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Avast! This Oklahoma State professor studies pirates

OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

The pirate held a central place among rogues who scandalized through the pages of crime literature in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Pirates supplied ample material for tales of wild adventures in exotic locations. Beyond their luridly engaging exploits, the pirate figure appealed to writers and readers for intellectual reasons.

The Americas, including the Caribbean, opened imaginative space for moral and political philosophers to reimagine the fundamentals of human nature, the origins of civil society, and the best models for governance.

Literary pirates proved to be exceptionally suitable to consideration of these issues. By “turning to account,” or going rogue, literary pirates presented a kind of living experiment; their practice of exiting mainstream civil society and recreating alternative ones on their own terms allowed those who wrote about them to explore the fundamentals of human nature and the possibilities and limitations of civil organization at a time when these were pressing issues in Britain’s literary and philosophical circles.

In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with Dr. Richard Frohock to learn more about the impact pirates had on 18th Century literature.


Dr. Richard Frohock
Oklahoma State University
Dr. Richard Frohock

FROHOCK: The idea of the pirate on the high seas in the Caribbean kind of opened up a lot of imaginative space for writers. And some of the things that people were really interested in in this time period was kind of reconceiving civil society. What is the basis for constructing a state, right? And if you're thinking about pirates on a ship who have really departed from their homes, departed from the governance that they were under, right? Declared themselves outlaws. Then you could imagine them trying to build a society from scratch. And so what would that look like? What would be the elements of that? How successful could that be? And so I think a lot of pirate literature kind of looks at this problem of social organization.

ROBINSON: Dr. Richard Frohock has been with Oklahoma State for 27 years. He is currently the interim dean of the Honors College. However, his tenure began in the English Department where he studies colonial American literature – particularly the colonial Caribbean and pirates.

FROHOCK: The focus of my research is piracy narratives in the early 18th century. So this was sometimes described as the golden age of piracy. And there was a lot of piratical activity in the Caribbean and beyond. I focus on the Caribbean, and I look at the stories told about pirates during that period. So rather than what a historian might do, which would be to try to determine the facts of these various voyages and plundering ventures, I look at all of the literature that was written about them. And there’s a lot written about them in this time period.

ROBINSON: Why were pirates such a popular topic in 17th and 18th century literature?

FROHOCK: In the 17th century there was a strong interest in crime literature broadly, and this emerges as a genre of writing that a lot of people are just engaging with. Writers are able to sell works that deal with sensational crime. And so piracy fits within that.

Then I think that piracy in particular became very much of interest because there was a lot of interest in the New World, as the Europeans thought of it. There was a lot of interest in the expansion of British Empire. There was a lot of interest in learning the geography, learning the potential that could come out of the Caribbean and piracy is a big part of that. Right? So as the British kind of concentrated on acquiring islands in the area, then piracy was one of the challenges.

ROBINSON: Much of the literature at the time was based on real-life pirates. Authors would combine the little they knew about the historical reality with their imagination to invent the story. Real or fiction, the books helped readers explore the fundamentals of human nature.

FROHOCK: There were a lot of different ways of looking at the pirate outlaw. So you might think of the pirate outlaw as someone who has completely abandoned all morals and ethics and is an enemy of mankind. And sometimes they were referred to this, right? So they had no boundaries on what they would do in their own self-interest. But then there were others that thought that if you could remove people from the pressures and structures of society as it was known and you could let them rebuild, then they might rebuild in a way that created more equality.

So, for example, life as a merchant sailor or even in the Navy at that time was a hard life and wasn't necessarily an equitable life, right? You had to follow all orders and you maybe weren't compensated well, and maybe you were abused. In addition, maybe you didn't have sufficient rations. So sometimes people think of piracy as a way to escape that, and that you could then find a better way of living in a community that's gonna be more equitable. Now whether that's a historic reality or not is an entirely different question, but it is something that people imagine and try to think through the problems of that.

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Meghan Robinson is the host of OSU Research Matters and the Multimedia Reporter/ Producer for Inside OSU, the official streaming platform of Oklahoma State University.
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