Why teachers should embrace their inner pirate

You don’t need to brandish a cutlass and shout ‘arrr’ to recognise the enduring fascination pirates hold for children. But, avast ye, teacher folk, says Kester Brewin, there’s more to this swashbuckling obsession than meets the eye(patch) – there’s even some educational bounty to be had if you embrace your inner pirate
14th February 2020, 12:03am
Schools For Scallywags


Why teachers should embrace their inner pirate


As my son was progressing through primary school, there didn’t seem to be a week that went by without his being invited to a pirate-themed birthday party. He and his friends would lunge at each other with cutlasses, or take turns to be blindfolded and forced to “walk the plank”.

He has never been invited to an aggravated-robbery-themed party (though he’s now a teenager, so who knows if this might change?), nor to one in which the central characters are brutal and violent men known for pillage and murder. So, what is it with pirates? Why have such a barbaric group of people come to occupy such a significant space within childhood narratives?

As each party invitation came, I would suggest to my son that he might mix up the cut-off trousers and eye patch with something more contemporary: an AK47 and an inflatable dinghy, or a bag of knock-off DVDs. He was less than enthusiastic about my ideas, but once I started looking, I couldn’t help but see pirates everywhere.

Beyond the core 18th-century ship-raiding business, they’d diversified into pirate radio, pirated software and pirated film, and slapped their Jolly Roger motif on to everything: baby booties, executive ties, underpants, cufflinks - even feeding bottles. Why put a symbol of death on a baby’s feeding bottle?

I’d written about the meaning of cultural signifiers before, but my book exploring this particular one - Mutiny: why we love pirates, and how they can save us - surprised me with how big a chord it struck.

Yet it was closer to home that the practical outworking of all this began to occupy me. Given that so many primary students were partying like it was 1699, and you couldn’t move for skull motifs in secondaries, what might it mean for schools to get in touch with their inner pirate?

Piracy is a crime, do not accept it

Though the (a)vast curriculum links that piracy opens up could sink a ship, a little history is necessary here, because the standard tale of mindless pirate thievery is a little way from the truth. The “golden age” of cannonballs and mutinies began in the 17th century with the emergence of global systems of capitalism. Wealthy European merchants and princes sent ships down to West Africa and then across to the Caribbean and the Americas in the triangle of trade: slaves, spices and sugar.

These ships were complex machines, which required a large and skilful workforce. If the sailing boat was the engine of international trade, then sailors were the cheap fuel that was thrown down, put under immense pressure and burned to keep it running. It is no surprise that they exploded into violence.

Historian Marcus Rediker makes it clear: “Sailors were caught in a machine from which there was no escape, bar desertion, incapacitation or death.”

Life expectancy on these merchant ships was less than two years. Mutiny was punishable by death, but where was the threat in that, given that the crew were under a death sentence anyway? “If it is to be a short life,” one pirate, Captain Roberts, noted, “it might as well be a merry one.”

Intense pressure? Cramped quarters? Overbearing officers and two years before burnout? Glib parallels with the complex and skilful craft of a school would be inappropriate. And yet, perhaps the revolutionary joy that pirates found, despite their tough life, is a good lesson.

Mutiny was not a soft option for these men. To seize control was a matter of laying hold of their human dignity, and in their merrymaking they gave the ordinary people who encountered them a vision of a greater, deeper freedom.

The US writer Hakim Bey describes how pirates would land at a settlement and, for a short time, as they repaired their ships and replenished supplies, different rules applied. He calls them temporary autonomous zones: places liberated for a short time from the distant authorities who were technically in charge, “an intensification of everyday life … life’s penetration by the marvellous”.

There’s something beautiful in this for me. Some of the best lessons I have ever witnessed seem to grasp this spirit: students liberated from quotidian pressures for a short time by something marvellous. Though it doesn’t necessarily last long, it burns in the memory, offers a taste of a world ordered differently. No matter how hard this is, for me, it’s central to what teaching should be.

What is often missed in the classic pirate aesthetic is the radical sense of inclusion. The hooked hands, the eye patches and wooden legs: disability and difference were no bar to belonging. On a naval vessel, sailors were barely paid, disposable and replaceable. On a pirate ship, each took an equal share. Isn’t this a vision of inclusion and equality that all schools should aim for?

I am not proposing mutiny in the staffroom (though I have been in many mutinous staffrooms). What I am proposing is that the values that underpin our labour are intrinsic to that labour. When staff feel that they are working as a shared enterprise, their hard work feels different. When staff are made to feel that they are being pressganged into labouring for initiatives that they feel no ownership of, the risk of conflict and burnout increases. When staff feel that weakness or fragility must be hidden, for fear of being sloughed off by target-anxious managers, wellbeing and inclusion is seriously jeopardised.

