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Johnny Depp is hysterical in this swashbuckling adventure. But historical? C'mon!

Although certainly not an "historical film," (it is, after all, based on a Disneyland theme park ride) there are actually quite a few historical nuggets to be mined in this Pirate treasure trove. Here's an attempt to extract the history from the fantasy.

Q. So, WERE there pirates in the Caribbean?
A. Yes, and quite a few of them. The 17th century has been called "The Golden Age of Piracy" in the Caribbean. Villainous pirates, or buccaneers as many preferred to be called, did indeed sail those waters: sacking, pillaging, and plundering. Even Tortuga, the pirate city depicted in the film, (and the ride) was a real place, founded by buccaneers in 1630 on an island off Haiti.

And just as in the film, the British navy hunted down pirate ships. Well, except for those pirates who were authorized by the British monarchs. Confused? Seems that some pirates were encouraged, even commissioned by the British government to do their nasty piratey things, so long as they did it only to the Spanish, Britain's rival on the high seas and in the New World.

Q. Was Port Royal a real place?
A. It was, and served as the capital of the British community in Jamaica in the 17th century. But the British government in Port Royal actually welcomed pirates, not only for the money they would spend, but also in hopes that their fearsome reputation would keep the Spanish and French from attempting to capture Jamaica. It worked.

But by the 18th century, the British authorities no longer felt comfortable playing footsies with pirates, and instead of welcoming them, Port Royal officials began hanging every one they could find. And just as depicted in the film, incoming ships could see the corpses of hanged pirates left as a warning, like the three whom Jack Sparrow salutes early in the film.

Q. How about the "Pirates' Code?" Any truth to that?
A. During the film, much is made of the "Pirates' Code." Elizabeth, about to be taken prisoner, asks for a parley with the pirate captain, invoking the "Code of the Brethren, set down by the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew." Nice film fiction, right? Well, turns out Sir Henry Morgan and Bartholomew Roberts were actual pirates, members of a loose confederation of buccaneers called "The Brethren of the Coast," centered on the island of Tortuga in the 1600s.

Even the "Code" did exist as an historical fact, and similarly to the movie, involved issues of fairness among the pirates. "No prey, no pay" was a common principle, but equality in the shares of the plunder was also valued. So, perhaps there was some honor amongst thieves.

Q. Did pirates make their prisoners walk the plank?
A. It makes for great film drama, but pirates didn't actually do this. They tended to be even nastier-- torturing or hacking their prisoners to death with swords. Where, then, did the idea of walking the plank come from? The best guess is that novelists invented it, like Robert Louis Stevenson, who included it in his pirate adventure story Treasure Island.

Q. Did pirates look like Captain Jack Sparrow?
A. Maybe not the eyeliner, though pirates were pretty colorful characters. Many pirate captains wore rich velvet waistcoats and big hats with feathers. The legendary Blackbeard used to braid his long beard and tie it in ribbons. But lest you get a girlish image here, you should know that when attacking, he was famous for sticking lighted matches under his hat on either side of his face, which set off his wild-eyed gaze and thoroughly terrified his victims.

Q. What does "Avast" mean?
A. It's a 17th century pirate's way to say, "Stop!" or "Stand Still!" Try it on your kids sometime.

Q. Was there cursed Aztec gold?
A. Certainly a lot of Aztec gold was in circulation. The Spanish stole it from the Mexicans, and pirates stole a good amount of it from the Spanish. Was it cursed? I'll leave that for you to decide. Savvy?

Q. What's a good source for more on pirates?
A. Get David Cordingly's fascinating book, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life among the Pirates.

Cathy Schultz, 11/5/04



© 2004 History in the Movies