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Pirates in the arts and popular culture

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Engraving of the English pirate Blackbeard from the 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates
Engraving of the English pirate Blackbeard from the 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates
Pirates fight over treasure in a 1911 Howard Pyle illustration.
Pirates fight over treasure in a 1911 Howard Pyle illustration.
Illustrations of the 1911 edition of Treasure Island, by Pyle's student N. C. Wyeth
Illustrations of the 1911 edition of Treasure Island, by Pyle's student N. C. Wyeth
Modern reconstruction of skull alleged to have belonged to 14th century pirate Klaus Störtebeker, leader of the Victual Brothers, who roamed European seas
Modern reconstruction of skull alleged to have belonged to 14th century pirate Klaus Störtebeker, leader of the Victual Brothers, who roamed European seas

In English-speaking popular culture, the modern pirate stereotype owes its attributes mostly to the imagined tradition of the 18th century Caribbean pirate sailing off the Spanish Main and to such celebrated 20th century depictions as Captain Hook and his crew in the theatrical and film versions of J. M. Barrie's children's book Peter Pan, Robert Newton's portrayal of Long John Silver in the 1950 film adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island, and various adaptations of the Middle Eastern pirate, Sinbad the Sailor. In these and countless other books, movies, and legends, pirates are portrayed as "swashbucklers" and "plunderers". They are shown on ships, often wearing eyepatches or peg legs, having a parrot perched on their shoulder, and saying phrases like "Arr, matey" and "Avast, me hearty". Pirates have retained their image through pirate-themed tourist attractions, film, toys, books and plays.


The characteristics of pirates in popular culture largely derive from the Golden Age of Piracy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with many examples of pirate fiction being set within this era. Vikings, who were also pirates, took on a distinct and separate archetype in popular culture, dating from the Viking revival. The first major literary work to popularise the subject of pirates was A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious pirates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson,[1] It is the prime source for the biographies of many well known pirates of the Golden Age, providing an extensive account of the period.[2] In giving an almost mythical status to the more colourful characters, such as the notorious English pirates Blackbeard and Calico Jack, the book provided the standard account of the lives of many pirates in the Golden Age, and influenced pirate literature of Scottish novelists Robert Louis Stevenson and J. M. Barrie.[2] While Johnson's text recounted the lives of many famous pirates from the era, it is likely that he used considerable licence in his accounts of pirate conversations.[3]

Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) is considered the most influential work of pirate fiction, along with its many film and television adaptations, and introduced or popularised many of the characteristics and cliches now common to the genre. Stevenson identified Johnson's General History of the pirates as one of his major influences, and even borrowed one character's name (Israel Hands) from a list of Blackbeard's crew which appeared in Johnson's book.[4]

Appearance and mannerisms of Caribbean pirates

In films, books, cartoons, and toys, pirates often have an unrefined appearance that evokes their criminal lifestyle, rogue personalities and adventurous, seafaring pursuits. They are frequently depicted as greedy, mean-spirited, and focused largely on fighting and looting from enemy pirates and locating hidden treasure. They are often shown wearing shabby 17th or 18th century clothing, with a bandana or a feathered tricorne. They sometimes have an eye patch and almost always have a cutlass and a flintlock pistol, or some other sword or gun. They sometimes have scars and battle wounds, rotten or missing teeth (suggesting the effects of scurvy), as well as a hook or wooden stump where a hand or leg has been amputated. Some depictions of pirates also include monkeys or parrots as pets, the former usually assisting them in thieving goods due to their supposed mischievous disposition. The ship's captain will force captives and traitorous shipmates to walk the plank, usually over shark-infested waters.

Historical pirates were often sailors or soldiers who had fallen into misfortune, forced to serve at sea or to plunder goods and ships in order to survive. Depending on the moral and social context of a piece of pirate literature, the pirate characters in that piece may be represented as having fallen, perhaps resembling a "respectable" person in some way.[5] Pirates generally quest for buried treasure, which is often stored, after being plundered, in treasure chests. Pirate's treasure is usually gold or silver, often in the form of doubloons or pieces of eight.

Pirate subculture

In the 1990s, International Talk Like a Pirate Day was invented as a parody holiday celebrated on September 19. This holiday allows people to "let out their inner pirate" and to dress and speak as pirates are stereotypically portrayed to have dressed and spoken. International Talk Like a Pirate Day has been gaining popularity through the Internet since its founders set up a website, which instructs visitors in "pirate speak." is also a major supporter of this day.

In the online community, many games, movies, and other media are built upon the premise, thought to have been generated by Real Ultimate Power, that pirates (in the Caribbean buccaneer sense) and ninjas are sworn enemies. The "Pirates versus Ninjas" meme is expressed offline too, through house parties and merchandise found at popular-culture clothing and gift stores.

