Pirates in the arts and popular culture

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Engraving of the English pirate Blackbeard from the 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates
Pirates fight over treasure in a 1911 Howard Pyle illustration.

In English-speaking popular culture, the modern pirate stereotype owes its attributes mostly to the imagined tradition of the 18th-century Caribbean pirate sailing off the Spanish Main and to such celebrated 20th-century depictions as Captain Hook and his crew in the theatrical and film versions of J. M. Barrie's children's book Peter Pan, Robert Newton's portrayal of Long John Silver in the 1950 film adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island, and various adaptations of the Middle Eastern pirate, Sinbad the Sailor. In these and countless other books, films, and legends, pirates are portrayed as "swashbucklers" and "plunderers". They are shown on ships, often wearing eyepatches or peg legs, having a parrot perched on their shoulder, speaking in a West Country accent, and saying phrases like "Arr, matey" and "Avast, me hearty".[citation needed] Pirates have retained their image through pirate-themed tourist attractions, film, toys, books and plays.


The characteristics of pirates in popular culture largely derive from the Golden Age of Piracy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with many examples of pirate fiction being set within this era. Vikings, who were also pirates, took on a distinct and separate archetype in popular culture, dating from the Viking revival. The first major literary work to popularise the subject of pirates was A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious pirates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson.[1] In giving an almost mythical status to the more colourful characters, such as the notorious English pirates Blackbeard and Calico Jack, the book provided the standard account of the lives of many pirates in the Golden Age, and influenced pirate literature of Scottish novelists Robert Louis Stevenson and J. M. Barrie.[2] While Johnson's text recounted the lives of many famous pirates from the era, it is likely that he used considerable licence in his accounts of pirate conversations.[3]

Illustrations of the 1911 edition of Treasure Island, by Pyle's student N. C. Wyeth

Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) is considered the most influential work of pirate fiction, along with its many film and television adaptations, and introduced or popularised many of the characteristics and cliches now common to the genre. Stevenson identified Johnson's General History of the pirates as one of his major influences, and even borrowed one character's name (Israel Hands) from a list of Blackbeard's crew which appeared in Johnson's book.[4]

In 18th and 19th century Britain, historical-fiction portrayals of pirates on the dramatic stage included false flag props representing the various European navies. A common trope was to represent the archetypical scene where a crew of privateers donned false uniforms along with the false flag as they approached a ship, only raising the skull and bones flag at the last moment before the attack. Other tricks often portrayed on stage included (in a more initially peaceful encounter of ships) the pirate offering to gamble, or claiming the need to inspect documents or retrieve a runaway prisoner, before placing the victim of the scheme in shackles. These portrayals of pirate characters were fictionalised but based on the mythologised historical memory of both the Golden Age of Piracy and the contemporary pirates at that time. Barbary corsairs were a frequent type of pirate portrayed in that genre of stage and literature.[5]

Appearance and mannerisms of Caribbean pirates[edit]

In films, books, cartoons, and toys, pirates often have a rough-and-ready appearance that evokes their criminal lifestyle, rogue personalities and adventurous, seafaring pursuits. They are usually greedy, mean-spirited, drunk on rum and focused largely on fighting and robbing enemy pirates and locating hidden treasure. They often wear shabby 17th or 18th century clothing, with a bandana or feathered tricorne. They are almost always armed with a cutlass and a flintlock pistol, or similar weaponry. They sometimes have scars and battle wounds, rotten or missing teeth (suggesting the effects of scurvy), as well as a hook or wooden stump where a hand or leg has been amputated and often an eye patch to conceal a lost eye. Some depictions of pirates also include monkeys or parrots as pets, the former mischievously assisting them in thieving and the latter loudly copying whatever the pirate captain says. The ship's captain will force captives and mutinous crewmen to walk the plank over shark-infested waters.

Historical pirates were often sailors or soldiers who had fallen into misfortune or were captured, forced into a life of crime. In various literature, the pirates may be represented as having fallen, perhaps resembling a "respectable" person in some way.[6] Pirate characters generally quest for buried treasure, plundered riches in treasure chests. Pirates' treasure is usually gold or silver, often in the form of doubloons or pieces of eight.

Pirate subculture[edit]

In the 1990s, International Talk Like a Pirate Day was invented as a parody holiday celebrated on September 19. This holiday allows people to "let out their inner pirate" and to dress and speak according to the pirate stereotype above. It has been gaining popularity through the Internet since its founders set up a website teaching "pirate speak."

Many games, movies, and other media are built upon the premise, introduced by Real Ultimate Power, that pirates buccaneers are sworn enemies of ninjas. The "Pirates versus Ninjas" meme is also expressed in house parties and merchandise at popular-culture clothing and gift stores.

Pirates also play a central role in the parody religion of Pastafarianism. Established in 2005,[7] Pastafarians (members of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) claim to believe that global warming is a result of the severe decrease in pirates since the 18th century, explaining the coldness associated with winter months that follow Halloween as a direct effect of the number of pirates that make their presence known in celebration.

