The Virtues of Piracy
Full disclosure: I am a real, legitimate pirate and quite proud of it. My legitimacy as a pirate was confirmed in 2014 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Federal Court Judge Alex Kozinski, who wrote in his verdict that my actions in defending whales from the unlawful operations of the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean were legitimately the actions of a pirate.
I was not charged or punished for being a pirate, although I was honored that he officially legitimized my status as a genuine bonafide pirate. This same judge was shamefully retired from the bench in 2017 for using court computers to download pornography, along with accusations of sexual harassment.
A person is a pirate if a government or a court declares that a person is a pirate. When pirates were useful, governments classified them as privateers. When they were no longer useful — for example, after the war of Spanish Succession in 1717 — they were fired as privateers and labeled pirates.
The simple definition of a pirate is a seafarer operating without a government license. The very act of taking a ship onto the high seas without a flag and registration is an act of piracy. Some pirates were traditionally given legitimacy with a Letter of Marque, allowing themselves to be called privateers. The founder of the United States Navy, Captain John Paul Jones, was labeled a pirate by the British government during the U.S. War of Independence. The only reason that he and the American revolutionaries were not punished as pirates, terrorists and traitors was because they were victorious.
Other privateers were Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh (yes, they were also knights). And in France, you had Robert Surcouf, who was given the Legion of Honor by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Pirates got things done and they cut through the red tape. Captain Henry Morgan, a pirate who ended piracy in parts of the Caribbean, was rewarded for that with the governorship of Jamaica. England created a fleet of pirates to war against the Spanish in the Caribbean and then dismissed them all when the Crown got what it wanted, forcing the unemployed privateers to take down the Union Jack and replace it with the black flag,
The 17th century, or the Golden Age of Piracy, marked a world defined by criminal and unethical behavior across the board. Slavery, genocide, racism, misogyny, corruption and violence were the norm. Within this context, pirates were remarkably democratic, humane and egalitarian. The life of a pirate was far more comfortable and profitable than the life of a merchant sailor or a member of the Royal Navy.
The pirates of the 17th century were way ahead of their time. Their ships were run democratically. Their captains and officers were elected, and women and non-whites were treated equally. Blackbeard intercepted slave ships and freed the captives and allowed freed slaves to rise in his ranks in accordance with their abilities. His closest friend was a former slave called Black Caesar.
Thieves or heroes?
Were they thieves? That depends on how you look at it. In the Caribbean they stole gold from the Spaniards who had stolen gold from the Aztec and the Incas. Their primary targets were corrupt merchants dealing in slaves or the profits of slavery. Liberating slaves in the 18th century was a crime, but today what those pirates did can be seen as heroic.
In a world where a child could be hung in London for stealing a loaf of bread, the risk of getting rich through piracy was not a huge leap. When pirate Anne Bonney was told that there was the death penalty for piracy, her answer was, “Thank God for that or every fool would be doing this.”
Stories of senseless violence committed by pirates have been grossly exaggerated. There were violent psychopaths like Charles Vane, but most of the legendary pirates did not torture or kill the crew of the ships they plundered. Captains Sam Bellamy, Benjamin Hornigold and even Blackbeard were averse to violence.
There is not a single authenticated account of anyone being forced to walk the plank. Pirate captains were forbidden to inflict punishment on any crewmember without the majority consent of the crew. The crew could remove their captain and replace him with a majority vote. All plunder was evenly divided amongst the crew including the captain and officers.
Pirate ships were democratic and egalitarian in an era when democracy and equality were unheard of concepts. Modern-day pirates like the Somali raiders are just impoverished fishermen, forced into piracy because of the looting of their waters by the more ruthless pirates onboard commercial fishing fleets from Asia and Europe.
In many ways, a pirate is a pirate according to the vested interests of the authorities opposing them. My definition of a pirate today is simply someone who defies the status quo, who questions authority and acts upon their conscience to pursue justice for nature, animals and human rights. The history of piracy is inspirational to many today because it is a history of passion, courage, resistance and perseverance.
Today there are numerous pirate political parties around the world — in Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Germany and even the United States. These libertarian pirate parties are united in advocating for civil rights, democracy, free speech and especially for a free use of cyber technology and social networking. All of these things originated with the philosophy of the 17th-century pirates. Captain Black Sam Bellamy referred to himself as a social revolutionary and a Robin Hood.
The black flag is the flag of piracy. but with a diversity of modifications. Every pirate designed his own flag, with individualism being the primary idea behind the flag. Originally the flags were French and red and referred to as the “pretty red” or “jolie rouge.” This became anglicized as “Jolly Roger.”
The flag I created for Sea Shepherd was designed to illustrate why we do what we do and how we did it. The black represents mass extinction and the skull represents that humanity is the cause. In other words, it represents the Anthropocene. The yin/yang of the dolphin and the sperm whale represents harmony inspired by the minds in the sea, the cetaceans. The trident represents aggression and the shepherd’s crook represents protection and illustrates our approach of “aggressive non-violence.” The dolphin in the trident represents that we are guided by the cetacean nation.
When I was forced out of Sea Shepherd in 2022 by a gang of mutineers, I simply redesigned the Jolly Roger to represent the Captain Paul Watson Foundation.
In the 1980s, the people we opposed — the sealers, whalers and poachers — would call us pirates. As a student of aikido, I realized that the most positive way to address this accusation was to embrace it. If they wanted to call us pirates, well, we would be pirates. In the early days, we did act as vigilantes. We were not protesters. We intervened against illegal activities and we did so without causing injury. We did not cause a single injury during the 45 years of my leadership with Sea Shepherd, nor were we ever convicted of a felony crime. We always operated within the boundaries of the law and practicality.
Within a year of my removal as campaign coordinator, a Mexican poacher was killed on December 31, 2020 when he attacked a Sea Shepherd ship and collided with the hull. Although not the fault of the Sea Shepherd crew, it was the end of our unblemished record, and I was relieved that it did not happen on my watch.
We operate within the boundaries of the law and practicality. The law as it pertains to the ocean is complicated. Essentially the high seas are the wild west. There really are no enforceable laws. Things like the High Seas Treaty are simply words on paper without enforcement. Outside of national jurisdictions, we operate in accordance with the principles of the United Nations World Charter for Nature, which allows for intervention by NGOs and individuals to uphold international conservation law.
The virtues of piracy are passion, courage, imagination, freedom and democracy plus resistance to government tyranny. Just as the social oppression of the 17th century created the foundation for the rise of piracy, the conditions today with regard to the environment, social justice, racism, discrimination and the diminishment of democratic freedoms is giving rise to an aggressive resistance.
The world needs more pirates of compassion and fewer bureaucrats, politicians and white-collared pirates of greed and oppression.