Why do North Carolinians love pirates so much?
Pirates in North Carolina again?
Yes, we remember Black Beard. Most authorities now agree that the shipwreck we thought was Black Beard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge is just that. The big news about the recovery of the ship’s anchor has us talking about pirates again.
The new “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, although not as big a hit as its predecessors, brought the world’s attention to pirate mythology again.
At East Carolina University, the Pirates nickname for its athletic teams makes all ECU fans justifiably proud of their pirate heritage. It is the same thing for many North Carolina high schools that have adopted this popular nickname.
But, when we are pushed to explain why we are so enthusiastically romantic about pirates and their mythology, we begin to stutter. It is difficult to explain why we would want to tie ourselves so closely to a group of ruthless, brutal, selfish thieves. These are not the kinds of people we ordinarily would claim for our own.
We simply do not have a good explanation for our love of pirates.
Three new books might help us as we struggle to understand our identification with pirates.
First, there is “Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life & Legend,” a biography by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams. As noted in an earlier column, this book teaches us that Sir Walter’s colonizing efforts on our coast were originally intended to be used as a big base to support the business of capturing Spanish ships carrying South American gold to Spain. Queen Elizabeth authorized and encouraged such privateering. But there was a thin line between privateering and piracy. So you could say, and not be far from the mark, that North Carolina’s close association with pirates began with the earliest European contact with our land.
Second, “The Jefferson Key,” a thriller by Steve Berry and already a New York Times bestseller, is based on the premise that privateers helped win the Revolutionary War for George Washington by disrupting British commercial shipping. That is at least partially true.
In the book, which is fiction, Washington was so grateful for the service of the privateers that he gave several North Carolina families the right to attack and seize the commerce of America’s enemies in perpetuity. These fictional families, led by a complicated man named Quentin Hale, live on posh estates near Bath.
Even more disturbing, when Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy tried to limit their perpetual authority to engage in privateering, these North Carolina families arranged for their assassinations.
Thirdly, Michael Parker’s novel, “The Watery Part of the World,” set on the Outer Banks, opens in 1812 when a group of land-based North Carolina pirates seize a grounded schooner carrying Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of former Vice President Aaron Burr and wife of the governor of South Carolina.
In this story, the pirates butcher most of the crew and passengers. Theodosia survives only to find herself in a community of pirates run by a terroristic dictator. Without apology, these thieves draw to the shore where they will run aground. They attach a lantern to the neck of an old horse and walk it up and down the beach. At night the bobbing light looks like another ship sailing in a safe area. Nags Head gets its name from this activity.
Michael Parker’s fictional land-based pirates on the Outer Banks are as evil and brutal a bunch as you could ever imagine. His book is a wonderful read and a great adventure story. But I hope that the cruelty of our pirate forebears on the Outer Banks is exaggerated.
Put on your eye patches, wear those funny hats, and hold on to your plastic swords – we North Carolinians are going to be pirates to the end.