Fascination with pirates goes back centuriesby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
Somali pirates agreed on Friday to release an Egyptian merchant ship after its owners agreed to pay a ransom of 3 million dollars. Yesterday, pirates released a Ukrainian freighter after collecting a booty of three million.
Piracy has become big business off the coast of Somalia and the number of ships hijacked at sea has tripled over the last two years.
Today's pirates are a far cry from the dashing swashbucklers featured in folklore. But, despite all the present-day pillaging, Americans hold tight to centuries-old pirate mythology.
St. Paul, Minn. — It's a pretty typical morning at the Gunderson household. Two-year-old Sammy is wielding a sword, his six-year-old brother AJ dons an eye patch and Issac, 8, is searching for buried treasure over by the bunk beds.
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To say these brothers love pirates is a bit of an understatement. Their bedroom floor is currently covered with miniature ships and tiny plastic figures with hooks for hands. The most popular snack in the Gunderson household is Pirate's Booty-brand cheese puffs. The first song AJ learned on the piano was the theme to the Pirates of the Caribbean.
"Well, I would like to be a pirate," says AJ Gunderson. "They stop at, like, every island they can see and to try to find the treasures. It's really cool."
The boys don't know anything about modern-day pirates, but they're more than familiar with the classic pirate archetype.
AJ: "You would need a hat, a sword."
Issac: "If they lose like half their leg, then they would need a peg leg."
AJ: "Um, if your eye pops out and you need an eye patch, maybe for decoration you could have like a skull on it."
Their adventurous nature and cool weapons make pirates a logical fascination for kids. But imaginative American children aren't the only ones obsessed with the rogue sailors.
"Pirates were pretty much part of pop culture since pop culture was created, initially starting with limited circulation books and poetry to motion pictures," says Marc Nucup, who works for Virginia's Mariner's Museum.
Nucup was the curator for the museum's exhibit "Swashbuckler: The Romance of the Pirates." He says the stereotypical pirate is an amalgamation of the seafaring felons of the early 1700s -- men who, even in their own time, were romanticized by the general public.
"English society was a very hierarchical, very static society," says Nucup. "Pirate society, in contrast to prevalent society of the day, was able to promote egalitarianism. If you were in a pirate crew, you would sign articles of agreement and what this would do is give you equal say in where you would go, what ships you would attack and you would be ensured an equal share of the profits from attacking or capturing a ship. Great contrast to civilian society."
Whether they're ancient Englishmen or present-day Somalis, most pirates, says Nucup, are driven by poverty and political instability. They're willing to break the law for a shot at fortune. What elevated the pirates of the past was the time period in which they lived.
"The golden age of piracy, the early 1700s - it's not that far away from the American independence movement," Nucup says. "So there is a veneer of patriotism that is put over these English pirates. They were fighting against England and in a few years Americans would be fighting against England. It's not that hard to make a stretch between the pirates and the patriot movement."
It's Sunday night at the Performing Acts Theatre in Maplewood, Minnesota. After two months of practicing, the cast members of "Pirates! The Musical" are dancing their way across the stage. The grade-school performers have scars drawn on their faces with eyebrow pencil and they sing about how fun it is to be a pirate.
For many, this was their very first attempt at acting. That, says artistic director Rob Sutherland, is why he set on a pirate-driven plot.
"Everybody knows a little about pirates," Sutherland says. "Kids can grab on to them and relate to them and really portray them with out having to be an experienced actor."
Blackbeard and the other villains of the high seas probably never imagined they'd one day be portrayed as joyful characters in children's theater productions. But that, says curator Marc Nucup, is the kind of thing that happens when you become a cultural icon.
"Pirates, they've always been part of the escapist fantasy that people can look to whenever they feel like their lives are too constrained," Nucup says. "Well, here is an example of some individuals who took fate into their own hands. They did it illegally for the most part, but the example in nonetheless valid. And because being outside of the society that holds us down is such a popular idea, that explains, I think, their continued popularity."
Nucup says it's unlikely today's pirates will ever have the allure of the centuries-old swashbucklers. The image of a rugged outlaw in a velvet waistcoat with a cute little parrot on his shoulder, it's just so much nicer than one of some guy in a tattered shirt hijacking a boat.
- All Things Considered, 02/06/2009, 5:20 p.m.