stimulate a tidal wave of interest in all things piratical – a wave upon which I happily sailed my “pirate” cruises – those malicious thugs off the coast of Somalia had to come along and give pirates a bad name!  It used to be you mention the word pirate and people would grin and say “Ahhrr!”  Now you mention the word and they just shake their heads in disgust. There's nothing cute and cuddly about young men in speed boats attacking tankers and yachts with AK 47s.

But after reading a book about the Somali pirates recently, I have realized that, just as Blackbeard and his cronies had their dark, unromantic side, there's another  side to the modern-day African pirates as well.  Reading their story, I realized how hard it is, as the saying goes, to condemn a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes.  The museum display I just mentioned points out several similarities between the two pirate groups.  Among them are:

  • central governments too weak to control them
  • local political leaders who benefit from their activities
  • they bring great benefit to the economy ashore
  • lucrative quarry passing nearby ripe for the picking
  • geographic features of coast that favor concealment and ambush

While there's no getting around the fact that piracy is and always has been unacceptable criminal behavior, it seems to me that most people do the best they can with what they have.  Although Blackbeard himself evidently had the education and skills to succeed in an honest career had he wished, the same cannot be said of the majority of his crew.  Many of them were former slaves and few of the others had any viable options.  Most of the Somali pirates apparently were honest commercial fishermen whose resources had been ravaged by foreign trawlers.  With no coast guard to defend their rights, about the only alternative to piracy was starvation.

Why Be a Pirate?

It all brings to mind a song by the Rankin family of Nova Scotia:


            “Only the very safe can talk about wrong and right

              of those who are forced to choose,

              some will choose to fight.”


Back in the good old days, when we used to take deckloads of kids on pirate cruises aboard me old schooner, I once contemplated the question of why so many people became pirates in Blackbeard's day.

I came up with this:

“Ever dream of becoming a pirate, becoming a buccaneer

With a hook on your arm and a patch on your eye and a big gold ring on your ear

Do you wonder what made folks turn pirate and sail far away from their homes

Just why, do you s'pose, those folks ever chose to sail 'neath the skull and crossbones?


Well, imagine yourself as a sailor way back around seventeen ten

'Twas a dangerous life full of hardship and strife for poor old Jack Tars back then.

The conditions on board were appalling: you had to eat weevily bread

And the water you drank was green and it stank and a cold hard deck was your bed.


The work was all hard and unending.  As for misery, there was a ton of it

And the captain and mate were so full of hate that they'd punish you just for the fun of it.

Then one day while you're up in the crow's nest, you see a most frightening sight:

With their black flag flying, some pirates are trying to engage your ship in a fight!


And it's clear that you're plainly outnumbered.  Their ship has more guns and more crew.

You'd be blasted to cinders so your captain surrenders – it's the only sane thing he could do.

Then after the pirates have boarded your ship in their grizzly hoard

Your captain and mate both soon meet their fate by being thrown overboard.


Then the pirate captain approaches all dressed in his fanciest suit

And he invites all of you to sign on with his crew and he offers you shares of the loot.

Well, the dangers are more or less similar, but a pirate's life offers more ease

For a ship that's piratical is more democratical.  You can generally do as you please.


Your time is split between drinking rum and practicing martial arts

And when the action gets brisk, there's always the risk of losing some of your parts!

And what if you should become injured while dutifully doing your duty?

There's no cause for concern for then you would earn an additional share of the booty!


And what if you ever grew tired of plundering ships on the sea?

You could take all your gold as some did, I'm told, and retire ashore rich and free.

So, again, why would folks become pirates and from their homes go sailing away

And just what's the appeal we all sometimes feel to go pirating even today?


It was the freedom, the fortune and friendship that drew folks into that trade

To be out on the sea, wealthy and free with the best friends you'd ever made.

So have you dreamed of becoming a pirate, becoming a buccaneer?

With a hook on your arm and a patch on your eye and a big gold ring in your ear?


A hook on your arm and a patch on your eye and a scar where you just lost your ear?”







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