Pirates: Romance Versus Reality

When we think of pirates, many of us think of phrases like “walk the plank” or books and movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, and Treasure Island.  Hardly ever do we think of the real people and circumstances that gave rise to such stories.  This leaves us wondering just who these fanciful pirates were in reality.  The answer may surprise you.

In order to understand what pirates mean to us today, we must first examine various portrayals of pirates and what they mean to the modern person.

The first type of pirate is the lovable rogue.  This can be seen in movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean series where the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow serves as a humorously dishonest ruffian who plays by his own rules, but is still an honorable compatriot for the movie’s hero and heroine.  For many, this is the most iconic and memorable view of pirates not because of its accuracy, but because it appeals to today’s sense of harmless fun and adventure that is a far cry from the dreary boardrooms and boring meetings that many of us face on a daily basis.  In our culture, the very idea of a pirate conjures up visions of a person that plays by their own rules and is not bound to the powers that be.  This is an incredibly attractive proposition for modern audiences, especially when this character is combined with exotic locations and exciting situations.

The next type of portrayal is the villainous pirate.  This character is both dastardly and devious, though not necessarily brutal.  Usually, these are the characters that serve as a foil against which a hero must strive.  These pirates will not hesitate to use cunning to get what they want, and are seen in a variety of sources like Peter Pan and Treasure Island.  In both stories, the villains use tricks to trip up the heroes until the heroes themselves use deception as a means to outwit the evil pirates.  For today’s audience, the villainous pirate is little more than a plot device to take the viewer to exotic locales and interesting situations.  In this way, pirates serve as a means of escapism that is fun for the family, not frightening or brutal in the least.

The next type of common pirate portrayal is the romantic rogue, which commonly adorns the covers of harlequin novels.  These are the tall, strapping, muscular pirates that whisk women away and expose them to the world of love and adventure that they were missing in their otherwise mundane lives.  Again, the common theme here is clearly escapism from the drudgery of real life that we all face, like doing the laundry and going to work.

While these various portrayals of pirates in their own way are interesting and worthy of an afternoon’s diversion, the real life stories of pirates far exceed any drama on the silver screen or hidden away in the pages of fiction.

For example, compared to the romance novel’s tall, handsome pirate, real pirates were often in their early to mid-20s.  So far so good.  However, they were usually malnourished due to the terrible nature of their diets, which made for a number of pirates with missing teeth.  Additionally, though estimates vary, their average height was considered to be about 5 foot, 5 inches.   Rarely did these rangy young men come from the upper echelons of society.  Instead, they were usually ex-sailors that had either fallen into a thuggish lifestyle of hard living or they were captured by pirates and forced to help man the ship.  In short, pirates were the inner city gangsters of their day.

Creative Commons License photo credit:

As mentioned previously, we commonly think of pirates forcing people to “walk the plank.” However, they rarely indulged in such ceremonious ways of killing someone.  Instead, if an example had to be made, pirates simply made it in the most brutally effective way possible.  Perhaps the best example of this was written by a Miss Lucretia Parker, who was briefly captured in 1825.  She described the event in a letter to her brother George, who lived in New York:

“Having first divested them of every article of clothing but their shirt and trousers… they fell on the unfortunate crew… with the ferocity of cannibals!… In vain did poor Capt. S. attempt to touch their feelings and to move them to pity by representing to them the situation of his innocent family-that he had a wife and three small children at home… but alas, the poor man entreated in vain!  His appeal was to monsters possessing hearts callous to the feelings of humanity!  Having received a heavy blow from one with an axe, he snapped the cords with which he was bound, and attempted to escape by flight, but was met by another of the ruffians, who plunged a knife or dirk to his heart!  I stood near to him… and was covered with his blood.”

Luckily, Miss Parker was saved when a British warship appeared on the horizon and the pirates fled.  However, the story illustrates a brutality of piracy that is never shown to modern audiences. 

It is also interesting to note that life onboard ships during the age of piracy was far from glamorous.  It was crowded, dirty and yes, many times monotonous.  The food and scenery rarely changed, and the work was very difficult.  For example, one of the jobs that pirates had to perform was scraping barnacles off of the boat when the pirate ship was in a safe harbor.  Another common job was keeping the decks clean by rubbing the wooden decks down with a heavy abrasive stone.

In the end, while it may be fun to escape into the world of adventure and excitement that pirates represent to us, it is important to remember that in many ways conditions today are vastly preferable to those commonly endured on pirate ships of the past.

If you have an interest in stories like this one, check out my previous posts, or come visit us at the Houston Maritime Museum and see a wide variety of ships, including those used by pirates, on display.

Also be sure to check out the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now open!

Book List: Imaginary Places

Imaginary Places can be anywhere your imagination takes you—sometimes happy places, sometimes to the future or sometimes to worlds unknown.  Children know about the Wizard and the Land of Oz, some of the unusual characters Alice met when she fell down the rabbit hole or what happened when Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie venture through the wardrobe into the land of Narnia where it is always winter but never Christmas. But one of the most popular imaginary places for children is Peter Pan’s Neverland.

