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Why I Hate Fake Pirates



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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