P is for PIRATE
Where there is a sea there are pirates - Greek Proverb
Let's jump on board, and cut them to pieces - Blackbeard
PIRACY is one of our most enduring activities. First came the boat, and piracy quickly followed. It spread, as we did, across the seven seas, onto dry land, into the skies and finally into cyberspace where it is today practised by nine year olds.
Pirate was one of the first professions we learnt about from the alphabet chart on our bedroom wall. A was for Apple (not accountant), B was for Ball (certainly not banker), but P was for Pirate, the profession of parrots and pearls. And why not? No set bath times, non-stop adventure on the high seas, rubies and emeralds, cutlasses and daggers, eye patches and gold earrings, skull and bones, a bevy of mermaids and everyone was your matey or me hearties.
Johnny Depp and the romantic dandy, Captain Sparrow, partly-modelled on the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards (if you're going to kick authority in the teeth, you might as well use two feet) made these old salty seadogs even more likeable.
Apart from filling Hollywood treasure chests with gold pieces, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise did for piracy and pirates what Jurassic Park did for dinosaurs. Plastic diplodocuses named Dino and skull and cross bones T-shirts clutter the dreams and wardrobes of children in most developed countries.
In reality in the 18th century, the real Captain Sparrows created a massive global financial crisis. Between 1718 and 1722, they captured and plundered more than 2,500 vessels on Atlantic trade routes. The most successful pirate of this time, Welshman Bartholomew Roberts captured and plundered more than 450 vessels.
According to American preacher Cotton Mather, "all Nations agree to treat [pirates] as the Common Enemies of Mankind, and to extirpate (obliterate) them out of the world".
Today there is a similar anti-pirate rant: Film and music piracy allegedly costs the U.S. economy between $200 and $250 billion per year (including, of course, illegal downloads of Pirates of Caribbean and Captain Phillips) and is responsible for the loss of 750,000 American jobs.
Reality is far more satisfying than the boldest Disney fantasy. In the late 17th century there existed a pirate and adventurer that had more feathers in his cap than those worn by 100 sparrows.
His name was William Dampier. Dampier, an Englishman, was a pirate, adventurer, cartographer, best-selling writer, explorer, linguist and naturalist. Where to start with this remarkable and curious man?
Dampier wrote his first and best selling travel book, A New Voyage Round the World, in 1697. His books inspired what is widely acknowledged as the first novel, Robinson Crusoe written by Daniel Defoe 20 years later. Jonathan Swift used Dampier’s writing to construct Gulliver’s Travels in which Gulliver refers affectionately to his Cousin Dampier.
Almost 150 years after Dampier’s death Charles Darwin boarded The Beagle with a chest full of Dampier’s books which included detailed descriptions of the Galapagos Islands.
Dampier was the first person to circumnavigate the world three times and documented the winds and currents of the world’s oceans and the exotic animals and peoples he encountered. He was the first Englishman to discover New Holland (Australia); 80 years before Captain James Cook set sail using Dampier’s brilliant charts.
In one breath he describes a flock of flamingos:
like a brick wall, their feathers being the colour of new red brick;
and in the next breath, the delicacy of eating flamingo tongue:
there is a large knob of fat at the root which is an excellent bit, a dish of flamingos’ tongues being fit for a prince’s table.
He wrote the first account in English about the effects of a medicinal herb called ganga or bang, today known as marijuana, which could stupefy the brains of any person that drinks thereof. He notes its effects varied according to the constitution of the person. It made some people sleepy, some cheerful, putting them into a laughing fit, but others is made mad.
Dampier introduced more than 1000 words into the English language including chopsticks, barbecue, breadfruit, cashew, avocado, sub-species, sea lion and sea breeze. He is cited more than 80 times in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Dampier’s achievements received little recognition. In the eyes of establishment he was a man stained; a pirate ruffian that should have been hung.
But in the eyes of navigators and explorers, scientists, naturalists and writers; Dampier was simply a man of genius.
A Pirate of Exquisite Mind (The Life of William Dampier) Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer written by Diana and Michael Preston
Special thanks: Ben Trewhella