Shiver Me Timbers, it’s Pirate History


Aarghh! Blackbeard, the Jolly Roger, walk the plank, parakeets, eye patches and buried treasure. These words bring to mind a romanticized vision of pirates and a fascination with their lifestyle.

To separate reality and fiction, the History Department offers an elective, “The History of Piracy,” recently named by the Boston Globe as one of the top “10 college courses you wish you’d registered for.”

History lecturer Stephen O’Neill has taught the class since 2005.

“Since that time hundreds of students have climbed aboard for the course and discovered the real history of pirates and piracy,” he said. “While students do read Stevenson's Treasure Island and watch movies like Captain Blood and Pirates of the Caribbean, mostly, we focus on the real history of the "Golden Age of Piracy," the years from 1660 to 1730.

“Students are often surprised to find that New England plays as important a role in piracy as the Caribbean. They learn that New England sailors sometimes joined pirate crews, like Captain Edward "Ned" Low who left Boston to become a notorious and ruthless pirate captain,” said O’Neill, who is the associate director/curator of collections at Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth.

The course reading list includes transcripts of Boston piracy trials and execution sermons for pirates hung in Boston. O’Neill dedicates one class period for sampling pirate food – ship’s biscuits, non-alcoholic pirate-style of punch, and salmagundi, a spiced dish popular in pirate accounts. The students also take a walking tour of pirate-associated sites in the city.

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