Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Pirate 18th century bandits became Hollywood darlings

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean
So, how did the Golden Age of Piracy, most prominent in the early 18th century, sail into history and into the hearts and minds of the public, spawning tales of adventure and romance on the high seas? How is it that a bunch of sea-going bandits has become the stuff of children's stories and blockbuster movies featuring endearing and often comical characters such as Johnny Depp's portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in the 2003 Pirates of the Caribbean movie series which was, itself, inspired by a children's ride in Disney World? Sparrow followed in the footsteps of
Movie Poster from Disney's 1950 version of Treasure Island
 Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silver of
Treasure Island, 1883, and J. M. Barrie's Captain Hook of Peter Pan, 1904. Both Treasure Island and Peter Pan were made into films by the Walt Disney company during the 1950s and, of course, Walt Disney has always been about entertaining children (as well as young-at-heart adults.) 

My research gives some clues into this phenomenon. It seems that the roots of these pirate tales stem from the lives of men who were, in the beginning of their sea-going careers, often pressed into service by the British Royal Navy and then, once on board, mistreated under a variety of tyrannical captains. The means by which they became His or Her Majesty's seamen was sometimes by a blow to the head, after which they'd awaken aboard a tall ship with no means of escape, legal or otherwise. Agents of the Royal Navy would haunt taverns to scout for likely candidates and follow them out, clubs in hand, as the intended victims wove their inebriated paths toward home. As members of the Royal Navy, these unfortunate men often lived under harsh conditions and were paid little or nothing for their service. The captain's word was law and he could dole out any punishment from flogging to drowning at his order
From "The Last Battle of Blackbeard" by Edward Eggleston, 1895
and whim. That is not to say all captains were oppressive and all seamen were kidnapped, but enough were to build the foundation for the league of pirates, men who once they'd left the Royal Navy by whatever means they could, went into business for themselves. This was especially true for a man such as Edward Teach AKA Edward Thatch AKA Blackbeard who was trained as a "legal" pirate, known as a privateer, expected to capture and rob ships looked upon as enemies of the British realm. It was under Queen Anne that Blackbeard learned his trade and when his services were no longer needed, set out on his own to ply the profitable waters of the Atlantic. He even named his flagship, one he'd confiscated from the French, the Queen Anne's Revenge.

One of the things that set the pirates apart from the legally acceptable tyrants of the Royal Navy, was their relative democracy. Pirate seamen voted for their captains and could vote to depose them if things didn't work out well. They were also paid a great
The Pirate Flag of Blackbeard (designed to intimidate!)
deal more than they were while in the Royal Navy. "Honor among thieves" was a very real part of their world. There were, of course, pirate captains who were just as despicable as the worst of the Navy's and ruled their men with an iron fist gripped tightly around a cat-o-nine-tails, ready to lash out at the slightest hint of insubordination. Although there were atrocities among them, many a pirate leader used image and intimidation rather than cruelty as the means to their end. It is said that Blackbeard was a master at this with his frightening appearance enhanced by his naturally huge stature and his habit of tying slow-burning fuses in his long, black beard giving him the illusion of a creature straight from the gates of Hell. 

I believe the public formed a kind of admiration for these men (and a few pirate women) who, having suffered under the heavy hand of the all-powerful law of the land and sea, went on to form fairly democratic, albeit sometimes brutal, fellowships of their own and lived the life of "sticking it to the Man" that many secretly wished they could as well. This notion has made its way down to our present time, long after the last of such pirates was pardoned by royal decree, retired through self-exile or hanged on the gallows.
The Author striking a piratical pose at the Queen Anne's Revenge exhibit
 in New Berm NC. 2014

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now! (Arrrgh!)


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