Roaming bands of skullduggerous treasure seekers are soon to disrupt Hillsdale’s hallowed halls and peaceful vistas.
The culprit: David Stewart, professor of history.
His new one-credit history course, the History of Piracy, offers a general overview of piracy, from the ancient world to the present, with a twist. In addition to writing an essay, students will have the opportunity to bury treasure around campus and create an accompanying map leading to their hidden bounty.
“A lot of the students wanted to both bury pirate treasure and find pirate treasure,” Stewart said. “So, if they choose, I’m going to let them bury something and then somebody else or some other group in the class will go decipher their map to find the treasure. If they want, they can go swashbuckling!”
Stewart said he planned for his students to bury candy and plastic coins, but they have already joked about much more devious ideas.
Sophomore Serena Katerberg, a history major whose favorite historical era is the Golden Age of Piracy, said she believes something cannot properly be considered treasure if it’s not valuable. That’s why she wants to steal her buried treasure from a friend.
“It would probably be something precious to him, something he can’t live without,” Katerberg said. “It would just be more ‘piratey’ that way.”
Senior Juan Vargas-Hernandez concurred that marauding is the only proper way to complete the assignment.
“I’m going to take one of Dr. Stewart’s possessions,” Vargas joked. “One of his books, one of his swords, or probably one of his rubber ducks, and I’m going to hide it so that he has to find it.”
Unfortunately for his more wily students, Stewart encourages everyone to speak with him before burying any treasure.
Even before Stewart announced the swashbuckling aspect of the class, it already promised to be popular. In its first year, the class already has 29 students enrolled.
Katerberg attributed the class’s popularity to Stewart himself.
“He’s my favorite type of professor,” Katerberg said. “He will let you ask weird questions and then go on long scholarly tangents related to piracy.”
Vargas, a self-proclaimed devotee of Stewart, said he took the class for the professor, but stayed to learn how to become a pirate.
“The spirit of piracy is what makes men great,” Vargas said. “If you think about it, pirates are the ones who are truly free in this world. They are the ones in command of their own lives. They can do what they want. They can take stuff from other people. They can rest whenever they want. The spirit of piracy is the true meaning of life.”
Stewart hopes that even in a more unconventional class, students can still learn about the complexities of history.
“In doing all kinds of research for the class, I realized that piracy was a lot more prevalent than I thought,” Stewart said. “I never knew that Plato was actually kidnapped by pirates at one point or that Caesar was victimized by pirates.”
In addition to the flare that piracy adds to historical accounts, Stewart said that practice has exerted a big economic impact, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries.
“A lot of the economy of the American colonies was driven purely by piracy,” Stewart said. “Not all the wealth in the American South was from plantations; there was quite a bit of pirate wealth running around down there as well.”
According to Katerberg, so far the class has focussed on modern day piracy, specifically on why its legal definition makes it such an easy crime to get away with.
“The first class was based on why the 1948 Geneva Convention’s definition of piracy, which is the one that we currently use to this day, is terrible,” Katerberg said. “In order for something to qualify as piracy, it has to be on international waters, and secondly, it has to be done for personal gain. You can’t really use the definition of piracy as a crime because it’s so easy to weasel out of if you prove intent as something other than personal gain or if it’s not on international waters.”
Vargas said he was shocked to learn that stereotypes plague modern pirate communities.
“When we think of modern day piracy, we tend to think of Somalia,” Vargas said. “But nowadays, most of the profitable piracy is in West Africa.”
Stewart also plans to explore contemporary history’s romanticization of piracy in class.
“What fascinates me is why we like pirates so much when they’re fundamentally bad guys,” Stewart said. “They’re rapists, they’re murderers, they’re thieves, and yet we have pirate toys for little kids. The whole sociology fascinated me.”
Stewart compared asking someone who their favorite pirate is to asking them who their favorite serial killer is. And yet, many of his students do have favorite pirates.
Vargas cited Sir Francis Drake as his favorite while Katerberg believes that her favorite, Samuel Bellomy, is single handedly responsible for the romanticization of piracy.
“Bellomy was like the Jack Sparrow of pirates,” Katerberg said. “He was known as the gentlemen pirate or the prince of pirates, and he wore fun flowy coats and had long luxurious hair. He only became a pirate, as the legend goes, so that he could have the money to go after the love of his life, who was rich and whose father did not approve of him.”
After spending the summer exploring the topic, Stewart has come to his own tentative conclusion.
“You’re not likely to actually be attacked by pirates anymore, so when we romanticize them, we are really romanticizing open sea adventure,” Stewart said. “It’s become a safe way to romanticize freedom and adventure.”