Pirates of English Literature

The following is a guest post by Mark F. Hall, a research specialist with the Library of Congress’s Digital Reference Team.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) and the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise will sail into theaters across the country.  While the storyline, special effects, and supernatural elements will be new, the image of the swashbuckling pirate that has evolved from pirate stories that were among the very earliest motion pictures remains faithful to the pirate stereotypes promulgated through centuries of literary works.

The first widely disseminated account of Caribbean pirates was A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in 1724 under the name Charles Johnson. (The book’s second edition, titled A General History of the Pyrates…, is available online through HathiTrust Digital Library.) The author’s name has long been assumed to be a pseudonym as no information about a Captain Charles Johnson has been located.  It has frequently been thought that the pseudonymous author may have been Daniel Defoe, though recent analysis suggests it may have been a man named Nathaniel Mist, publisher of London’s Weekly Journal and a former sailor.[1]

Jim Hawkins watching pirates coming ashore in canoes, from Treasure Island / Robert Louis Stevenson. New York : Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918.)

Jim Hawkins watching pirates coming ashore in canoes, from Treasure Island / Robert Louis Stevenson. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918.)

Whether or not Defoe was Johnson, there is little doubt that Defoe contributed greatly to the literary image of pirates through his other works. He is widely believed to have also written Madagascar, or Robert Drury’s Journal, during Fifteen Years Captivity on that Island (1729) based on the real-life adventures of Robert Drury and possibly drawing on the works of other writers. Most famously, Defoe was also the author—under his own name—of Robinson Crusoe (1719)

The pirate image created by Defoe and the sources he drew from were later built on and firmly molded into the popular images we still have today through the story and characters of Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson.

J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy (adapted from his 1904 stage play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up), which told the timeless story of Peter Pan, introduced the world to Captain Hook, who went on to become to Disney animation what Jack Sparrow has been to Disney live action movies.

Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1921) contained Pyle’s own stories as well as many of the illustrations for which he was widely known, and which helped establish the popular image of pirates in generations of young readers.

Robert Sabatini’s works Captain Blood (1922) and The Sea-Hawk (1915) were blockbuster novels in their day. Influential in their own right, they became even more so as the basis for early swashbuckling films of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.

Randy Tuten. "The Rolling Stones." San Francisco: Tea Lautrec Litho, ca. 1969. Poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (244) Courtesy of Bill Graham Presents, Inc. ©B.G.P. 1969

Randy Tuten. “The Rolling Stones” [Keith Richards second from left]. San Francisco: Tea Lautrec Litho, ca. 1969. Poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (244) Courtesy of Bill Graham Presents, Inc. ©B.G.P. 1969

It is against this expansive history of pirate tales that Disney and Johnny Depp have built their wildly successful film franchise. Captain Jack Sparrow continues a long line of larger-than-life pirates portrayed in literature and film—with one unique twist: Sparrow is inspired in part (per Depp’s own admission) by the larger-than-life personality of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who himself appears as Sparrow’s father in several of the movies.

Interested in reading and learning more about pirates? Check out the Library of Congress’s online guide to materials related to the Golden Age of Piracy.


Notes

[1] Research by Arne Bialuschewski cited in The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard (Mariner Books, 2008), pp. 325-6.

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