Issue 2.1: Pirates' Creed, Part 1
Game & Word: Volume 2, Issue 1
Game & Word: Volume 2, Issue 1
“Pirates’ Creed, Part 1”
Summary: Today, we’ll describe the challenges of accurately portraying historical events in video games, examine the difficulties unique to properly interpreting pirate history, and conduct a high-level historical survey of the Golden Age of Piracy. In doing so, we’ll lay the foundation to examine the history of pirates as portrayed in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag in next week’s issue.
NOTE: I got the “too long for email” notice again, so Gmail users, you might see a truncated version of this message. If this happens to you, just click the “View entire message” link next to where it says “[Message clipped]” to read the rest.
Table of Contents (Vol. 2, Issue 1: Monday, Jan. 31, 2022)
Feature: “Pirates’ Creed, Part 1”
Food for Talk: Discussion Prompts
Game & Word-of-Mouth
Feature: Pirates’ Creed, Part 1
Arrr, shiver me Timbers, ye scurvy scallywags! Today, we'll be sailing to ye olde seas of yore when pirates ruled the waves. Are ye ready? Then let us hop in our Time Machine...
...Psych! Wait, were you expecting an actual Time Machine?! Come on, get real. Time travel is impossible. Everyone knows that!
But don't despair; there IS a way to travel to the past—through the power of history!
Oh, what's that? Is getting a history degree too much work? Well, have no fear—that's what historical and biographical media is for. Think of movies like Gladiator or shows like Downton Abbey. Every time we turn on a Ken Burns documentary, read an Eric Larson novel, watch a BBC period piece, or play Civilization VI, we travel to the past. That's the power of history and imagination working together!
Sure, such works don't actually take us to the past; they conjure up a series of images with people, places, and things that LOOK like the past. But your brain doesn't know the difference! You're actually there, as far as your subconscious is concerned.
And that's just from observing the story! What if you actually interacted with the reconstructed past on your TV screen? For this reason, video games' interactivity makes them potentially unparalleled teaching tools for frustrated high school history teachers everywhere. Just as anyone who played The Oregon Trail in middle school. Games can bring the past to life like no medium could do before.
...if the game accurately represents the past, that is.
Hollywood History Enters the Holodeck
If you're a historian or take an interest in history, you're already aware of the many factual "liberties" Hollywood takes with the historical record. A very naughty storyteller once said, "never let facts get in the way of a good story." And filmmakers have ran with that ever since—to every historian's dismay and anguish.
I agree with my historian friends that Hollywood often takes this way too far. At the same time, I think it's reasonable to grant filmmakers license to bend the truth to some extent; otherwise, filmmakers may not be able to adapt a detailed and nuanced historical narrative into a 90-minute story that a mass audience will want to sit through.1
The same temptation exists with video games. But game designers take additional, and different, historical liberties than filmmakers do. These mainly revolve around gameplay over the story—though games can, and often do, also play loose with the narrative.
Let's look at the first-person shooter (FPS) genre.
Have you ever noticed how FPS games' single-player campaigns make the player character a one-person army, capable of defeating entire armies of zombies, mechs, or immortal hell demons all by themselves?2
This is even the case for games with historical settings—like World War II, the preferred FPS historical setting.3 In any given WW2 FPS, the player character mows down the entire Wehrmacht (including tanks) and shoots the whole Luftwaffe out of the sky, with absolutely no backup or support4 (no wonder the US Army leans so heavily on FPS games for recruiting!).
But why is that? Because a more realistic depiction of combat—getting a "game over" after getting shot once, ~2.5 seconds after setting foot on the beaches of Normandy—wouldn't make for an enjoyable game!
And so, game designers often have to play a little loose with history to make a playable (much less marketable) game. Being academics, historians get as annoyed at this as they do when WW2 filmmakers fumble the facts.
But if such a video game gets people who otherwise sleep through history class to actually take an interest in history, is it worth the cost of essentially lying about the past? In this new era of fake news and alternative facts, the ramifications are worth considering.
