11 August, 2018

What Is It About Pirates? by Helen Hollick

Pirates have fascinated people for several centuries. The Master Terrorists of their age, the sailors of the early eighteenth century who went ‘On the Account’ hoping to gain a fortune often led a short, but exciting life. Albeit one supplemented by rum and debauchery. But how much is fact, and how much is fiction? Helen has written a series of nautical Voyages based around her fictional pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne and his ship, Sea Witch, but her latest UK release in paperback is a non-fiction book – Pirates: Truth and Tales published by Amberley Press, which explores our fascination with the real pirates and those who are favourites in fiction. Today, Helen drops anchor for another interesting addition to her on-line two-week Voyage around the Blogs with a pirate or two for company…

What is it about the Caribbean pirates of the early 1700s that compels us to dress up like them in fancy dress, or as near accurate detail as possible for re-enactments or festivals? Why do we have this fascination with the men (and a few women) who were thoroughly nasty – even evil – terrorists, murderers, rapists and thieves?

Hollywood, TV drama and novels are to blame, especially after the recent upsurge of interest when the first Disney franchise of The Pirates Of The Caribbean hit our screens with that scallywag scoundrel Jack Sparrow, portrayed by actor Johnny Depp. Even the baddies in that movie were likeable, loveable chaps! But that was the point of the movie, The Curse Of The Black Pearl, it was intended as family entertainment fun.

My own series of nautical adventures, the Sea Witch Voyages, follow the same theme, tongue-in-cheek sailor’s yarns, although written for adults, as they do include a darker, adult side with adult content. Again, intentional. As one Amazon reviewer (nicely) put it: “The story itself [Sea Witch] was surprisingly original. A work like this is always going to draw the inevitable comparisons with Jack Sparrow’s big screen adventures, but this is exceedingly more down to earth and possesses far more soul and charm. The two main characters were fresh and endearing, especially Tiola and their relationship and struggles leant real weight to this exciting tale. I’m quite thrilled about having several more of their stories to explore in the future.” Words which I am delighted with, of course.

When writing Pirates: Truth and Tales I set out to balance the what really happened in that Golden Age, against the lighter side of fiction and on-screen drama. I blended the chapters about the reality (neatly, I hope) with excerpts from fiction and sections about our beloved fictional characters. But novels and movies depicting what is, essentially, a fairy-tale view are very different from what was the reality.

Pirates were often driven into plundering merchant ships through poverty, necessity and opportunity. As sailors they mutinied if aboard a ship with a miserly captain, or became pirates when the choice was ‘join us or die.’ Only one of the more famous pirate captains, Edward Lowe, was known to be a criminal before he turned pirate. Several pirates were cruel, evil men, (especially Lowe.) Some were women. All were thieves and murderers.

Life in the 18th century was not easy for anyone except the gentry and the wealthy merchants. Poor food, dirty and cramped living conditions was the norm for the majority of people. Work was hard to find. Convicted criminals were hanged. They were the lucky ones, for few survived the depravation of gaol or transportation to the other side of the world – to the plantations of the American Colonies, for Captain James Cook was not due to ‘discover’ Australia until a good many years later than the early 1700s.

At the start of the 18th century, the world was opening up, new countries, new goods, were being found. Gold and other riches from the crumbled South American Empires funded the wealth of Spain and Europe, although most of it was spent on financing wars. The relatively new North American Colonies were emerging as lucrative tobacco, sugar and cotton plantations. The world’s oceans were becoming busy trade routes with ships getting bigger and faster, and the temptation to acquire ill-gotten plunder was an attractive prospect. Where there was trade, there were pirates. There still is.

There was all kinds of valuable stuff for the taking. The Prize was the ultimate goal; a heavily laden East Indiaman on her way home from the East Indies, or a Spanish Galleon ploughing across the Atlantic from Mexico to Spain, her hold groaning with treasure. Pursuit at sea could last from anything between an hour or two to several days, but the Prize had to be an easy target, one that would surrender without putting up a fight. Pirates had fast ships, guns, and bravado by the bucket-load. They made a noise, a lot of it, and a great amount of intimidation, shouting and jeering, banging anything that came to hand. The wise captain of a pursued ship gave in quickly, showed where the goods were stowed and made no resistance. Put up a fight, however, and pirates could turn nasty. Very nasty.

