When Robert Louis Stevenson began writing Treasure Island in 1881, he hardly could have imagined that he was creating one of the most pervasive icons of Western culture: the pirate. After all, he wrote the story merely to amuse his family during a rainy Scottish summer. Stevenson himself, for all his travels around the world, had never met or even seen a pirate, and all the tale's mythic elements--from the Black Spot to Spy-glass Hill to peg legs and parrots named Cap'n Flint--were wholly imaginary. The character of Long John Silver was based not on any real pirate but on Stevenson's friend, the eccentric (and landlubbing) editor W.E. Henley.

But the myth stuck, and in its wake came a veritable treasure chest of fictional pirate lore. Who can forget Errol Flynn as the charismatically maniacal Captain Thorpe? Or Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in The Black Pirate, shinning down a ship's sail as he slices it in half with his knife? From Captain Hook to the jolly rogues of Gilbert and Sullivan, the pirate has cast a long, exotically titillating shadow over Western childhood for more than one hundred years.

Now, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists are looking at the rambunctious buccaneers in a new--and decidedly more serious--light. Were the dashing and dastardly icons of our cultural imagination really the monsters they have been portrayed to be? Or does a more complex reality lie just below the surface? Instead of being the biker gangs of the eighteenth century, were they in fact nascent democrats and socialists who shared their spoils, practiced free love, offered women exciting job opportunities, and treated blacks with dignity? At the very least, researchers are saying, it's time to make Long John Silver walk the plank and look at the actual maritime outlaw--not to mention the cruel mercantile system that produced him.

Indeed, the scholarly pendulum has swung in a rather romantic new direction: Some of today's revisionists laud pirates as proto-revolutionaries, heroic proletarian rebels fighting the brutal oppression of the emerging capitalist world order. One historian, Peter Linebaugh, calls pirates "seventeenth-century Soviets on water." Not everyone is convinced, however: Hugh Thomas, the author of The Slave Trade (1997), chuckles, "I would be most doubtful that pirates had any moral posture, much less philosophy!" Nonetheless, in an era when "outlaw" is increasingly seen as a synonym for "subversive," pirates are getting credit for everything from launching multiculturalism to--of all things--lighting the fires of the American Revolution.

PIRACY, OR ROBBERY committed on the high seas, first flourished on the Atlantic following Hernán Cortés's conquest of Mexico in 1521. Centered mainly in the Caribbean and off the eastern seaboard of the United States, the bandits targeted gold and silver being transported from Spanish and Portuguese colonies back to the ports of Europe. Because nations like France and England were excluded by papal edict from this lucrative trade route, called the Spanish Main, they resorted to state-sponsored theft--or privateering--as a way of muscling in. Privateers were given licenses to plunder at will, sacking Spanish towns on the mainland and stealing treasure ships. During this era of government-backed aggression, most European privateers operating in the Caribbean were not only legal but considered national heroes. Hence, Sir Francis Drake attained his status as an English cult hero by netting the avaricious Queen Elizabeth the modern-day equivalent of a cool $100 million. (The queen faced down the fury of many a frustrated Spanish ambassador.) The brutal Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan--who pillaged the town of Puerto Bello in 1668 and ravaged Panama three years later--was knighted for his efforts in 1674.

By the 1690s, however, many privateers had dropped all loyalty to anyone but themselves. Without the protection of a national flag, the bandits became full-fledged pirates. The spoils obtained by these freebooters became part of a clandestine trade often involving Colonial governors, plantation owners, and local Caribbean merchants. Using a wide variety of stolen and converted ships, pirates cast ripples of unease all over the Atlantic, threatening both slave and treasure ships en route from Africa to the Americas. They frequently took over the ships they stole, thus commanding forty-gun warships equal in size and firepower to second-rank ships of the official navies. Ships often changed hands several times: Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge, for example, was originally a Dutch ship in French service called Margaret. With these means, the English-speaking pirates of the Caribbean based in the Bahamian island of Providence reached their zenith around 1710.

But in 1713, the Treaties of Utrecht granted the British even larger commercial interests in the Caribbean, and the Crown soon resolved to stamp out the pirates at all costs. Between 1717 and 1726, a fierce war was waged, with the result that the dreaded raiders' power was broken in the Atlantic. The massacre of Bartholomew Roberts and his crew by the British Royal Navy in 1722 is usually seen as the end of piracy's Atlantic heyday.