I think it's reasonable to sacrifice some accuracy to bring the past alive in a way that connects with people—especially when you consider that not even "proper" (i.e., academic) history can ever be 100% accurate.
I don't think game designers should compromise accuracy so much that the story stops being history and starts being fantasy. But they certainly bend it enough for their game to serve as an entry point for that particular period—afterward, the player can conduct her own further inquiries and paint a more accurate picture in her head.
But I digress. Let's put a pin on this for later and start talking about pirates (finally!).
The Greatest Pirate Booty: The Truth About Pirate Booty
As a historical subject, the Golden Age of Piracy (the Caribbean, c. 1650-1720 CE; the era that most people think of when they hear "pirate") is among the harder ones to study, for two reasons:
Reliable, primary sources on the lives of the pirates (beyond the places they sailed to and ships they plundered) are exceedingly rare;
The popular image of pirates has always intertwined itself with the facts, and this entanglement has only tightened with time.
Let's examine both of these factors.
Regarding the first reason, it's not that primary sources are scarce from the period at large. The early modern era is not like classical antiquity, from which a minuscule fraction of a fraction of the era's writings survive, and we need to lean on archaeological and anthropological evidence to fill in the gaps. By the 17th Century, not only had writing been a thing for millennia, but the era's dominant institutions—the crown, the church, and the newfangled "corporation"5—were meticulous record-keepers. On top of all that, the printing press had been invented 200 years earlier, birthing a nascent mass media that was already revolutionizing the flow of information by the time the pirates came along.
The problem is that very few pirates' records exist, especially ones that date before their pirating years.
Although society was already trending towards mass literacy, mass suffrage, and greater visibility of the masses, those processes were still centuries away from fruition (and arguably still haven't run their course). Like all of history before, most extant biographical records from the 17th Century concern the "highborn": those from the upper classes. And with the (possibly only) exceptions of Stede Bonnett and Henry Avery, pirates were decidedly NOT "highborn."
As a result, we know practically nothing of individual pirates—even the famous ones like Blackbeard, Henry Avery, and Calico Jack—before they started their pirate careers. It's almost as if they'd never even existed before they first commandeered a sloop and started terrorizing treasure fleets!
Blackbeard's a prime example. As enduring as his legacy is, we know literally nothing about the notorious pirate's early life. We're not even entirely sure of his real name: Edward Teach in some sources, Edward Thatch in others. He first appears in the historical record in 1714 at the earliest, only giving us a glimpse at the last four years of his life. And he's hardly exceptional in this manner. When it comes to pirates, almost all contemporary sources concern their pirating careers, and little else.
And even these existing sources present challenges of their own: the pirates themselves kept minimal records.6 Most contemporary sources consist of military records, court transcripts, or secondhand accounts of the pirates' exploits—most likely heard in a tavern or from the mouth of a ballad monger. You can probably see why this presents a challenge for historians.
This brings us to the second reason. Like today, the 17th-Century public imbued the pirates with a romantic, almost mystical aura. Unless you were lucky enough to be born into the noble class, life in the 1600s was little more than endless and backbreaking toil to ward off the ever-present specter of starvation. Despotic monarchs and corrupt popes wielded absolute power. Social mobility was practically non-existent.
In this social context, pirates held an everyman, strongly populist appeal in the public's hearts and minds. Pirates shook off the yoke of "respectable" society, charted their own paths in life, and thumbed their noses at the powers that be—all things ordinary people could never dream of. Pirates provided the downtrodden masses with the vicarious thrill of leaving behind their miserable lives and their miserable homes in search of faraway lands and exotic riches. All while throwing up, on their behalf, a gigantic middle finger to the social order that weighed so heavily on the masses.
