Shiver me timbers! History professor debunks myths about pirates at UCSD’s Geisel Library

UCSD History Professor Mark G. Hanna
UCSD History Professor Mark G. Hanna

By Will Bowen

“The image of pirates presented by writers, such as Robert Lewis Stevenson and Daniel Defoe, is false,” claims Stanley Wahlens, UCSD Extension Division advisor and pirate aficionado. “Pirates like William Kidd were actually agents of the British government with a license to plunder Spanish ships.” Wahlens, along with about 50 other individuals, mostly UCSD staff and faculty, came to listen to a scholarly and intriguing lecture by UCSD history professor Mark G. Hanna titled, “A Nest of Pirates: Piracy and the Formalization of the First British Empire,” held on Oct. 20 in the Seuss Room at the Geisel Library on campus.

The lecture was given in connection with the exhibit, “Unburying Treasure: Pyrates at Geisel,” which is located on the main floor of the library.

Marlayna Christensen, Outreach Librarian at Geisel, who helped curate the exhibit with Hanna said, “The exhibit features songbooks, videos, records, books and a rogues gallery of different pirates. It reveals everything you might want to know about pirate lifestyle and weaponry. It will be up through January 2012.”

Hanna, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University, with a dissertation on the impact of pirates on Newport and Charlestown, Rhode Island from 1670-1730, said he was never particularly interested in pirates growing up and never planned to make the study of pirates his lifelong avocation.

His original interest was fatherhood in America, he explained, but as he was giving a talk on an American father named William Harris, who had been captured by pirates, he noticed the audience was most fascinated and had the most questions about the part of his paper on pirates. These questions led him to go back and redo his search of the records on pirates.

According to Hanna, fictional writers and Hollywood have given us a misleading picture of pirates as swashbuckling social outcasts, outlaws, and enemies of mankind who remained that way their entire lives. “Many pirates eventually settled down to respectable lives,” he said. “And pirates were very different in different time periods. The Johnny Depp portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow would only be valid for the very short time period of 1713 to 1730.”

Hanna found that many communities on the periphery of the English Empire supported pirates because pirates brought in money from the business of repairing and refitting their ships, and other resources, like slaves. English pirates captured the African slaves incarcerated on Spanish vessels destined for the Caribbean, and who were eventually brought to New England.

Pirate James Brown married the daughter of a deputy governor and was selected for political office in New England, while pirate Thomas Cromwell was welcomed by John Winter the governor of Boston as a “God’s Send.” Captain Henry Morgan, whose image is depicted on Morgan Rum bottles, was given permission to plunder the Spanish colonies and was eventually knighted. He later bought a plantation in Jamaica and ended up executing other pirates!

Some communities, like the Quakers in eastern Delaware, tolerated and protected pirates from prosecution because the Red Sea pirates attacked ships owned by Muslims — a religion the Quakers thought was a product of the Antichrist. The pirates who walked freely in their midst were also a guarantee against further religious persecution by the British Crown.

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