Friday, June 3, 2011

Mix it Up!: Real Airship Pirates- Pirates of the 19th Century

Shown: Scarier and more badass. (Also this print was done in 1909, historyaficianado's flickr)

Airship pirates. You can't go to an event or a convention and swing a cat around by its tail without hitting one. I'm not going to lie everyone, pirates are getting awfully old- particularly with Jerry Bruckheimer's quest for more money. But a lot of the Sky Pirate Popularity (and therefore staleness because nobody does anything else with it) I blame on the band Abney Park and the carefree antics of their crew on the Ophelia and their songs of adventure (that and the cartoon Talespin- Don Karnage rocks!). Now, before I engage the rant drive, I request that you consider that I do in fact listen to Abney Park. I own three of their albums and a respectable chunk of my itunes is dedicated to their music. I know full well that this won't dissuade several Abney Park fans from posting things like "NO, ur wrong! Robert is hott!" or "This is just for fun, man, stop being such an elitist!"

I know that pirates will exist; it's a natural, healthy part of any history-oriented subculture. In fact, I encourage the growth of the steampunk underworld- body smugglers, prostitutes, opium peddlers, and con artists. All I ask is what I normally desire with this blog: do it right. How do you do piracy right? Well why don't we look at some of the fine examples of rotten behavior left to us by history!
A Chinese pirate junk sailing out of Canton in the 19th century (Hong Kong's First)
Historical Background: A Primer on the History of Piracy
As long as there's been merchant trade, there's been someone trying to upset it by taking said goodies for themselves. In the ancient Mediterranean, the Illyrians and Apulians were reknowned pirates (they even had a queen by the name of Teuta- eat your heart out, Kiera Knightley) that attacked Greek and Phoenician trade routes. While the terrestrial versions of this became known in later centuries as bandits or highwaymen, their seaborne counterparts went by a variety of names: boucaniers (buccaneers), corsairs, sea dogs, and of course pirates.

In the Western world, the Age of Exploration began a boom in maritime banditry called the Golden Age of Piracy (1650s-1730s) spurred on by Europe's obsession with all things mercantile. In addition to all of those goods being transported between the New and Old Worlds, there were advances in sailing vessels such as the caravel and the sloop that allowed them to work on par with their military and merchant counterparts.

By the 19th century however- the Age of Steam was readily putting traditional Western pirates out of business. The military was upgrading to newfangled steam ships in the mid-century and a lot of the Imperial powers were becoming quite tired of the antics of both the pirates and the privateers, so the amount of letters of marque went down considerably. In addition, the slave trade was banned in 1830, which also threw a devastating blow to Western pirates. (But don't worry, smuggling would be alive and kicking for many decades to come!)

19th century illustration of the corsair Dragut Reis (National Maritime Museum)

Pirates of the Eastern World
No offense to airships pirates of the Western orientation, but Barbary corsairs and China Sea pirates could kick your asses. They were tougher, lived by stricter rules, and faced as a gruesome punishment at the hands of their very own captains and lords as the governments who hunted them. For example: If a sailor aboard a Chinese pirate ship left the ship without permission, his ears were cut off and displayed accordingly to discourage others from a premature shore leave.

Barbary corsairs trawled the waters throughout the Mediterranean and off of the shores of Northeast Africa from the 16th century until the 1830s, when the French put a stop to their activities with their conquest of Algiers (you may recall them mentioned in the U.S. Marines' Hymn- "From the halls of Montezuma; to the shores of Tripoli"). Typically they acted under the protection of the Ottoman Empire. Boy, did they cause some massive headaches for European traders (though some corsairs were in fact European in origin) with their constant raids on ships and taking massive amounts of people as slaves- whom they treated brutally. Sometimes a European captive could get a reprieve by converting to Islam and proving himself worthy of joining the crew... but this was rare. Needless to say, neither Chinese or Barbary corsairs haven't really been romanticized like European pirates have...

A 19th century engraving of Cheng I Sao- a woman who wore her ovaries on the outside. (Ossian's Pirate Cove)
But that's sort of what makes them so badass. Corsairs and China sea pirates were tough customers that would probably make even Edward Teach double take and certainly give most airship pirates I see (who really act more like sky hippies than actual pirates) a run for their dubloons. The overall makeup of either of these groups was very multicultural and even offered opportunities for women- such as the case of the 16th century Muslim Queen of the Corsairs Sayyida al-Hurra.