Just take a look at the following broadside ballad, an ode to pirate legend Henry Avery,7 sung in taverns and town squares throughout England and her colonies while the rogue swashbuckler was busy being a massive thorn in the Crown’s side:
(For maximum effect, play this song in the background)
Come all you brave Boyes whose Courage is Bold
Will you venture with me and I’le glut you with Gold
Make hast into Coruña a Ship you will finde
Now called the Fancy which will pleasure yr minds
Then away from this Frigid and Temporate Zone
To One that’s more Torrid you’l hear I am gone.
With 150 Brave Sparks of this Age
And fully resolved their foes to Engage
Those Northern parts are not Thrifty for me
I’le raise the Antorticke which some Men shall see
I am not afraid to let the World know
That to the South Seas & at Persia w’eel go
Our Names shall be Blazon’d and spread thrô the Sky
And many a Place I hope to Descry.
Where ever one Englishman never was seen
Nor any proud Dutchman Can say he has been.
Noe Quarters to give no Quarters to Take
Wee save nothing living alas its too Late
For wee are all sworne by ye Bread & Wine
Most Serious wee are as any Divine
Much as modern historians lament how Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean distort the public's view of piracy, I can't imagine they'd be much happier had they lived back in the Golden Age itself.
Examining court transcripts and military/legal records—the other main font of primary evidence—presents its own historiographical pitfalls. These records highlighted the brutality inflicted by pirates upon the unfortunate vessels and ports they raided and the crews they took captive. Since this newsletter is both safe for work and safe for life, I won't recount the details here. But take my word for it—they are grisly, to put it lightly.
Like when examining the broadside ballad mongers, the budding historian must take care when poring through these records.
Not because these accounts are made up, no. Some pirates undisputably acted barbarously towards people who didn't do anything besides being at the wrong place, at the wrong time. All kinds of gruesome torture, mutilation, psychological torment, and agonizing death awaited the hapless merchant crew unfortunate enough to sail within sight of a pirate lookout's spyglass. And the traumatized survivors had little reason to lie about their ordeals in their letters and testimonies.
But here's the thing—advancing tales of brutality did little to harm the pirates. In fact, they welcomed it! But how would (essentially) talking smack about pirates be in their best interest, you ask? Well, because it helped them develop reputations for ruthlessness and savagery.
The more fearsome a pirate captain's reputation, the likelier their victims would surrender without a fight. This made it easier for pirate captains to get their booty without risking their crews' lives or damaging/sinking a ship they could've instead captured and used.8
At the same time, it was also in the colonial authorities' interests to paint the pirates as mouth-frothing barbarians. This helped secure convictions for pirates they eventually captured and tried. Graphic, gruesome victim testimonies read aloud in public show trials, followed by equally public show executions, increased popular support for cracking down on the pirates while diminishing their populist appeal, killing two birds with one stone.
Last but certainly not least, pamphleteers and newsletter publishers had substantial monetary incentives to cover pirate exploits and criminal proceedings as luridly as possible. The more graphic and gruesome the details they printed, the more newsletters they sold. Sensationalism was as lucrative for the media then as it is today. The more things change, the more they really do stay the same.
That's not to say all these accounts are entirely unreliable—indeed, historians are trained to construct feasibly accurate narratives out of difficult sources. But considering how little primary evidence survives from the era, and the complexities inherent to the sources we can access, historians may never be able to fully disentangle pirate truth from pirate legend.
Partly because of these limitations, plenty of pirate myths abound in the public's imagination.9 But despite this, the popular image of pirates as swashbuckling rogues is closer to the agreed-upon historical reconstruction of the Golden Age of Piracy than you might imagine. This is because "pirate fiction" has been a part of "pirate history" since the Golden Age itself, and will probably always remain so.
This gives pirate historians and authors alike a wide enough berth narrative berth to project their own beliefs and values onto their depictions of Golden Age piracy. Indeed, an author's treatment of pirates can reveal plenty about her, and how sympathetically the writer portrays these ragtag bands of scurvy bilge rats speaks volumes about her worldview.
Some writers depict the pirates as sadistic, ruthless, and bloodthirsty hooligans. In this view, pirates were little more than glorified sea bandits that terrorized hapless coastal communities and took the lives and livelihoods of countless innocent people until law and order finally—and rightfully—stamped them out.
