• scraze

From Exquemelin to Our Flag Means Death: Pirates in Popular Culture

Almost everything we know about historical pirates comes from secondary interpretations written for entertainment and profit. But just because these texts were written hundreds of years ago doesn't mean they were historically accurate. As a result, a mix of fact and myth swirls around many historical pirates that has persistently bled into their portrayal in popular culture over centuries.

While the medium of their exploitation has changed from print to film and television, pirates are still used for entertainment and profit today despite the reality of their violence and criminality.

To track how this happened, let's start from the beginning.

If you don't have time, here are quick links to help you out:

Alexander Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America (including the art)

Captain Johnson's A General History of the Pirates (including Blackbeard, Anne Bonny and Mary Read in art)

Lord Byron's The Corsair

Pirates of Penzance

JM Barrie's Captain Hook

Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island

Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood

Sir Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin

The Pirate on Film (1930s-1980s)

Women Pirates on Film (Cutthroat Island)

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise

Queer Pirates and Black Sails

Pirates in 2022: Our Flag Means Death

Alexander Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America

First published in 1679, Die Americanische See-Rauber by A O Exquemelin was the first time a first-person narrative had uncovered the mysterious and dramatic world of Caribbean sea-raiding.

The book was an instant best-seller.

It was published in Exquemelin’s native Flemish, then quickly translated into Spanish, then two competing English editions from rival publishers appeared.

Each translated edition manipulated Exquemelin’s words to reflect the patriotism of its publisher.

This meant that the original Flemish edition spoke of the “the principal acts of depredation and inhuman cruelty committed by the English and French buccaneers against the Spaniards in America”; but the English publishers described this instead as the ‘unparallel’d exploits’ of ‘our English Jamaican Hero’ (being Henry Morgan). Morgan himself was so unhappy with the way Exquemelin portrayed him that he sued both the English publishers for libel. He won.

None of this changed the unstoppable path of the two English editions over the next three centuries. Many editions emerged to boost patriotic fervour in times of war; painting sea-raiding and the ill-treatment of the Spanish as justifiable and expected.

Today if you go looking for the book online it is called ‘The Pirates of Panama’ and it is based on the same English version that appeared in 1684. The name was changed in the early 20th century because its American publishers wanted to sever the perception that buccaneers were American pirates. It also removes all of Exquemelin’s descriptive passages about Tortuga to get to the ‘good bits’, as the editor states.

Despite all this, historians now consider Exquemelin’s book as a reliable narrative of sea-raiding during this era. Even Henry Morgan’s libel suit did not dispute the information within the book, just the bit where Exquemelin called him a pirate.

Exquemelin’s artwork

If you think these four images below all look similar, that’s because they were all included in the first edition of A O Exquemelin Die Americanische See-Rauber (American Sea Rovers).

They are, in order:

  • Roche Brasiliano, a Dutch buccaneer who was notorious for his drunken debauchery and roasting Spaniards alive on wooden spits;

  • the Frenchman Francois L’Ollonais, who sacked Maracaibo, captured a fabulously wealthy Spanish ship, and had a penchant for cutting out people’s tongues when they displeased him;

  • Bartholomew the Portuguese who Exquemelin described as being taken prisoner by the Spanish and escaping using earthenware jugs as buoyancy aids; and

  • Last but not least, the renowned Welshman Henry Morgan, who rampaged through Spanish settlements around the Caribbean when not eating and drinking himself into oblivion.

There’s no question they are all the same artist but there is no signature to indicate who the artist was or any reference to them in the text. Exquemelin himself may have drawn the portraits or, as is more likely, the publisher commissioned the etchings and included them afterwards.

All four men are drawn with large, protruding eyes that are not looking directly at you. When this is combined with their weapon held across the chest in a position ready to strike right in the centre of the portrait, we feel their threatening violence.

While the other three were known pirates, Morgan’s more benign expression and the kind of cane he has across his chest rather than a sword perhaps reflected the legal ambiguity of his actions against Spain.

