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A Pirate's Life: Why We Raise Our Flag

We proudly fly our variation of the Jolly Roger over each project in every community we serve. It’s a symbol of our loyal crew. It’s a symbol of the camaraderie that brings us to the trail head every season. Some folks say that the pirate affiliation might give folks the wrong idea about us, but it got us thinking: maybe they have the wrong idea about the pirates who sailed the caribbean.

The romanticized myth of pirates in the Caribbean can be a tough pill to swallow. At the heart of it, they were thieves that used fear and when necessary, violence, to steal at sea. So why the relatively positive spin over the last few decades? Books and movies have played their part, but only because certain truths about these pirates allowed the sugar coating to take hold. Without getting getting into too much detail, pirates did not necessarily behave in all the ways we might expect. Apart from being skilled as former naval or merchant sailors, the pirates life allowed them to be part of a crew that gave them a vote on matters of importance, gave them a fair share of the spoils, provided compensation if injured, and, perhaps most impressive, often provided this regardless of race or creed. In a nutshell, it was a chance to make a life in a world that was then dominated by oppressive aristocratic monarchies. It would be in these truths that the positive story would take hold giving birth to the much loved myth of the free, adventurous outlaw of the sea.

So without further adieu, here are five facts that you may not know:

1. Pirates were rarely killers

Tragically, killing did happen on a few pirate vessels, yet this was not the norm and was not admired, even amongst other pirates. Since pirates were comprised of former sailors from merchant or navy vessels, they were not ones to kill or torture the sailors of the merchant ships they had just taken as prizes. They sympathized with the sailors poor lot in life and would allow them safe passage to the nearest port. "Blackbeard", arguably the most infamous of pirates, actually had no record of murdering or torturing his captives, on the contrary, it is reported that he had a pleasant and polite demeanor. The concept of "robbing the rich to feed the poor" was a popular concept amongst pirate crews, thus respect for the poor sailor was widely recognized, so much so, that it was not uncommon that sailors of taken ships would willingly and enthusiastically join with the pirates rather than go back to the standard and oppressive life that they were then currently a part of.

2. Pirates treated their crew better than Navy or Merchant Vessels

A common misconception of pirates was that many of their crew were kept in line by brutal force aboard the ship and that many were forced to serve. In fact, most pirates chose the lifestyle. During this time period (17th-18th century), any legitimate work at sea featured abusive and abominable conditions. Sailors aboard royal navy or merchant vessels were extremely underpaid (less than a farm hand) and often beaten by their superiors. Wages would be delayed, deducted or simply not paid out at all. When ships within the royal navy were short on sailors during war time, "press gangs" were sent out to kidnap men on land and violently force them into service for "Her Majesty." Not surprisingly, this gave quite a bit of emotional ammunition for the sailors wanting to jump ship to join a more democratic, profitable and even humane lifestyle aboard a vessel that would also allow them to fight the system that held them down.

3. A good pirate ship was a well-oiled machine

Most people associate pirates with a chaotic boatload of savage killers, but it was actually a democratic organization with highly trained and skilled sailors, carpenters, and navigators. Crews could operate anywhere from 10 to well over 200 per vessel, all with a clear division of labor and order. The captain, voted in by the crew, was only captain so long as the crew wished it to be so. In fact, most pirate crews had "articles of agreement" which all members voted on and were required to sign. These rules were put in place in order to establish respect and a moral code on the ship to prevent crew members from fighting, stealing or lying. Decisions outside of battle, were not made by an autocrat (captain), but rather by a crew council of the ships leading crew members. This democratic republic style of governnance contributed to the crews ability to work together as a team, allowing them to efficiently carry out their designated tasks in rebelling against a system that they felt was unfair and oppressive.

4. Pirates were an equal opportunity employer

Since crew members often elected to be on board, pirate ships often consisted of members of diverse

cultural and social backgrounds. The well off would work alongside and even be held accountable to the poor; social, economic, national and racial differences were dissolved while aboard. Crews aboard a single vessel were often comprised of British, French, Dutch and freed African slaves, all of whom would be granted an equal share of the profits and equal rights as crew members. In fact, there were even a few female pirates, most famously Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who reportedly fought just as well (maybe better) than their male counterparts. In short, pirates were treated as equals, regardless of background – a practice not found in the legal and legitimate career paths of the time.

5. The flag was raised to avoid battle

During the great age of sail, it was important for vessels to raise flags in order to distinguish themselves. These flags typically flew the colors of the nation they sailed under. In opposition to all established nations of the time, pirates initially flew a simple black or red flag to make clear this distinction as well as their intent. As pirates began developing their infamous reputation, they started incorporating a more intense branding campaign in an effort to intimidate merchant captains into submission before a conflict even arose. Rather than fight for the cargo of the wealthy that functioned to expoit them, sailors aboard merchant vessels would often refuse to fight, preferring instead to put their sails into the wind, and be taken peacefully. The term for the black flag, with or without symbols, was termed the "Jolly Roger." Popular versions incorporated some element of a skull or skeleton; the most famous being the skull and crossed bones, a symbol found on tomb stones of the time (memento mori) signifying the inevitable mortality of all.

Today, the definition of the symbol has shifted from a threatening deterrent, to a representation of individuality, camaraderie and the adventurous spirit. The “Jolly Roger” is often displayed in numerous variations by many groups, like the Jolly Rovers Trail Crew, that harbor the values and integrity of a proverbial ship operating for a unified purpose. So the next time you’re hiking up a trail and you see this guy:

Stop by and ask us what we’re up to!

You can find out more about the Jolly Roger and those that flew it by looking into the following:

Colin Woodward, The Republic of Pirates, Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (New York: Harcourt, 2007)

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag, The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates (New York: Random House, 2006)

Krystal D'Costa, Why did Pirates Fly the Jolly Roger? (Scientific American, 2014)

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