Others, meanwhile, see them in a similar vein as Robin Hood and his Merry Men. According to these authors, pirates were the downtrodden members of a long-suffering underclass who justifiably rebelled against their oppressors. They were honorable thieves10 who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Furthermore, they were revolutionary societal innovators who modeled a more equitable and fair social structure onboard their vessels. In this view, Golden Age pirates were branded as "outlaws" simply because they threatened an unjust and tyrannical status quo (whether in history or in fiction, they're hardly unique in this manner).
I think there's truth in both these interpretations, although on their own, they're incomplete. They each need the other to tell the whole story.
As I mentioned earlier, many pirates were indeed quite brutal in their treatment of captives, rivals, and civilians. While some captains took great pains to treat their prisoners relatively decently, others delighted in torturing, murdering, and brutalizing the unarmed civilians—even women and children—they encountered. Which type of captain you'd meet during a pirate encounter was a roll of the dice. Seeing a strange ship, flying the black flag, zeroing in on you must have struck imaginable terror into the hearts of many an unfortunate merchant crewman.11 For excellent reasons, clearly!
At the same time, focusing exclusively on their cruelty and dismissing them as mere criminals ignores the broader context that enabled a "Golden Age" of piracy to begin with. Besides, taking the accounts of pirate cruelty at face value presents its own historiographical challenges, which we've already touched on.
So, what was this "broader context"?
Even by the era's standards, conditions aboard merchant and naval vessels were almost unfathomably miserable. Sailors were often "impressed" (forced) into service, where they'd spend months or even years crammed into claustrophobic quarters about as big as a broom closet (and that's if they had their own, separate quarters at all). They'd perform backbreaking labor, all day long, day after day, for meager (if any) pay. Their food was often moldy, rotten, and infested with weevils and maggots. Stores of freshwater quickly turned cloudy, mushy, and thoroughly unsafe to drink.
They endured all this under the iron fists of despotic, megalomaniacal captains who'd flog and whip them—sometimes to death—over the most trivial and petty infractions. And unlike in modern times, there was next to no legal recourse they could take against an abusive captain—even if they somehow knew how to sue and were able to do it, civilian and admiralty magistrates alike almost always sided with those in authority.
As if suffering such an undignified life wasn't bad enough, sailors' lives were also short. Most seamen died far from home, whether by drowning, in combat, or from nasty tropical diseases—or, as mentioned, by their despotic captain's whip. Severe physical disability, lifelong poverty, and madness often afflicted the "lucky" few who did survive their naval careers—and neither condition was a cakewalk to live with during the 1600s and 1700s.
Now, contrast all of this with "the pirates' life."
Pirates shared the same cramped quarters, rotting food, and squalid conditions as civilian crews, and risked dying the same miserable deaths, with the addition of one more: the hangman's noose. Indeed, those pirates lucky enough to survive shipwreck or defeat in combat were often captured, tried, and hanged. The authorities would then stuff their corpses into gibbets and hang them up along the waterfront, leaving them there to rot for weeks or months to warn other would-be pirates.
However, pirates ran their ships very differently from the navy and merchant marine. They made decisions by consensus, voted their captains in and out, and divided their plunder equally amongst each other—just one good haul could net a pirate swabbie several times more than a "legitimate" sailor might make in a lifetime. Pirate crews were far more pleasant places to live than civilian vessels despite all the perils.
No wonder so many sailors joined the pirates' ranks as soon as they had the option! The same goes for the MANY escaped slaves and free Blacks who formed 20-30% of your average pirate crew. For them, it wasn't even a comparison—pirates of African descent enjoyed freedom, rights, and basic dignity that "polite" society would continue denying them and their descendants for centuries afterward.12
In fact, it's not hard to see the Golden Age pirates as the first true democracies or as prototypical labor unions. Fearsome figures like Blackbeard and Calico Jack ran their ships equitably, nearly a century before the United States declared independence and two centuries before the rise of socialist thought! They also provided for crew members who suffered disabling wounds, in an early form of worker's comp—long before OSHA was a thing. And in addition to treating Black crew members equally, female pirates were not unheard of, and some crews even tolerated same-sex relationships.