With a hold filled with looted booty the destination for any pirate crew was the nearest town that had an adequate harbour with taverns and brothels a-plenty. Few pirates became rich for most of them spent their ill-gotten gain almost as soon as they gained it. Many pirates were riddled with sexual diseases. Nearly all were permanently drunk. A pistol shot or the hangman’s noose awaited most of them. It was a short life, but, apparently, a merry one.

I’ve written five novels in my Sea Witch series, six if you count an e-book novella (When The Mermaid Sings) with the next adventure, Gallows Wake, half completed as I write this. And I have written Pirates: Truth And Tales, a factual book with excerpts from fiction, but the question remains: why this fascination that we have for pirates?

If ever I discover the answer, I’ll let you know.

You know I'm bad, I'm bad - come on, you know
(Bad bad - really, really bad)
And the whole world has to
Answer right now
Just to tell you once again,
Who's bad...
Michael Jackson’s words sum pirates up very well.
The real pirates were bad. Really, really bad.

© Helen Hollick

Pirates: Truth And Tales published in paperback in the UK July 2018 and November 2018 in the US – but available for pre-order.

Buy the Books: Amazon Author Page (Universal Link) viewAuthor.at/HelenHollick

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Twitter: @HelenHollick

Follow Helen’s Tour:
These links will take you to the Home Page of each blog host – Helen says thank you for their interest and enthusiasm! For exact URL links to each article go to Helen’s website:  www.helenhollick.net  which will be updated every day of the tour.

30th July: Cryssa Bazos  https://cryssabazos.com/ Dropping Anchor to Talk About Pirates
31st July: Anna Belfrage  https://annabelfrage.wordpress.com/ Ships That Pass…
1st August: Carolyn Hughes https://carolynhughesauthor.com/blog/ Pirates of the Middle Ages
2nd August: Alison Morton   https://alison-morton.com/blog/ From Pirate to Emperor
3rd August: Annie Whitehead https://rwranniewhitehead.blogspot.com/ The Vikings: Raiders or Pirates?
4th August: Tony Riches http://tonyriches.blogspot.co.uk/ An Interview With Helen Hollick (and maybe a couple of pirates thrown in for good measure?)
5th August: Lucienne Boyce http://francesca-scriblerus.blogspot.com/ Anne and Mary. Pirates.
6th August: Laura Pilli http://fieldofbookishdreams.blogspot.co.uk/ Why Pirates?
7th August: Mary Tod https://awriterofhistory.com/ That Essential Element… For A Pirate.
8th August: Pauline Barclay http://paulinembarclay.blogspot.com/ Writing Non-Fiction. How Hard Can It Be?   
9th August: Nicola Smith http://shortbookandscribes.uk/ Pirates: The Tales Mixed With The Truth
10th August: Christoph Fischer https://writerchristophfischer.wordpress.com/ In The Shadow Of The Gallows
11th August: Debdatta http://www.ddsreviews.in/ What Is It About Pirates?
12th August: Discovering Diamonds https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.co.uk/ It’s Been An Interesting Voyage…
13th August: Sarah Greenwood https://www.amberley-books.com/blog Pirates: The Truth and the Tales
14th August: Antoine Vanner https://dawlishchronicles.com/dawlish-blog/ The Man Who Knew About Pirates


Helen moved from London in 2013 and now lives with her family in North Devon, in an eighteenth century farmhouse. First published in 1994, her passion now is her pirate character, Captain Jesamiah Acorne of the nautical adventure series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown) the story of Saxon Queen, Emma of Normandy. Her novel Harold the King (US title I Am The Chosen King) explores the events that led to the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, set in the fifth century, is widely praised as a more down-to-earth historical version of the Arthurian legend. She has written three non-fiction books, Pirates: Truth and Tales, Smugglers in Fact and Fiction (to be published 2019) and as a supporter of indie writers, co-wrote Discovering the Diamond with her editor, Jo Field, a short advice guide for new writers. She runs the Discovering Diamonds review blog for historical fiction assisted by a team of enthusiastic reviewers. 
Helen is published in various languages.


  1. Thank you for kindly hosting me today - and thank you to all who visit and enjoy my post about pirates

  2. Thanks for a fascinating blog. I like the way you point out that pirates were very nasty - but also draw attention to how economic conditions were a contributing factor to their careers. No story is ever simple! Just as well for novelists.