The backgrounds of the portraits all show the mens’ actions. Heavy smoke is billowing around them as ships, trees, settlements, horses and people burn around them. If there was any question of what these men were capable of, these portraits would put them to rest.

Johnson’s A General History of the Pirates (the book)

Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates is the definitive record of the Caribbean’s Golden Age of Piracy (1695-1725).

It describes the exploits of pirates who frequent the internet every day nearly 300 years after their deaths: Henry Avery, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, Stede Bonnet, Bartholomew Roberts, Anne Bonney, and Mary Read among many others.

It was phenomenally successful in its time. Repeated editions appeared frequently. The one most widely available today is the Second Edition, a considerable expansion from the first. Yet despite the infamy and longevity of the book, very little is known about how it came about, especially the identity of its author, Captain Charles Johnson. The only agreement among historians is that Johnson was a pseudonym. But for whom?

In 1932, scholar John Robert Moore announced that he recognised the hand of Daniel Defoe. Defoe was a prolific writer and a well-known pirate enthusiast, most famous today for Robinson Crusoe, his fictionalised account of the life of the castaway Alexander Selkirk. Moore argued the language style and the moral reflections were typical of Defoe.

This position lasted until 1988, when two scholars disputed this claim, citing an absolute lack of any documentary evidence that Defoe was the author. Nearly 20 years later, Arne Bilauschewski proposed the real author was an English seaman, journalist and former friend of Defoe’s called Nathaniel Mist.

Mist began printing The Weekly Journal around the time piracy in the Caribbean increased dramatically. Surviving editions reveal that in 1717, he began including news of pirate raids that he gathered from various sources; including correspondents in America and British merchants and sailors returning to London. With its mix of information and entertainment, Mist’s paper quickly enjoyed great commercial popularity.

The evidence that Johnson was really Mist includes his name appearing on publication registers connected to the book; and its re-production among publishers known to be of his acquaintance. His name even appeared in Government documents as a source for information on these pirates.

While it will never really be known for sure who Johnson was, it only adds to the mystery and allure of this famous book.

Blackbeard in Art from his time

Of all the pirates of the Caribbean, few attract more fascination than Edward “Blackbeard” Teach. There are four images from around his time in regular circulation online and on pirate-themed Insta accounts. All of them emphasise different aspects of his appearance. Blackbeard died in 1718 so he was not drawn from life in any of these images.

[Image 1] The very first recorded physical description of Blackbeard came from Captain Bostock, who was forced to watch as Blackbeard and his crew raided his ship. He described him simply as being “tall and spare” with a black beard he wore very long. By the time Blackbeard appeared in the first edition of Johnson’s General History of the Pirates in 1724 (dead for six years), you can see how emphasis is given to his “thick head of black wiry hair like a frightful Meteor” in his portrait, rather than his long black beard.

[Image 2] In the second, much expanded edition of Johnson’s book a few months later, Blackbeard was drawn by Benjamin Cole. He is still dressed in the style of the time but the “wiry hair” is now hidden under a hat. The “tails” Blackbeard allegedly twisted into his extravagant beard are given more prominence. Yet he appears older and more benign than the images to follow.

[Image 3] In this third edition image from 1734, Blackbeard’s infamy has been firmly entrenched. His beard is now heavily emphasised and far more extravagant than it appeared previously. His clothing has also completely changed and, for the first time, the ‘slow burn lit matches’ he allegedly placed under his hat make their appearance. He no longer carries a sword but is instead bedecked by pistols.

[Image 4] This final image is very ubiquitous but its very difficult to find the original source. It is not from any edition of GHP I have encountered but there were dozens, so it is possible. The only credit I have is from 1754 and the Hulston Archive, an American archive of famous images owned by Getty Images. Given its similarities with the third edition image, it was probably drawn to provide an emphasis of his black hair, beard and flashing eyes. At the time, Blackbeard was already dead for 35 years.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read in Art from their time

The Dutch and English editions of Johnson’s General History of Pirates portrayed the iconic female pirates who sailed with John Ratham - Anne Bonny and Mary Read - very differently.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read in the English edition

Unlike Blackbeard’s portrait, the depictions of Anne and Mary remained the same in the first two English editions of Johnson’s book. Since the two women were known to dress as men, artist Benjamin Cole faced the challenge of how to portray them as pirates that were also recognisably women.