To see what I mean, take a look at Bartholemew “Black Bart” Roberts’ articles of piracy (or "pirate code"13), which all his crewmen signed upon induction, and which was fairly typical of his contemporaries (NOTE: slightly abridged for space and clarity):
I. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.
II. Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because, (over and above their proper share) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment.
III. No person to game at cards or dice for money.
IV. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o'clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck.
V. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.
VI. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.
VII. To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.
VIII. No striking one another on board, but every man's quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol.14
IX. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.
X. The Captain and Quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize: the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and quarter.15
XI. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.
Pretty equitable and remarkably well-organized for such a rough and rowdy bunch, isn’t it? By the way, you can read the above code—and a handful more like it—in Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 tome, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, a key primary source for the study of Golden Age piracy.
Of course, just like before, merely painting pirates as misunderstood, maritime Robin Hoods who pioneered democracy and socialism risks painting an excessively rosy picture of Golden Age pirates and their escapades. And popular culture has already romanticized pirates enough as it is. The pirates' experiments in radical equality don't erase the pain, torment, and death they inflicted on those who hadn't signed the pirate articles. Nevertheless, when managing their crews themselves, the swashbuckling sea dogs of old were decidedly ahead of their time.
But here's the thing—both the pirates' cruelty and their equitable practices are not mutually exclusive. They can both be true at the same time. People are complicated, which means history is complicated. It's a shame we live in a society that seems to have forgotten what nuance is, or how to hold more than one simultaneous thought in one's head.
Pity, because one cannot truly understand the Golden Age of Piracy without accepting and accounting for both competing narratives as two parts of a larger story: pirates were cruel, opportunistic, and bloodthirsty delinquents with a penchant for savagery, AND they were oppressed everymen with limited options, who stood up for their humanity and practiced principles of democracy and equity that "civilized" society wouldn't begin adopting for at least another hundred years.
The Pyrate’s Game
So, let's bring this all back to pirate video games (as in, video games about pirates—NOT pirated video games).
We've already established that no game will be 100% historically accurate. But just like with movies, there are degrees of accuracy vs. inaccuracy, and you can place games all over that spectrum. When we take into account everything we've just examined about pirate history, we can come up with a good benchmark for reasonably evaluating a pirate game's historical veracity:
A pirate game (or any pirate media) that captures the "brutal outlaw/populist radical" duality at the heart of Golden Age pirate history—the "pirate paradox," if you will—can be reasonably described as "historically accurate."
And of the many pirate games in existence, the most historically accurate may well be Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. If you're a gamer, this probably comes as no surprise, considering that Assassin's Creed is a series known for historical accuracy.
Next week, we'll build on the historical overview we went over and see how well this pirate game actually holds up to pirate history.
Food for Talk: Discussion Prompts
While you wait for the next issue, I invite you to mull over the following discussion prompts. Please reply to this email with your answers, or post them in the comments—I'd love to hear your thoughts!
What comes to mind when you think of pirates? How similar or different is your concept of pirates to the historical picture we’ve painted here?
What most surprised you about what we’ve learned about pirates today?
How can video games help promote interest in history? What pitfalls should game designers avoid when creating games based on historical events or people?
What’s your favorite historically-based video game? What about it do you like? Do you think it’s an accurate portrayal of the period it’s based on?
Has a video game ever inspired you to look into a historical era, or awakened an interest in history more generally? If so, which game, and for what reasons?
Despite the dearth of primary evidence relating to Golden Age piracy, there’s a veritable treasure trove of secondary evidence, both contemporary to the pirates and present-day, to help you navigate the treacherous waters between pirate fact and pirate fiction.
