Monday, 7 July 2014

Pirates: History Vs. Hollywood

We all enjoy pirates, those lovable swashbuckling scoundrels who sail the seven seas under a skull and crossbones in search of gold. At least, that's the image we're familiar with. Pirates have become an icon of Hollywood for decades and even I enjoy a good swashbuckling adventure now and then, but like many periods in history Hollywood has distorted their image a great deal from the reality. They've created stereotypes which, when you get down to it, are pretty insane. In fact part of the fun of The Pirates! Band of Misfits is in how they poke fun at a lot of conventions and emphasize the absurdity of them.

Back in Grade 5 I was such a nerd. I'd decided to dress up as a pirate for Halloween but rather than just donning my costume the same way any other kid would have I actually took the time to do some research, first exposing me to the truth and allowing me to see beyond the stereotype. Some of that knowledge still remains with me, and while I'm no scholar I'm certainly able to discuss the issue at length, but that question remains: where does Hollywood end and history begin?

Well, let's start by pulling the curtain right off of Hollywood and say that real pirates were hardly the swashbuckling buccaneers we've come to know and love. There was nothing romantic or adventurous about being a pirate. In fact, the basic definition of "piracy" entails criminal activity performed at sea, and that is something that still happens today. Try romanticizing anything you've heard on the news about Somali Pirates and you'll quickly get into trouble.

The life of a real pirate during the 18th century was actually quite a bit different. Let's start with the basics: this was back in the days when profit was considered more important than safety, so conditions aboard any sailing ship of the time were horrific. There were over 1000,001 (probably more) different ways you could end up being disfigured, and that's not even getting into all the diseases that were common at sea. In that sense, there is some truth to a few of the Hollywood images. After all three things often associated with pirates are peg legs, hooks for hands, and eye patches and there is a reason for that.

I personally don't buy into the myth that eye patches were used as a way of adjusting one eye to seeing in the dark to make it easier to navigate below deck (who came up with that one, anyway? It's ridiculous) but you could lose just about any part of your body at sea, including your eyes and to be fair most people have an easier time looking at someone with a piece of cloth over one eye than at the scarred tissue where an eye used to be. In theory it also wouldn't be too hard to improvise, since if nothing else you could make a patch out of what's left of your worn clothes.

Similarly, legs weren't too hard a thing to loose either. In fact, one of the most iconic fictional pirates of all-time, Long John Silver, is first identified by the fact that he only has one leg and has to hop around on a crutch. Wooden legs weren't too far-fetched an idea at all, given that sailing ships of the time usually had a fair bit of wood on hand and the crew often included a carpenter. If someone lost a leg, whether it be due to it getting caught in ropes or crushed by a falling mast or even just being infected to the point where it requires amputation (something that tended to happen quite often back then), the carpenter could use whatever wood is available to improvise a prosthetic.

Now I'm not 100% certain of the validity of hooks for hands. I'm not personally aware of any cases of it happening although if it did it certainly wouldn't just be something for Captains (you don't see many crew with hooks for hands in the movies, do you?). In theory this wouldn't be too great a stretch, since hands could easily be lost as well as legs and eyes, and a hook would be something that could still allow you to perform tasks that are required aboard the ship.

So let's move on from the more gruesome aspects of being a pirate and look at some of the other facts. What are pirates normally seen to do? You're probably thinking of treasure, and lots of it. You might be thinking of pirates obtaining treasure maps and finding some island where "X marks the the spot" and digging up chests full of gold and jewels. That's all well and good but couldn't be further from the truth.

In reality, assuming that the ships they attacked even had any gold to begin with, it would probably be the lowest priority. Traditionally when it was obtained it would be divided equally among the crew, but usually pirates would be more interested in the stuff that was essential to surviving at sea. Gold is all well and good but there's not much you can do with it in open water. They'd have been more likely to steal food, clothing, weapons, tools, anything that they needed to survive. Money would have come last if at all.

Also, pirates weren't normally known to bury their treasure. There are a few real-life cases: Captain William Kidd buried some of his treasure and supposedly Blackbeard has a stash still hidden somewhere, but ordinarily any money that was collected was divided equally (or at least as equally as possible) among the crew and quickly spent on grog whenever they were in port.

Another issue that tends to pop up quite a lot is the "Jolly Roger". There is a very specific image that likely pops up into your head when I mention that name: a black flag depicting a skull above (or sometimes in front of) two crossed objects, usually either bones or swords. It's often assumed in the media that all pirates sailed under this flag but the reality is that every pirate had a design of their own, and most of them were drastically different from that traditional image. In addition, since clothes were usually stolen and not made with the intent of being worn by pirates, you would never see a captain wearing a hat with a skull and crossbones on it.

