National Geographic News
A photo of Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in the movie "The Pirates of the Caribbean"

The Hollywood stereotypes of pirates, like Johnny Depp (at left) in Pirates of the Caribbean, don't reflect the rich history of who these outlaws really were, says author Marcus Rediker.

Photograph by Rex Features via AP

Simon Worrall

for National Geographic

Published August 31, 2014

We're used to thinking that big ideas are dreamed up on land by philosophers and writers anchored to their desks.

In his new book, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail, Marcus Rediker, distinguished professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh, turns that assumption upside down, showing that many of the ideas that shaped the modern world were, in fact, born on the ocean waves among sailors, pirates, and slaves.

Here he explains how Johnny Depp got it wrong, why Horatio Nelson can be regarded as a "maritime criminal," and how a motley crew in Boston inspired Samuel Adams to coin one of the defining phrases of the Declaration of Independence.

You say that we've been looking at history "through the wrong end of the spyglass." What do you mean by that?

I mean that we have concentrated on the glories of the great national heroes and neglected the people whose labor made them possible. If we want to understand how the world was connected, how the continents became part of the planet in an interactive way, we must understand the ships and the sailors who made those links.

Concentrating on Captain Cook and Nelson can get us only so far. We need to understand the ordinary people who made history at sea. Hugely important modern ideas about race and class were born at sea. But we tend to think that history happens on land and regard the sea as a kind of historical void. This blinds us to important aspects of the world historical process. It's what I call the "terracentric" vision.

You call the European man-of-war a laboratory of radical social ideas.

Book Talk

Large northern European seagoing vessels, which emerge in the 16th and 17th centuries, become by the 18th century the most important technology in the world. They can be seen as a precursor of the factory, in the sense that they required large numbers of wage workers to come together and operate machinery to make the vessel go.

That's a work process that creates value, tremendous value, for the world economy. But when workers are organized to sail these ships for merchants, or kings and queens, their organized cooperation also led them to imagine new projects of their own.

They start to think about their own lives and cooperate for ends other than the ones they were brought together to serve. One of the best examples of this is in the origins of the term "to strike." Most people don't know that the strike originates at sea, in the port of London, in 1768, amidst a wage cut. So sailors went from ship to ship and took down the sails—which is called "to strike the sails."

You go so far as to suggest that the seeds of the American Revolution were sown not on land but at sea. How so?

One of the origins of the American Revolution lies among sailors and their resistance to impressment. The [British] Royal Navy was chronically undermanned; wages were poor, so the navy resorted to impressment in order to find labor.

Sailors, especially in North America and the West Indies, began fairly early in the 18th century to fight back against this practice. And by the 1760s the battles between sailors—in ports like Boston, New York, or Philadelphia—and the Royal Navy had reached a kind of fever pitch. They say they're fighting against tyranny, because ship captains were often tyrants, in the name of their liberty. That's a literal definition of liberty, because when sailors were on shore they were "on liberty."

Sailors essentially take direct action. They form mobs. They try to capture men back from the press-gang. Or seize the ship's boat, carry it to a public place, and set it on fire to dramatize their resistance.

So, sailors are providing an example of the way in which American colonists should all fight back on behalf of their liberty against tyranny. These sailors' riots then influence important figures like Sam Adams in Boston, who watches a motley crew battling the press-gang and articulates an idea which will become the basis of the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal.

A photo of the cover of the book
The book debunks the standard image of the pirate—a man with a patch over one eye, a hook for a hand, and a peg leg.
Photograph courtesy of Beacon Press

One of your favorite characters is an escaped slave called Caesar. Tell us about him.

Caesar represents a perfect example of the will to be free. One of the themes in this book is that even when placed in extremely oppressive circumstances, people will find creative ways to resist.

Caesar was an enslaved African. That's the only name we have for him. He first shows up in the historical record in 1759. He had been working as a slave on the waterfront and escaped by sea. He appears again in the record ten years later, where he has once again taken off. Apparently, he was recaptured the first time and probably sold by his owner. He ends up again working on the waterfront. He has the skills and knowledge of a sailor and he has connections. So, he manages to get away again.

