The golden age of piracy - The Pirate Image

This week I'll be looking at the pirate image - both real and imagined.

The lower classes of the 1680s to 1730s had a sneaking admiration for pirates. They became popular heroes. Much of this was down to the pirate image, including the way pirates dressed. Illustrations of famous pirates often show them wearing expensive, flamboyant garments that were beyond the reach of poor people. For those who struggled to find the money even to clothe themselves, it was enticing just to learn that the first pirate to board a prize vessel was rewarded with the best choice of the clothes on board. Pirates repeatedly celebrated their freedom to express their individuality through dress. Illustrated accounts of piracy, such as Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, were all the more popular because newspapers of the time did not describe a pirate’s dress or countenance when reporting the process of arrest, trial and execution.

Pirate Captain George Lowther Captain George Lowther, NMM image D7491-6


Illustrations of notorious pirates show them as having natural authority, as well as criminal intent. Most appear well-dressed, in good quality knee-length coats, waistcoats and breeches. They are not depicted in the short jackets and loose-legged trousers usually worn by seamen and labourers, dress which would categorize them as lower class. Exceptions to this are the female pirates, Mary Read and Anny Bonny. Contemporary prints show them wearing coarse sailors’ clothes (partly to indicate their debasement from the feminine ideal, and partly because loose clothes disguised their sex more convincingly).

                        Some pirate captains rivalled the elite in their dress. Bartholomew Roberts, in his final battle, made a ‘gallant Figure’ as he prepared to resist capture:

being dressed in a rich crimson Damask Wastcoat and Breeches, a red Feather in his Hat, a Gold Chain round his Neck, with a Diamond Cross hanging to it, a Sword in his Hand, and two Pair of Pistols hanging at the End of a Silk Sling, slung over his Shoulders (according to the fashion of the Pyrates;)

Pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts Captain Bartholomew Roberts, NMM image D7491-3


Attitudes to piracy changed over time. Illustrations of pirate dress seem to reflect this changing public response. Representations of the infamous pirate Blackbeard in 1724 and 1725 show him wearing a coat, breeches and stockings. Later illustrations of him, in extracts from A General History printed in London after 1734, show him in a short jacket and trousers. This indicates that by the mid-1730s he was deemed less deserving of awe.

To find out more, see my British Pirates and Society, 1680–1730 (Ashgate, 2014)