Clearly, piracy has a complicated and ever-changing complexion, and it is perhaps from this ambiguous history that the pirate's dual image as hero and villain derives. Seen as both free spirit and felon, the buccaneer enjoys the same love-hate relationship with our culture as the similarly folkloric bandits of the Wild West. The pirate is malleable and plastic: villain, rebel, seducer, barbarian, man of the people, idealist, and sadist. He is what we want him to be.

THE CURRENT STORM of interest in revising the pirate myth stems in part from a single archaeological discovery made thirteen years ago in the stormy waters off Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod Bay. There, a former high school history teacher named Barry Clifford had heard stories all his life about a mysterious ship called the Whydah that had gone down in a nor'easter in April 1717. It had belonged to the pirate Sam Bellamyan enigmatic Englishman who rampaged around the West Indies between 1715 and 1717, capturing more than fifty ships. The Whydah, named for an African port, sank while the pirate was rushing back to New England to visit his girlfriend, the alleged witch Maria Hallett. (They were quite a pair.)

In 1978, Clifford began researching depositions made at the trials of some of Bellamy's crew. He determined to find the legendary ship, and in 1984, using electronic sensing equipment, he did so. The Whydah became the first authenticated pirate ship ever resurfaced.

The excavation of the ship has yielded more than 200,000 artifacts: a teapot with a piece of human shoulder bone wedged into it, Spanish silver coins, exquisite French pistols, and the oldest examples of West African Akan gold jewelry ever found. (Its holdings will be the subject of a National Geographic Society exhibition in Washington, D.C., next year.) But what made the Whydah so significant were the clues it began to reveal concerning the internal composition of what Clifford calls "pirate society." For many, it was assumed that pirates were ad hoc criminals of the usual sort, anarchic and rude. Yet the project historian, Kenneth Kinkor, began to notice details that did not fit the stereotype. In the first place, the Akan jewelry had been hacked apart with clear knife marks, which suggested that there had been an attempt to divide it equally. While this might strike us as a deplorable act of aesthetic vandalism, it does indicate, Clifford points out, that there was an "equitable system of distribution."

In the second place, eyewitness accounts of washed-up corpses revealed that many of the bodies on the shore after the sinking were black. Of Bellamy's crew of two hundred men, a full quarter were apparently of African descent. Kinkor became convinced that, although the Whydah had originally been an English slaver plying the coastal waters of West Africa, the blacks on board at the time of the ship's sinking were pirates, not captives. In the seventeenth century, he notes, blacks were "not tried as criminals when caught on pirate ships, it being assumed they were merely slaves." But by the eighteenth century, they were being tried alongside their white comrades--and being executed with them, too.

"Our image of pirates as overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon began to disintegrate before my eyes," Kinkor reports. "Pirates judged Africans more on the basis of their language and sailing skills--in other words, on their level of cultural attainment--than on their race. That has to be unique for the white world of the early eighteenth century, to put it mildly." In fact, he goes on, blacks often became powerful quartermasters, even captains. One such, Laurens de Graff, stormed Vera Cruz in 1683 and was later made a minor French noble. Such stories, Kinkor claims, have "predictably" been ignored by historians. It is curious to think that just about the only place an armed black man could exist in the white world of the time was on the deck of a pirate ship.

But Kinkor goes much further in his guesswork. One retrieved pewter platter bears the Masonic compass-and-square symbol; based on this evidence, Kinkor speculates that Freemasonry was rife among pirates. Bellamy's fleet, he further asserts, was fully multinational and multiethnic. Dare one say, multicultural? The ship's crew shared no common language, no common religion, and recognized no government or laws. It was a "deviant subculture," Kinkor enthuses, a permanent social revolt at sea: "This is a proto-revolutionary movement. It manifests itself as criminality, but it is in fact the expression of social discontent. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm has put it, these are 'social bandits,' not random criminals. And what they have are floating democratic commonwealths. They even had what we would call workers' comp." (Contemporary sources, Kinkor explains, put the going rate for a lost leg at about £150.)

THIS NOTION OF PIRATES as early socialists can, in fact, be traced to Hobsbawm's 1969 landmark book, Bandits. The distinguished Marxist historian argued that, in the transition from peasant economies to capitalism, there were winners and losers; in the lawless frontier zones of the late seventeenth century, the losers often took to banditry to survive. This was "social banditry," not criminality, and the social bandit quickly became a mythic, symbolic figure. Hobsbawm writes, "In a society in which men live by subservience, as ancillaries to machines of metal or moving parts of human machinery, the bandit lives and dies with a straight back." However, Hobsbawm was careful to point out that banditry was not a revolutionary activity, merely a desperate response to upheaval.

