King’s offers new course on piracy

But you won’t learn how to download illegally

Simon Kow, in his nautically decorated office, plans to wear his “Cap’n” hat to class on Halloween. Photo: Samantha Alexander

They don’t shower. They drink to excess. They steal to survive. Yet pirates fascinate us, and they’re the subject of a new course at the University of King’s College.

The idea for the class came from Sharon Brown, an administrative secretary at King’s, who heard a radio show on Somali pirates. Given the enduring relevance and extensive history of pirates, Brown thought they would be a topic of interest to students.

When she floated the idea, Simon Kow, a professor in the King’s Early Modern Studies program, was less than enthusiastic. But he did his homework, and found that pirates play an important role in world history, dating back to the 14th century BC.

Kow signed on to teach it, and The Pirate and Piracy was born.

Offered to King’s and Dalhousie University students in second year and above, it is the only course on piracy offered by an early modern studies program in the country, says Kow. It is divided into three parts: historical accounts of piracy; literary and cinematic depictions of the pirate; and the legal aspect of piracy today.

Given his background in political studies, Kow says he’s most interested in the legal approach to piracy. He wants students to think about how piracy is deeply rooted within a globalized network of politics, religion, philosophy and sociology. To this day, pirates remain active in Africa and Southeast Asia. But in the 18th century, piracy was rampant in Nova Scotia, and the course will include an Atlantic Canada focus.

Resorting to piracy was traditionally an act of desperation, a way to break free of poverty. Pirates were illiterate, unhygienic, violent and merciless – pirates considered themselves “enemies of all mankind”, according to Dan Conlin, curator at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. So where does our fascination with them come from?

Since most of us never encounter actual pirates, we tend to romanticize them, Kow says. “They have a freedom that may not be accessible to most of us.” He says the association between freedom and the open seas further adds to the appeal.

Pirates are often depicted as having hearts of gold, particularly in cinematic and literary forms.

 “We do this because of an ingrained recognition that what pirates are doing is illegal or immoral, so we try to reconcile that with a heroic figure,” says Kow. Examples include Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, and the various swashbuckling roles Douglas Fairbanks embodied in his early 20th century films, such as 1926’s The Black Pirate. Kow is a fan of the Fairbanks films; “I think he’s got some of the best pirate movies.”

Kow’s passion for the subject shows. He encourages students to come to class dressed as their favourite swashbuckler and lists “torture, dismemberment, violent death” as possible punishments for plagiarism on the course syllabus.

“He’s a very enthusiastic individual,” says Ria Carter, a student in Kow’s class. “He makes it funny.” Further testament to the popularity of the course is the number of students enrolled – 93 students, making it the most popular elective at King’s this year, beating out other in-demand courses such as Witchcraft and The Vampire.

Asked what his favourite part of the course is, Kow can’t settle on one aspect, saying that everything interests him about the “cultural phenomenon” of pirates.

And as Carter attests, his passion for pirates shows: “He loves what he talks about.”