It is undeniably true that the Dutch Republic maintained strict, emphatic laws defining “piracy” and calling for its severe punishment. It is also true that many convicted zeerovers and stroomrovers did pay a heavy price for their transgressions, earning sentences of extreme corporal punishment and execution by decree of the Dutch courts.
What is also indisputable, however, is that many of those seamen who were suspected, accused, or even convicted of piracy walked away with a much more mild reproach, or no reproach at all. Curiously enough, these individuals received much gentler penalties than
Dutch law stipulated, or they were pardoned and permitted to rejoin the ranks of respectable seventeenth-century Dutch society.
Sometimes, the authorities neglected even to charge these marauders at all, with the result that behavior which was officially “piratical” according to the letter of the law was allowed to continue unabated and uncondemned.
How can it be that the same society which crafted such exacting and specific legislation concerning piracy and its punishment could, at the same time, turn a blind eye to egregious examples of the very conduct it denounced?
The Dutch deplored “piracy” when their people suffered as a result of maritime marauding—when valuable trade goods and fellow Dutchmen were seized by the Dunkirkers, the Barbary corsairs, and other foreigners. Such miscreants were easy to hold up as examples of “godless” moral degeneration.
At the same time, however, the Dutch could not always recognize “piracy,” or did not always chose to name it as such, when members of their own society committed the crime. Copious and shrill Dutch laws tried to insist that “privateering” and “piracy” were altogether different practices and accorded the two trades separate spheres of action and identity. But while such pronouncements may have been legally valid, they were culturally untrue, thus accounting for inconsistencies in the prosecution of justice and ostensible lapses in societal judgment. Pervasive cultural values born of special economic, military, and political exigencies and fired in the kiln of deeply embedded maritime traditions engendered a context in which the differences between kaapvaart and zeeroverij were actually just the differences inherent in a Janus-like opposition, superficial dissimilarities that, at a deeper level, dissolved into a seamless continuum of maritime predation.
At a fundamental cultural level, then, the Golden Age privateer and pirate was one person, an ambiguous, symbolically charged figure who simultaneously incarnated both the glorified hero and the reviled criminal in the eyes of his home culture. And like so many other ironic dualities born of the Netherlands’ relationship with the sea, this figure—this liminal freebooter— was simultaneously both a blessing and a curse, two facets of one force. His identity was ambiguous and complex, allowing him to be simultaneously the patriotic Sea Beggar champion, the untamed reprobate of the high seas, and everything in between.
The Spanish may have thought that they were insulting the Dutch when they tarred them as rebel pirates, but their description was more accurate than they could have realized. For in very important ways, the maritime predator was profoundly important to the Dutch cultural psyche. Whether he be the pious mariner or the godless scoundrel, the Dutch freebooter was a character whose identity and activities were fundamentally entwined with the national spirit—indeed, with the very conception of the “imagined community”—of the Golden Age Dutch Republic.