Like the other pirates pictured, he drew them with a sword in hand to signal their propensity for violence. To signal their femininity, he also chose to depict them with long, flowing hair and the standard hair covering a woman always sported in public. More natural hair was the trend in Anne and Mary’s day, but a respectable woman would NEVER have been seen in public with the loose waves depicted here.

For Cole to depict the women this way may seem rather benign to us today, but in 1724 it would have been quite scandalous. It would have sent a clear message these women were rebels against the society they lived in.

What Cole obviously couldn’t bring himself to do was depict them in the usual frockcoats and breeches he drew on Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Henry Avery and the others in the book. For a woman to show ANY of her legs above the ankle was considered overtly sexual and downright immoral. Cole may well have been accused of creating pornography if he dared portray them this way. Instead, he drew them in loose trousers to signal their independence and freedom.

These images come from the 1725 Dutch edition (Anne on the left, Mary on the right). The sword is replaced by a pistol and a far more action-oriented stance. But most notably, the artist has decided to show Anne and Mary as immediately female by portraying them with their breasts exposed. Was this intended to provide titillation (pun intended) for the reader’s enjoyment and undermine the capability and bravery of the two women by reducing them to sexual objectification? Or was it to show that women could be powerful, imposing and still unashamedly female? Historians are still debating this one!

Lord Byron’s The Corsair

Lord Byron

We now jump ahead nearly a century to 1815. The Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean was long over and although piracy was still a problem for seafarers and merchants (especially around Cuba and in the Mediterranean), the reality of it for land-dwellers had faded in public memory.

What was left behind was a legacy of romance, drama and roguishness. In 1815, famed poet Lord Byron captured this to great effect in his seminal poem, ‘The Corsair’.

The Corsair almost immediately became one of Byron’s most famous long-form poems. In Britain, it sold 10,000 copies on its first day of publication, a phenomenal number for its day.

Byron’s success with The Corsair represented the shift of the sea-raider in popular culture from an adventurer to a figure of nobility and romance. This coincided with how privateers had emerged as the heroes of the Revolutionary Wars in 1815. British privateers’ successful exploits had given legitimacy and credibility to the act of sea-raiding that improved their social standing at home.

The Corsair tells the story of Conrad, a sea-raider who is rejected by society and vows to make his fortune by raiding the rich Pasha Seyd*. He succeeded but in the process of freeing the women in the pasha’s harem, he is captured. In return for his effort, Gulnare, one of the slave women, tricks the pasha into freeing Conrad and eventually kills the pasha. This allows them both to escape. Conrad takes Gulnare home with him (his wife had conveniently died by this point). But Conrad does not marry Gulnare, choosing instead to wallow in the misery of his life of crime (and her murder of the pasha) rather than in her loving arms.

Byron’s poem inspired countless dramatisations, plays and recitals.

*pasha is a term given to a governor (or second in command) of the sultan in north African city states.

The Pirates of Penzance

Premiering in New York on 31 December 1879, the enduring Gilbert and Sullivan operetta ‘Pirates of Penzance’ took the tortured and noble Conrad from Byron’s poem The Corsair and placed a comedic spin on him. Set in the southern English town of Penzance, it tells the story of the love affair between Frederic, a reluctant apprentice to a band of soft-hearted pirates and Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley.

The town of Penzance does in fact have a long history of piracy and none of them were soft-hearted. Although well and truly over by 1879, Penzance had for centuries suffered from raiding attacks by North African corsairs. They would seize men, women and children from the inadequately defended ports and take them into slavery. These raids continued until the early 1800s. After the demise of the corsairs, Penzance became a peaceful seaside resort town.