The leftist historian Christopher Hill applied Hobsbawm's sympathetic treatment of banditry to the open seas in his influential 1984 essay "Radical Pirates?" Following the collapse of the English Revolution in 1660, Hill argued, the West Indies--in particular, Barbados and Jamaica--were flooded with a "floating population" of "persecuted radicals" who eagerly signed up for the pirate life. These exiles, Hill suggested, "no doubt carried with them ideas which had originated in revolutionary England." In his book Liberty Against the Law (1996), Hill reiterated his belief that pirates were part of a "silenced vagabond class." The former peasantry, he argued, had either to enter the wage economy or roam the earth as highwaymen, pirates, or criminals: perpetual exiles created by bourgeois "law." Like the Diggers and Levellers of England, who responded politically to the same dispossession, pirates were fighting back against a cruel system of private property.

This view of the seventeenth-century criminal class has often been criticized as flimsy. One reviewer of Hill's book, Cambridge historian John Adamson, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph: "To travel with Dr. Hill through these pirate caves and smugglers' dens is to travel with Candide. All he sees is the good. His pirates and highwaymen belong to a Disney World where only bloodless banditry seems to take place."

Nevertheless, younger scholars have generally followed the Hobsbawm-Hill line of argument and often taken it much further. Kinkor, for example, sees a clear piratical influence in American revolutionary movements. In his view, both phenomena were reactions to the same oppressive forces. "The notion," he says, "that both systems had checks and balances built into them is very interesting. One can't prove it, but it's intriguing."

One might object that the American rebels were far from being disenfranchised proles; rather, they were prosperous and well-educated middle-class merchants and gentlemen farmers with a tax grievance. Nevertheless, the notion that pirates were instrumental in fomenting American revolutionary sentiment has achieved a kind of academic liftoff. Indeed, it is now pointed out, a twelve-year-old Benjamin Franklin may have penned a well-known ditty about Blackbeard, which includes the freedom-loving couplet:

    It's better to swim in the sea below
    Than swing in the air to feed the crow.

WHAT, THEN, of this same Blackbeard? If Long John Silver is the fictional archetype of the pirate, then Blackbeard is the historical one. Famous for tying lighted cannon wicks into his hair as he plowed into battle and forcing captives to dine on their own ears, he was immortalized in film by Robert Newton in Raoul Walsh's 1952 Blackbeard the Pirate.

Blackbeard's real career, in fact, fully matched the Hollywood hyperbole. Starting out from Bristol, Edward Teach roved the waters off the eastern American seaboard piling up booty, eventually ending up in a notorious pirate community in the Bahamas. His blockade of Charleston in June 1718 was a national spectacle, after which he was pursued by the governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood. Blackbeard's last stand, in Ocracoke Inlet off the coast of North Carolina in 1718, is the stuff of pirate myth: During an epic battle on deck, the pirate was decapitated and his head hung from the bows of the British man-of-war. Legend has it that the headless corpse swam around the ship several times before sinking.

In November 1996, the Florida salvaging company Intersal claimed to have discovered the remains of Blackbeard's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, near the resort of Beaufort, North Carolina. It is only the second pirate marine archaeological site ever to be uncovered.

Intersal's director, Phil Masters, at once proclaimed it "the most important underwater archaeological site ever found in the New World," and a media blitz accompanied the painstaking recovery of an odd assortment of barnacled objects: a bronze bell dated 1709, glass shards from gin bottles, and thirteen enormous cannons.

Although some pirate scholars (including Barry Clifford) cast doubts on its authenticity due to the lack of any clearly identifying artifacts, state authorities at once pounced on the Queen Anne's Revenge as a sensational addition to the coast's tourist profile. (They point out that the retrieved ship's size and location closely matches eyewitness accounts from the period.) A new multimillion-dollar museum is being planned by the North Carolina Maritime Museum to house the artifacts, politicians ecstatically foresee Blackbeard motels and restaurants sprouting up like mushrooms, and a mock cannon battle known as Blackbeard's Bounty Festival has been staged--all of this predicated on folklore that historians are actively trying to demolish.

