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Why I Hate Fake Pirates

Jack_Sparrow, the most famous fake pirate (c) Disney CorpHISTORY MATTERS

In my taxonomy of Halloween monsters there are three categories. First are the imaginary monsters like vampires, trolls, devils, dragons, ghosts, and zombies. I like these monsters a lot. They are not real; although I’m afraid we’ll get a letter from someone who believes otherwise. If that person shows up with one of the above in a box, I’ll happily eat this article. (Continued below)


The second category includes monsters that are scary in the movies, but benign in real life. People have been legally branded as witches in New England, for example, but they were not actually supernatural figures. Usually they were helpless female victims who were defrauded of life, liberty, and property by corrupt, powerful, and superstitious neighbors. Mummies and skeletons also belong to this middle category because, in the movies, they get up and walk around. That’s scary. In real life, however, mummies and skeletons just lie still and do nothing. Space aliens are tricky too because, although there’s no evidence of them on Earth, there’s certainly life out there somewhere.

The third category includes historical monsters like pirates, evil dictators, child molesters, hit men, gangsters, some carnivorous dinosaurs, and murderers. I don’t like these guys at all because, with the exception of dinosaurs, they are really out there and they are very dangerous.

Call me a prude, but the more realistic the monster, the less I enjoy them as Halloween costumes. I prefer not to honor evil. Give me a good imaginary Wolf Man or Frankenstein’s monster any time. But when I see a witch with her stereotypical pointed hat and broom, as an historian, my mind goes to the 17th century victims in the Salem Witch Trials. I think of poor Goodwife Cole who was starved and jailed and spat upon by the citizens of Hampton for being a witch. Or I think of old George Walton whose unseen New Castle enemies assaulted him with flying rocks.

I love the gory temporary Halloween superstores that pop up each year, but not the sicker costumes that tend to mirror the headlines. We could do without Chester the Molester, Lizzie Borden, Jason, Freddy Kreuger, pimps, Adolph Hitler, Bin Laden, Jack the Ripper – and oh yes – pirates.


Little piratical activity

My issue with pirates is partly personal. I have wasted too much of my brief life debating whether pirates roamed these shores. I’m sure they passed by en route from Canada to Boston in the early 18th century. But “these shores” from a New Hampshire perspective measure a mere 17 or 18 miles. Around here pirates are a footnote at best. Yet they seem to be multiplying, not only on Halloween, but at summer festivals and tall ship visits.

Fake_Blackbeard at Isles of Shoals (c) J. Dennis RobinsonI spent a very long unpaid day with a film crew from the History Channel searching for Blackbeard’s treasure on Lunging Island at the Isles of Shoals. I watched actors in theatrical costumes prance around the island with plastic guns and swords and plastic gold doubloons. I explained on-camera that there is no historical evidence that Edward Teach ever set foot here, or abandoned his 14th wife here, or was stupid enough to bury his treasure among the poor island citizens of Gosport. My interview never made it into the final cut.

Maritime historian Jeremy D’Entremont agrees, and he should know. Jeremy edited the works of New England author Edward Rowe Snow, including his book Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast. Much of local pirate lore, Jeremy notes in his introduction to Snow, comes from a 1724 book by an author whose life is largely unknown, so even the bible of the best-documented pirate tales is comprised of shaky facts.

“Like you,” Jeremy told me, “I believe there was very little piratical activity in this neck of the woods…I've also seen no evidence that Blackbeard or any of his crew spent time in the Isles, legends to the contrary.”

In his book Ocean-Born Mary: The Truth behind a New Hampshire Legend. Jeremy separates fact from fiction. One legend notes that the pirate who spared the life of his prisoners, including a newborn Mary, was Phillip Babb, the bloody butcher of the Isles of Shoals. That story is pure fluff. Jeremy notes that it was popularized by the 20th century author Lois Lenski in her imaginary story of the life of Mary Wallace. I can tell you for certain that Lenski got some of her research from Portsmouth historian Dorothy Vaughan. I’ve seen their correspondence in the archives of the NH Historical Society. Dorothy got her info largely from Shoals’ poet Celia Thaxter, who played fast and loose with the facts and had a personal interest in spiritualism and the occult.


Celia appears to have exaggerated her story of “Bloody Babb the Butcher” from her father Thomas Laighton, who built his Appledore Hotel on top of an ancient grave site in 1847. Thomas joked to his children that he might have disturbed the bones of Phillip Babb who was an actual butcher and a constable at the Shoals in the 17th century. The ghost stories that Thomas Laighton told his children still reverberate today in false history and pirate tales.

Jeremy suggests that the real captain in the Ocean-Born Mary story was Bartholomew Roberts, the most successful pirate of them all, and that the attack took place off Newfoundland. Roberts was sometimes kind to his victims. Tall, stout, and swarthy, he preferred drinking tea over wine and dressed like a gentleman.