The music and lyrics team of Gilbert and Sullivan wrote Pirates of Penzance remarkably quickly considering the lyrical dexterity of the show’s songs. The signature song, ‘I am the very Model of a Modern Major-General’ (available on YouTube), is today the most famous example of a ‘patter song’ and requires an accomplished singer capable of enunciating its fast tempo and rapid succession of tongue-twisting rhythmic patterns. It was intended to poke fun at the “modern” British Army officers of the Victorian era.

The premiere of Pirates of Penzance in New York also represented an intersection between maritime piracy and copyright piracy. Gilbert and Sullivan had no international copyright protection for their previous show, HMS Pinafore and American producers who saw the show in London quickly took it back with them. Gilbert and Sullivan received no royalties for these performances and fought unsuccessfully for years to control the show’s performance copyright. The two men considered the show ‘pirated’, so decided to claim the copyright of their next show, ‘Pirates of Penzance’, by staging it first in the US.

The show remains popular today. This image is from Opera Australia’s 2007 production.

Captain Hook

Captain Hook in cartoon form

Captain James Hook, the arch-villain pirate of the J.M. Barrie’s seminal story of Peter Pan - the boy who never grew up - first burst to life on the stage in 1904. The play was later converted into a novel, Peter and Wendy, and published in 1911. Barrie’s stories about Peter Pan are still widely available today.

Captain Hook did not appear in early drafts of the play. Barrie included him merely because, like Robert Louis Stevenson, he knew children had a fascination with pirates. Barrie too connected Hook to real pirates of the Caribbean and wrote him as Blackbeard’s former bosun.

Over the years, Barrie’s characterisation of Hook has been interpreted as presenting the pirate as an alternate father figure to children with absent or distant fathers, often using many of Freud’s theories about parental relationships. For Peter, who ran away from his parents when he thought he’d been replaced by a new baby, his antagonistic relationship with Hook stemmed from his attempts to repress his strong desire for a father figure.

For the character of Jack, who is instead very taken with Hook and his life of piracy, he embraces Hook as a potential father figure. In dramatisations of the story, the actor who plays Hook often also plays George Darling, Wendy and Jack’s distant father, who works somewhere in the “City”. Hook offers Jack the attention and affection he longs for from his own father, combined with the excitement and drama of a life of piracy.

Peter Pan is now a cultural icon symbolising youth, innocence and escapism but was he really the hero of the story? Although written as a villain, the character of Hook is often presented sympathetically. He never dies in the end. For Hook, Peter is responsible for the loss of Hook’s hand and he is simply bent on gaining his revenge. Hook also has his own nemesis: the crocodile who Peter fed his hand still hunts him in search of another taste of his blood.

As pirates moved into the realm of cinema, the pirate as a substitute father figure manifested in different ways in film adaptations of the Peter Pan story (1992’s Hook and 2015’s Pan). This also emerged in other pirate-themed films and TV shows to come.

Treasure Island

Tim Curry as Long John Silver in Muppet Treasure Island

Few books have had more influence on pirates in 20th century pop culture like Treasure Island.

Published in 1911, Robert Louis Stevenson took his writing style from Exquemelin’s personal narrative and used the stories in Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates as a basis for his story. In the book, he name-checked Howell Davis, Edward England, Bartholomew Roberts, and William Kidd. A fictionalised Israel Hands, second in command to Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, plays a supporting role.

Treasure Island is set in the 1740s, a good 20 years after the peak of Caribbean piracy. It’s written as a memoir by Jim Hawkins, who reminisces about his adventures as a cabin boy on a mission to search for buried pirate treasure. At Treasure Island, the ship’s cook, the enigmatic Long John Silver, leads a mutiny. Jim and the legitimate crew then battle the mutineers for the ship, the map and the race to find the buried treasure.

The book is positioned as a coming-of-age story but it also works as an ‘old-timers on one last mission’ story too.

Jim is honest, hard-working, loyal and brave. Long John Silver is more complex. He is at first kind, then casually brutal. He is disabled but incredibly physically strong. He uses his considerable charisma and intelligence to quickly adapt himself to his circumstances. Yet he fears the hangman and genuinely cares for his wife. In keeping with the stories of many real pirates, Stevenson ensured Silver came to an ambiguous end.

