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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Fictional Pirates
By Cindy Vallar

Cover Art: The
            Coral IslandIn 1858, Robert M. Ballantyne penned The Coral Island.  The book’s pirate captain lacked a name, but still exuded traits associated with evil.  Armed with two pistols and a cutlass, he was “of immense stature and fierce aspect”, “a lion-like villain totally devoid of personal fear, and utterly reckless of consequence…”  Ballantyne’s depiction of the amoral pirate wasn’t the first.  The author who perfected that stereotype was Daniel Defoe, who wrote three pirate novels during the 1700s.  His characters raped, tortured, and murdered to gain what they craved--treasure.  A century later, authors of the Victorian Era added another dimension to pirates.  They spiced their stories with the elements we most often associate with pirates, but which historical pirates never incorporated into their modus operandi: buried loot, treasure maps, and ghostly cursed pirates who guard the hidden spoils.  In the twentieth century, authors added a new dimension to the pirates--those whom fate forced into piracy.  These men, often educated gentlemen, broke the law and gained riches, but never stooped as low as the villainous pirates.  They retained a code of honor, previously not linked with pirates, and the author who rationalized the discrepancy between heroic captain and depraved monster was Rafael Sabatini.

Since the inception of Pirates and Privateers, readers have told me that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Edward Rowe Snow’s Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast stirred their imagination.  I owned a copy of the former as a teenager, but I never managed to read it from cover to cover.  The latter I never encountered until last year.  Rather it was Rafael Sabatini who introduced me to pirates.  On weekends, my mom and I watched black-and-white movies on television, which is how I became an avid fan of Errol Flynn and Captain Blood.  While I attended college, several publishers reprinted many of Sabatini’s books.  Of all those I’ve read, Captain Blood remains one of my favorite pirate novels.

Peter Blood, an Irish surgeon, defied the law to aid a mortally wounded rebel.  Although he never took up arms against the king, the court condemned him as a traitor and sentenced him to transport as a slave to an English colony.  Described as a “slim, tall fellow with light-blue eyes in a tawny face, eyes in which glinted the light of a wicked humor,” Peter Blood is a gentleman, who epitomizes the qualities of any romantic hero.  He’s loyal to his friends, polite to his prisoners, and respectful to women.  He’s an expert swordsman and seaman, although where he acquired these particular skills is unknown.  His men trust his decisions and never question his orders.  His enemies often end up crossing swords with him or finding themselves the butt of a joke, outwitted by a master of disguise and intelligence.

Cover Art: Captain BloodCaptain Blood, first published in 1922, is set during the waning years of the Buccaneers.  The hero’s plight is based on the experiences of Henry Pitman, an English surgeon condemned to a life of slavery on Barbados for ministering to a wounded rebel.  Sabatini sets his story on Barbados, although the film version uses Port Royal.  Unwilling to remain a slave, Blood and his cohorts plot to get off the island, but their plans are nearly thwarted when Spaniards attack the city and sink their boat.  Spying the Spanish frigate anchored in the harbor, quick-thinking Blood decides the Spanish should compensate them for their loss with the donation of the frigate.  The Spaniards’ fortuitous attack allows Peter and his cohorts to save the city, but when his nemesis, Colonel Bishop, fails to include pardons in his thanks, Blood and his men turn to piracy.  Subsequent adventures bring Blood to Tortuga where he joins forces with Jean LeVasseur (a nasty pirate whom Blood eventually kills), accompanies five hundred buccaneers to raid Maracaibo, Gibraltar, and Venezuela (the idea for which came from Alexandre Exquemelin’s account of Morgan’s raids), and attacks Cartagena with the assistance of French buccaneers, but he and his men depart rather than sack the city (the actual raid occurred in 1697, but Sabatini moved it forward eight years).  Eventually, Blood and his men accept the king’s grace.  Blood becomes governor of Jamaica and marries Arabella Bishop, the niece of the man who once owned him.

While we label Peter Blood a pirate, Sabatini always denied such claims.  Blood only attacked Spanish ships and cities, and he and his buccaneers helped protect English colonies from Spain’s cruelty and greed.  Blood never stooped to the level of even the least villainous of pirates.  He was an honorable man with definite moral convictions.  Therefore, he was not a pirate.

A fictional pirate who was Peter Blood’s exact opposite appeared in a short story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in 1897.  Captain Sharkey, both the main character and the title of the tale, commanded a twenty-gun, coal-black barque christened Happy Days.  With “a high, bald forehead, and…shifty blue eyes with red rims of a bull terrier,” Sharkey put Blackbeard to shame.  Doyle based some of his character’s exploits on those Captain Johnson recounted in A General History of the Pyrates that involved Edward Low and George Lowther.  Sharkey’s cruelty was so savage that “he became more than his own comrades could abide, and they took such a horror of him that they would not have him on the ship.  So they marooned him…”

In Ancient Greece, Chariton (a secretary or assistant to a Greek lawyer in Aphrodisias) wrote a novel with pirates as characters. The Adventures of Chaereas and Callirhoe is the earliest known, complete novel in a European language.  A cold, calculating, and daring pirate chief, Theron commands many warships and sells his services to anyone willing to pay the price.  The pirates raid Callirhoe’s tomb, and discovering that she’s not really dead, Theron sells her into slavery.  Chaereas hunts Theron and the stolen gold, but at the subsequent trial, Theron convinces the court he was an innocent passenger aboard the pirate ship.  After a witness contradicts his testimony, Theron confesses under torture before being impaled on a spear.

