The pirates of the Golden Age were the James Deans of the high seas, living fast and dying young. Their adventures shaped the pirate mythology that still lives on today, fascinating people with tales of excitement, danger and romance.
A single step into the Real Pirates! exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and one is swept away to another time and place, where secrets of the real Whydah pirate ship is revealed in stunning detail.
From Captain Hook to Long John Silver, pirates have been portrayed as scoundrels and saviors by Hollywood, fueling the public’s interest in their vagabond lifestyle. Behind our modern-day keyboards and steering wheels, it’s easy to imagine life seemingly without rules, but David Temple, in-house curator for Real Pirates!, says in between the swashbuckling and stealing, pirates were just like us.
As a matter of fact, going “on the account” meant basics like healthcare and a consistent wage were guaranteed.
“Life during this time was cruel, short and unfair, but the pirate ship subculture was democratic, fair in the distribution of wealth and justice and they had health care of a sort,” Temple says.
Admittedly, it may be difficult to imagine Blackbeard fiddling in his coat pockets for an insurance card, but the truth of the matter is, as long as a pirate lived honorably aboard his ship, life was golden. And yes, there were also the perks that so many have glamorized over the centuries too.
“The lifestyle was dangerous, they thumbed their nose at social conventions and mores, they were flashy dressers and as the pirate Stede Bonnet said, lead a happy life but a short one. We have a similar fascination with the bad boy outlaw types, rappers and rappettes,” Temple says.
Movie makers aren’t alone in cultivating our interest in pirate culture. Before the Lumiere brothers ever screened their first motion picture, writers and artists recorded tales from the seas, piquing curiosity about all things pirate. But even within their own brotherhood, there was great admiration in keeping the pirate nation alive.
“The literary accounts since the Golden Age have helped with the mythology, but these people were idolized during their times as well,” Temple says. “It is likely that many of their contemporaries thought they were "cool" and what defines that is always difficult to pin down.”
There’s romanticism in the Golden Age of piracy, especially when compared to the treachery of modern day pirates. Temple says there’s no interest in exploring the similarities of tactics employed by pirates then and now-although the same practice of quickly and stealthily sidling up to a ship is common in contemporary waters as it was in the past.
It’s true, power and the pursuit of gold motivated pirates to scour the seas for new conquests, but there was also some mercy along the way. Slaves on land were free on the seas and justice was a commodity available to all. Throw in exhilarating adventures and trips to exotic lands and it’s easy to understand why there’s pride in the pirate way.
Even Mark Twain entertained thoughts of piracy, as he wrote in Life on the Mississippi, “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”
Embrace your inner pirate through Feb. 6, 2011 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.