One of the great legacies of Treasure Island – aside from ‘shiver me timbers’ and ‘yo ho ho and a bottle of rum - is the false trope that pirates buried their treasure and drew maps to find it. However there are elements of truth in the story. Central to the plot is the very real problem of being short of crew to operate a ship, and survivors being wracked with malaria. Silver’s capacity to control the unruly crew by the sheer force of his personality is reminiscent of Kidd, Roberts and other renowned pirate captains.

Treasure Island also fed directly into the academic study of pirates often considered to be started by Phillip Gosse’s publication of ‘The History of Piracy’. Robert Louis Stevenson was a close friend of Gosse’s parents and used to tell him pirate-themed bedtime stories.

Captain Blood

Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in Captain Blood

In Italian-English author Rafael Sabatini’s novels The Sea Hawk (1915), Captain Blood (1922), and The Black Swan (1932), the pirate becomes a passionate and charismatic character, misjudged by their communities and forced into piracy. Yet despite his betrayal, he still believes in honour, seeks redemption, and saves damsels in distress.

Sabatini took pains to base his fictional characters within a legitimate historical context, sparking the genre of pirate-themed historical fiction still popular today. Captain Blood is set in 17th century England and Port Royal. Although the character was fictional, he was based on an amalgamation of real people. These included a surgeon called Henry Pitman who was captured by pirates around Barbados and Exquemelin’s depiction of Henry Morgan.

The first film about pirates was The Black Pirate (1926), a two-tone Technicolour production that presented them as greedy, traitorous, and desperate men. But it was the adaption of Captain Blood, Sabatini’s most enduring and popular work, that swept away this far more realistic image of pirates and replaced it with the romantic swashbuckling fantasy that endures today.

Leading the way was the 1935 Errol Flynn version that brought the excitement of Sabatini’s depiction of the romance and danger of the pirate life into full public consciousness. An enormous financial success (remarkable considering the Great Depression of the time), Captain Blood set the course of the Australian-born Flynn’s career as a romantic swashbuckling character (with an Australian accent!) and by extension, the pirate as one too.

Despite Sabatini’s efforts to create realistic historical context in his books, the first pirate films sanitised pirates as always white, living on clean and orderly ships, engaging in consensual and heterosexual romantic relationships, and participating in choreographed and strangely bloodless duels.

Sir Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin (1929-76)

Sir Haddock

In the long-running adventure comic by Belgian writer and artist Hergé, the intrepid reporter Tintin meets a succession of villains in a series of exotic locales.

One of these villains is the pirate Red Rackham, introduced in 1944’s Red Rackham’s Treasure and appearing in several film productions of Tintin, most recently in 2011. Unlike Captain Hook, Long John Silver or Captain Blood, Rackham contains none of their positive qualities of courage, freedom and cleverness. To Hergé, piracy was entirely negative.

However, in his character of Sir Haddock, Hergé wanted to explore the longevity of a pirate’s appeal and how it stems from how pirates embraced both positive and negative traits of their time.

The inspiration for Hergé’s Sir Haddock story was the exploits of Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and John “Calico Jack” Ratham. To Hergé, they were individually and collectively minded; organised yet anarchistic, and simultaneously pro-capitalism and anti-capitalism. Their violent rejection of society and its rules is on one hand horrifying and on the other, perversely appealing.

So Hergé gave Sir Haddock, the non-pirate, the typical pirate-y qualities: an obsession with rum, a fixation on treasure, a destructive but ‘loyal’ crew, a hostility to the outside world and authority, a love of the romance of the sea, a propensity for swearing, and an ability to get rich from the labour of others. Rackham, the true pirate, was given no ambiguous qualities, only negative ones.

The film versions, however, depict the golden age pirate as far more dashing (but also more loathsome) than they appear in the book version. They are given more redeeming qualities and eventually prove themselves worthy.

I am indebted to Michael Charlton’s essay ‘The image of the pirate in adaptations of the Adventures of Tintin’ in Pirates in History and Popular Culture for this component.

