If someone were to ask you about pirates, it would be reasonable to assume that the very word would conjure up images of Captain Hook or Long John Silver in the mind’s eye, invoking thoughts of petty crime coupled with adventurous joviality. However, has this always been the interpretation of pirates through the ages? This blog, authored by the swashbuckling Team Hancock, will explore the development of representations of pirates from the early 18th century through to the modern day, focussing on the foundations of pirate imagery whilst also presenting an alternative interpretation that acts of piracy and the character of the perpetrators may not be quite what we initially thought.
Having explored the historical representations of pirates, we have discovered evidence that gives a clear indication of the roots and development of the generic imagery that is displayed in modern popular culture. Having found an early 18th century depiction of Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach, the infamous pirate whose name is synonymous with piratical adventure (or misadventure if you like!), the long lasting influence of the imagery is clear for all to see.
Here, we can compare and contrast the two representations of pirates, one a primary source from the 18th century depicting Captain Teach and the other, an image of the fictional character Captain Jack Sparrow from the widely renowned 21st century film series Pirates of the Caribbean. It is reasonable to assume that the modern representation of pirates has drawn heavy influence from the sources of the 18th century. There is more than a striking resemblance between the two images, with both Captain Teach and Captain Sparrow sporting long, militaristic overcoats encompassing utility belts carrying weaponry, both men having dreadlock hairstyles covered by tricorne hats and generally exuding a flamboyant, exotic and otherworldly image. Having assessed both images, it is reasonable to conclude that the visual portrayal of pirates in modern popular culture is a fair representation of how pirates have been depicted in the past by their contemporaries.
However, it is not just imagery that Team Hancock are concerned with. We aimed to establish whether the jovial, affable and likeable portrayal of pirates in films like Pirates of the Caribbean and Monty Python are accurate representations of the conduct of pirates in the 18th century or indeed the nature of their character.
Here, we located a source that documented in detail the piratical activities of Lord Archibald Hamilton. Now, if one was to watch or read any fictional representation of pirates in the modern age, I’m sure that the last thing that springs to mind would be a buccaneering adventurer of the seven seas having the title ‘Lord’ before his name. However, these articles published against Lord Hamilton tell of a high-ranking politician, a former Governor of the British colony of Jamaica no less, engaged in, organising and encouraging piratical activities off the coast of the Caribbean. If we go back to the clips of Captain Jack Sparrow and The Monty Python crew, there are certainly no signs of a political elite organising or participating in the adventures, only drunken sailors who you would probably assume to be from a lower social class than the Scottish Noble, Lord Hamilton.
However the process of being a pirate was no laughing matter. Having already explained the jolly and audacious nature of the modern day portrayal of pirates, it can be seen through the trial article, that serious acts such as murder and pillaging were treated with the utmost seriousness by the judicial authorities. Although the murder and theft were potentially isolated incidents, it is fair to assume that there is a strong correlation between the two crimes. Furthermore as can be seen from media at the time, piracy was an issue of severity so much so that punishments included imprisonment or death, for the crime was treated as treason; this factor was then communicated to the public via newspapers to serve as fair warning.
This clearly links to the idea, which was previously mentioned, that pirates were not simply loveable rogues who lived outside the boundaries of the law.
So, there we have it. The pirates that you see on your televisions and the outfits you see in fancy dress stores may actually be a reasonably accurate representation of the images you would have seen back in the 18th century had you been a shipmate on board Blackbeard’s vessel. However, it is worth bearing in mind when sitting down to watch Jonny Depp commandeer the Black Pearl that the perpetrators of piracy were not always the fun loving, rum swigging adventurers from the lowest of the social strata, and it is also worth bearing in mind that the things they got up to did not always have a happy ending.
1. ‘Captain Teach commonly call’d Black Beard’, Joseph Nicholls and James Basire, London, Olive Payne, http://jcb.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/JCB~1~1~1785~2720004:Captain Teach-commonly-call-d-Black, date accessed: 13.2.14
2. Image of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, http://www.hugbacker.com/wp-content/uploads/depp-sparrow.jpg
3. “Articles exhibited against Lord Archibald Hamilton, late governor of Jamaica: with sundry depositions and proofs relating to the same” (London: 1717)http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/lawlib/law0001/2010/20100017090414A/20100017090414A.pdf
4. ‘The Tryal of William Kidd’; http://www.loc.gov/law/help/piracy/piracy_trials.php
5. Post Boy (1695), (London, England), December 10, 1695 – December 12, 1695; Issue 93.