The flag flown by Blackbeard, one of the most famous real-life pirates.

One of the other big myths that tends to pop up is the idea of "Walking the Plank". We've all seen this one before: the pirates have captured our brave hero and decide to execute him/her by forcing him/her to "walk the plank", by extending the gangplank over the edge and forcing the victim to walk along it until he/she falls into the water, presumably to drown. As far as I know this is more or less complete fiction.

First off, the gangplank would have been designed to assist in getting on and off the ship while it's in port, not so it could be used as a diving board. I'm not sure if it would be capable of holding a person on one end like you often see without snapping. Second, the preferred means of punishment was an entirely different process called "marooning".

This one does pop up in movies from time to time (in fact it's used as a plot point in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl). The details may vary but the way it works is basically a troublesome pirate is brought onto a deserted island and left to their own fate. In some cases they might be given a pistol or a flask of water or some other form of minimal provisions that will be quickly used up. There's a few rare cases of people managing to survive (including Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration behind Robinson Crusoe) but most castaways would die after a short period of time.

Now let's move on a little bit and look at some of the few more positive aspects of being a pirate in those days. For one thing while there was no global pirating community as claimed by Pirates of the Caribbean, there was a degree of equality among pirate crews at least compared to those of "honest men". This would have been an issue of practicality, as when you're a fugitive at sea you got to take all the allies you can get, but this was also back in the days when misogynistic white men considered slavery to be morally acceptable and there were virtually no opportunities for women to be anything other than their husband or father's property.

Historically, pirate crews were often democratic in nature, and loot would have been divided equally among the crew but here we get into an interesting image. One archetype that tends to pop up from time to time in pirate films is the "Pirate Girl", a woman (usually the only one aboard) who is a fully capable pirate in her own right. Morgan from Cutthroat Island is a good example, as is Elizabeth and Anamaria in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Surprisingly this one actually does have its roots in truth.

While in those days sailors were usually uneducated and extremely superstitious, with one traditional belief being that having a woman aboard was bad luck (this is even discussed in Pirates of the Caribbean), there were several female pirates who gained notoriety. The most famous would probably be the duo Anne Bonny and Mary Read who served under John "Calico Jack" Rackham and were said to have been the fiercest members of his crew. There are even accounts of women who managed to take command of a pirate ship.

So where did this romantic image come from? That's a good question and I've got two possible sources of where many of the stereotypes may have originated or at least were popularized: the novels Peter Pan and Treasure Island. The former certainly popularized the concept of a hook for a hand, but the latter may have helped to cement the romantic image.

Long John Silver is one of the most iconic fictional pirates of all time, and one of the first things we learn about him is that he has only one leg. He is also a fairly complex and lovable character. While technically the pirates are the antagonists and Long John is leading them, at least at first (he changes sides toward the end) Long John is a very likable person. He may be planning a mutiny but he's also human. He has a genuinely touching friendship with the protagonist, Jim Hawkins, whom he obviously cares about and never wants to see come to any harm at the hands of his crew.

In fact the character is so lovable that the novel even has him secretly leave the ship at the very end just so he can survive (the heroes promise him a fair trial, but it's made clear the odds of him escaping the gallows aren't exactly in his favor). He may have also helped to popularize the "pirate voice", something that seems especially evident when you watch Robert Newton's wonderful performance in the 1950 adaptation.

Now I won't claim to be an expert. I'm not a scholar. If I made any mistakes don't hesitate to point them out, but I can tell you that Hollywood's image of the swashbuckling buccaneer is drastically different from the reality of life as an 18th century pirate. It's fascinating to try and strip apart the fabrications and to study the reality.

One idea I've expressed interest in for a screenplay is to write a film that would cast aside the stereotypes of Hollywood and show the rather dull, grim, terrifyingly short life of an actual pirate (sort of a pirate-themed equivalent to Unforgiven). I haven't gotten anything solid enough to work with yet but feel free to give it a shot if you can find a good story.


  1. Very good read on a subject we don't hear much about. I think most adults at least have an idea that pirates weren't like Cpt. Hook or Jack Sparrow, but haven't put any thought into what they were like. Thanks for this.

    1. Thank you. This is a subject that is of great fascination to me and it's great to see my knowledge on the topic is appreciated.