“But Roberts certainly wasn’t averse to violence,” Jeremy writes in his book. He also murdered and tortured people, Jeremy notes. Roberts, who sailed under the Jolly Roger, may have torched a ship with 80 slaves aboard. Pirates were rarely, if ever, the swashbuckling, romantic, anti-heroes of popular fiction. Pirates were, like their modern counterparts off the African coast, merely murderers and thieves with boats.




Teach your children well

Today we are awash with pirate fiction that grows more fantastic every year. Any child can tell you that a typical pirate wore a long coat and cocked hat, accessorized by a black eye patch, a hook instead of a hand, and a matching shoulder parrot. Some could walk underwater and their beards were made of live writhing snakes. Many were also zombies.

These images have great power. Endlessly recycled in our popular culture, the romantic myths of piracy, like those of dueling cowboys facing off at high noon in the Wild West, can seduce us into thinking we are looking at history in action. But we are not. This imagery was crafted by novelists and forged in the dream factories of Hollywood.

Pirate_child_with_Providence_in_Portsmouth (c) J. Dennis Robinson

The American movie pirate is a fake. He is a cheap cardboard character for lazy scriptwriters, as overused and oversimplified as the pious Pilgrim, the murderous foreigner, the dumb blonde, the shuffling slave, the savage Indian, the brilliant detective, and the hooker with a heart of gold.

The Jack Sparrow character played by actor Johnny Depp in the four-film series Pirates of the Caribbean teaches us little, if anything, about historical pirates. But he does offer a rich lesson for our children about piracy. By 2011 the Disney Corporation’s income from the franchise -- including theme park rides, films, and licensing had already reached an estimated four billion dollars.  Your pocket, most likely, is among those picked.

Blame Hollywood

Robert_Louis_StevensonI have actually heard costumed characters dressed like Johnny Depp proudly refer to their outfits as “authentic” pirate garb. Authentic to what? Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactors work extra hard to duplicate their uniforms and equipment to the strictest historical standards. That’s authentic. At least with the fictional Frankenstein’s monster, we have the “original” 1931 Boris Karloff film to judge by. In response Kenneth Branagh directed an even more “authentic” Frankenstein film based on Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel. But that monster is still imaginary.

Much of what passes for piracy in literature and film these days is romantic claptrap. But before we blame Walt Disney, let’s blame the nursemaid who read sea adventure stories to a sickly Scottish child named Robert Louis Stevenson. His 1881 novel Treasure Island did for pirates what Bran Stoker’s Dracula did for vampires, except vampires aren’t real. His imaginary Long John Silver became the quintessential fake pirate that children still love to fear.

We should also blame Scottish playwright James M. Barrie for his wildly successful  Peter Pan: or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Barrie pitted his young hero against Captain John Hook, a cadaverous, yet very proper pirate aboard the ship Jolly Roger. In the original 1904 theatrical production, and later in the popular novel and film versions, the pirate wore a metal hook in place of the right hand he lost in a duel with Peter Pan on the island of Neverland.

JM-BarrieBarrie’s instinct that all children wish they can fly, distrust adults, and are fascinated by colorful pirates proves true with each new generation.  Just as the Disney Corporation spun Treasure Island into a film and a theme park ride, the corporation discovered a goldmine with its 1953 animated Peter Pan movie.

Illustrator Howard Pyle deserves his share of blame for crafting the American view of what he called “those cruel but picturesque sea wolves.” Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1921) codified the stylish pirate portrait and became the bible of costume designers and casting directors as the film industry spawned a shipload of piratical characters. His “classic” drawings of pirates burying great chests of stolen riches or urging enemies to walk the plank are often taken as fact rather than fiction.

Piscataqua pirates

Not only do the fake pirates murder history and turn monsters into heroes, but they have smothered the reputation of authentic Portsmouth “privateers’ who served in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. History texts have conflated the men who served aboard licensed privately armed ships as little more than “legalized pirates” when they were nothing of the kind. Thousands of men including many from this region were wounded, died, or languished in appalling enemy prisons, but are largely forgotten. That’s a story for another day.

But don’t despair pirate freaks. While Portsmouth is largely a no-pirate zone, there are at least two historical tales. The first settlers had barely stepped ashore at Strawberry Bank in 1630 when they got word that an English pirate named Dixey Bull was plundering an outpost in coastal Maine. Taking 40 men in six boats, Captain Walter Neale rushed to Penaquid in search of New England’s first pirate.  But Dixey Bull was gone. Stranded in Maine without a wind to sail on, Captain Neal was forced to leave his own colony at Strawberry Bank defenseless for three long weeks.

The only other authentic local pirate instance I’ve found is also unfit for a Hollywood blockbuster. In a nutshell, a small group of men under Captain John Quelch escaped from prison in 1704. They stole a boat in Salem, Massachusetts and sailed to the Isles of Shoals. They were quickly pursued and captured on Star Island with many ounces of stolen gold dust. Seven men, including Quelch, were tried and convicted of piracy, though they protested that they were merely privateers. They were hanged before a cheering crowd in Boston Harbor.


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site For more on pirates and privateers read his latest book AMERICA’S PRIVATEER: Lynx and the War of 1812.

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