A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson — perhaps the most authoritative and important primary source for anyone studying pirate history. While the language is a bit archaic, and the boundaries between fact and fantasy can get burry in places, this is nevertheless an important volume constructed from letters, records, court transcripts, and interviews with former pirates and their hunters alike. It’s an indispensable anchor point for diving into the pirate era. [NOTE: Despite what the link says, the book was NOT written by Daniel Defoe; that speculative claim has long been thoroughly debunked]
The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard — a more recent reading and interpretation that emphasizes the pirates’ democratic ideals and practices, culminating in the formation of the free-wheeling “pirate republic” on the island of New Providence (present-day Bahamas).
Enemy of all Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson — a riveting account of how the career of Henry Avery—perhaps the most successful pirate of all time, having not only evaded the gallows and kept his ill-gotten gains—not only kick-started the Golden Age of Piracy, but irrevocably influenced the course of world history and shaped the world we live in today.
Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly — this is an older volume, and as such, parts of it have become dated following advances in historical scholarship after publication, this book nevertheless helps draw helpful distinctions between pirate myth and pirate truth, and illustrates how in many cases, the truth of Golden Age piracy can be even more compelling than the Hollywoodized image we’re all familiar with.
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Of course, the degree to which it's necessary to take liberties with historical fact in the service of the narrative is a matter of debate. Some historians would counter that the actual historical events are almost always more fascinating than any fiction the filmmaker could ever dream up. We could debate this all day, but let's not do that. At least not right now.
Step aside, Rambo! You've got nothing on a teenage gamer armed with a controller, a liter of Mountain Dew, and a whole lot of time (and digitized targets) to kill!
And yes, WW2 games are as popular to gamers as WW2 movies are to film watchers. In fact, the most well-known FPS franchise globally, Call of Duty, was initially set during WW2!
The AIs in FPS’s are infamously useless, as long as they're on your side.
Especially the very first "modern" corporation: the nascent British East India Company, chartered in 1600 CE.
Which makes sense—if you're earning a living committing capital offenses, why would you leave written evidence of your crimes?
This is also why, to this day, we've yet to find a single verified pirate treasure map—if you buried a bunch of gold, would you write down where to find it, and risk others finding your loot?
Henry Avery, sometimes spelled “Every,” was perhaps the most successful Golden Age pirate, as he was the first (and probably only) one to both survive his pirate career and keep his ill-gained riches.
Blackbeard—arguably the most notorious Golden Age pirate, with by far the most fearsome reputation among his contemporaries—may not have even killed a single person until his riveting last stand.
For instance, there have only been two confirmed instances of pirates burying treasure or making someone walk the plank, and no pirate treasure map has yet been confirmed to exist.
Well, as much as a thief can have honor, in any case.
And yes, back then, merchant and naval crews were almost exclusively male.
However, this wasn't universal amongst pirate crews. Some pirate captains welcomed Black sailors and afforded them the same treatment as the White sailors under their command. Others enthusiastically participated in the slave trade (or at least saw no problem with doing so), treating enslaved peoples from plundered slave ships no differently than a haul of spices or silver—as cargo to loot and trade. And still others, paradoxically enough, did both at the same time.
Racism and anti-Black prejudice were deeply entrenched in 17th-Century Western society, including on pirate sloops. While pirates as a whole were remarkably tolerant for their time, individual buccaneers were not always above holding such views.
Removed for space, but if you’re curious, the rest of the article reads as follows:
The quartermaster of the ship, when the parties will not come to any reconciliation, accompanies them on shore with what assistance he thinks proper, and turns the disputant back to back, at so many paces distance; at the word of command, they turn and fire immediately (or else the piece is knocked out of their hands). If both miss, they come to their cutlasses, and then he is declared the victor who draws the first blood.
The rest of the crew received a single share. Now, compare the pirate captain’s 1.5 shares of treasure to the at least 600:1 pay gap between merchant captains and their crewmen! [EDIT: A previous version of this post put the ratio at 20:1; clearly, I undershot it quite a bit!]