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New exhibit in Special Collections: Pirates!

For most of us today, the word “Pirate” brings up images of the “Jolly Roger,” exploding cannons, and colorful sword fights. 18th-century pirates have been made popular in art, books, and movies. Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, Captain William Kidd, Stede Bonnet, Anne Bonny, “Calico Jack” Rackham, Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, and Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy are just a few of the men and women who “Went on the Account,” a contemporary term meaning, turned to piracy.

But what is less known from popular images, is that the pirates formed what we would now call the beginnings of a democratic society in an age of Aristocratic government. “Signing Articles” meant a written agreement which each member of a pirate crew had to sign, spelling out in detail what was expected of everyone, also determining the amount each member of the crew would receive for each “prize” (merchant ship) that was taken. Punishments were spelled out for any member in violation of the Articles, and a pirate captain could be relieved of their command (except in battle) by vote if the crew felt they were not a good leader. In many cases, there was also compensation for injuries received during battle, at a time when regular merchant seamen were given no compensation for injuries sustained in the course of their duties.

The exhibit will be on display until December 1. It includes two pirate histories and a map of the West Indies.

John Henry Adams

John Henry Adams is a librarian in the Special Collections and Rare Books department. He provides instruction and reference for the history of the book in general, but especially for medieval manuscripts, early European printing, the history of cartography, and English and German literature.