Creative Commons License photo credit: tipoyock

James Barrie first published Peter Pan in the early 20th century, and the book remains a classic over one hundred years later.

All children are probably familiar with Peter, Wendy, John, and Michael Darling and their dog Nana.  Interestingly, all of these characters were based on real children and a real dog.  Three of the boys were named after three of the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies—Peter, John and Michael.  The name “Wendy” was first introduced in Peter Pan. A young girl named Margaret Henley called Barrie “Friendy,” but when she pronounced the name it came out “Fwendy”.  And, Nana, the Newfoundland, was inspired by a St. Bernard puppy Barrie and his wife Mary bought on their honeymoon in Switzerland.

Peter Pan is often referred to as the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.  Is it possible the character was also based on Barrie’s brother Daniel, Barrie’s mother’s favorite, who died at age thirteen?  Barrie’s mother is said to have found comfort in the fact that Daniel would never grow up and leave her.  The first sentence of the book reads, “All children, except one, grow up.”  Hmmmm.

Peter Pan features the adventures the Darling children share in Neverland with Peter, Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, the pirates, the mermaids and the lost boys (who desperately want a mother.)

One of Barrie’s last wishes was for future royalties from Peter Pan be awarded to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London.  Seventy-two years after his death sick children in London continue to benefit from Barrie’s generosity, and children everywhere benefit from being exposed to this wonderful storyteller.

Children often fear being different, but reading The Araboolies of Liberty Street could help them understand that different often means unique, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Liberty Street is an imaginary street where all the houses look alike—all painted white.  The children of Liberty Street would love to have fun, but when anything fun begins to happen General Pinch grabs his bullhorn and yells, “I’ll call in the army!”  So, Joy cannot hang upside down from a maple tree, Katie cannot creep around like a tiger and Jack cannot spin around until he becomes dizzy.  As you might imagine, Liberty Street is a very quiet street.

Then one day the Araboolies move next door to General Pinch.  There are dozens and dozens of Araboolies.  They have colorful skin that changes color each night and they glow in the dark!  The Araboolies paint their house with red and white zigzags and hang colored lights and toys everywhere.  They paint the sidewalk and pour sand on the grass. The Araboolies have lots of pets who live indoors while the Araboolies live and sleep outdoors—all in the same bed. 
When General Pinch threatens to call in the army, the Araboolies pay no attention because they do not speak English, so they have no idea what the general is yelling.

When Joy kicks a boolanoola ball through the Pinch’s window and hits General Pinch’s stomach, the general tells the army to attack Liberty Street at dawn and get rid of the house that is different. That night Joy devises a plan, and all the children of Liberty Street spring into action.  They spend the entire night decorating all the houses—except the Pinch’s house—to match the Araboolies’ house.

At dawn when the army comes to follow General Pinch’s orders, they waste little time in identifying the Pinches’ house as different.  They yank the house off its foundation and drag it far away.  The Pinches are never seen again, and you are left with the feeling that fun will now be allowed on Liberty Street.

On the adult level, this book is said to be a satire against a system which believes that the strong survive by bullying the weak. (General Pinch vs. the children.)  But through the Araboolies children learn about tolerance, fair play and even poetic justice, and the Araboolies are just plain fun.

The future is another imaginary place, and few futuristic stories for young adults are more compelling than Among the Hidden, the first in a seven book series, by Margaret Haddix Peterson.  In order to limit the growth of the population, the Population Police decree that families may only have two children.  The problem is that twelve-year-old Luke is a third child.  Luke’s family lives in a wooded area, and because of this Luke has been able to play outside.  However, when the government begins to develop the land near his house, Luke is confined to the attic.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Nicholas_T

One day Luke is carefully looking outside when he sees a shadow of a child in a window of a house that already has two children.  When he runs to the house he meets Jen, another third child. Jen plans a rally in support of third children, and it ends tragically when all the participants are killed.  Luckily for Luke, he had not attended.

Luke becomes friends with Jen’s father, George Talbot, a Population Police official who opposes the population law.  While they are talking the Population Police break into the house, and Luke is forced to hide in the closet.

When the police have gone, Luke wants to talk, but Mr. Talbot motions for him to remain silent.  He writes a note saying that the Population Police have placed listening devices around the house and are listening for evidence.

Mr. Talbot is able to provide Luke with a fake I.D. to make it possible for him to live as a real person, but this identity comes at a huge cost for Luke and his family.

This is a great book to read and discuss such issues as population growth, the allocation of the world’s resources, the distribution of agricultural products, the right to privacy, censorship and the use of propaganda.

Among the Hidden is the first in the Shadow Children series.  Other titles in the series are Among the Imposters, Among the Betrayed, Among the Barons, Among the Brave, Among the Enemy and Among the Free.  On the journey from Among the Hidden to Among the Free, readers watch Luke adjust, change and grow.  This is a trip worth taking.