The Pirate on Film (1930s-1980s)

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in The Pirate

After Errol Flynn’s pirate-themed films in the 1930s made the pirate synonymous with the word ‘swashbuckling’, the Hollywood studio machine cranked out a succession of pirate-themed romances, dramas, comedies and musicals (or all four). This lasted until the financial disaster of the Judy Garland and Gene Kelly vehicle ‘The Pirate’ in 1948.

From the 1950s to 1970s, a handful of pirate-themed films came and went from cinemas to little acclaim. But then in the late 1970s, a highly successful re-vitalisation of the Gilbert and Sullivan production ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ on Broadway inspired a mini-revitalisation of the genre.

Hollywood released the Swashbuckler (1976), the absolutely dreadful The Pirate Movie (1982), Savage Islands (1983), Yellowbeard (1983), and Pirates (1987). None were commercially successful in the cinema. Somehow the Pirate Movie gained cult status in the late 1980s due to repeated screenings on HBO. WHY? I do not know. It is so so bad and an affront to all Australians.

By the mid-1980s, pirates found credibility again in two films that went on to define the decade: The Goonies (1985) and The Princess Bride (1987).

In The Goonies, a group of young friends discover an ancient treasure map and set out to find the legendary (and completely fictional) One-Eyed Willy’s long-lost treasure. Single-handedly revitalising a fascination with pirates in a whole new generation of kids, the film went on to become one of the highest grossing that year.

Cary Elwes as the Dread Pirate Roberts

Then came The Princess Bride. For teenage girls of the 1980s, there was no-one more alluring than the charming and dangerous Dread Pirate Roberts. First appearing in the novel in 1973, the Dread Pirate Roberts is a notorious and ruthless persona adopted by multiple men who pass it on to the next when they are wealthy enough to retire. In the book and film, it belonged to Westley, the ‘poor but perfect’ farm boy who uses it to make his fortune and rescue Buttercup from the clutches of Prince Humperdinck.

Drawing on the Errol Flynn swashbuckling films of the 1930s, the Princess Bride revitalised an affection for pirates in popular culture.

Women Pirates on Film

Geena Davis as Morgan Adams in Cutthroat Island

Until the 1995 release of Cutthroat Island, starring Geena Davis and Matthew Modine (currently appearing in Stranger Things 4) very few films centred on a female pirate as the main protagonist.

The only one I could find was Anne of the Indies (1951). It used a highly fictionalised version of the story of Anne Bonny to present a female swashbuckling pirate captain in the vein of Errol Flynn's characters. Anne must make sacrifices for love while always looking gorgeous at the same time. There is no evidence the real Anne Bonny did either of those things.

The early 1990s decision by Carolco Pictures to revitalise the Hollywood pirate genre through the (fictional) story of Morgan Adams and her slave John Shaw turned out to be a disaster so epic that Cutthroat Island is still considered one of the biggest financial flops of all time.

There are well-documented reasons for its catastrophic failure. They range from "a lack of an A-list name to open such a large budgeted film, a desperate film studio playing Russian Roulette with their future, a series of accidents, mishaps and hold-ups during production, a poorly timed release date with almost zero advertising, and an over-ambitious director unable to curtail his fantasies." (Warpedfactor.com Dec 2020)

I wonder if a subliminal contributing factor to its disaster was that even by the 1990s, there was no space in popular culture for female pirates. You only need to look at the film’s poster showing Modine more prominently than Davis to get the feeling the film’s marketers knew this too.

Perhaps if Cutthroat Island had been made today it would be different. There is (a bit) more space for female action stars now than there was then. Or maybe if it had been “based on a true story” and drawn in Anne, Mary Read, Grace O'Malley or Ching Shih it may have found a wider audience. As it was, today, the female pirate on film lived and died with Cutthroat Island.

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise

It took until the early 21st century for pirates to receive the blockbuster Hollywood treatment.

The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise began its life as a theme park ride at Disneyland. First opened in the Anaheim location in 1967, the POTC ride proved so popular it was soon duplicated at other Disneyland sites. I went on it myself at Tokyo Disneyland in 1985. Yes, I am that old. I also liked Space Mountain better.

