This article will answer a question that comes up often: why are there so many pirates in Steampunk, and what are they doing in a retro-futuristic world?
Obviously, airship pirates never existed in real life, because we never really experienced the age of airships as we imagine it in Steampunk.
Yet, when we imagine an airship pirate, their outfits are usually based on the kind of look we see in classic pirates, as that is the closest analogy to an air pirate. In particular, the inspiration for the "look" of steampunk pirates seems to draw on styles popularized in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. That is well before the 19th century, the era in which Steampunk is rooted and from which it draws its style.
So why do we see so many Steampunk pirates?
First, let us clarify something in case this is confusing. Piracy did not end in the 18th century, just as it did not begin in the 16th century. Piracy was alive and well in the 19th century. However, it had undoubtedly declined since the "golden age of piracy" between 1650 and 1730, when we saw such famous pirates as Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, and Blackbeard.
In many ways, piracy is the "Wild West" of Europe. It has been heavily romanticized, and the popular conception of what it was is now much more fiction than fact.
In addition, piracy was a constant problem during the nineteenth century, particularly in the Caribbean and the United States. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Navy had to design several battleships specifically to fight piracy in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean. One of these ships, the USS Grampus, was responsible for sinking one of the most famous pirates of the time, Jean Lafitte. Lafitte was considered by many to be the Puerto Rican version of Robin Hood, and many urban legends arose about where Lafitte would hide his buried treasure.
Lafitte, among others, would even raid cities on the East Coast of the United States. However, after the fall of their influence, piracy in the form of the outlawed slave trade remained quite prevalent. As such, the Navy spent quite a bit of time trying to eradicate the ships involved in this nasty business during the later years of the 19th century.
In addition, between about 1840 and 1860, the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy formed a joint venture to eradicate Chinese pirates in Asia. We don't often think of Chinese pirates, but they did exist!
Another thing we don't think about very often is river piratery. While it was a real problem in America for a while, it subsided in the early to mid 19th century. Why aren't there any Steampunk river pirates? It's not very glamorous to rob people on a river, probably...
Steampunk just loves pirates of the Golden Age
Like the Wild West or the post-apocalyptic, the piracy world has been romanticized. A universe that makes you dream with legends and epic historical facts. We quickly dream of adventures, treasures, getting lost in the immensity of the ocean, visiting its mysterious islands and its titanic sea monsters, and of freedom.
You may not know it, but in the Wild West, pulp publishers published western novels. They didn't even wait for history to take them away from the dirty truth, because they didn't have to. Communications from the West to the East were pretty scarce back then, so the West might as well have been the "Exotic East" for people living on the East Coast of the United States. In fact, you may not have thought about it, but the distance from the east coast of the United States to the western border (depending on where you draw the line) is virtually the same as the distance between England and Turkey. Turkey has been considered "the East" for some time. So it's not surprising that we've seen Wild West stories pop up around the same time as "Oriental" tales.
Pirates: offbeat personnalities
Piracy may not have had the same appeal, given its proximity, but outlaws are still popular with people who resent their government. Thus, many pirates have become almost cult-like, much like Bonnie and Clyde, for example. As we said earlier, Lafitte was considered by many to be a sort of Robin Hood.
So although piracy existed in the 19th century, which gave it inspiration for Steampunk, we amplified the romantic vision of piracy in the construction of the worlds and the outfits. The Steampunk movement loves to add fantasy. Simple ships are transformed into Steampunk zeppelins and pirates equip themselves with crazy technology. So much more ambitious than their simple wooden legs and stuttering parrots!
After all, there are a ton of movies and images depicting Golden Age pirates, but there are hardly any depicting 19th-century pirates. Come to think of it, the first pirate in literature to own a flying boat must date back to 1902, the novelist J.M. Barrie who created Peter Pan and of course, his nemesis, Captain Hook. Then Jules Verne, who inspires travel and adventure, brings the world of the sea, with his Captain Nemo, to the Steampunk movement that has since taken hold of the author and his universe.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Steampunk draws its inspiration from these worlds!
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