Was Blackbeard's fearsome reputation more hype than substance? David Moore, who runs the conservation facility at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, insists that Blackbeard was hardly the killer of popular legend. "I think it was all bluff," he says. In Moore's opinion, the pirate's most famous exploit--the Charleston blockade--had as its objective obtaining medicines for a crew probably suffering from syphilis. "There's no document," Moore adds, "which shows that Blackbeard killed anyone except in the final battle, and even in that case, you could argue it was in self-defense." Yet Moore cautions that archaeology by itself can only furnish tantalizing hints as to the exact nature of pirate societies.

The Beaufort excavation may prove that our hardy sea wolves downed many a pint of gin, and the Whydah may show that the odd crew member was a closet Freemason. But will they ever prove that pirates were seventeenth-century iconoclasts, democrats and free spirits instead of the rampaging churls in ruffs we have all come to love? James Delgado, executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, explains the dilemma: "We're demythologizing pirates just as we're deconstructing everything else. But there is no 'true' history, only interpretations. You could see them as criminals; you also could see them as rebels against the iniquitous mercantile system of their time." Delgado pauses. "How you see pirates, I suspect, is dependent very much on your ideology. Piracy may be the oldest trade after prostitution, but it remains the most mysterious historically. There are hardly any real artifacts to go on. One has to reconstruct it."

TWO GREAT STUDIES of Caribbean piracy dominate the early scholarship: A.O. Exquemelin's De Americaensche Zee-Roovers (1678) and Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), a text filled with firsthand accounts of pirate ships written by an enigmatic author about whom almost nothing is known. Both did much to bolster government propaganda of the time by portraying the "sea-dogs" as inveterate rogues. Johnson, for example, more or less sums up the official line: "Thus we see what a disastrous Fate, ever attends the Wicked, and how rarely they escape the Punishment due to their Crimes, who abandon themselves to such a profligate Life, as to rob, spoil, and prey upon Mankind." Exquemelin describes many forms of spine-chilling torture used by pirates. Of one particularly unsavory incident, the Dutch chronicler writes: "Others had burning matches placed twisted about their fingers, which were thus burned alive. Others had slender cords or matches betwixt their heads, till their eyes burst out of the skull."

Such horror stories do, in fact, have some basis in reality. For example, British naval historian David Cordingly writes in Under the Black Flag (1995) that the ferocious French pirate Montbars Languedoc would rip out the intestines of his victims, nail one end to a post, and then force the victim to dance away while his backside was pounded with a burning log.

But, Cordingly points out, it is unfair to single out pirates for egregious acts of violence. "While the catalog of pirate cruelties is endless," he writes, "it needs to be put into perspective. Pirates were not the only people guilty of violence and atrocities. Life for the common sailor in the merchant navy could be a living hell if he found himself on board a ship run by a captain who took a delight in bullying his men." Cruelty by captains against crewmen was, Cordingly argues, routine and savage. The sadistic Captain Haskins, for example, was known for beating men with a marlinespike; the records of the High Court of Admiralty are filled with tales of captains lashing men to mizzenmasts and leaving them to die. Cordingly rather dramatically compares many ships to Inquisitional dungeons. "It is usual nowadays to regard a sailing ship as a thing of beauty," he writes, "but it could be turned into a torture chamber by a sadistic captain. There were boat hooks and brooms and iron bars to beat men with. There were axes and hammers and cutlasses to cause grievous wounds. There were ropes of all sizes that could be used to whip, strangle, and stretch bodies and limbs." While this might sound like a tantalizing advertisement for an S/M lair, Cordingly's baroque descriptions serve to make the point that accounts of pirate violence are themselves a smoke screen for a greater kind of violence.

In other words, the violence of pirates is a reflection of the violence of an inhumane System--not of their own free-floating society. Following this line of argument, University of Pittsburgh historian Marcus Rediker, in a book called Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1987), paints a chilling picture of pirates as the Great Oppressed. Rediker's thesis is that Caribbean piracy shows a slow evolution that clearly reveals its underpinnings in social unrest. In his view, pirates were originally "free-wage laborers... members of an uncontrolled, freewheeling subculture which gave pirates the perspective and occasion to fight back against brutal and unjust authority and to construct a new social order where King Death would not reign supreme." Following Britain's gains after the War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1713, Rediker argues, pirates became proletarian outcasts and miscreants. Like witches, mendicants, slaves, indentured servants, and maroons, pirates had to be forced into legitimate labor markets--and once the remaining pirate ships became what we would now call worker-controlled cooperatives, says Rediker, the imperial states began hanging people pour encourager les autres.

