The Joy of Piracy
As a kid, events before you were born, even just one or two decades earlier, lie in an unimaginably distant past. For me, the Second World War was that long ago place. Whoever those people were in the black-and-white footage, living in unimaginably different times, bore little resemblance to the people around me, all these many years later – which is to say, less than two decades.
The longer you live, the more you comprehend how much of a mistake it can be to see things that way. The buildings, the technology and the habits might change, but the human beings are little changed at all – still the fear, still the need, still the anxiety, still the acts of great kindness and selfless sacrifice.
It's an entertaining thing to contemplate your backward shadow. Once you've lived 30 years, you understand the scope of that time and look back 30 years before you were born and there it is, in my case, the Great Depression. My backward shadow presently lies on the far side of the Boer War, two world wars, two global pandemics and the invention of the horseless carriage.
And out over the horizon, another 200 years or so back, lies a man who family legend fondly suggests is our forebear, the notorious pirate John Every. (Or Avery, but our forebears went by Every, so that's the one we're going for.)
One of Britain’s most renowned pirates of the late 17th century, John Every plundered fortunes, had a huge bounty placed upon his head and, for a time, quite ruled the seas.
While most of his crew ended up captured and hanged or banished, Every himself — or 11th great-grandad Henry the Pirate, as I like to call him — eluded capture and disappeared. He was, apparently, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s hero in The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton.
Why would you take pride in a forebear being a salty seafaring scoundrel? For the progressive thinkers, I would suggest the example set by the rules of the pirate code: before setting sail they would all agree upon such matters as dividing up the loot, shipboard behaviour, and compensation for injuries sustained in the course of piracy. Yes, they had their own accident compensation scheme. They would specify the amounts you would get for various types of injuries. Lose a finger or an eye, that would be worth a bit; lose an arm or a leg, that would be worth quite a bit more. Payments would be funded from such loot as they might acquire.
The pirate code would also outline how the loot was shared. More if you’re the captain, obviously, but a fair share for everyone on board. When you’re signing on to a job that carries the risk of being hanged by the neck until dead, an hourly rate is probably not going to cut it.
Dividing up the loot was also done with full transparency, so everyone knew they’d had their fair share. There might even be death benefits for loved ones. The pirate code was also strongly democratic: a say for everyone in decisions such as bringing on new crew or electing a captain. It's all positively modern-day in its welfare instincts, don't you think? It was, as you can imagine, very good for fostering loyalty and unity.
That’s all more than three hundred years ago now, but those pirates sound in many ways to have behaved like the best of us today – all for one, one for all. Solidarity in the face of a crisis. This is the reassuring way of human nature at its best.
I have to wonder, in these present times, if we might not do a bit better by thinking a little more like pirates.
David Slack is an Auckland-based author, radio and TV commentator and speechwriter.
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