“To err is human, to arr is pirate.”
This quote (a personal favorite) cleverly illustrates one of many myths Hollywood has popularized about pirates: that all pirates talked like… well, like pirates. You know, “shiver me timbers,” “blow me down” and the like.
Other popular myths include:
- All pirates were missing body parts.
- All pirate ships flew the Skull and Crossbones.
- Pirates buried their stolen treasure.
- Pirates were fond of rum and parrots.
- Sailors became pirates to pursue a life of crime.
And perhaps most enduringly: All pirates were “anarchistic maniacs,” a la Blackbeard.
Here be Pirates chronicles the efforts of UC San Diego history professor Mark Hanna to correct these and other misconceptions about buccaneers. In his Harvard doctoral thesis, several popular courses and ongoing research, Hanna paints a detailed and nuanced picture of pirates and privateers, perhaps less colorful than the Tinseltown version but no less fascinating.
One especially intriguing aspect of Hanna’s work focuses on the profound contributions of those wide-ranging mariners to the development of the natural sciences from the late 16th century through the early 18th century. Occasional pirates such as William Dampier made extensive studies of Pacific Rim flora and fauna, and influenced later scientists such as Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin. To spotlight the efforts of these “citizen scientists,” Hanna worked closely with the Special Collections & Archives at the UC San Diego Library to create Unlikely Naturalists, a local component of the traveling exhibition Real Pirates!, currently on display at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Unlikely Naturalists features original journals and logbooks held in the Library’s world-renowned Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages, which comprises more than 2,000 works spanning nearly 300 years of maritime exploration and discovery.
In addition to first-hand study of materials from the Hill Collection and a tour of the Museum exhibition, Hanna’s students sailed on the Californian, a 1984 replica of an 1847 cutter operated by the Maritime Museum of San Diego. During a four-hour trip students were introduced to sail operations and shipboard life, including the vital importance of teamwork and following the captain’s orders with dispatch.
As Hanna notes in Here Be Pirates, we can’t literally travel back in time, but these resources and activities – first-hand study of primary sources, the Museum exhibition, and sailing on a tall ship – each contribute to fostering empathy, which is vital to the study of the early modern period.
“Always be yourself. Unless you can be a pirate. Then always be a pirate.”
Watch Here be Pirates and browse other programs from the Library Channel.
Contributed by Arts and Humanities Producer, John Menier