Avast ye scurvy landlubber, listen up and hear me well, for I have got a tale or two of derring-do to tell ye all!
This year sees the release of the fifth instalment of the ever popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. It is set to be a start of a new trilogy, with old characters returning and new characters making an explosive entrance. The success of the movies over the years has proven that we all still long for the chance to live out a pirate fantasy, just as we did as children, hopping from chair to chair to avoid being eaten by a carpet shark, taking over enemy ships with your plastic cutlass flying, then off to find the buried treasure.
Pirate myths, legends and folklore have grown and grown over the years with classic novels, such as Treasure Island, fuelling the general population’s imagination and starting the glorification of pirate life. If we look at just the first four Pirates of the Caribbean films (a series inspired by a ride at Disneyworld) we can find numerous nods, references and more obvious uses of the mythos that surround these thrill seeking men we call pirates. And therein lies our first legend, as not all were men — these were the legendary women pirates.
Back in the early days of sailing of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, it was common knowledge that to have a woman on board your ship would bring back luck. Women were kept away from ships and superstitions grew around their very presence on board. This, however, was merely a way of keeping an obvious distraction to the sailors from boarding the ship. A ship’s captain knew that his men would have enough to contend with without having a woman on board to draw their eye. However, in the films, we see Elizabeth Swan, a governor’s daughter, played by Keira Knightley, rise up to become a very accomplished pirate. She would not have been alone.
Anne Bonney and Mary Read became infamous on the seven seas. Anne was an illegitimate daughter of an Irish lawyer. After moving to the Americas, she grew to become ‘A headstrong young woman with a fierce and courageous temper’ who ‘eloped with a young ne’er-do-well, James Bonney, against her father’s wishes.’ Dressing as a man, she started her life as a pirate. However when James Bonney turned informant, Anne was disgusted by this act of cowardice and ran off, joining the crew of Captain Jack Rackham, known also as Calico Jack. She soon fell in love with her captain and revealed herself to be a woman to him alone and the two became wed. After having a short time off the ship to give birth to a child, she left it behind with friends on shore and took up the adventurous life at sea with her husband. Such is the calling of the sea and the adventurous life.
Whilst at sea, they picked up a crew mate, highly decorated in the army and at sea. This pirate went by the name Mark Read. Anne quickly saw through the rouse and Mark revealed to Anne he was a she and really called Mary. The two struck up a fearsome friendship and together, spawned a legend.
Another notable character from the franchise was Blackbeard himself. Arguably the most famous pirate of them all, he began his life as Edward Teach (or Thatch, or Leach, depending on the source you find). He was a fresh faced young lad when he first became a privateer during Queen Anne’s war (1701-1717). He then joined Captain Benjamin Hornigold’s pirate fleet and soon found himself captain of his own ship, which he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge.
He had mastered the art of fear, turning himself into more than just a man but a legend, for this was far scarier. Hence the legend around him grew. He sprouted a large, bushy beard which gave him his nickname. It was said that during battles, this beard would burn and his eyes turn red. In truth, Blackbeard lit wicks, laced with gunpowder, which he had weaved into his hair and beard. He carried numerous pistols about his body, some reports claiming as many as fourteen, and two cutlasses, which he wielded together. Despite his fearsome reputation, there is no evidence to suggest he killed anyone who was not trying to kill him.
Blackbeard met his demise after retiring for six months and accepting a royal pardon. However, not one for settling down, he took to the seas once more only to be hunted down and caught in Oracoke Bay by Lt Maynard of the Royal Navy, and, after putting up a good fight and being shot several times, he was finally beaten when his body was relieved of the weight of his head. His body was slung in the water and his head mounted on the front of Lt Maynards sloop. Legend has it that his headless body still swims the waters of Oracoke Bay, searching for its missing piece.
These are legends based on fact, but Pirates of the Caribbean is not scared to delve into the more mythical folklore of the high seas. From zombies and cursed treasure to the Kraken and the black spot through to mermaids; all of these based on myth.
So, with a fifth film out soon, and pirates never going out of fashion, these legends will live on within the pages of our books, the frames of our films and, more importantly, the words from our lips. Keep telling the stories, not just to your children, but to each other. Keep these legends alive. Keep telling stories and don’t let these stories sink down to Davy Jones’ locker with you.
Read the next article in the series: What Lies Beneath: Legendary Creatures from the Seas!