There’s been a lot of talk about pirates these last few months, and other than brave action by an American captain and a remarkable effort by three elite Navy snipers, little of it has been good. It amazes me that in this day and age, with all our high-tech monitoring, weaponry and vessels, the world’s shipping infrastructure can be held hostage by a bunch of terrorists in tiny boats.
What’s even more strange is that we look at today’s pirates as evil, lawless villains, yet we’ve somehow come to glorify and mythologize the pirates of the past, even calling their heyday the “golden age” of piracy. There are sports teams named in their honor, and dozens of popular songs that glorify their way of life. Even Disneyland, with its wholesome reputation and cute cartoon characters, has an entire ride dedicated to pirates—not to mention the blockbuster feature film trilogy it spawned. Now it’s easy to love Jack Sparrow, but why is it that we’ve built up such romantic legends around the exploits of the real pirates like Blackbeard, Captain Morgan, and Captain Kidd? These men—and many others like them—wreaked the same havoc on international shipping as their modern brethren—killing innocent victims, taking hostages, demanding ransoms, and openly flaunting international law.
Why do we so often portray them more like superheros than the villains they are? Is it because time has masked the violence of their acts? Is it because they represent an age of freedom, exploration and independence we no longer have? Or is it because we’re somehow darkly intrigued by people who take and hold power by creating their own myths about themselves?
As I learned during the production of Blackbeard’s Lost Ship, the pirate Blackbeard instilled fear in both his crew and his victims by acting outrageously. He shot people just to show he could, and he wove burning wicks into his beard to give the impression that he was just a little bit crazy. After all, who wants to risk messing with a man who is just unstable enough to make you regret it?
In Blackbeard’s case, we have these little tidbits about his character from the historical records, but now, because we’ve found his flagship, we can try to peer into what his life was really like; exploring the actions he took, the decisions he made and the reasons he made them. As someone who appreciates hands-on history a lot more than textbook prose, I love the fact that we have an opportunity to examine cannons that have been hidden beneath the sand for three hundred years (picture at right), and pan for gold that Blackbeard may actually have held in his hand. It makes the history seem so much more current, washing away myths and legends as we try to replace them with truth.
Secrets of the Dead: Blackbeard’s Lost Ship airs at 8pm on Wednesday, April 22; It will be streaming, in full, online the following day.