For a long time, the “pirate brand” has been linked to the Jolly Roger (skull and crossbones) as a symbol of terror on high seas. The New York Times article of 2011 hails this ominous design for collective hybrid branding. It notes that pirates adopted this symbol because it was easier to plunder. This fascinating discussion focuses on the power and efficiency that branding can bring but neglects the fact that the power of the symbol we recognize draws in part from the acceptance and manipulation by others.
Piracy was likely a long-standing feature of open seas. It is believed to have been established by the Aegean and Mediterranean trade routes. The Roman Empire tolerated the activity of Cilicians in the Mediterranean. Still, they were only allowed to rule them in 67 BCE when they became a serious threat to its grain supply. The Senate approved a “comprehensive and systematic strategy” and a “smartly humane policy for the vanquished” to eradicate the Cilicians in a matter of months (1). The skull and crossbones we associate with pirates are a new development. They were created in the 17th century with the rise of pirates from the Caribbean. You can check out more from sons-of-pirate.com
The New World discovery gave the Caribbean a reputation as a hub for trade, with sugar, gold and human capital moving between the Old World and the New World. Although the Spanish were dominant, other colonial powers quickly followed. Many pirates were attracted to the trade for the opportunity to earn a sustainable income. The waters of the Caribbean were attractive because they were relatively unrestricted and would not be bothered by governing bodies. There were many safe, natural harbours. And there was plenty of opportunities to free the Spanish trade ships (2). Tensions between Old World powers were not limited to their respective shores–traces of these conflicts echoed in the Western colonies, and the English, Dutch, and French sanctioned piracy–commissioning them as privateers–as a means of protecting their claims and controlling the goods in the region. These men were heroes for their nation, defending the country at sea. They included Henry Morgan and Francis Drake–hailed as Gentlemen on the waters.
Douglas R. Burgess Jr., a historian, discusses how governing officials formed the perception of 17th-century piracy. This happened following the conviction and trial of Henry Every, an English pirate. In recognition of their bravery in defending English maritime interests, he was called a “noble Pirate” (9). It was difficult to erase this reputation that had been so deeply ingrained in the minds of the English people. The jury acquitted Every of mistreatment and capture of Ganj-i-Sawai (Gunsway) in the trial. This was much to the dismay of the English government, which had taken the position–partially to restore trade ties with India and to punish him.
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This was an embarrassing PR disaster for England on the national stage. England’s acquittal implied that England was a “nation full of pirates” to potential trade partners and allies. It encouraged English colonies to support and sympathize with piracy in local waters, as it suggested that England supported these individuals. The government retried every and his men on charges of mutiny. He had been the first-mate to Charles II. He seized the ship at port, as he was not paid, and renamed the Fancy. Then he attacked the Ganj-Sawai. England effectively changed the definition of pirates to bring him and his men justice. This sent the message that piracy would not be tolerated.