Captain Jack Sparrow trying to quell a mutiny in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006). His crew, the second to attempt a mutiny against him, demands that they commit piracy and go after gold and silver.
Captain Barbosa, the evil pirate from Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), continues the tradition of pirate criminality in the first film of the series.
Captain Peter Blood, the eponymous hero of Captain Blood (1935). An aristocrat and reluctant pirate, Blood turns on his crew to prove to his love interest that he is not a “thief and pirate.” His tale ends not on the ship, but in the governor’s mansion.
Captain Roc Brasiliano in Against All Flags (1952), about to take the pleasure from Spitfire Stephens that she has denied him. An unregenerate pirate villain, he aligns with historical accounts which demonize pirates.
Long John Silver, the smooth-tongued villain of Treasure Island (1934), betrayer of friends and manipulator of children.
Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. The anti-hero of the film series, Sparrow rejects all boundaries and authority. Lead by his magic compass, he chases his desire wherever it may lead, regardless of the needs and safety of his friends and crew.
The Pirates of the Caribbean series, with its cross-dressing and gender ambiguity, evokes the gendered pirate transformation of earlier films.
Captain Edward Teach, known as Black-Beard, practiced horrible brutality to encourage surrender. Cultivating the image of Satan, he would braid his beard and hair with lit matches to scare his adversaries.
Captain Bartholomew Roberts, with his ship the Royal Fortune. Roberts was one of the most successful pirates of the Golden Age, finding the fortune he could never have received in merchant or naval service.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read were infamous after their capture and became folk heroes of ballads and prose. Both women found aboard the pirate ship the freedom to dress, love, and live as they wanted.
The affronted Doña Maria in The Sea Hawk (1940). She tells Geoffrey Thorpe, the English privateer, that she will not “drink with thieves and pirates.”
By the end of the film, Doña Maria admits her love for Thorpe and he ascends from privateer to knight of the realm, from pirate to lover.
In an early scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Johnny Depp’s widely popular character, Captain Jack Sparrow, faces a mutinous crew. The crew revolts because Sparrow has returned from his foray into a demonic fort without anything “shiny,” because “dear old Jack isn’t serving their best interests as captain,” because under his command they have not done “a speck of honest pirating.” Sparrow, as he so often does in the series, mollifies the crew with empty promises and verbal trickery, and they ignorantly proceed on a quest for the heart of an immortal sailor who ferries dead souls to the afterlife. Yet this moment between the crew and Sparrow reveals an overlooked truth about the Pirates of the Caribbean series and the pirate film in general: film pirates rarely, and in many cases never, commit piracy. Far from celebrating piracy, the pirate film separates pirates from the act itself, eliding representations of robbery at sea and punishing those who commit it.
A perennial, though minor, subject in U.S. cinema, narratives featuring pirates have appeared every couple years since the beginning of the medium with Three of a Kind: A Pirate’s Dream (1901). The most beloved and iconic pirate films, until recently, came from the classical Hollywood era (1927-1960), and these specifically focused on pirates operating in the Caribbean. The success and cultural significance of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series, with four films released and a fifth film slated for 2015, has reinvigorated cinematic piracy after a relative dearth of films from the 1960s through the 1990s. The reemergence and success of film pirates after a forty-year lapse raises important questions about the congruities between the present moment and the first half of the last century, and between the earlier cinematic representations of pirates and the current ones.
Not surprisingly, Disney’s current series has received significant academic study for its racial politics (Frank 58-62), open-ended nature (Jess-Cooke 205-222; Peterson 70-79), portrayal of gender and queer coding (Karreman 1, 5; Steinhoff; Fradely 294-312), countercultural appropriation (Pugh 1-12; Land 169-170), and transmedia transformations (Aarseth). However, scholars have paid little attention to its relation to earlier U.S. pirate films. This is surprising, as director Gore Verbinksi, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have repeatedly expressed their debt to the earlier films. In the words of Elliot, they intended to
The early classical Hollywood pirate films, like the Pirates of the Caribbean series, make no attempt at historical accuracy, but they are nonetheless limited by historical and cultural conceptions. All the films utilize three dominant interpretations of pirates: as criminals, rebels, or anarcho-libertarians. Because the historical record is ambiguous, these three tropes are scripted into the earlier films as lecherous villainy, superficial rebellion, and gender transformation. The same tropes and their manifestations continue in the current Disney series, though the franchise’s refocusing primarily onto Jack Sparrow after the first film has foregrounded the anarcho-libertarian aspects of the earlier films. Furthermore, while all the films utilize these three ways of understanding piracy to suite their own ideological and industrial imperatives, they do so by minimizing and at times erasing the very act of piracy. Which is to say, U.S. films often disconnect pirates from the act that defines them. These films, by erasing pirates’ collective, economic transgression, undermine pirates’ rebelliousness and instead focus on individual villainy, heroism, and ill-defined, idealized freedom. Although Verbinski believes that piracy is “rebellion distilled” (Surell 119), he and other filmmakers have subverted that rebellion by mitigating the role of piracy itself within the films.
