“A short life and a merry one,” was the call of many pirates. If you’ve read much of my writing, you know that I believe that many pirates joined the ranks of the Gentlemen of Fortune because they were sick of working under horrible conditions for little pay. Pirates simply said, “I’m mad as hell and I won’t take it anymore.” Then they went off to have fun.
I’m coming to this train of thought after reading “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. The book tells about the biological history of the human race and its cultural development. One of the facts recounted in the book is that happiness is ultimately brought about because of chemicals released in the brain.
The book asks some intriguing questions. For instance, is it possible for a medieval peasant who has just put a new roof on his mud hut to be just a happy as a modern-day lawyer who has just paid off a penthouse apartment?
The book says “yes” and I agree, while reserving that a medieval peasant had a lot less stress on his mind to distract him from his happiness. A triumph is a triumph, and if you are doing better than your friends, you will probably feel pretty smug about that.
So, how does this relate to pirates?
Many books portray the lives of pirates as short, miserable and brutish. They are largely right. Sailors of the age did not live long. They ate poor food, were often sick with fevers, and suffered from liver trouble from the liquor they drank, and vitamin deficiencies from a limited diet. Pirates also lived a violent life, with frequent ship battles and occasional on-shore brawls.
How could people who lived like this be happy?
Because they were relatively much better than other men from similar backgrounds. If pirates did not live long, they lived as long as sailors could expect. Sailors died from sickness, storms and injury. Pirates faced the same risks. But where common sailors also complained that their ships put into ports where sickness was common, or were poorly maintained, pirates were free to leave a rotting or damaged ship behind and did not put into any port that the crew did not agree to.
Pirates may have often eaten the poorly preserved food of their day. But they lived in a society where everyone ate the same food, ship’s officers to the lowest member of the crew. This put everyone on equal footing. If pirates were considered the scum of the earth by the good citizens of the world, they were all scum together, making their relative position higher than their law-abiding brothers.
In addition, pirate food was probably objectively better than the food of regular sailors. When the people who procure the food also have to eat it, you tend to have better food. Thought the diet of salt beef, salt pork, ship’s biscuit and dried peas would be revolting to modern diners, it was better than what the other guy was eating.
Pirates also had more leisure time than their counterparts. In a society that did not value leisure time (see: The Protestant Work Ethic) pirates took extravagant “vacations” on a regular basis, living a life of ease after a few weeks spent plundering.
In short, pirates became pirates in order to attain the things that they believed led to a happy life. And, according to reports, they succeeded. .
The piratical way of life also solved a problem that modern people face when searching for happiness. This is the tendency of human nature to “smooth out” moods. According to this theory, unless strongly acted upon, we tend to return to a certain level of happiness which is our own “normal.”
So, putting a new roof on the old mud hut or paying off the penthouse brings a rush of joy. But in a few days it begins to lesson, and soon we are no more happy than we were.
Change is the answer to maintaining an elevated level of happiness. The medieval peasant had to wait between shots of happiness, but the modern lawyer who pays off a mortgage can continue searching for the “hit” of happiness. He can take a mistress, win a promotion, buy a better car, go on a vacation (or a better vacation.) get a better mistress, party with expensive hookers.
He doesn’t have to do these things, but the pleasures are available and tempting. Of course, most people would say that this is not the way to true contentment, but it is certainly an effective method of feeding an addiction.
Pirates could feed any addiction they had for the happiness jolt by frightening, assaulting and beating up their “betters,” the same people who had formerly looked down on them. They had nearly endless quantities of liquor, which was what they had dreamed of, and enough different kinds to provide variety. The possibility existed of sailing off to Madagascar, exploring the pirate-friendly ports of New York and Boston, or plundering Spanish cities in Central and South America.
Most of all, pirates had the chance to dream. Poor folk of the time had little or no chance to raise themselves in society. But a pirate could dream his way to the very top, imagining himself even as a Member of Parliament.
“In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto.” Bartholomew Roberts, pirate captain.