This isn’t just that one of the shows my kid watches is weird; there’s nothing unusual in that, though goodness knows I’ve written about it a time or two and goodness knows Jake and the Neverland Pirates is weird. This is that it made me think that there’s a whole aspect to our pop culture that’s weird in a way we basically don’t talk about. More than one, I admit, but this one has become so pervasive that there are hardly any counterexamples to my point. The one I can think of, I’ll admit, is an Oscar-nominated film, but it’s still one that’s sympathetic, just not adulatory. There are very few films that will flat-out condemn pirates.
Yes, there are also a ton of movies that celebrate the gunfighter of the Old West, but there are also plenty that are the lawman against the gunfighter and celebrate the coming of order. In pirate movies, the coming of order is usually the bad guy, and when it isn’t, you often get confused things like my kid’s aforementioned show. The three kids call themselves pirates and try to avoid Captain Hook, who is doing real pirate things like taking their stuff, and how dare he?
The ren faire I go to has a pirate weekend every year. My cousin’s kid is in a troupe that performs as pirates. I grant you that pirates have generally been box office poison, but when they weren’t, you get Johnny Depp in some of his highest grossing movies ever. I was about to look up a detail on Wikipedia, and it has informed me that “Filibus, a fictional sky pirate, has been called one of the first lesbian characters in cinema.” (Apparently, she appears in a 1915 Italian adventure film.) Their pop culture rival, the ninja—what I was actually looking up—is a lot harder to place in their cultural portrayal; Westerners see them as cool, hence the “pirates versus ninjas” thing, but even in the West, they’re equally likely to be seen as villains.
Don’t get me wrong; there were some good aspects to what we think of when we think of pirates, which is specifically the “Golden Age of Piracy,” the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the general vicinity of the Caribbean. Workman’s compensation plans, for example—a pirate who actually did have a hook or a pegleg or an eye patch (assuming it was for a lost eye and not the MythBusters’ tested “helps you see in the dark” thing) had been paid for it, assuming the injury happened in the course of shipboard life or battle or similar. There’s also the fifty women of the era known, and almost certainly more unknown, to have been involved in the trade. The greatest female pirate in history was actually a Chinese woman outside this era, one Zheng Si Yao (which basically means “Mrs. Zheng”; we don’t know her name), but she’s outside our pop culture scope.
Some pirate crews operated essentially as limited democracies, complete with checks and balances. There’s a documented Pirate Code with such entries as “Every man shall have an equal vote in affairs of moment. He shall have an equal title to the fresh provisions or strong liquors at any time seized, and shall use them at pleasure unless a scarcity may make it necessary for the common good that a retrenchment may be voted” and “No man shall talk of breaking up their way of living till each has a share of 1,000. Every man who shall become a cripple or lose a limb in the service shall have 800 pieces of eight from the common stock and for lesser hurts proportionately.” Though I don’t know how widely used such a code was; by definition, it was unlikely to be a universal, since pirates were outlaws and therefore unlikely to be beholden to their own law as a group.
So those things are pretty cool, minus the bit in that same code about “no girlz allowd.” On the other hand, there’s the villainy. Okay, sure, Captain Hook is a villain in all his portrayals, but the important thing is that Captain Hook represents the forces of maturity, which is the real villain in Peter Pan, and Jake and the Neverland Pirates clearly hasn’t put that much thought into the whole thing. Even there, though, what does Captain Hook really do that resembles real piracy? He’s so focused on Peter Pan, or on Jake and his friends, that he never quite seems to do anything aimed at anyone else.
What did real pirates do? Well, they killed people, for one. We may swoon over the Dread Pirate Roberts—I certainly have—but the whole “never takes survivors” thing? Note it’s that he never takes survivors who can fight back; it’s survivors at all. Westley is the only one from his ship to live. But we kind of gloss over that, because 1987 Cary Elwes. And while I don’t know any real pirates who were quite that bloodthirsty, they did all kill as part of what they did.
They stole. Long John Silver is ostensibly the villain of Treasure Island, but the fact is, he’s shown as a father figure to young Jim, who can’t really bear to see him killed. They’re going after Captain Flint’s treasure, but then, it’s not his, is it? It’s the treasure of who knows how many ships that he and his men have taken, treasure belonging to governments, yes, and companies, but also individuals. Pirates in history stole not just gold and jewels and so forth but cloth and medical supplies, which are considerably less glamorous but also considerably more identifiable with ordinary people.
They looted cities. Maracaibo, Venezuela, was sacked three times between 1667 and 1678, and it got off light compared to some cities. And while we basically don’t see the blood when Captain Barbossa and the crew of the Black Pearl do it, as we’re so focused on Elizabeth Swann, the fact is, people died in those attacks, too. Either for protecting their property or just by accident when they were in the wrong place at the wrong time during the fighting. And the pleasant, bumbling Governor Swann would have been a heck of a target.
No, movie pirates are seldom Abduwali Muse, someone from a land in such turmoil that we don’t even know for sure what his real age is. (He was almost certainly a minor when he participated in the attack on the MV Maersk Alabama, but his official birth records, his mother, and his father give three different years of birth for him.) They are not men with no other opportunities. They are certainly not the women of historical piracy, which I find a legitimately interesting topic. They are daring men in a no-girls-allowed club, doing what they want and not worrying about the consequences. So maybe their ubiquity is not as surprising as all that?