In this article, I will analyze the historical basis for, and interrelation between, the three dominant interpretations of pirates as criminals, rebels, and anarcho-libertarians. Next, I will trace the mobilization of these tropes across the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: in the Pirates of the Caribbean amusement park ride, in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and then in the remaining films—after Johnny Depp queered the pirate film and Disney reconfigured the series around his character. Finally, I will analyze the earlier actualization of these tropes in the pirate films of the silent era and the classical Hollywood era, with particular focus on those set in the early modern period. Irredeemable criminals, romantic rebels, and utopian freedom fighters dominate historical, cinematic, and popular accounts of piracy because these interpretations have some historical validity and are malleable enough to fit differing historical moments, ideological agendas, and consumer desires.
Interpreting pirate history
Though piracy is as old as maritime travel, the pirates and representations of piracy that have dominated U.S. cinema and popular imagination originate primarily in the Caribbean during early European colonial expansion. As Christopher Hill succinctly states it, “Who says pirates says West Indies” (165). Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Long John Silver, Captain Blood, Anne of the Indies — these pirates, both actual and fictional, come from two adjacent periods of piratical activity centered in the Caribbean: the Buccaneer era from 1650s to the early 1690s and the “Golden Age” of piracy, from the 1690s to the end of the 1720s. These are notably rough periodizations, as historians do not agree on when the Golden Age began or its relation to the Buccaneer era that preceded it. Even more disputed, however, are interpretations of pirates’ intentions and moral judgments about their actions during these periods.
For example, David Cordingly declares,
Linda Grant De Pew similarly insists,
From this perspective, piracy seems solely motivated by greed and a desire to harm others:
Directly opposing this view, Marcus Rediker argues that sailors turned to piracy because it offered them an escape from the privations and injustices of merchant and naval service, because it
Stephen Snelders likewise writes that
For these historians, pirates are maritime “social bandits” who consciously rebelled against hypocritical and unequal social systems. Social bandits fight against the tyranny of those in power, and piracy can be seen as a class-based form of revolt, though not an attempt at revolution, not a an attempt to create a new system (Hobsbawm 5). According to Eric Hobsbawm, social banditry
In addition to these conflicting interpretations, which I will call pirate as criminal and pirate as rebel, is a common view of pirates as anarcho-libertarians. Peter Lamborn Wilson, writing under the pseudonym Hakim Bey, advocates this view:
For Wilson, pirates’ idealized desire for freedom dissolves context and achieves the unattainable: full and untainted liberty. This interpretation, while having less historical grounding (Kuhn 57-58, 61), is currently the most appealing. It often underlies the celebration of piracy in popular culture and the use of the Jolly Roger by anarchists and anti-capitalist protesters (Land 188). Rarely occurring in isolation, and clearly interrelated, these three interpretations articulate the dominant Anglophone conceptions of pirates as both historical and fictional narratives draw upon them.
Differing moral evaluations here result from a dearth of verifiable historical information on 17th and 18th century piracy, and the semantic instability of the term “pirate” itself (Burg xii). As very few pirates were literate, contemporaneous accounts of shipboard activities come second-hand or from those captured by pirates (and biased by the experience). Due to a lack of pirate self-presentation, pirates’ motives and activities will forever remain a mystery, so that conjecture, fabrication, and romanticization augment the gaps (Kuhn 2-4). Therefore, David Cordingly can insist, “Reason tells us that pirates were no more than common criminals” (xiii), while Robert C. Ritchie can assert “piracy was never merely robbery” (iv); and Christopher Land can claim,
Also contributing to the disagreements is another definitional problem of piracy, as a “wide definition of piracy competes with a narrow one” (Kuhn 7). Fundamentally, piracy is robbery at sea, and those who commit that act are pirates. Piracy can include other forms of maritime predations, such as raiding (attacking land from sea), kidnapping, destruction, and murder, but without the intent to seize property such actions are not piracy. Yet as Gabriel Kuhn stresses, an understanding of what constitutes robbery in general
Designating something as piracy, therefore, can foreground how different forms of appropriation are defined as legitimate or illegitimate, and can make clear the structures of power and interest that allow for and prohibit such acts. In this case, during the early colonial period several other maritime actors not designated as pirates appropriated property at sea without authorities labeling their actions as robbery. Pirates existed alongside privateers (called corsairs by the French), buccaneers, and freebooters, who all looted ships at sea.
Colonial sovereigns granted letters of marque to privateers, which authorized them to attack enemy merchant ships during times of war as an extension of the navy. During times of war, the privateer was, in essence, a maritime entrepreneur who furthered the war effort by attacking supply lines (Turley 38). During peacetime, if the privateer still operated, often the sovereign deemed the privateer’s actions illegal so as to ensure plausible deniability with allies (Earle 23). The distinction between pirate and privateer for the sailors themselves was fluid and strategic, with most legally representing themselves as privateers while committing piracy (“Of Pirates” 75; Kontorovich 214).
