Pirates, Politics and Poets: A look at the 16th-19th centuries

For several years now, I have been preparing this course about pirates and world history, called Pirates, Politics and Poets. One of my children created the spark when he said he wanted to study pirates, but not just their lifestyles. Why did they go to sea? What were the political, social, or economic situations that led people to become pirates? Children’s pirate books tend not to answer those questions, other than alluding to the pirates’ greed or stories about pirates recruiting other sailors to join their crews. I decided to research the questions myself, and then share what I learned.

When I first started reading about pirates, I cast a  wide net. I read about the Golden Age of Piracy in the late 17th to early 18th centuries, but I also looked at piracy before and after those times. I read about western and non-western pirates, as well as privateers.

Governments authorized privateers to attack ships belonging to specific nations. Though privateers captured ships and kept the loot, they were not acting outside the law, and they had to share their prizes with the governments authorizing them. However, the line between pirates and privateers was thin and often crossed, as unsuccessful privateers would attack friendly ships as pirates. Sometimes, governments may have authorized privateers, but other kings refused to recognize the authorizing government, which provides an interesting way of talking with kids about what makes a king or a government. A quote attributed to the pirate Sam Bellamy states this dichotomy: “I am a free Prince, and I have as much Authority to make War on the Whole World, apirates, politics and poetss he who has a hundred Sails of Ships at Sea, and an Army of 100,000 Men in the Field; and this my conscience tells me.” This brings into question what makes a government, and what gives it the ability to declare wars, collect taxes and such. Throughout the course we will trace changes in understandings about the role of a prince or sovereign and when people tried to justify rebelling against one.

Privateers played a role in the French wars of religion. They played a role in the Dutch wars of liberation against the Spanish. They played a role in the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and her former brother-in-law, Philip II of Spain. Privateers played a role in the American Revolution. The more I read about pirates and privateers, the more I found connections with most of the major events of the 16th to early 19th centuries.

pirates, politics and poets

As I was gathering stories about pirates and their historical context, I kept running across interesting poems. A few were written by pirates or privateers, some about pirates, and other about relevant events and places. Looking at the poetry provides us with another way of exploring the time period. We will look also at paintings, particularly ones relating to naval adventures, and we will review some of the period literature, including Don Quixote. At first glance, the story of a want-to-be knight-errant might seem a little out of place in a pirate class, but it actually fits in on a number of different levels. The author, Cervantes, was captured by Barbary corsairs. He made not one, but four escape attempts before being ransomed! Cervantes fought in the battle of Lepanto, and he helped gather supplies for the Spanish Armada. In Pirates, Politics and Poets, we will focus on the Captive’s Tale, about a captive of the Barbary pirates.

Students in Pirates, Politics and Poets can be as young as eight, knowing that pirates is often a topic interesting to the younger ages and that I have some great stories to share.  However, I would welcome older students too. Middle and high school students will find the class challenging, as I encourage them to think deeper about political theory. One of the wonderful things about teaching with GHF is the ability to adjust the course to the students.

I’ll be using the Haiku Learning website to give students access to the reading assignments and optional activities. We will do map-work to learn the geography of the places we will be talking about. Some students may choose to work on crafts related to pirates. Students will also have access as well to my Minecraft server to work on some historical-themed builds and some simple historical-themed quests.


In addition to Pirates, Politics and Poets, Christy Knockleby teaches Minecraft Math and Minecraft Creative Writing for GHF Online.  Sign up for these classes and more! The semester begins on August 29, and many of our classes have already filled up!

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