Following a vague narrative structure, the ride used the themes of Caribbean piracy made popular by Treasure Island: treasure maps, large chests full of gold, and endless bottles of rum among them.

The ride’s enduring popularity prompted Disney executives to see if they could transfer its success to film. The first version of the script included a supernatural pirate idea. However a new screenwriter with some knowledge of piracy was brought in and turned it into a ‘straight’ pirate movie. Director Jerry Bruckheimer rejected this version and returned to the supernatural.

The result was the first and by far the best of the films: Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl.

The film tells the story of the pirate Jack Sparrow (not a real pirate name) and his effort to regain his ship from his former Captain, Barbarossa (a real pirate name). Unbeknown to Sparrow, a curse afflicts Barbarossa and his crew. Sparrow is eventually aided in this endeavour by the blacksmith Will Turner. Turner pines for the Governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann and it is she who holds the key to the lifting of the curse.

It’s clear in this film that some of the pirate historical knowledge remained in the film. This image of hanged skeletons was believed to be what happened after the execution of Bartholomew Roberts’ crew in Cape Coast (West Africa). Other elements, like the corruption at Port Royal, the ineptitude of the Royal Navy, the disgusting and decrepit looking pirate crew, the debauchery of Tortuga, and the concept of ‘parlay’ do have some basis in historical fact.

The subsequent films however, do not. This did not stop them from being extraordinarily profitable, despite their increasingly poor critical reviews.

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise brought new life to the tropes around piracy developed in the early 20th century.

Queer Pirates and Black Sails

Luke Arnold and Toby Stephens in Black Sails

In the 1995 book Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, B R Burg claimed that the absence of legal prohibitions and religion during the Caribbean’s Golden Age of Piracy meant it teemed with homosexuality. This position was met with some scepticism from other historians. Not because they believed the prevalence of pop cultural representations of pirates as viral, male and heterosexual but because there remains little historical evidence to prove or disprove Burg’s theory either way.

The Starz network does not shy away from high level sex scenes in its productions so it is not surprising to see them in the Starz (and now Netflix) pirate TV series, Black Sails. Yet the homosexual and queer relationships within the series present Burg’s theory as a standard aspect of Caribbean piracy. Whether this is historically accurate is anyone’s guess but it does signal the first time pirates in popular culture were allowed to move away from the now entrenched clichés of the viral-masculine world of Errol Flynn and the sanitised adventures of Treasure Island/Disneyfied pirates of the 20th century.

Jessica Walker argued in an essay that within the Black Sails world, ‘the show’s refusal to constrain its pirates within the bounds of its source material (Treasure Island) is in keeping with its exploration of piracy as a queer enterprise,’ she writes. Polyamory plays an important role while the main protagonist, James Flint, is bisexual. According to Walker, the British Empire’s greed and colonial abuses are linked to the show’s heteronormative relationships. Its queer relationships are linked to idealism, adventure, and freedom from social constraints.

In a closing note, Walker writes that Black Sails not only subverted the trope that same-sex relationships lead to death in the pirate world but goes so far as to suggest that opposite-sex relationships are hazardous to one’s survival within it.

While a welcome re-think of the popular cultural representation of pirates of the Caribbean for the 21st century, this still does not explain why everyone in the show has such white teeth.

Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet

Pirates in 2022: Our Flag Means Death

Our Flag Means Death achieves a rare feat when it comes to the pirate genre: it forsakes the clichés and tropes of pirates in popular culture and turns them into real, complicated people. And second, it does it in a way that does not forsake historical accuracy.

Our Flag Means Death takes the intertwined real life stories of Stede Bonnet and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and puts a comedic spin on it.

Here I answer 10 historical questions about Our Flag Means Death.

*spoilers ahoy** DO NOT READ on if you intend to watch the show.

Did Stede Bonnet really abandon his wife and family in Barbados to become a pirate?