And for a second time an owner runs an advertisement in the paper to try and track him down. This reveals a singular fact about Caesar: He had no legs. So here was a man, who was a runaway, who actually had no legs but still managed to use his intelligence and the will to be free to find a way to escape slavery twice.

Say the word "pirates," and most people think of Johnny Depp and Keith Richards hamming it up in Pirates of the Caribbean. It wasn't quite like that, was it?

[Laughs] The Hollywood stereotypes of pirates have been very successful. But they don't really recover the rich history of who these outlaws were. If you go back to the original sources, thousands of pages of court cases and depositions and newspaper articles, you find that there was a much more complex story to be told about the origins of the golden age of piracy, in the 18th century.

The traditional story is that pirates were brutes and criminals driven solely by greed. These things have an element of truth, as all stereotypes do. But what I found is that most pirates were just common sailors, many of whom had been brutalized in the merchant and naval ships of the day. So they started capturing vessels and setting up their own ships so they could live a better life, even if for a short while, because a pirate couldn't be expected to live very long.

What was fascinating to me was the extraordinarily different way in which they organized their ships. They were coming from utter autocracy, where the captain had complete power over the crew, even the power to whip someone to death.

But when the mutineers took over a ship, the first thing they did was to elect their own captain. They practiced democracy. They also divided up the loot, the booty, in an egalitarian way. Pirates even created a kind of social security system, to provide for their fellow pirates who were injured in battles.

So what I've attempted to do is take that standard stereotype of the pirate—a man with a patch over one eye, a hook for a hand, and a peg leg—and relate that back to the original conditions of the sailors' life.

A lot of people will be upset, particularly in Britain, to see Horatio Nelson, a captain adored by his crews, branded as a "maritime criminal."

[Sighs] I knew this would upset people. But I felt like it was a point that was useful. It's actually a quotation from Jamaica Kincaid, the novelist, who said that in her native Antigua, a lot of the streets are named for what she calls "maritime criminals" like Nelson.

What I wanted to show in quoting her is that those people we regard as heroes and those people we regard as criminals is relative to your point of view. In my book, the outlaws loom large. This is, in a sense, the maritime world turned upside down. I've not done research on Nelson, so I don't have anything specific to say about him. But insofar as he represents an older-fashioned kind of maritime history, I'm posing an alternative.

There's a new piracy problem today, in Somalia, which was the subject of another Hollywood movie, Captain Phillips. Are there parallels with the pirates you portray?

I try to understand the circumstances of sailors in the 18th century and the choices they made. I emphasize that they were trapped in an extremely violent system, and that their own violence as pirates was a response to that.

I think a similar approach would help us to understand piracy in Somalia. Piracy dates back to ancient Greece. Anytime vessels with lucrative cargo passed through areas of poor people who also had vessels, they frequently attack the larger ships and try to capture them.

What strikes me as important about Somalia is that many of the pirates come from destroyed fishing communities. European and Japanese fishing fleets had overfished the waters around Somalia and destroyed the livelihoods of a lot of the fishermen. So they turned to piracy in response.

In that sense, I think there are some similarities between the old piracy and the new. These are the responses of poor people, who don't have a lot of other choices. There are political and economic issues. And global inequality is certainly one of them.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at

Andrea La-Rosa
Andrea La-Rosa

I'm a huge fan of pirate (and nautical) history and lore, and am adding this book to my to-read list because it sounds like a fascinating bit of underrated history. However, as an equally huge fan of the POTC franchise, I think it's a real shame that neither the author nor the subject of this article seemed to have watched the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films very closely. In the films, the pirate crews were quite egalitarian, strictly democratic (or portrayed as villainous when they weren't) and very, very inventive. 

