Pirates were thieves by designation, murderers when the job called for it, and often slave traders. Yet, they’re widely portrayed with much affection in contemporary culture. By what twists of fate have they come to occupy such a favorable position in the popular imagination?
Pirates are romanticized because they often appear in adventure stories and movies targeted at mass audiences or children. These genres are rooted in an escapist romantic tradition that offers relief from a stifling modern world characterized by bureaucratic rationality and colonial exploitation.
This article examines the historical backdrop which gave rise to popular depictions of piracy that continue to influence their portrayal today.
What Pirates Today Look Like
When most people picture pirates, they don’t think of a desperately poor Somalian; they think of Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: alluring even at his most deranged. Or Long John Silver, if they’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere these past few years.
Remarkably, given the brutality of pirate life, these characters almost universally evoke warm sentiments. By contrast, the Vikings – who were some of the most notorious pirates of the early medieval world – were seen as barbarian invaders for centuries afterward.
The reasons for such paradoxes are complex. The contemporary image of the pirate has to do with the specific categories of people the term applies to, the conditions they emerged from, and the responses they evoked within this context.
When contemporary audiences think of pirates, they mostly imagine the sea brigands of the mid-17th to mid-18th centuries – an era known as the Golden Age of Piracy because of the high number and notorious reputation of the pirates of the time.
The pirates of this era were predominantly European. They sailed the seas in a world still full of danger and mystery at a time when it was just opening up to the white man. Most of the stories that would be told about pirates begin from a perspective that aligns with those of these early modern pirates.
200 Years of Good Publicity
Some of the most famous pirates in history operated during the Golden Age of Piracy. They include Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, William Kidd, Calico Jack, and Francis Drake. Many of these men aren’t just infamous today – they were also infamous within their lifetimes.
Accounts of their exploits were avidly consumed by the masses. Though not always reliable, these early narratives were always thrilling, exciting fear and awe in equal measure. Almost universally, they painted a picture of the pirate as a swashbuckling adventurer.
Perhaps, because pirates were outlaws, removed from society, and because first-person accounts written by them were not available, it was easy for early authors to sensationalize their claims and outright invent them sometimes.
Crucially, the success in the market of romances, adventure stories, and accounts claiming journalistic accuracy depended on providing a thrilling reading experience. The reception of these early works only encouraged future authors to aim for greater spectacle.
These genres – and the newly emerging novel form – also increasingly required identification with a protagonist to propel their narratives. Authors put their pirate protagonists through nerve-wracking adventures and had audiences identify with them through these perils. Such devices helped the stories deliver satisfying resolutions.
Apart from many obscure characters, now forgotten, notable literary figures too exploited and peddled the pirate myth, including Byron, Daniel Defoe, and Daphne du Maurier. The most famous of them was Robert Louis Stevenson. 
Although Stevenson’s Treasure Island only came out in 1883, well after the pirates’ heyday, it would have a lasting impression on how pirates are viewed to this day, providing an archetype and source material for countless film adaptations.
Notably, the book was a children’s adventure story. It sought amusement and could not be macabre beyond a certain point. This is why the iconic Long John Silver is devious and ruthless but retains a soft core that appeals to audiences.
The early Hollywood pirate pictures of the 1920s and 30s took these traits and gave them a cinematic gloss. Some of the most glamorous leading men of the time – including Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks – played the lead roles in these pirate movies.
Later generations of storytellers have relied on the accounts of those who came before, only reinforcing the early romanticization of the pirate figure and firmly entrenching it in popular culture.
The Iron Cage of Modernity
Besides new narrative forms and markets for cultural products, there were also several socio-historical reasons authors in this era could sell these sentiments to the masses. After all, outside Scandinavia, most Europeans didn’t hail the Vikings as outlaw heroes until much later.
The Golden Age of Piracy coincided with the era of aggressive colonial expansion facilitated by Columbus’ “discovery” of America.
By this time, many of the modern European nation-states had been in existence for centuries. They had all developed significant apparatuses of state control, including armies, navies, law enforcement agencies, courts and legal frameworks, bureaucracies, and other institutions governing civic life.
The early modern era also saw the beginnings of the replacement of religious belief with scientific rationality.
While there were many benefits to local populations from many of these measures, many aspects of modernity could also be experienced as oppressive and disciplined. In this light, a life of lawlessness takes on new meaning. 
Where everyday life seems over-regulated and stripped of mystery, the pirate’s life promises freedom and – more thrillingly – adventure. No wonder audiences lapped up these stories, and with them, the idea of outlaws as rebels to identify with.
Even within the lifetime of Golden Age pirates, bigger businesses were replacing smaller businesses, and large landowners were crowding out small farmers. Urban life was miserable for the poor. And industrial-scale exploitation that would further alienate the masses was still to come.
As society grew more hierarchical, the idea of pirate society offered thrilling alternative possibilities. As they were made of bands of individual opportunists gathered together only out of self-interest, pirate social contracts were egalitarian by the standards of their day.
Pirate crews were less discriminatory of class and other differences, and discipline was less stringently and violently enforced. Compared to conditions elsewhere at the time, all these features made them highly appealing. 
At a time when common people everywhere were beginning to question monarchies and entrenched political elites, pirates were also embraced by many local populations for resisting authority and advancing anti-colonial causes.