Cheng I Sao and the Red and Green Fleets
While piracy in the Atlantic had been in a state of decline for nearly a century, freebooting was alive and well in the Pacific- particularly in the waters surrounding China. One of the most infamous lords of this coast was... in fact.. a lady. A former prostitute, in fact! Cheng I Sao, or Shih Yang started her rags to riches tale by marrying the ruthless pirate lord Cheng I, who apparently respected his bride enough to allow her to participate in his business affairs. When Cheng died in 1801 during a storm, his wife was more than capable to take the reigns of his 40 ships and bumped anyone who disagreed out of the way. From then on, Lady Cheng ruled the waters surrounding mainland China, Vietnam, and Hong Kong with an iron fist (with some help from her lover, Chang Pao). Her personal fleet became the dreaded Red fleet, while Pao was given the Green.

When the old bird was getting a bit too achy in her bones to shake a cutlass anymore, she rigged a deal with the Chinese government that allowed her to retire. Her tens of thousands of crew were pardoned, Pao was given a comfy desk job, and Cheng lived to the ripe old age of 60 as the proprietress of a house of ill repute and filthy rich. Not bad, not bad at all.

Chinese pirates sailing on the Yellow Sea (Chinahistoryforum)
Plundering Attire
Historical pirate clothing was actually nothing to write home about. Seriously. Clothing was minimalistic to allow for range of movement and to prevent getting caught or tangled in rigging. In fact most pirates while on deck tended to go barefoot-since its near permanently wet state would prevent shod feet from keeping a good grip. Furthermore, flying sailing a pirate ship is hot, tiring work, so wearing layer upon layer of wool and leather would make things utterly miserable. Finally- a lot of pirates (and sailors in general) tended to coat their clothes in a sexy layer of tar to make them waterproof.

Of course, this is where airship and sky pirates have an advantage. In high altitudes, the air is thinner and colder, making thicker clothes and multiple layers a must. Since there wouldn't be as much of a moisture and grip problem, thick boots would also make sense.

Typical clothing for Barbary corsairs sanctioned by the Ottoman Empire (twcenter)
Typically pirate clothing followed the modes of merchants and sailors. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was nearly impossible to distinguish a legal mariner from an illicit one, Eastern pirates included. Barbary corsairs wore the kaftans and sirwals of their landlubber associates just as Western pirates wore baggy trousers and waistcoats. If pirates did dress up, it was usually for shore leave or their execution.

One interesting exception were Chinese pirates and their love of wearing bright silks and sashes in an effort to intimidate their victims. Broad hats made from straw were also popular for keeping the sun off of their faces and were tied under the chin to keep them from blowing away in the wind.

19th century depiction of an Illanoan/Moro pirate, who raided along the Southeast Asian coast near the Philippines (Filhistory)

Other Global Pirates
While not an airship pirate, Captain Nemo from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a brilliant example of a non-Western version of this trope. For those unfamiliar, Nemo is the pseudonym chosen by the Hindi Prince Dakkar after he lost his birthright and family in a war with the British- who gave him his Western education. It wouldn't really be much of a stretch for there to be an airship pirate crew of turban-clad Sepoy deserters, or Oceanic pirates teaming the skies around the oil-rich regions of Brunei. Basically if you have a member of a regional population who has a tiff with the military or have access to a commodity's trade routes- you have a possibility for a sky pirate.

The Nemo portrayed in Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" explores more of Dakkar's Raja background than previous incarnations.
So you see folks, I don't really have anything against airship pirates so much as with the over-stagnated idea of someone clad in brown leather, messy hair, and a "don't do anything" attitude. Come on! You're a pirate! Anybody can wobble about making jokes about why the rum's gone, but it takes a real pirate to make that guy look like a pansy! Then take him prisoner, cut off his ear, and ransom him to his fangirls for cold, hard cash.

Don't be a pansy pirate, everybody. I say this because I care.

