Two days before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV, the Washington Post published a guest column by Jamie L.H. Goodall, a staff historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. The writer, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University and has written books about pirate culture, asked whether or not we should celebrate and romanticize those who willingly participated in murder, torture and the brutal enslavement of Africans and Indigenous peoples. Goodall faced attacks from fans to columnists to former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. This column is a response from a fellow historian.
We just passed one of the largest advertising days of the year; a time of year when businesses are willing to pay upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars to pull eyes to their website, clicks onto their app, insert jingles into the memories of consumers, and sell their products by any means necessary be it Budweiser, DoorDash, or anyone willing to contract Matthew McConaughey.
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went head-to-head against the Kansas City Chiefs, numerous media outlets online followed the same pattern using the Big Game to draw eyes to their advertisement-supported enterprises. Thusly, earlier this month, Dr. Jamie L.H. Goodall, a historian of piracy and military history as well as my friend, was subjected to an onslaught of harassment, personal abuse, and indescribably abhorrent threats because she wrote an article that explained and contextualized the history of pirates in the Tampa Bay area capitalizing on a time when interest in the Buccaneers would be at its highest in decades.
The article’s title was erroneously made confrontational by editors without her consent and she was left to deal with the fallout essentially on her own as it moved into the hands of wider conservative media outlets like the Daily Mail and Fox News Channel. A historian, like the multitude of others working on their scholarship, was engaging in public outreach with no financial incentive and was answered violently by a segment of the public so obsessed with the idea of protecting a mascot from so-called “cancel culture” that they could not even recognize that the mascot was not even under attack.
At no point, to my knowledge, was there an argument to cancel, ban, or change the name of Tampa Bay’s hometown football team. This did not keep the mob that went after Goodall from claiming there was, however. Now, even if there was such an argument, it would be an entirely different argument from the ongoing conversation about indigenous mascots that finally succeeded in changing the name of the infamous Washington Football Team.
The history of piracy is a bloody one from Tampa to Tortuga. But the, let us say, issues that might come from uncritically engaging in their legacy are entirely different from the legacy of Native American mascots who tend to come out of a tradition of ethnic caricatures and redface to the detriment of a historic underclass. Without getting sidetracked into that conversation, recall that an obscene level of abuse was launched for the crime of providing the historic background and context of the Buccaneer name; for providing, in a reader-friendly manner, information that would help someone bolster their involvement and engagement with the team rather than work to its degradation.
There is a distinct difference that must be understood between any alleged issues with Vikings, Cowboys or even Pirates — where individual members of a broad group may have committed atrocities — and, for example, the Texas Rangers, who historically are linked to what some might consider genocidal violence against minorities in the southern borderlands. Which, again, is separate from the Native American examples provided already.
It is ironic that the article about pirates attracted the hateful mob considering I am sure an actual discourse of mascot issues already surrounds the former rivals from Kansas City. Regardless, the conversation, without me even getting into my own yay or nay opinions, would be drastically different in each of these cases.
The truth is that history is, has always been, and will always be political. We can disagree and debate a thousand issues that intersect with our history from indigenous mascots, who should be on our money, the appropriateness of certain statues, the overall legacy of problematic Americans, etc., through a thousand opinion pieces. But that discourse cannot devolve into viewing historians as, dare I say it, the enemy of the people.
Those who do that need to be resisted and called out. You can be concerned, my dear reader, for how history is taught, represented, and paid tribute to, but I can guarantee that nothing will damage evidence-based, honest work that allows us to make real conclusions about our past as Americans, as well as global citizens, more than harassing, abusing, disenfranchising, and threatening those individuals who have made it their profession to undertake the public service of parsing through the material record of our complex history. Especially those historians who make the effort to bring their work directly to the public, in the forms of opinion pieces in, for example, the fourth largest daily newspaper in America.
Those of us who care about and want to improve historical literacy understand that cannot happen if the public is hostile in the face of even a benign conversation and will warp said conversation into an attack that must be responded to with hate and vitriol.
Captain Fear was never threatened. The Buccaneers won. Congratulations to them and all their fans throughout Tampa Bay. I wish them luck next season but next year, if historians want to talk about pirates, less people need to take it personally.