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Top reads: Cult of the fun pirates

19 March 2019

A photo of pirate ships at a regatta in the 1930s

A photo of pirate ships at a regatta in the 1930s

In the centuries following the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, the reputation of infamous pirates such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack have undergone a significant transformation.

In 1724, ‘A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates’ by Captain Charles Johnson was published. Containing biographies of contemporary pirates, it gave an almost make-believe quality to the more flamboyant characters without condemning their lifestyle.

Writers were quick to immortalise in fiction the popular subject of piracy. In 1814 Lord Byron’s poem ‘The Corsair’ sold 10,000 copies on its first day of sale. Sir Walter Scott’s 1822 novel ‘The Pirate’, based on real life pirate, John Gow, proved to be one of his most popular.

In our own collection ‘The Pirate’ by Royal Navy Captain Frederick Marryat, published in 1836 is a high-seas adventure full of chases, battles, baddies getting their comeuppance, the proven loyalty of friends, romance, and reunions. 

Many pirate clichés stem from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 book ‘Treasure Island’. Missing legs, maps to buried treasure and parrots on shoulders make their debut and remain in popular culture to this day. In fact the 1950 film ‘Treasure Island’ introduced the West Country accent, used by many a movie pirate, for the first time.

The early 20th Century marked the creation of the definitive pirate, Captain Hook, in J.M. Barrie’s 1904 children’s classic ‘Peter Pan’. Whilst simultaneously, American artist Howard Pyle was conjuring up evocative images of life on the ocean waves in his paintings of pirates. The newly made over pirate represented a romantic lifestyle of freedom, treasure, unexplored territories and lots of rum.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera the ‘Pirates of Penzance’ in which a young man is wrongly apprenticed to a gentlemanly band of pirates, opened in New York in 1879. It was an instant hit and remains one of their most loved works.

Pirates had well and truly found their place in the mainstream. Even the music scene has been awash with a pirate theme from shanty singers to Adam Ant as well as Pirate metal band ‘Ale Storm’.

Many films have been made about pirates but a huge resurgence for pirate love came in 2003 with ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’. Johnny Depp’s character, Captain Jack Sparrow, an eccentric pirate captain, is now iconic and the franchise continues. TV shows such as ‘Black sails’ and video games ‘Assassins Creed Black Flag’ and ‘Sea of Thieves’ maintains the pirate premise due to its enduring popularity. World record attempts are made each year in the towns of Penzance and Hastings to claim the title for most amount of people dressed as pirates in one place.

The stereotypical pirate that we envisage today seems far afield from the cut throat men and women who served under the Jolly Roger. Delve into the history books and you won’t find Captain Pugwash but a brutal way of life chosen out of necessity rather than fun.

Discover Jolly Roger: A Symbol of Terror and Pride

See rare artefacts and legendary stories of piracy at our brand new exhibition opening 6 April. Book online and save 20%. 

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