"I think these ships provoked the fear of a good example," Rediker says. "They were multiethnic, which must have horrified the imperial powers in the Caribbean. Pirates subverted everything in the status quo. We know that they deliberately targeted abusive captains, and that they did propose an alternative society, which must have seemed glamorously utopian to ordinary people. There was a clearly countercultural air about them." It is worth recalling, indeed, that the pirate Philip Lyne confessed to having killed thirty-seven captains--class war in extremis.

Then again, wasn't law and order simply following the rolling back of a frontier, as it usually does? "Well, it's clearly not as simple as that," Rediker says. Nor does he find it hyperbolic to claim that pirates had a deep influence on Colonial American antiauthoritarianism. After all, weren't they always crying "Curse the King and the Higher Powers"?

Rediker shares Kinkor's vision of pirates as nautical Paul Reveres. "On the level of oral history, of hidden ideas, I think pirates had a powerful effect on the Americas," he argues. "Popular English radicalism of the seventeenth century may well have been carried around the world by pirates. Some of the American sailors captured by the British during the Revolutionary War organized themselves in prison exactly like on pirate ships!" In the same spirit, Rediker pointedly observes, the bare-breasted figure of Liberty in Delacroix's famous revolutionary 1831 painting Liberty Leading the People is strikingly similar to an engraving of the notorious female pirate Anne Bonny, who was typically depicted with her breasts bared.

REDIKER'S WORK, a dramatic extension of Hobsbawm's critique, has stirred to life a rash of feminist, Marxist, and gay studies of what many now call the "international nautical proletariat." In 1995, the self-described "radical cultural worker" Jo Stanley brought out Bold in Her Breeches, a study of women pirates with chapter titles like "Criminals, Communards or Crumpets?" and "Brigand Dominatrices for Utopia-Seeking Masochists." Attempting to tell the subterranean story of female cross-dressers in a "patriarchal" world, Stanley opines that women have a secret history within piracy almost as enigmatic as piracy itself--even if only ten bona fide female pirates have been identified. (Two ships, ten women: Lack of evidence has never been a barrier in this field.) Stanley even suggests that piracy appealed to lesbians wishing to flee "family surveillance." She concludes, "Women pirates were part of a category of unruly characters including highwaywomen, murderers, and prostitutes seen as in need of control and punishment for their non-conformity."

But there is clearly unease in this feminist vision of pirates. On one page, we are shown a picture of Blackbeard's vessels "carousing on the coast of Carolina." But, cries the caption, is this "community celebration or a sentimentalized eighteenth-century orgy?" One cannot tell. Clearly, women as molls, sex toys, and pirate prostitutes makes for a less rousing revision. (And the specter of rape, one suspects, is never far from the horizon.) Were rapists, too, heroically resistant "non-conformists"?

Arizona State historian B.R. Burg, in Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (1984), brings the same revisionist spirit to piratical homosexuality. In the book, he boldly but airily asserts an "almost universal homosexual involvement among pirates" and speculates as to the myriad forms of on-deck masturbation and all-male transgressive bonding on the high seas--giving surprising new meanings, one supposes, to those tired old refrains of "fifteen men on a dead man's chest." Burg portrays pirate ships as veritable paradises for homosexuals, claiming at one point that "the lack of persecution and the ease of making homosexual contacts probably eliminated the need for social centers similar to modern-day gay bars, coffee houses, bathouses, or bookstores."

As for Rediker, he's hardly uttered his last word on the subject. He's currently co-writing The Many-Headed Hydra, which proposes a new term, "hydrarchy," to characterize what he calls "the uniquely free-floating social dynamics of pirate culture."

The University of Toledo's Peter Linebaugh, Rediker's co-author, describes pirates as part of an "international vagabond class" and calls their violence "resistance" to an imperial ruling class. "Pirates were much more political than we are," Linebaugh avers, "popping as we do into a little voting booth every four years. And I believe their human creations have left a legacy in the Caribbean: multiethnicity, for example, or the creole languages." In an earlier book, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (1991), Linebaugh suggested that the sea was a place where the dispossessed could strike back and appropriate some of the wealth of the thieving capitalists. At a time when Britain's annual import-export trade amounted to £14.5 million, he claimed, the average seaman was making just 30 shillings a month. Buccaneers, he gushes, represent "a living continuum of resistance. Most historians have scorned them, but I see them as one variation of the International, as a part of an ongoing story or struggle. I see them in the context of 1789, of 1848, the Revolution of 1905. It's the same 'hydra' of the dispossessed. They have been the victims of the ruling class along with all the other oppressed groups, whether they be the Irish, slaves, women, or landless peasants."