Few of us know this particular novel, but who among us can forget Captain Hook from The Adventures of Peter PanJ. M. Barrie’s creation, which he modeled after Blackbeard, claimed to have served under the legendary pirate as his bosun.  “[C]adaverous and blackavised, and his hair was dressed in long curls, which at a little distance looked like black candles….  His eyes were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly.”  Purported to be a gifted storyteller, he was “never more sinister than when he was most polite.”  The only thing he feared was the sight of his own blood.  What most remember of this dastardly pirate, however, is that iron hook.

Avast, belay, when I appear,
By fear they’re overtook;
Naught’s left upon your bones when you
Have shaken claws with Hook.

Cover Art: Treasure
                IslandPerhaps the most famous pirate novel, though, is Treasure Island (1883) and the most famous of fictional pirates, Long John Silver.  “His left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a Long John Silver and Jim Hawkinscrutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird.  He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham--plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling.”  A tavern keeper with one leg, he befriends Jim Hawkins without telling the lad that he’s a pirate in search of treasure.  Like many a sailor who’s traveled the world, he has an exotic animal--a parrot named Captain Flint who says, “Pieces of eight, pieces of eight.”  Silver signs aboard Squire Trelawney’s Hispaniola as the cook, and his fellow pirates join the crew in hopes of acquiring the real Captain Flint’s buried treasure.

In the original draft, Stevenson used a different title, The Sea Cook, so it’s no wonder that Silver takes center stage throughout the story.  What makes him unforgettable is that he is neither good nor bad, but a mixture of both.  He shows Jim kindness and treats him almost like a son, but he displays a brutal and cruel side to others.  Stevenson once said, “I had an idea for Long John Silver from which I promised myself…to take an admired friend of mine…to deprive him of all his finer qualities and higher graces of temperament, and to leave him with nothing but his strength, his courage, his quickness, and his magnificent geniality, and to try to express these in terms of the culture of a raw tarpaulin.”

Captain BarbossaEven today, authors continue to create memorable pirates.  Pirates of the Caribbean provides us with two pirates from opposite ends of the spectrum--one evil, one honorable.  Tall and dark, Captain Barbossa misses nothing and wields power through fear.  Like Long John Silver he has a pet, a monkey.  Barbossa’s origins are unknown, although he admits to having sailed with Henry Morgan, but his speech identifies him as an educated man familiar with high society, as evidenced in his exchange with his captive, Elizabeth.  “There were a lot of long words in there, miss.  We’re naught but humble pirates.  What is it that you want?”  Hearing her response, he says, “I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request.”

His nemesis is Jack Sparrow, a pirate who isn’t quite what he appears to be and who believes that he will always survive no matter what fate hands him.  While Barbossa is adept at negotiating, Jack’s strength lies in his ability to read people.  For example, when he’s attempting to pilfer the Interceptor, he tells the two soldiers guarding her, “It is my intention to commandeer one of these ships, pick up a crew out of Tortuga, and raid, pillage, and plunder, and otherwise pilfer my weasley black guts out.”  While the soldiers argue over the veracity of his confession, he intends to acquire the ship and almost succeeds until a damsel in distress takes a dive into the water.  While arrogant and confident, he cannot forsake his code of honor.  In rescuing Elizabeth, he finds himself clapped in irons for being a pirate.

Captain Jack SparrowLike his brutish counterpart, Sparrow is an educated man, although he often disguises that fact to gain information or to blend in with the crowd.  He prefers discussion to gain what he wants, unlike Barbossa who has no compunction about killing to achieve his goal.  Jack resorts to violence only when he has no other option left him.  While each pirate in his own way strives for freedom--to drink, to carouse, and to do what he wants--Jack is the only one who seems to achieve it.

These are but a few of the many fictional pirates authors bring to life on the pages of their novels.  Some are gentlemen forced by fate to turn to a life of crime, or adhering to a code of honor only they understand.  For some reason, they accept the life they lead, but refuse to stoop to the level of the fiendish pirates with whom they consort.  Other pirates are brutes, driven by greed to get as much treasure as they can no matter how they acquire it.  The ones who remain most vivid in our memories, however, are perhaps the ones closer to the real pirates--three-dimensional men and women with good and bad traits.

I invite you to meet some of my favorite fictional pirates:

Ashley, Jennifer. The Pirate Next Door. Leisure, 2003
Barry, Dave, and Ridley Pearson. Peter and the Starcatchers. Hyperion, 2004.
Canham, Marsha. The Iron Rose. Signet, 2004.
Fraser, George MacDonald. Pyrates. Lyons Press, 2003.
Hague, Michael. Book of Pirates. HarperCollins, 2001.
Jensen, Lisa. Witch from the Sea. Beagle Bay, 2001.
Johnson, Roger. Dead Man’s Chest. Paradise Cay, 1992.
Lawrence, Iain. The Buccaneers. Delacorte, 2001.
Nelson, James L. Blackbirder. HarperCollins, 2001.
Nelson, James L. The Guardship. HarperCollins, 2002.
Nelson, James L. The Pirate Round. HarperCollins, 2002.
Sabatini, Rafael. Black Swan. Ballantine, 1976.
Sabatini, Rafael. Captain Blood. Bantam, 1976.
Sabatini, Rafael. Captain Blood Returns. Ballantine, 1976.
Sabatini, Rafael. Fortunes of Captain Blood. Ballantine, 1977.
Sabatini, Rafael. Sea-Hawk. Ballantine, 1976.
Slaughter, Frank G. The Deadly Lady of Madagascar. Doubleday, 1976.

© 2005 Cindy Vallar

Images of Captains Jack Sparrow and Barbossa © Copyright Walt Disney Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films

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