Further Reading
Hong Kong's First is a Chinese history blog that has a fantastic article on local piracy during the 19th century and how it impacted struggles with the British.
"Jefferson versus the Muslim Pirates" is an interesting article on how the infant America's war on the Barbary corsairs would impact its early international image and foreign policy.
Rob Ossian has gathered tons of information on pirates throughout history, their cultures, and presents it in a fairly objective manner. Check out the terminology and the sailing simulator for more fun!


  1. "In fact, I encourage the growth of the steampunk underworld- body smugglers, prostitutes, opium peddlers, and con artists." AMEN!

  2. If prostitution really is the world's oldest profession, I suspect piracy runs a very close second...and still popular today. Great overview of pirates in the Age of Steam.

  3. How can piracy be anything close to the world's oldest profession when maritime trade did not develop until hundreds, if not thousands, of years after man's first cities?

  4. For as long as people have had anything worth taking, there have been those who feel the urge to take it.
    Sea, Land, or Sky, the terrain doesn't matter. It's all just the attitude, ability, and sometimes just dumb luck that'll get them through and make a real cad of any man with the mind to do so...

  5. Excellent read! Thanks for the neat history lesson.

  6. FINALLY! Thank you, Miss Kagashi. Cordingly's "Under The Black Flag" is a favorite on my shelf. Now we can address the subject of realistic aviation and it's effect on fictional criminal enterprise...

  7. Very cool - almost makes me want to be a pirate ;)

  8. Thank you for posting about this - I'm writing a novel with many of these elements. So much fun to play with!

  9. I enjoyed your "steampunk around the world" panel at ACen.

    There was a comment you made here that interested me. "In fact, I encourage the growth of the steampunk underworld- body smugglers, prostitutes, opium peddlers, and con artists." I happen to approve of this, and have on occasion joked that I was a "purveyor of Dr. Garth's Cure All Potion, guaranteed to cure mumps, measles, rubella, whooping cough, goiter, gout, the ague, and erectile dysfunction."

    On that note, will there be a bit on how to play up a steampunk flimflam artist or other nefarious nogood?

    -J. Hinton (

  10. I love me those boots on the pirate in the third pic:)

  11. I think Kass McGann of Reconstructing History had some good insight (which you touched on in your "Plundering Attire" section) on what separates an insipid pirate persona (or any culture or era) from a memorable one: One should keep in mind that pirates were *sailors* first. They were people who spent months or years at a time immersed in the tasks and technologies related to keeping a ship running, and their dress, interests, and social mores all descended from that situation. I think that steampunk pirates would benefit immensely from doing some reading on maritime and aviation technology and the various professional specialties that tended to pop up therein (Seriously, not everyone can or should be a captain- I'm playing with the idea of an airship rigger/sailmaker), have a fairly-detailed idea of how the vessel your persona works on looks, feels, and behaves, and make your costuming choices to be internally consistent with it.

  12. Love it, mate.

    And Haj - simple. On land, they call them bandits.

  13. I am of the opinion that an individual pirates dress would tend to consist of clothing from around the world. Traveling as needed to obtain supplies and plunder one picks up items from different cultures to replace worn out gear. My compass is Tibetan brass feng-shui, my sextant from a London manufacturer. Likewise my garb consists of a black and white stripped shirt like Russian sailors still wear today but my loins are girded in Hin-doo style in a red trimmed black dhoti. To top it off I have a flat topped bowler that has an working clock with a twelve spok'd ship's wheel for a face. I only wear shoes when the lack of them will bar me from a venue and I can't bluster my way in. Most people won't argue with a man that visibly carries five guns two knives and a wakizashi, so I don't wear shoes much.

  14. This is why my airship is a stolen flying Junk, and outfitted with a crew from wherever I could find 'em. Keeps us diverse and allows all of my friends to pursue costumes that really suit their own tastes. We also opted for "smugglers" rather than out-and-out pirates, complete with false "above-board" business...again, mostly for the diversity in costuming this allows us and far less for the sake of role=playing our characters. Lol.

  15. You speak of Western pirates as "pansies" but that's the same sort of generalization- Charles Vane and Calico Jack Rackham were vicious, ruthless bastards. And some western pirates built illicit nautical empires without violence, like Edward Thatch (Blackbeard) and Bartholomew Roberts (Black Bart). I understand that that's not the point of the article, but it is something other than "wondering around asking where the rum has gone" to take into account.

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