When pirates took control of a ship, there were often large numbers of slaves on board. What I hadn’t appreciated before I began my research was the strong empathy that pirates felt with them. There are incredible accounts of pirate captains making speeches as they offered slaves freedom or the chance to join them on their adventures. “The Trading for those of our Species cou’d never be agreeable to the Eyes of divine Justice,” one Captain Mission announced. “No Man has the Power of the Liberty of another.”

Students of political history may know that a direct line can be plotted from this radically inclusive and democratic pirate code to the mantra of “liberty, equality and fraternity” that rang through the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and round to the American Revolution, too.

A key figure in post-revolutionary America was Benjamin Franklin, whose cavalier attitude to the copyright of British books led the fledgling country to become dubbed “the original pirate nation”.

Franklin’s principle was clear: “All the riches of English literature are ours. English authorship comes to us as free as the vital air.” He was inspired by characters such as Henry Hill the Book Pirate, a London printer who infuriated the authorities by making halfpenny copies of important texts available “for the benefit of the poor”.

Like Hill, Franklin was committed to knowledge as a common good. Rather than limit education to the wealthy who could afford it, he wanted everyone in America to become knowledgeable, and created a radical new system of patent law, which emphasised public benefit over private gain.

It’s here that we get to the deeper thread that runs through all pirate activity. As a rule, where wealth has been enclosed by the powerful, pirates will rise up to break it open, not for their own gain but as an act of restoration - to return these riches to “the commons” so that all might benefit.

We see this in the emergence of pirate radio in the 1960s. Their goal wasn’t to destroy the BBC (who would play only one hour of pop music a week), but to force it to reform. And reform it did: the DJs who originally worked as “pirates” came back on land and started a new station called Radio 1.

Rather than wreaking destruction, a deeper dive into piracy reveals that it functions to challenge stagnating institutions to reform. This has been a helpful touchstone in my own work as a long-standing union rep. Too often, managers can feel threatened, but the pirate archetype has helped me present the work I try to do in a different way: it’s about investing in the common good, about reformation rather than destruction.

With so many students (and staff) rightly energised by the issue of climate justice, the actions of groups like Extinction Rebellion can be understood through this prism of pirate culture. As veterans of civil rights struggles through history tell us, when the law is unjust, it must be broken if justice is to be restored. A school prepared to embrace the pirate philosophy can turn this energy to common good rather than be too quick to cry “villainy”.

These are questions that secondary schools may be facing. But the pirate aesthetic takes root much younger. Why would someone buy a Jolly Roger baby bottle? To answer this, we need to take this idea of constructive rebellion deeper still, via the pirate story within Peter Pan.

Finding the Lost Boys

At the beginning of the tale, Wendy feels stuck. She is a girl whose parents have left her in charge but haven’t equipped her to be a responsible woman. Into this puzzle comes a boy with no shadow (students of Freud take note), who takes her away to a place where time does not exist. Her problem is amplified: she is mothering the Lost Boys but cannot grow up herself. Who can break this story open? Pirates, of course. Captain Hook must be defeated if they are to escape Neverland.

The original play directed Hook to be played by the same actor who played Wendy’s father. Premiering just as Freud’s work was beginning, Wendy’s symbolic cut with the father is significant. Her parents had thought their child dead, but Wendy is now returned by Pan to them as a woman.

The psychoanalytic message of the story is that the process of individuation from our parents requires a kind of faithful mutiny, a dying of an old life. Pirates - with their skull-and-crossbones death motif - offer an accessible narrative within which to begin this process of making that faithful and vital cut with parents (and teachers in loco parentis), and becoming their own people.

Is not the highest calling of a school to champion this journey into maturity? Too often, sadly, I feel that we do the opposite: try to subdue all rebellion, valorise children who mimic us adults and thus never find out who they truly are. The school brave enough to embrace a pirate spirit will be a more healthy place for staff and students.

Boldly inclusive, committed to the common good and valuing all who labour, they will see in students like my son - with his rough-cut trousers and tin-foil cutlass - creative rebels on their way to becoming adults; their own people. We can surely all raise a cup of grog and say “arrr” to that.

Kester Brewin teaches maths in south-east London. While working as a teacher, he has been a consultant for BBC Education, and is the author of a number of books on culture and religion. He tweets @kesterbrewin

This article originally appeared in the 14 February 2020 issue under the headline “School for scallywags”

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content. Or register to get 2 articles free per month.

Already registered? Log in

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content.