One might ask whether such revision is being made in the service of a romanticism curiously akin to the Victorian iconography to which it so vociferously objects. Among the most famous pirate paintings, for example, is Howard Pyle's So the Treasure Was Divided, which shows a crew doling out its booty on a "democratic" basis. One could argue, indeed, that the myth of pirates as hearty, egalitarian musketeers is part of this very same iconography. For as it turns out, the notion of the pirate as an aquatic Robin Hood is rooted in the very same blood-soaked texts that revisionists are apparently so anxious to repudiate.

In Captain Johnson's History, for example, we find a complete rendition of the "Ten Articles" that supposedly regulated the pirate ships--from "Every man has a Vote in Affairs of Moment" to "Equal title to the fresh Provisions." Gambling was forbidden, and duels on land were to replace unseemly squabbles on deck. Article IX tells us that every man was obliged to stay in the company until each had made $1,000 profit. Lights were put out at eight--and each pirate had to keep his cutlass clean.

While Johnson gives us a bloodcurdling picture of real pirates like Blackbeard, he also offers up the legendary figure of Misson, a democratic pirate leader who supposedly founded a utopian society called Libertalia on Madagascar. Johnson's Libertalia is clearly derived from Thomas More's Utopia and--as Rediker points out in a 1996 essay--heavily borrows from medieval and folkloric utopias such as the mythic "Land of Cockaygne," where workers and peasants enjoy a life of plenty. According to Johnson, the pirates there are "vigilant Guardians of the People's Rights and Liberties." They "look'd upon a Democratical Form." Rediker feels stirred to add that Misson's followers were "anti-capitalist, opposed to the dispossession that necessarily accompanied the historic ascent of wage labor and capitalism."

But Johnson says no such thing. Misson's objections to tyranny and monarchy have little in them specific to what we now call capitalism; they are more appropriately seen as applied to all forms of despotism and deprivation.

Besides, pirates cannot be said to have been indifferent to either money or property. For wasn't the lusty acquisition of both their primary interest?

Another problem with Rediker's argument is that, as scholars attest, Misson himself is clearly fictitious. Rediker gets around this by some deft insinuations: "But was it a fiction? Since a man named Misson and a place named Libertalia apparently never existed, the literal answer must be yes. But in a deeper historical and political sense Misson and Libertalia were not just simply fictions.... Libertalia was a literary expression of the living traditions, practices, and dreams of an Atlantic working class." Yet Misson's sentiments are just as likely to be those of Johnson himself. It is simply impossible to say.

Rediker breathlessly claims that in this literary myth we see how sailors "in practice created a counterculture to the dominant ways of organizing maritime life and labor." But do we? Utopias are not transcriptions of actual practices but perennial dreams. To read them as anything else is surely misleading. And when all is said and done, a ship is not a "society." Blackbeard's ship, when it was captured, yielded less than two dozen men--hardly a commonwealth. A society is not a marauding vessel roaming from port to port and consisting of a few dozen men (and almost no women) in search of doubloons and spare parts--any more than the eternal clichés of utopian literature constitute a "counterculture." It is merely tempting to see them as such.

In the end, we'll never know what pirates themselves read into their various articles and constitutions nor what subterranean influence they ever had on terra firma's kingdoms. University of York historian Simon Smith thinks that piracy may well have been motivated by some sort of political rebellion against the ancien régime, and that, as outcasts, pirates had to organize to survive. "I think they do raise questions about what a contract is, what an institution is, and so forth," he muses. "On the other hand, their connection to revolutionary ideology is pure speculation. We'll never know exactly what their political and social influence really was or whether they had any opinions on those matters at all." Simon concludes that today's pirate revisionism is more a commentary on ourselves than on the pirates themselves. "A lot of labor history went sort of underground with the collapse of communism and has just resurfaced in some odd places," he laughs. "We like to look back and rewrite the histories of the marginalized."

As for the pirates themselves, one wonders what they might have thought about being aligned with Soviets, the International, and workers' comp. Can we imagine Long John Silver crying, "Up the workers, laddie!" or Captain Hook signing a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen with his metal appendage? Rather, they may well have simply wondered how much loot there was for them and, after getting a disappointing answer, gone back to the Jolly Roger, buried treasure, and loud refrains of "Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!"

Lawrence Osborne is the author of Paris Dreambook and The Poisoned Embrace, both published by Vintage. His article, "The Women Warriors," appeared in the December/January 1998 issue.

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