What's more, Captain Jack Sparrow's entire story arc in the films is that he became a "pirate" or outlaw because he freed a cargo ship full of slaves. Initially, he was employed into service for the East India Trading Company and was given command of a ship. However, after he set the slaves free, his employer had Jack branded as a pirate and his ship set aflame and sunk. Sparrow then struck a bargain with the Flying Dutchman's evil Davy Jones to resurrect the ship. Jones returned the ship to Jack in near perfect condition except for the permanently charred hull. This is why Sparrow renamed the ship the Black Pearl, and why Davy Jones' price was 100 human souls - the same number of people he freed, as an ironic twist. It's actually pretty cool and heroic and whatnot, and maybe shouldn't be so easily dismissed by fans of pirate history. ;)

Mitch Fatouros
Mitch Fatouros

Fascinating!  Last year, I worked on translating and republishing a book by Elizabeth Edmonds, a little known and forgotten British author on the History of the "Kelphts," the Greek revolutionary fighters before 1821.  "Klepht" comes from "Klephtis," which means "thief" (same root with the word "klept-omaniac").  Although the Klephts mainly fought on land, she had espoused the position that often the Greek rebels of the land would turn to fighters of the seas escaping Ottoman authority!  That sounds a lot like pirates!  Once at sea, their alliances changed often as they would transition from Ottoman, to aiding Russian or British forces and so on!

Edmonds espoused the position that the Greek fight for independence from the Ottomans had never ceased during 4 centuries of occupation because of these pirates, a theory that many historians do not consider.  Turns out she was right!

Another interesting fact was that the ship owners of the Aegean Islands, which were considered semi-autonomous, and their world known offspring like the Rallies in the UK used to name their ships after ancient Greek deities and figures like "Pericles" or "Athena," in an attempt to remind people of the ancient Athenean principles that were forgotten by then.  Suddenly, Edmonds seems more topical than I would have ever thought!

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

To "Breaking News" GO AWAY!! We do not want this trash here! Stop posting nonsense here.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

I have a lot of alarm bells ringing around this story! I've heard this sort of nonsense before! Once again, to cherry pick one or two features from history and hold those up - completely out of context - as evidence of those people being advanced in their thinking or forming the basis of modern society is not only inaccurate and untrue, but unbalanced and unfair!

Pirate communities WERE cold-blooded bands of cut-throats! They were composed of individuals who had turned away from the rules and laws of decent contemporary society to commit every crime they wished - theft, murder, rape - for personal greed. To say that they believed in 'equality' and 'liberty' is complete rubbish! Pirate societies welcomed every hand able to climb a mast, reef a sail, wield a cutlass - and assist with murder and rape. To glorify pirates is as twisted and unbalanced as those individuals who glorify the likes of Robin Hood, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger etc.

Discipline on ships HAD to be strict as the captain and officers were the only authority when they were at sea with no communication with home or hope of assistance with a problem crew. Today, the military, police forces, industry etc are still run the same way! What modern soldier, sailor or police officer has the power to refuse or even question an order from a superior? Do you Simon Worrall seriously advocate that the crew of a modern warship elect their captain? Or modern police officers elect their superiors? Refusing to obey orders, especially during action, is still treated with the utmost severity - and it HAS to be does it not? Otherwise we have anarchy!

Historical pirates WERE murderous brutes - in exactly the same way modern pirates still are! You are being quite ridiculous when you try to mitigate their crimes and way of life. Try approaching modern Somali or Caribbean drug-running pirates and see how welcoming they will be!  

And how on Earth can give serious attention to this individual Jamaica Kincaid who quite obviously has a very large personal ax to grind? Nelson was one of the maritime world's greatest heroes and most certainly Britain's greatest modern hero. That's why so many people and places are named after him. Anyone making even a cursory read through the life and achievements of Nelson will agree with that! Quite how you prefer to give credence instead to the views of this Jamaica Kincaid just about says it all for your idea of impartial and balanced writing! 

I'm surprised that NGS gives time to an author and a book which is so patently unbalanced, untrue and unfair. Not only are such biased and skewed facts an insult to those individuals featured, but they are an insult to those reading them! Come on NGS! You should have picked this one up surely?        

Pearl Duncan
Pearl Duncan

OMG, I can't wait to read this book.  Great review.