Pirates also play a central role in the parody religion of Pastafarianism. Established in 2005,[6] Pastafarians (members of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) claim to believe that global warming is a result of the severe decrease in pirates since the 18th century, explaining the coldness associated with winter months that follow Halloween as a direct effect of the number of pirates that make their presence known in celebration.

Alternative pirate archetypes

In addition to the traditional archetype of seafaring pirates, other pirate archetypes exist in popular culture.

  • Air pirates are science fiction and fantasy character archetypes who operate in the air, rather than sailing the sea. As traditional seafaring pirates target sailing ships, air pirates capture and plunder aircraft and other targets for cargo, money, and occasionally they steal entire aircraft.
  • Space pirates are science fiction character archetypes who operate in outer space, rather than sailing the sea. As traditional seafaring pirates target sailing ships, space pirates capture and plunder spaceships for cargo, money, and occasionally they steal entire spacecraft.

The dress and speech of these alternate archetypes may vary. It may correspond to a particular author's vision of a story's setting, rather than their traditional seafaring counterparts. On the other hand, they may be modeled after stereotypical sea pirates.

Pirates in the arts

Comics and manga

"Swashbuckling Yarns of Piracy": Buccaneers, volume 1, number 21, May 1950. Art by Reed Crandall.
"Swashbuckling Yarns of Piracy": Buccaneers, volume 1, number 21, May 1950. Art by Reed Crandall.


Poster – Treasure Island (1934) 01 colour edit
Poster – Treasure Island (1934) 01 colour edit


Fanny Campbell, protagonist of the 1844 novel "Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain" by Maturin Murray Ballou
Fanny Campbell, protagonist of the 1844 novel "Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain" by Maturin Murray Ballou


The Latvian singing group Pirates of the Sea perform Wolves of the Sea at Eurovision 2008
The Latvian singing group Pirates of the Sea perform Wolves of the Sea at Eurovision 2008


Boris Karloff as Captain Hook in a 1951 Broadway production of Peter Pan
Boris Karloff as Captain Hook in a 1951 Broadway production of Peter Pan

In 1879, the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance was an instant hit in New York, and the original London production in 1880 ran for 363 performances.[15] The piece, depicting an incompetent band of "tenderhearted" British pirates, is still performed widely today, and obviously corresponds to historical knowledge about the emergence of piracy in the Caribbean.

While no pirates are ever on stage in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Hamlet claims that his ship to England was overtaken by pirates.

In 1904, J.M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up was first performed. In the book, Peter's enemy in Neverland is the pirate crew led by Captain Hook. Details on Barrie's conception of Captain Hook are lacking, but it seems he was inspired by at least one historical privateer, and possibly by Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silver as well.[5] In film adaptations released in 1924, 1953, and 2003, Hook's dress, as well as the attire of his crew, corresponds to stereotypical notions of pirate appearance.


A child dressed as the Disney television character Jake of the Neverland Pirates poses with movie pirate Captain Jack Sparrow  at Montreal Comicon 2015
A child dressed as the Disney television character Jake of the Neverland Pirates poses with movie pirate Captain Jack Sparrow at Montreal Comicon 2015

Video games


Pirates in sports

Because pirate ships connote fearsomeness, loyalty and teamwork, many professional and amateur sports teams use the nickname Pirates, as well as other nicknames or logos associated with cultural depictions of pirates, such as an eyepatch.

1909 drawing of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team  on a boat
1909 drawing of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team on a boat


Pro wrestler Paul Burchill from WWE Friday Night SmackDown dressed like a pirate and claimed that Blackbeard is his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Previously, Carl Ouellet wrestled as Jean-Pierre Lafitte (supposedly a descendant of pirate Jean Lafitte).

See also


  1. ^ A general history of the robberies & murders of the most notorious pirates. By Charles Johnson Introduction and commentary by David Cordingly. Conway Maritime Press (2002).
  2. ^ a b A general history of the robberies & murders of the most notorious pirates. Page viii
  3. ^ A general history of the robberies & murders of the most notorious pirates. Intro – Page ix
  4. ^ Jason Porterfield, Treasure Island and the Pirates of the 18th Century, Rosen, 2004, p. 12.
  5. ^ a b The Real Life and Fictional Characters Who Inspired J.M. Barrie's Captain Hook
  6. ^ Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Charles Johnson (1724), A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, pp. 411–12.
  12. ^ Dantas, Lucas Peixoto (7 January 2012). Ana E Os Piratas Do Novo Mundo (in Portuguese). Clube de Autores.
  13. ^ "Piratas en la literatura". (in Spanish). Retrieved 28 June 2021.
  14. ^ Dantas, Lucas Peixoto (2012). Ana e os piratas do novo mundo. João Pessoa: Clube de Autores. ISBN 978-6500170634.
  15. ^ Bradley, Ian (1982). The Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books. pp. 86–87. ISBN 0-14-070848-0.

External links

This page was last edited on 28 June 2021, at 22:52
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