Pirates in Popular Culture

Samuel Johnson, author of the first English dictionary, once claimed a ship was worse than a jail because in a jail one had “better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.” Indeed, the sea was and still remains a hostile environment for human beings. Strict hierarchies were necessary for the effective functioning of a ship on the high seas sometimes leading to strict punishment and moments of brutal violence. Pirate ships were especially problematic because those hierarchies were always uncertain and in question. Many American authors in the early nineteenth century took to the sea to gather material they would later use in their novels.

James Fenimore Cooper The Red Rover, a tale. By the author of The Pilot Paris: 1827

James Fenimore Cooper is most famous for his Leatherstocking tales about the early American frontier like Last of the Mohicans. However almost half of his stories take place at sea, where Cooper himself had long learned the rigors of sailing life; he had dropped out of Yale to serve as a Midshipman in the U.S. Navy. Cooper feared his works were so realistic they might smell too much like salt water. The Red Rover tells the story of a pirate and included elements of the supernatural that would become part of piracy in popular culture.

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James Fenimore Cooper The Water Witch: or, The Skimmer of the Seas London: 1830

In this tale, Cooper noted the two most prevalent myths about early American history: “We have had our buccaneers on the water, and our witches on the land.” Here he attempted to combine the two.

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Washington Irving Tales of a Traveller London: 1824

During the early to mid-nineteenth century, many Americans became swept up in the search for treasure buried by the pirates of the seventeenth century, especially that of Captain Kidd. These searches almost always involved elements of the supernatural like divining rods and seer stones. Washington Irving, author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, wrote a number of short stories involving piracy, but many focused on ridiculing the avarice of the “money diggers.”

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Richard Henry Dana Two years before the mast. A personal narrative of life at sea New York: 1840

Dana had to withdraw from Harvard when measles weakened his eyesight. Hoping to return to health he went to sea in 1834 to serve “before the mast,” meaning as a common member of the crew and not an officer. He sailed to California aboard the Pilgrim. Dana Point in Southern California is named after him. Here Dana describes the port of San Diego.

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Herman Melville Moby Dick, Or, The Whale New York: 1851 (1st American Edition)

Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, famously claimed, “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” This statement was in part autobiographical since Melville, like Cooper, spent many years at sea, which heavily influenced his fiction.

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Wentworth Bayly Log of Her Majesty’s Screw Steam Frigate “Curacoa” Bearing the Flag of Commodore Sir W. Wiseman 1865

Captains took careful notes of their ships’ movements in their logbooks. Pirates often tore up the logbooks of ships they plundered or manipulated them to hide their illicit behavior. Logbooks were important pieces of evidence in pirate trials. This mid-nineteenth century logbook depicts an incident where the ship fired upon the village of Port Resolution in the New Hebrides Islands in the South Pacific. This captain marked deaths with a black box.

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After the Age of Sail, few literary works have influenced the modern image of piracy more than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Stevenson wrote Treasure Island based on bits and pieces taken from Buccaneers of America and The General History of the Pyrates. Captain Hook in Peter Pan dressed in the style of Charles II, the heyday of Sir Henry Morgan. Now that piracy was no longer a significant threat to maritime shipping, Gilbert and Sullivan could safely depict their pirates as silly lovesick buffoons. The way most of us imagine pirates dressing and speaking was an invention of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Arthur SUllivan and W.S. Gilbert The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty: Comic Opera in Two Acts Philadelphia: 1880
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Roger L. Green Fifty Years of Peter Pan London: 1954
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Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island, Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth New York, 1911
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