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Piracy at Its Height

Piracy at Its HeightIn his new book, The Republic of Pirates, Tufts graduate Colin Woodard explores the period known as the Golden Age of Piracy.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.04.07] These days, it's the image of the swashbuckling Jack Sparrow in the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean" that leaps to mind at the mention of the word "pirate." But centuries before Johnny Depp donned tattered rags and a braided beard on the big screen, men like Samuel Bellamy, Charles Vane and Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard, combed the open seas in search of treasure-rich vessels traveling between Europe and the Americas.

In his new book, which The New York Times calls a "fascinating" read, Colin Woodard (A'91) paints a picture of the Golden Age of Piracy that includes everything from democracy and heroism to cruelty and violence.

Woodard's theory, according to the Times, is that piracy became rampant because "many of its practitioners were looking for more than simply an exciting life and the chance for great riches." The author wrote that these men, many of whom were ex-sailors frustrated with the tyranny they experienced on merchant and naval ships, "undertook nothing less than a social and political revolt."

"They rebelled against oppression in its many forms, from press gangs to brutal navy captains to slave holders...and they were effective," the Times reported.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Woodard, an award-winning journalist who is a foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, explained that the Caribbean pirates may have been ahead of their time, motivated by the same ideals that propelled the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century.

"A lot of that mob revolutionary sentiment and inclination toward roughshod, radical democracy and resisting the forces of empire was already prevalent earlier than anyone suspected," Woodard, who studied history at Tufts, told the AP.

Some pirates, however, used brutal force to get their message across.

"To persuade their victims to hand over all they owned, pirates made regular use of every form of torture, including the rack and woolding, in which a knotted cord was wrapped around a man's head and tightened until his eyes popped out," the Times reported.

However, their propensity toward violence didn't turn the general public against pirates. Instead, they were revered as "folk heroes," Woodard told the AP. "Large numbers of ordinary people looked upon them as heroes and bought their arguments that they were Robinhood's men."

Modern day pirate references ranging from sports team names to Halloween costumes indicate that their popularity has survived the test of time.

"You see the skull and crossbones everywhere on flags, on T-shirts and on bumper stickers," Woodard told the AP. "What people are responding to is the fantasy image of pirates."

But as the Times pointed out, the real-life pirates of the 1700s were not always the stuff of movie heroes.

"In the three centuries that have passed since pirates and privateers struck fear in the hearts of every ship captain, passenger and crew member, these scoundrels have somehow become popular symbols of bravery and daring," the Times reported. "But the appalling toll of their predations leaves little room for nostalgia."

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