Changing the Face of Piracy.

 How did a bunch of thieves and murderer’s become hero’s? Ever wonder? Here’s how I see it.

In 1724 The mysterious Captain Johnson (some say an alias for Daniel Defoe, but he could be anyone) wrote “The General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most Notorious pirates” bringing the deeds of these black hearted dogs to the masses, and perpetuating many of the tall tales that would eventually spring up about them, the glamorisation had begun. Piracy remained a popular theme for theatre production way into the 19th century, it never really died, it was always lurking around. Mark Twain Famously said in 1875 “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates”. Why? Because to common people who had no stake in what they stole, they were hero’s fighting the power, and just like poor man’s food is always tastier, poor men’s hero’s are just that much more attractive.

In 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson’s ultimate Pirate book Treasure Island was published, and the groundwork was laid for the trend of Piracy to go viral like never before. In 1904 Scottish writer J M Barrie brought the world’s other most famous pirate, Captain Hook to the stage and brought the point home in the 1911 Novel. Children all over the world now agreed fully with Mark Twain. Barrie’s play also introduced magic into the genre.

In 1921 American Painter, Illustrator and writer Howard Pyle, published “The Book of Pirates,” which not only popularised the age and the curs who lived through it, but it’s highly evocative illustrations, provided by Pyle himself, gave for the first time an image for people to cling to, and it turned the Robberies and Murders, into boys own adventure and romance.

 Fiction writers soon capitalised on the desire for high seas adventure with tropical settings and swordplay, in 1915 Raphael Sabatini, the multi lingual genius of the Swashbuckler, published The sea Hawk, then in 1922 came Captain Blood and in 1932 the Black Swan. Each was made into a movie, respectively in 1935 and 1940 both starring Errol Flynn and the 1942 with Tyrone Power, Hollywood saw it was on to a good thing and ran with it.

 But it was Walt Disney that set the standard for an international trend. In 1950 Robert Newton popularised what we know as “pirate talk” in his brilliant portrayal of Long John Silver in Treasure Island, doing essentially for pirates what John Wayne did for Cowboys. He took the pirate fad to a whole new level, from the Errol Flynn version of Sabatini’s Captain Blood and the Sea Hawk. Piracy now had a voice


Treasure Island
Robert Newton in Treasure Island

By 2003 nothing much had changed since Disney’s treasure island, a blip appeared on the radar when Burt Lancaster made pirates funny in the Crimson Pirate, drafting off Disney in 1952, but we all thought the quasi Cornish popularisation was as good as it would get, however the great Romance of Piracy in the Golden Age was just too tempting for Disney to ignore, enter Johnny Depp and Captain Jack Sparrow’s manscara, supernatural enemies, sly drawl and clever wit. Using as their premise the classic theme park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean which opened in the California park in 1967, Disney and producer  Jerry Bruchheimer revitalised the Pirate phenomenon to an influential high unseen since the 1950s Treasure Island.

 It has been so influential it has almost completely changed our perception of pirates. You need only look at the liberal use of “Manscara” in recent pirate films to see the change. In 2012 alone we can see posters giving the old classics a brushing off, Treasure Island and Sinbad have both been revamped by Sky movies. Essentially it tells us that hollywood has seen the what the public likes, 4 POTC movies later and there is still demand, so if you want to make a pirate movie interesting then “Depp” it up.

 Unfortunately for historians here is no end in sight for the “legend” of Piracy. Most recently the show Black Sails has come out and NBC have put their spin on piracy with Crossbones, apparently inspired by Colin Woodward’s “The Republic of Pirates”. Their appeal stems from their popularisation as childhood heroes, first in books showing them how to make their friends walk the plank off the side of an armchair and wear eyepatches, then to their delight Robert Newton appeared on screen with his amazing edgy Cornish thing. When those children grew up they looked back and fondly remembered their carefree days pillaging the sofa sea, with almost no trace of the real scoundrels behind it all. Now we are seeing the whole thing all over again. Why pirates? Well Mark Twain’s vivid quote aside, as the late Steve Jobs said (and this is probably out of contest but it serves to make the point) “Why join the Navy… When you could be aPirate?” Why Pirates? Why not!





0 Replies to “Changing the Face of Piracy.”

  1. great overview of how pirates came to be so popularised – though as josh points out many if not most tended to less glamorous behaviour

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