Why Are There So Many Airship Pirates in Steampunk?
With this article, I'll be continuing the series I started with my recent plague doctor article. That is, examining tropes that may at first appear to not fit into Steampunk.
Obviously the airship pirate never existed in real life, as we never really experienced the age of airships the way that we imagine it in Steampunk.
Still, when we imagine an airship pirate, their outfits are usually based around the sort of look we see in sea pirates, as that's our closest analogue to an air pirate. Specifically, the inspiration for the airship pirate "look" seems to draw upon the styles popularized in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, which were well before the 19th century, which is when most Steampunk draws its look from.
In fact, privateering (essentially government-sponsored piracy) came to an end during the Victorian era.
So why do we see so many airship pirates, and why do they look like they're from the 17th century, like the one below?
First of all, let me clear something up in case anyone is confused.
Piracy didn't end in the 18th century, just like it didn't start in the 16th century. Piracy was alive and well in the 19th century, though it had certainly declined from the so-called "golden age of piracy" which took place arguably between 1650 and 1730. During that period was when we saw such famous pirates as Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, and, of course, Blackbeard.
In many ways, piracy is the "Wild West" of Europe, in that it was heavily romanticized and now the popular conception of what it was like is far more fiction than fact.
Privateering, which I mentioned earlier, came to an official end in 1856, but that still provides a little overlap for Steampunks to play with. That said, I don't think I've ever seen a Steampunk airship privateer. Clearly someone out there should fix that.
Meanwhile, piracy was a constant issue during the 19th century, particularly in the Caribbean and in the United States. In the early half of the 19th century, the US Navy actually had to design several battleships specifically to counter piracy in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean. One of these ships, the USS Grampus, is responsible for the sinking of one of the era's most famous pirates, Jean Lafitte. Lafitte was seen by many as the Puerto Rican version of Robin Hood, and many urban legends have arisen about where Lafitte has hidden his buried treasure.
I have no idea why there's a pudgy, shirtless pirate in the middle of this painting.
Lafitte, among others, would even raid towns on the East coast of the United States. After their influence waned, however, there was still a fair degree of piracy in the form of the slave trade, which had been outlawed. As such, the Navy spent a fair amount of time trying to eradicate the ships involved in that nasty business during the later years of the 19th century.
Additionally, there was a joint venture by both the US Navy and the Royal Navy to eradicate Chinese pirates in Asia between about 1840 and 1860. We don't often think about Chinese pirates, but they absolutely existed!
I wish the above picture was of Chinese pirates, but all of the pictures I saw were horribly racist, so instead have some European pirates.
Another thing we don't think about very often is river piracy. While it was a real problem in America for awhile, it did die down in the early-to-mid 19th century, which explains why people don't really know about it. Still, why are there no Steampunk river pirates? It's not very glamorous to rob people on a river, I guess.
So look at all that inspiration to draw from for piracy during the 1800's! River pirates, Chinese pirates, privateers, and more. It really is quite a wealth of awesomeness to pull from.
Why, then, do we mainly draw from the golden age of piracy when we think of pirates?
That's largely a function of what I said earlier about the wild west. That is, it's been romanticized.
You may not know this, but during the years of the wild west, pulp fiction publishers were putting out western novels. They didn't even wait until history had distanced them from the dirty reality, because they didn't have to. Communication from the West to the East was pretty sparse back then, so the West may as well have been the "exotic Orient" to people living on the East coast of the US. In fact, you may not have thought about it, but the distance from the East coast of the U.S. to the Western frontier (depending on where you plot the frontier) is practically the same distance as it would be from England to Turkey. Turkey, which was considered "the Orient" for some time.
So it shouldn't be any surprise that we saw wild west stories popping up in the same era as "Oriental" tales.
Piracy may not have had the same appeal, given how close to home it would sometimes hit, but outlaws are always popular among a people that resents its government. Thus, many pirates got almost a cult following, in much the same way as, say, Bonnie and Clyde. As I said earlier, Lafitte was seen by many as Robin Hood figure.
So while piracy existed during the 19th century, giving it a precedent for Steampunk, we still tend to default to the more-romanticized vision of piracy when constructing worlds and outfits. After all, there are a ton of films and images depicting golden age pirates, but hardly any depicting 19th century pirates.
No surprise, then, that Steampunks draw from those eras for inspiration!