In addition, the Spanish inadvertently created Buccaneers at the beginning of the 17th century when they tried to depopulate the northern side of Hispaniola (modern Haiti). In order to clear out the English and Dutch living in the wilds of the island, the Spanish destroyed their settlements and hunting camps, and they attempted to slaughter the wild cattle off of which the settlers survived, scattering them to the surrounding islands. Known as boucaniers—those who smoke and barbecue meat—this “remarkable blend of human flotsam” mixed with the French conquerors of Tortuga and began attacking Spanish ships and networking with other islands (Galvin 110). These men, who called themselves “The Brethren of the Coast,” may have been influenced by the British radicals of the New Model army and the Monmouth Rebellion, who
The Dutch, French, and British governments utilized, encouraged, and celebrated buccaneers for damages they did to the Spanish trade monopoly, plunder they brought into the colonial economies, and defense they provided to settlements. Rather than criminal outcasts, the buccaneers were in fact the economic engine of the non-Spanish Caribbean during this period (Konstam 95–115; Earle 92–93).
French, British, and Dutch buccaneers did not generally attack their own national or allied ships, and were therefore considered heroic in their home countries and could be easily reintegrated into legal society, as shown by the lieutenant governorship of Henry Morgan. Not in the direct employ of a crown, the buccaneer served the interests of the enemies of Spain and did not receive from them the opprobrium and appellation of pirate. To the Spanish though, they were undoubtedly pirates (Turley 28-36; Leeson 7-8).
In a related fashion, Dutch sailors coined the term, vrujbuiter (freebooter), to describe those who did not honor Spanish claims to the new world. Bypassing their intermediaries, Dutch traders (and many from other nations) went to the Americas to trade with Spanish settlements illegally. Due to the Spanish prohibition against settlements trading with non-Spaniards and the intimate marriage of commerce and war during the early period of colonial expansion, merchants often attacked settlements as a strategy to both steal and to encourage prohibited trade (Pérotin-Dumon 207-209). They were, of course, pirates according to the Spanish government, demonstrating that
Pirates, in the wide, normative definition used during the Buccaneer period, were those who overstepped their authority or robbed on the behalf of an enemy. However, following the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1713), pirates in the narrow definition appeared in the Caribbean attacking ships regardless of national affiliation. These formerly mobilized privateers returned to a flooded maritime labor market and many “went on the account,” bringing Caribbean trade to a standstill. Prioritizing trade over naval dominance, the colonial powers waged a “rhetorical, military, and legal campaign” against their former employees (Rediker 127). Declared pirates and therefore legally hostis humani generis, the “enemy of all mankind,” pirates were linked through legal phrasing with the tyrant, the brigand, and the savage (Edelstein 31). These “villains of all nations” were, actually or no, at war with the world and any naval power could seize and execute them without trial (Rediker 128). By 1728, the European powers had exterminated several thousand of them and ended the Golden Age of piracy.
All three interpretations (criminal, rebel, anarcho-libertarian) have some basis in reality, and inflect the moral judgments placed on the nominally different maritime predators. Pirates were undoubtedly criminals, breaking the laws of multiple states, and did commit horrible atrocities against those who did not surrender easily (and some who did). For example, Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, actively cultivated an image of cruelty and wickedness, “making his men believe he was the devil incarnate” (Johnson 61). One historian has even described pirate Captain Henry Avery as "the very model of a pirate villain" and "one of that rarest of human creatures: a completely selfish man" (Sherry 67, 69).
Pirates were also undoubtedly rebels, reacting against the scarcities of maritime proletarian life and the absolute power of the merchant ship captain. According to A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, the early 18th century book from which most pirate lore and fact originates,the pirate Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts summed up the choice between piracy honest maritime labor thus:
Underpaid, subject to horrible abuse, and lacking effective legal recompense or protection, many pirates viewed their actions as "doing justice to sailors" (Rediker 83-102).
And pirates were certainly trying to create something liberated, something radically democratic and possibly anarchistic (Land 190). Under the Jolly Roger, pirates chose their captains (and all policies) by democratic vote, distributed power between the captain and quartermaster, shared loot amongst the crew based on skill (the largest share was only 1.5), and lived everyday in carnivalesque excess (Rediker 60-82). Captain Charles Bellamy expressed the radical libertarian sentiment when he responded to a sailor who refused to join his crew:
So apparent was the "freedom inherent in the pirate's life" that many people during the 18th century believed in the pirate nation of Libertatia in Madagascar and its fictitious founder, Captain Mission, even though there was no corroborating evidence of such a settlement or captain (Sherry 99).
The semantic ambiguity of piracy and the power inherent in legally designating piracy likewise affects moral judgments about pirates. The legality of privateering and the national celebration of buccaneering mitigate the opprobrium of more conservative historians, thereby creating a separate moral category that could be applied to similar actors. For the more socialist historians, finding similarity of activity but difference in legal and moral standing highlights the social construction of criminality and the hypocrisy of rulers. This analysis undermines the former historians’ moral condemnation of pirates. And for the anarchists and libertarians, the fact that men fought against the early nation states erases any ties (national and economic) they may have had to those states. What differs is not the historical data but the meanings of the crimes, rebellions, and attempts at liberty. As Hans Turley, one of the first scholars to study representations of piracy, notes in an oft quoted passage,