Science fiction pirates[edit]

The pirate archetype has been adapted to science fiction with more or less futuristic dress and speech.

  • Air pirates are science fiction and fantasy character archetypes who operate in the air, rather than sailing the sea. As traditional seafaring pirates target sailing ships, air pirates capture and plunder aircraft and other targets for cargo, money, and occasionally they steal entire aircraft.
  • Space pirates are science fiction character archetypes who operate in outer space, rather than sailing the sea. As traditional seafaring pirates target sailing ships, space pirates capture and plunder spaceships for cargo, money, and occasionally they steal entire spacecraft.

Pirates in the arts[edit]

Comics and manga[edit]

"Swashbuckling Yarns of Piracy": Buccaneers, volume 1, number 21, May 1950. Art by Reed Crandall.


Poster – Treasure Island (1934) 01 colour edit


Fanny Campbell, protagonist of the 1844 novel "Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain" by Maturin Murray Ballou


The Latvian singing group Pirates of the Sea perform Wolves of the Sea at Eurovision 2008


The Pirates of Penzance, 1880

In 1879, the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance was an instant hit in New York, and the original London production in 1880 ran for 363 performances.[16] The piece, depicting an incompetent band of "tenderhearted" British pirates, is still performed widely today, and obviously corresponds to historical knowledge about the emergence of piracy in the Caribbean.

While no pirates are ever on stage in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Hamlet claims that his ship to England was overtaken by pirates.

Boris Karloff as Captain Hook in a 1951 Broadway production of Peter Pan

In 1904, J.M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up was first performed. In the book, Peter's enemy in Neverland is the pirate crew led by Captain Hook. Details on Barrie's conception of Captain Hook are lacking, but it seems he was inspired by at least one historical privateer, and possibly by Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silver as well.[6] In film adaptations released in 1924, 1953, and 2003, Hook's dress, as well as the attire of his crew, corresponds to stereotypical notions of pirate appearance.


A child dressed as the Disney television character Jake of the Neverland Pirates poses with movie pirate Captain Jack Sparrow at Montreal Comicon 2015

Video games[edit]


Pirates in sports[edit]

Because pirate ships connote fearsomeness, loyalty and teamwork, many professional and amateur sports teams use the nickname Pirates, as well as other nicknames or logos associated with cultural depictions of pirates, such as an eyepatch.

1909 drawing of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team on a boat


Pro wrestler Paul Burchill from WWE Friday Night SmackDown dressed like a pirate and claimed that Blackbeard is his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Previously, Carl Ouellet wrestled as Jean-Pierre Lafitte (supposedly a descendant of pirate Jean Lafitte).

  • Kung Fu
  • The music group Ye Banished Privateers recently introduced the sports genre "pirate kung fu" for fans and musicians alike.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A general history of the robberies & murders of the most notorious pirates. By Charles Johnson Introduction and commentary by David Cordingly. Conway Maritime Press (2002).
  2. ^ A general history of the robberies & murders of the most notorious pirates. Page viii
  3. ^ A general history of the robberies & murders of the most notorious pirates. Intro – Page ix
  4. ^ Jason Porterfield, Treasure Island and the Pirates of the 18th Century, Rosen, 2004, p. 12.
  5. ^ Powell, M. (17 March 2015). "Introduction: Striding the Deck, Strutting the Stage". British Pirates in Print and Performance. Springer. ISBN 978-1-137-33992-8.
  6. ^ a b http://www.literarytraveler.com/authors/captain_hook.aspx The Real Life and Fictional Characters Who Inspired J.M. Barrie's Captain Hook
  7. ^ Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
  8. ^ "Marc Sleen".
  9. ^ "Jean-Michel Charlier".
  10. ^ "Victor Hubinon".
  11. ^ https://www.lambiek.net/artists/u/uderzo_albert.htm[dead link]
  12. ^ Charles Johnson (1724), A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, pp. 411–12.
  13. ^ Dantas, Lucas Peixoto (7 January 2012). Ana E Os Piratas Do Novo Mundo (in Brazilian Portuguese). Clube de Autores.
  14. ^ "Piratas en la literatura". globedia.com (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 28 June 2021. Retrieved 28 June 2021.
  15. ^ Dantas, Lucas Peixoto (2012). Ana e os piratas do novo mundo. João Pessoa: Clube de Autores. ISBN 978-6500170634.
  16. ^ Bradley, Ian (1982). The Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books. pp. 86–87. ISBN 0-14-070848-0.
  17. ^ Street Fighter V: Ruby Heart Rose Costume Trailer, retrieved 23 October 2022
  18. ^ CAPCOM. "Character Guide 150: Ruby | The Character Guides | Activity Reports". CAPCOM:Shadaloo C.R.I. Retrieved 23 October 2022.
  19. ^ "How to train pirates". 26 April 2020.

External links[edit]