Yes, he did. The show posits a few reasons for this decision – a domineering father, bullying at school, an unhappy arranged marriage, a midlife crisis – that are all entirely feasible. However, Stede himself never explained his actions in any document that has survived today.

Was Stede Bonnet really called ‘The Gentleman Pirate’?

Yes, that is true. There is evidence that Stede was unique to Caribbean piracy: he purchased his own ship and paid his crew a wage. Most pirates, including Blackbeard, stole a ship and paid their crew in the proceeds of whatever they plundered.

The sketches of Stede from the time portray him as gentleman-like: well-dressed and coiffed. He was a wealthy Barbados plantation owner after all. However, it’s important to remember that publishers filtered Stede’s story through a profit-seeking and entertainment-driven business model at the time of writing. The commercialisation of Caribbean pirates’ stories dates all the way back to when the pirates were still alive. So the historical accuracy of the sources that tell Stede’s story needs to be carefully considered. The show follows the standard narrative of his story that survives today.

One story that was not included in the show was that Stede Bonnet is apparently the source of the myth that pirates made their victims walk the plank. There is no evidence of this being true AT ALL. However, his character in the show has an intense dislike of direct violence so making victims walk the plank would’ve kept his hands clean.

Did Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard really sail together?

Yes, they did, and for quite long in pirate time (two stints of over a year each). So this indicates they must have had some kind of friendship/relationship that kept them together. However, the exact nature of it – friendly, antagonistic, sexual, romantic – is unknown. These things were just not documented or spoken about then.

Was Stede really such a terrible pirate?

This is actually not true. He certainly wasn’t the most successful of them but he was not nearly as unsuccessful as the show makes out.

Taika Waititi as Blackbeard

Was Blackbeard really as sensitive as he is portrayed?

This is tough to ascertain. It is almost certain he would not have dressed in black leather. The Caribbean heat alone would have made the chaffing horrific.

The show portrays Blackbeard as oppressed by an evil/scary persona concocted for him by others. Historically, it is believed that the mere sight of his ship caused people to surrender in terror. But there are a lot of stories that he was very brutal and violent, particularly towards women. This is never depicted in the show. The show does make a strong plot point about the lack of evidence found that he actually killed anyone. I believe he was certainly as uncouth and uncultured as the show portrays him but I doubt he was as misunderstood and sensitive as the show makes out.

Did women really disguise themselves as men and join pirate ships?

Yes, it did occur. The two most famous women to do this in the Caribbean era were Mary Read and Anne Bonny. They sailed with Anne’s lover, John “Calico Jack” Ratham (who makes a cameo in the show) and were both accepted as part of the crew. They also participated in raids and violence. There were probably many more women who sailed but as they don’t tend to turn up in historical records until the early 19th century, who they were is lost to time.

Were there really treasure maps (episode 7)?

Big nope. As Blackbeard says, ‘pirates don’t really bury their treasure.’ So it is certainly true that the map Stede purchased would have been fake.

Were pirates really so accepting of black people and/or homosexuality?

The evidence suggests they were. There is a line of historical thinking that because Caribbean pirates eschewed the strict legal, social and religious mores of their time, they were far more accepting of other non-conforming individuals. Pirates didn’t tend to target African slave ships for raiding but if they came across black slaves they were known to free them and offer them a spot on their ship. There is also a line of thought they engaged in homosexual practices (perhaps in an ‘any port in a storm’ type scenario) and statistically, it’s most likely there would have been genuinely homosexual men onboard.

The reality was that all ships needed large crews to operate and new recruits were needed to mitigate the effects of disease and accidents on them. Since pirates could not recruit legitimate seamen, they could not afford to be fussy about skin colours and sexual preferences.

Did Stede and Blackbeard really accept pardons from the King?

Yes, they did. The show portrays them as accepting them together but this is probably not the case. However, it definitely is true that King George offered pardons to those pirates who turned themselves in if they went privateering on his behalf.

There was probably not an Academy of Privateering for Wayward Seamen though. Unfortunately.

Will there be a season 2??

Yes! So let’s hope those two crazy kids can work it out!

5 views0 comments