The new class on pirate history offers a swashbuckling assignment. Collegian | Michael Bachmann
The new class on pirate history offers a swash­buckling assignment.
Col­legian | Michael Bachmann

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.”