“Talk Like a Pirate Day” could be the first internet-generated holiday (could Joss Whedon’s birthday be far behind?). Originated as an inside joke between a couple of friends, and popularized by Dave Barry, September 19 is a day to answer your friends with an, “Arrr, matey!” or to announce your intention to run out the guns, order your opponent to heave-to and prepare to be boarded. Heck, do your best impersonation of Robert Newton’s Long John Silver, dress with a hook for a hand, eye patch and a fake parrot and you can get free donuts. Its whimsical, harmless fun that brings to mind a cartoon Captain Hook or storybooks filled with peg-legged buccaneers digging up the sands, hoping X really marked the spot.
Which, really, is how we’d rather think of pirates. Its a fun, sanitized version that in no way calls to mind the atrocities committed along the American coastline of the 17th and 18th centuries. It also keeps us from thinking of their fates, like Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard), who was killed in combat. Or Major Bonnett, an associate of Blackbeard’s, who was executed by hanging.
You can read more about them, and about 20 more, in Cpt. Charles Johnson’s, A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. In 1794, it was an exciting and racy depiction of the pirates of the time. Ironically, its been used as inspiration for the fictional pirates of Peter Pan and Treasure Island.
How serious does anyone take piracy? Under US law, you go away for life.
Whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life.
Which is a little more kind than the 1819 statute, under which Thomas Smith, former crewman of the Creollo was sentenced:
That if any person or persons whatsoever shall, upon the high seas, commit the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and such offender or offenders shall be brought into or found in the United States, every such offender or offenders shall, upon conviction thereof, &c., be punished with death.
Oddly, International Talk Like a Pirate Day falls close to the anniversary of a New Jersey piratical event. It was on September 20, 1797, that William Brigstock, mariner on board the frigate Hermione, murdered a lieutenant Foreshaw, “with a certain tomahawk, the value of eight-pence.” Mr. Brigstock was a mariner under the command of Captain Hugh Pigot, who “did betray the trust in them reposed as mariners,” and, “with force of arms did turn pirate.”
According to the court records, he was, “moved and seduced by instigation of the Devil,” and was described as acting, “feloniously, piratically, [and] wilfully…”
Acting “piratically,” it seems, did not involve parrots or peg legs.
So is it weird that we’re embracing these characters by pretending to talk like pirates for a day? No way. Even in the 1790’s authors like Captain Johnson were exploiting and romanticizing stories of pirates, and society loved them. We’re celebrating the fun, the myth of Hollywood pirates from Erroll Flynn to Orlando Bloom. International Talk Like a Pirate Day is going to stay great fun as long as anyone continues to remember Johnny Depp swaggering around, Keith Richards-like in dreadlocks and high-top boots. Who takes history seriously when they’re ordering donuts with a deep “Arrr” and holding a plastic toy hook?
(Edit: 24 Sept. Added categories)