In the light of recent attacks on sailors, Chris Bunting wonders if we should revise our romantic image of piracy.
You have to admire the man's spirit. In 1682, Bartholomew Sharpe had just cheated the hangman's noose. Aged 32, he had about 16 years of piracy behind him, but in the previous two years had got himself into some pretty hot water. He and 331 other buccaneers had done what generations of Englishmen had dreamed of doing. By hacking their way across the jungles of Panama, they had stolen a number of Spanish ships and embarked on an unprecedented orgy of looting and murder up and down Spain's "private lake" - the South Pacific.
Unfortunately for Sharpe, the English had recently signed a peace treaty with the Spanish. An execution court was waiting for him when he returned to Plymouth and the Spanish ambassador was appointed as chief prosecutor. Luckily for Sharpe, he had managed to snatch a copy of the Spanish charts of the South Pacific during one bloody raid and this precious intelligence appears to have persuaded the crown to arrange his escape from the hangman. In an age when the death penalty was common for much lesser crimes, Sharpe was set free upon payment of eight shillings and four pence.
Indeed, the authorities offered him a chance to go straight with a commission to command the admiralty sloop Bonetta , while the newly formed Royal Society was eager to talk to him about his west-east rounding of Cape Horn on his way home from the South Pacific, the first time it had been done by an Englishman. His sighting of icebergs on the journey appeared to disprove the then popular theory that there was a large habitable land mass south of America. All in all, a respectable life seemed to beckon.
So, what did he do? He bought a leaky vessel in the Thames and used her to seize the first foreign ship he came across - a French vessel off the South Downs. He then set sail for the Caribbean and resumed his piracy. In 1686, he was again charged and again acquitted. He was retried and escaped once more. The last we hear of Sharpe, he is lame and being held in custody by a nervous Danish governor of the island of St Thomas.
The aisles are likely to be packed when James Kelly, of Worcester College, Oxford, tells the full story of Captain Sharpe's exploits at the 70th Anglo-American Conference of Historians on July 5. Indeed, it would be no surprise if there was a Hollywood scriptwriter or two in the audience. If the mythical figure of the pirate has become one of the most enduring icons of western culture, Sharpe's life appears to have everything we want from a member of that fraternity: daring, dastardly and, perhaps most importantly, a seemingly incorrigible ability to make a monkey out of authority.
Pirates are ambiguous icons. They have inspired generations of myth-makers - from Robert Louis Stevenson, through Errol Flynn's scriptwriters, to the cartoonists of Captain Pugwash - and yet their trade is in violence. Walking the gang plank was just the sanitised version. The French pirate Montbars Languedoc, for example, became famous for slitting the stomachs of his victims, nailing a coil of their guts to the mast and applying a burning log to their buttocks so the intestines would be danced out of the body for the enjoyment of his crew.
Hardly the stuff of bedtime stories but Philip de Souza, a lecturer at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, London, believes this reputation for extreme violence, far from being an impediment to pirates as popular heroes, offers a first clue to understanding their allure. "These are people who do not conform to the normal constraints of society. They are seen as having super appetites, they are sexually potent and they are extremely violent. Add to that the fact that they can roam the oceans and you have a type of rebel without even the geographical restrictions of land-based bandits. They allow us to imagine what we might do if we did not have to obey the rules. They represent freedom."
So far so good, says Marcus Rediker of Pittsburgh University, but such analysis of the symbolic potential of pirates and other bandits fails to acknowledge the place their actual behaviour has had in establishing them in our cultural imagination.
"As it turns out, their actual motivations are almost as good as their romantic image," he says. "A pirate ship was a place of freedom."
Rediker is one of a growing band of historians who believe buccaneers of the golden age of Anglo-American piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries - the period that furnishes many of our modern ideas about the sea robber - practised a kind of brutal egalitarianism and proto-democracy that posed a serious political challenge to the authoritarian establishment of their time. Researcher Peter Linebaugh, has called pirate ships "17th-century Soviets on water".
Ballads and pamphlets describing exotic pirate utopias in which the common seaman was given a vote and a fair share of the booty abounded in the popular press during the period and there is evidence that there was reality behind these claims. Some say they helped inspire the American revolution.
Archaeologists researching the Whydah , a pirate ship found off the northeast coast of the United States, found jewellery had been cut apart, suggesting that there had been a genuine attempt to divide it equally. Contemporary records show that many crews elected and deposed their captains according to democratic votes. There was sometimes a type of occupational insurance in force, with crew members being paid compensation for injuries they suffered - the going rate for a lost leg was about £150.
Some researchers have claimed that pirates were also a model of sexual and racial tolerance, with homosexuality widespread and black people comprising a significant and influential part of many crews. There were black pirate quartermasters and captains and, although specifically banned by many ships' constitutions, some women were known to rise to the highest ranks.
Rediker compares this egalitarianism with the "quite horrific" inequality that was the reality on conventional merchant and naval ships. While a pirate captain is thought to have typically taken only one and a half times the bounty of a crew member, the pay ratios aboard a conventional ship were more likely to be 60:1. Discipline was vicious, hunger was the norm and to the men who suffered under this system, Rediker claims, piracy was a self-conscious act of rebellion.
So, are pirates proto-socialist heroes or a bunch of violent criminals with the dubious glamour of a Ronnie Biggs or a Reggie Kray? The question is particularly apt as we teeter on the brink of another "golden age" of piracy.
According to Jayant Abhyankar of the International Maritime Bureau, the number of pirate attacks on shipping more than doubled last year to 469, four times the level ten years ago.
While some attacks are highly sophisticated operations coordinated by organised crime groups - Rediker likes to compare these with the state-sponsored privateers of the 17th century - the large majority are committed by desperately poor fishermen tempted by the riches being paraded in front of them on the world's shipping lanes. Abhyankar notes that, in some areas of modern Indonesia, the world's worst area for sea robberies, pirates are seen as "Robin Hood" figures, just like their 17th-century forebears.
He also points out that the number of killings of seamen by pirates rose from 3 in 1999 to 72 last year. One reported method of killing was particularly egalitarian: victims were tied up and the pirate crew each took turns smashing their heads in. Montbars Languedoc would be proud.