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Pirates of the Caribbean 2
By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.

Was Tortuga an actual pirate city? What does one do when told to ‘avast!’ And did pirates really apply such thick eyeliner?

These and other pressing questions may soon occupy viewers’ minds, methinks, when the charmingly wacky Captain Jack sashays into our theaters again. Yes, the opening of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” draws nigh, and thanks to Johnny Depp, pirates are cool again. For the curious of mind, here lie some valuable nuggets of information about pirates (or ‘buccaneers,’ to sound chic) that you can use to impress your kids after the first – or fifth – viewing of the film. We’ll call it ‘Pirates 101.’

Q. Were there pirates in the Caribbean?
A. Quite a lot of them, actually. The 17th century has been called "The Golden Age of Piracy" in the Caribbean. Villainous pirates plied those waters, pillaging, plundering, and pilfering. Even Tortuga -- the pirate city depicted in the first film -- existed, founded by buccaneers in 1630 on an island off Haiti.

Q. Was Port Royal a real place?
A. Yes, and it served as the capital of the British community in Jamaica in the 17th century. But ironically, the Brits in Port Royal welcomed pirates initially, in part because of the money they spent (the lure of tourist dollars is ever strong, apparently) but also in hopes that the pirates’ fearsome reputation would keep the Spanish and French from attempting to capture Jamaica. It worked.

Q. So, the British government encouraged piracy?
A. Yes and no. In some cases, the British government actually commissioned seaman to commit acts of piracy. With one catch. They were charged to prey only upon Spaniards, British rivals on the high seas and in the New World. Sir Francis Drake was one such privateer. In the sixteenth century he plundered countless Spanish ships and ports around the Caribbean, stealing the equivalent of millions of dollars in today’s money, all in the name of the British crown. To the English, Drake was a national hero. To the Spanish he was, well, a pirate.

But unlike Drake, most pirates were scruffy free agents, and these found precious little welcome in the Caribbean by the early 18th century. Fed up with their thievery (though it’s unclear what else they had expected from *pirates*) the British authorities in Port Royal shifted from welcoming them to hanging every pirate they could catch. Their corpses were then displayed as a warning, like the three whom Jack Sparrow salutes early in the first “Pirates” film.

Q. How about the "Pirates' Code?" Any truth to that?
A. The first film makes much of the "Pirates' Code." When Elizabeth is about to be seized in the first film, she asks for a parley, invoking the "Code of the Brethren, set down by the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew." Clever film fiction, right? Wrong. Turns out Sir Henry Morgan and Bartholomew Roberts were actual pirates, members of a loose confederation of buccaneers called "The Brethren of the Coast," centered on the island of Tortuga in the 1600s.

Even the "Code" existed as an historical fact, and as in the movie, involved issues of fairness among the pirates. "No prey, no pay" was a common principle, but equal shares in the plunder was also valued. So, perhaps there existed some honor amongst thieves.

Q. Did pirates make their prisoners walk the plank?
A. It makes for great film drama, but pirates didn't actually do this. Though not because of gentlemanly qualms. In fact, real pirates tended towards even nastier behavior -- like gruesome tortures (holding lighted matches to a victim’s eyes was a favorite) or hacking their prisoners to death with swords.

So, where did the notion of walking the plank come from? The best guess is that novelists and playrights invented it, like J. M. Barrie, who included it in his popular play, "Peter Pan."

Q. Did pirates look like Captain Jack Sparrow?
A. Probably not the eyeliner, though they could be pretty colorful characters. Many pirate captains wore rich velvet waistcoats, and foppish big hats with feathers. The legendary Blackbeard sported dreadlocks, and liked to braid his long beard and tie it in ribbons. But lest you get a girlish image here, you should know that when attacking, he was famous for sticking lighted matches under his hat and in his beard, which set off his wild-eyed gaze and thoroughly terrified his victims.

Q. What does "Avast" mean?
A. It's a 17th century pirate's way to say, "Stop!" or "Stand Still!" Try it on your kids sometime.

If these piratical facts whet your appetite for more pirate lore, check out the fascinating book, “Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life among the Pirates,” by historian David Cordingly. And if your kids remain unimpressed by your buccaneering knowledge, try some pirate insults on them. ‘Scabrous dog’ and ‘scurvy blaggard’ might do for starters. Savvy?

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D. is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois, and writes a syndicated column on historical films.

Avast!


© 2004 History in the Movies
cschultz@stfrancis.edu