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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but perhaps the most intriguing workplace of all is the coast. Meet the people heading to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.
Historian Rebecca Simon researches 17th and 18th century pirates. She marvels at how wrong we are about these ship raiders, and strives to better inform the public by writing, speaking, and consulting with podcasters and TV screenwriters.
The first thing people are disappointed to learn about pirates is that they didn’t bury any treasure. Pirates rarely found gold, silver and jewelry on ships. They searched for goods they could sell like liquor, textiles, and spices as well as useful items like food, medicine, and repair supplies. The hidden chest with a map? It’s a myth.
What I want to do with my work is bring history to the public and correct the misconceptions people have about pirates. Many people see them as horrible criminals. Or Revolutionaries – Robin Hoods of the Seas. In fact, pirates were quite diverse. Some were certainly brutal murderers, but most were working-class sailors who had been abused on European merchant or naval vessels and left alone for more freedom.
This does not mean that pirates were lawless. Many pirate ships had rules called articles. Some articles prohibited drinking on board because alcohol could cause problems. Gambling was also generally prohibited. There were rules about compensation if someone suffered a serious injury, such as losing an arm or a leg. And the articles described the distribution of goods: the higher the rank of a crew member, the greater his share. For example, if a captain took a share and a half, the quartermaster, who was second in command, could have been paid a share and a quarter. Then everyone could have received a quarter share.
Pirate ships were often egalitarian. Piracy was an avenue for people who didn’t have many options: runaway slaves, gay or non-binary people, and people from marginalized religious groups such as Jews. If the pirates felt that their captain was not doing his job, they could eliminate him and choose someone new.
Finding pirates is tricky. They didn’t keep records. Either that or none survived. I read the records of pirate trials, newspaper articles from the 1600s and 1700s, letters between British officials discussing pirates, and testimonies from survivors of pirate attacks. I try to assemble as accurate an image as possible from the sources I find. Using this information, I consult for TV documentaries and podcasts, and write books and articles to show what life as a pirate was really like. I am also sharing facts about hackers on TikTok which has become very popular.
Something I study is how our perception of hackers has changed. The British government treated pirates as terrorists. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Great Britain established itself as the main power in the Caribbean and North America. This made pirates a great political threat. If caught, the pirates were executed with particular brutality. The executioner hung them with a shorter noose, so that when the scaffolding opened, their necks would not break. Instead, they were strangled to death, which could take an hour. It was called the Marshal’s Dance because their limbs jumped uncontrollably.
Today’s hackers want the same thing as hackers hundreds of years ago: get rich quick. Whether they’re targeting cruise ships or private yachts, they attack with similar tactics to pirates of the past, which usually means “negotiating” for as many goods as they can steal without having to draw weapons. Bloody battles are and were rare. Hackers want to get in and out quickly.
Stopping piracy is difficult. Maritime laws are complicated, making it difficult to arm ships like freighters. And pirates are like guerrillas. You never know where they’ll hit. I think there will always be piracy. It’s almost impossible to eradicate.