Wherein these pirates hoisted rum to their shoulders and brought it ashore, aiming on a trade for slaves.

Fashionable Piratical Fancy

What elements compose the pirate’s excessive charm? Principally, sea breeze, secret islands, anti-government entrepeneurialism, rich rewards for foolhardy aggression, unorthodox self-decoration, and plenty of rum. Now, what of the cheap rusting cutlasses, poor diet, tropical diseases, and intermittent work, to say nothing of the bare fact of being stuck in a cramped and filthy hull with seamen too boorish for the navy. What about the poor business proposition of risking life and limb for each round of revenue?

How have these details of piratical life been forgot? Wasn’t, in fact, nearly every regular pirate sentenced to that life by ostracism, judgment, and the antiquated laws of monarchic theocracies—if not forced into the work outright? Didn’t Blackbeard, among others, perfect the trade by leveraging notoriety against low risk and well researched highwaymanry? And, in this way, weren’t the smarter pirates already employed as performers, of an antiquated variety, who take a cut of the fat by power of fear? The pirate is, then, the mirror image of entertainment today. Rather than striking feelings that please in exchange for consensual payment from general audiences, they inspired fear in a very well selected audience and then took payment against their victim’s will.

Yet it is not by hoary scholasticism or even thoughtful reflection that the pirate remains everpresent today. Nay, those black flags, those peg legs, those rascals with no respect for the law appear as stock characters and as stock images. Pirates are icons, refracting the familiar geist of hustle and grind to the stout and tarnished dignity of a sailor gone rogue.

Perhaps, one might bother to push the case, today’s fascination with pirates, or the decline in this interest, says something about our culture now. Like the ninja, cowboy, or rockstar, the pirate represents the up-to-date and exciting. While, certainly, the knight, baroness, and shepherd—who have been honored in other moments—offer at least as much in beauty, variety, and extensibility of theme, it seems that somehow the perspective they offer on life is somehow less pertinent now than in other era-places. Do the contemporary icons reflect the contemporary moment? To consider this question is, sadly, to accept the present vapid meaning of the pirate as hustler rather than admit it was a story of force, desperation, and hopelessness.

The pirate, as it is used today, is an icon celebrating impression over meaning. It caters to shallow understanding, repeating exactly the mildest associations, and offering neither purchase on nor interest in the tumultuous realities they represent. It is not really a pirate or pirate flag that one wears abreast on neat cardigans or silkscreened V-neck t-shirts; it is the most infantile and ignorant connotations of piracy.

The pirate’s laugh, children’s movie, or cutesy brand-ad seduce us into nostalgia for our own vague impressions of what little we know of piracy from movies, games, and Disney. The ignorance, in turn, is the fashion.

Here we get to the heart of the matter. There exist today a wide set of icons dotting the surface of fashion items. Birds, skulls, deer, owls, foxes, and hearts appear so regularly, it would seem as if such simple concepts were somehow selected for by the current state of reprographics.

And there is something to this determinist delusion—an icon does have the advantage in today’s system of idea-law: it need not be rendered in a single style that could be called a copy, yet it carries no inconveniently too-specific meaning to provoke discord. A thousand variations present themselves to the artist for pirates, we imagine easily pirates eating Thanksgiving, undead pirates, pirates in love, pirates in space, and easily much more. Such icons provide a connotation of stylized membership to those who have really quite little in common. Such is fashion.

For a fun and authentic drink the pirates called bombo, try mixing low quality rum with sugar, nutmeg, and water!