As Jack Sparrow resumes his swash-buckling adventures in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, audiences will once again be blinded by Hollywood’s vision of life on the account. We will undoubtedly cheer on the loveable hero as he encounters the infamous Blackbeard, wit spilling from his charming lips, ignoring the fact that the chances of finding a buccaneer who looked anything like the handsome Johnny Depp were very remote indeed.
Most desperate sailors took to the seas to escape the poverty of working-class Europe. Or they were press-ganged to fight on the royal naval vessels. Or they plied a more lucrative trade as the privateers, engaged to plunder enemy ships so their monarch could share in the booty. It was a savage existence. They were exposed to many hardships that made them gaunt and deformed – to diseases that left them toothless and breathless – to abuses that addled their livers and brains. Their women passed on syphilis and their crew mates could rarely be trusted. Living conditions aboard ship were appalling – overcrowding, starvation, rancid water, rats, fleas, sea-sickness, unsanitary conditions, and sometimes sexual predators. Then there was the constant danger of bad weather, no wind, fire, warfare, the possibility of drowning, and the perils of landing on unfriendly islands. If there was no prey there was no pay, so the sailors took enormous risks that sometimes demanded a leg, or a hand, or an eye, courtesy of the ship’s carpenter-surgeon. This type of lifestyle did not promote leading-man looks!
Now whereas some previous Disney pirates have tended to resemble playful villains, Ian McShane’s said to bring real terror to the role of Blackbeard. He apparently tunes in to the infamous captain’s demonic persona – armed with a crew of zombies and powerful black magic spells – going against the popular perception that the real Edward Teach was not such a Terror of the Seas as history would have us believe. Blackbeard was certainly a shrewd psychologist who understood the nature of fear, and my own research has found him to be just as merciless, predatory, opportunistic and treacherous as his earlier reputation would warrant. But how far is McShane’s brutal character allowed to develop in a PG 13 movie intended for children?
A third popular misconception is the glamour associated with hordes of treasure. Being a pirate was like becoming a lottery winner, where you could make one big score that would keep you in luxury for the rest of your life. So the buccaneers abandoned their families, friends, religion, good health, and nationalities – and were prepared to sacrifice their very souls in the quest for instant riches – but like any form of gambling there were far more players than winners. Captain Kidd (the most notorious) was tried and executed in 1701. Blackbeard (the most feared) was killed in 1718, and Black Bart (the most successful) also died in battle in 1722. Only two captains – Henry Every and Henry Morgan– reputedly lived long enough to retire and enjoy their spoils, while hundreds of regular pirates died in the attempt.
So this Golden Age of Piracy was no Disney movie – a point made abundantly clear in my forthcoming novel Fire On Dark Water where I have tried to portray the real pirates of the Caribbean devoid of the usual romanticism. And fortunately, the facts are even more exciting than the fantasy. Aarrgh!