The problem is  -- in pop culture, in addition to the portrayal of the Johnny Depps in dramas like "Pirates of the Caribbean," there were the other pirates  –  the royal commissioned officers and gentlemen that Depp fought.  But these other pirates are overlooked and not viewed as the pirates they were.  In their time, they were called privateers, officers and merchants, legally sanctioned by their royal governments but they were nothing more than mere pirates.

This fact of history has been so overlooked, no one else other than the research I did to uncover the identity of the ship discovered underground at the World Trade Center in 2010 an 2011 has been able to identify this merchant cargo ship, her adventures and her owner.I wrote a book about that ship that has ideas very similar to those in Marcus Rediker’s book.  I can’t wait to read his book.Great job; I thought these ideas were secrets, revealed only in my manuscript, which my agent now has.

All I can say is there is room for both Rediker's book and mine, because my manuscript focuses on New York, where there were more of these activities than anywhere else in the world.Also, I have documented ancestors, people who were both the nobles related to the royals who led the trade, and people who were enslaved, including some who were mariners and rebels. Royal Governor Robert Hunter of New York and New Jersey was an ancestor but so were the Asante enslaved rebels from Ghana who captured the ships that took them from the coastal villages of Ghana to the Caribbean.  Jamaican Maroon rebel Captain Opare, whose nickname passed to my father (Pari) and to me (Little Miss Par) was an ancestor.  The history lives on.

This author is correct:  This is lost history.  Much of what transpired during the 18th-century, both the politics and the economy, were started by mariners on the high seas. The World Trade Center ship is such a tale.

John Ardill
John Ardill

The "romantic" notion that Somali piracy originated from overexploitation by foreign flets of coastal fishery resources is not underpinned by what we know of the nature of these resources, of the Somali coast and by the history of piracy in that area. The coast of Somalia is subject to currents which run up to 7 knots and there are very few shelters for fishing villages, added to which the lack of roads severely handicap moving produce to markets. There were traditionally some small-scale fishing operations: coastal lobsters and dried sharks for export, neither of which are willingly consumed in a Moslem country where meat is the main form of animal protein. The lobsters could certainly not be caught by foreign vessels and while in theory sharks could be exploited by longliners targeting tunas, setting longlines close to shore where the artisanal fisheries operate would certainly result in unsustainable losses of gear. The resources caught by foreign fleets: small pelagics and deepwater species, as well as tunas, were never exploited by local artisanal fishers.

Added to this, the historical development of piracy in Somalia has been documented by journalists visiting the country who attribute most of the operations to successive failed attempts to establish a Coast Guard, training and arming the sailors. In a number of cases, the Coast Guard themselves resorted to piracy (or to racketing), and when the organization failed, the out-of-work sailors turned their training to piracy.

The cost of the Somali piracy has been assessed at $6-7 billion annually (much of which to fund the warships and aerial surveillance. It is to be wondered if this money spent to stabilize the country and provide livelihood for the population would not be more effective.

Simon Worrall
Simon Worrall

For my feelings on Nelson please see my NGM article, Hiratio's Finest Hour.

Sylvan Aros
Sylvan Aros

@John Ardill Mr. Ardillis very logical and adds stuff that was not in Mr Worrall's article. I'm a "Gringa" and loved to read C.S Forester and my Californian, Jack London, as well as Stevenson and Henry Dana, so I am well versed in "pirate" stories. It makes a lot of sense that we all got it wrong. If you are out on a "limb" or in "Nam" or "Afghanistan" or, as the pirates, in a restricted area and dependent on weak leader of whom you can't trust for survival, then you are going to resort to what ever is needed to survive.  But, if you are weak, such as a guy in a forecastle, you are going to need help, friends or other victims like you and so you form a democracy.  But, once you get a taste of riches that you don't really need to survive, all hell breaks loose. Greed! The Pitcairn "pirates" saved their own lives against a psychopath because they didn't try to get rich but most Caribbean pirates were in it only for $$$$$ even though they were really, at first, just against the "Catholic" Spaniards or the English Navy.

 I love all types or opinions of history. How can we really know????@John Ardill

Andrea La-Rosa
Andrea La-Rosa

@Steve Henrich Considering my post was the third shortest comment here, I'm going to assume you don't read many novels.


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