What is it about pirates that makes them so appealing to many people? They are essentially dislikeable characters. Captain Jack Sparrow, the main protagonist in the Pirates of the Caribbean fantasy film series, may not be the murderous type. But he is a rogue, a trickster who uses subterfuge and bluff to achieve his ends.
Almost a century ago, American illustrator and author Howard Pyle raised the same question. The answer he ventured is spot on. In the Preface to Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (published in 1921), he wrote:
“Courage and daring, no matter how mad and ungodly, have always a redundancy of vim and life to recommend them to the nether man that lies within us, and no doubt his desperate courage, his battle against the tremendous odds of all the civilized world of law and order, have had much to do in making a popular hero of our friend of the black flag.”
Pyle was quick to offer another explanation:
“But it is not altogether courage and daring that endear him to our hearts. There is another and perhaps a greater kinship in that lust for wealth that makes one’s fancy revel more pleasantly in the story of the division of treasure in the pirate’s island retreat, the hiding of his godless gains somewhere in the sandy stretch of tropic beach, there to remain hidden until the time should come to rake the doubloons up again and to spend them like a lord in polite society, than in the most thrilling tales of his wonderful escapes from commissioned cruisers through tortuous channels between the coral reefs.”
There seems more to the pirate mania than just people’s thirst for adventure and “lust for wealth”, as Pyle put it. Bonnie and Clyde, the American couple who gained notoriety for their bank robberies, have also fascinated film-makers and songwriters. However, they have not had the same impact on the popular imagination as have real pirates like Blackbeard or Mary Read.
The difference has a lot to do with the sea. By serving as the backdrop for the derring-do of pirates, the sea gives their stories a certain epic quality. The pirates of old had to contend, not only with the law and other pirates, but with nature. As a result, their adventures seem much more dramatic and their characters, larger than life. Howard Pyle described the pirate’s life quite eloquently:
“And what a life of adventure is his, to be sure! A life of constant alertness, constant danger, constant escape! An ocean Ishmaelite, he wanders forever aimlessly, homelessly; now unheard of for months, now careening his boat on some lonely uninhabited shore, now appearing suddenly to swoop down on some merchant vessel with rattle of musketry, shouting, yells, and a hell of unbridled passions let loose to rend and tear.”
A life coveted
The average person may never get to live such a life of high adventure and danger. Most can only experience it vicariously. The great Basque-Spanish writer Pío Baroja expressed the same idea in Las inquietudes de Shanti Andía (The Restlessness of Shanti Andía), a sea adventure novella first published in 1911. Shanti Andía, a seaman and the main protagonist, opens the book with these words:
“The conditions in which real life slides make most people opaque and uninteresting. Today, to almost no one does something happen which is worth telling. Neither our loves, nor our adventures, nor our thoughts have enough interest to be communicated to others, unless they are exaggerated and transformed.” (translation from the original Spanish mine ~BU)
In the end, the lore of pirates, whether real or fictional, is a kind of necessity. It adds colour to life. In a humdrum, workaday world, it helps fill an existential gap.
Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)
~ Barista Uno