For centuries, people have been absolutely fascinated with pirates and have remained mesmerized since the earliest published accounts of maritime piracy. In 1684, Alexandre Exquemelin's book, The Buccaneers of America (first published in 1678 in the Netherlands), was published in its first English edition. It went to a second printing in three months. Exquemelin's depiction of the buccaneers included firsthand reports from when he sailed with Henry Morgan and took part in Morgan's raid on Panama. Classics as Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Captain Blood, and William Goldman's The Princess Bride continued feeding the public's appetite for piracy. Some of the tales were more accurate than others, and a majority created stereotypes of pirates that would last forever, but regardless of the facts or fantasy that pirate literature showcased, all have left an indelible mark on pirate history.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island in 1881, while on holiday with his family. It was originally published in serialized fashion in Young Folks magazine and was alternately titled The Sea Cook or Treasure Island.
In 1883, it was finally published as a novel. Many of the currently held pirate stereotypes originated as a result of Treasure Island, which immediately became immensely popular with readers of all ages. A classic hero's journey, the novel tells the tale of young lad Jim Hawkins, who comes into possession of a map leading to the buried treasure of the fabled Captain Flint. Allowed to join a crew that goes in search of the elusive treasure, Hawkins becomes friendly with ship's cook Long John Silver, a one-legged pirate who has on his shoulder a parrot aptly named Captain Flint. Initially, Silver becomes a father figure to young Jim, but is later discovered to be a mutineer who plans on stealing the legendary loot.
Stevenson's story is absorbing, and written with such convincing detail that it appears to be true. In fact, it heavily influenced public perception about pirates and their lives more than any other book. Film and literature have taken Stevenson's fictional adventure and made it part of popular culture's beliefs. Many of the most common pirate myths such as treasure maps and walking the plank can be traced directly back to his adventurous tale.
The charming and dastardly Long John Silver eventually saves Jim's life, but in the end slips off with a portion of the treasure, never to be seen again. It's said that Silver was based on William Henley, a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose larger-than-life personality and physical disabilities enhanced the legendary fictional pirate.
Blood and Water
One of the most engaging authors of pirate fiction is Rafael Sabatini, who was born in Italy in 1875. During his career he penned thirty-one novels and numerous short stories, but is revered for his swashbuckling tales of romance and adventure. Two of his best known works are The Sea Hawk, published in 1915, and Captain Blood, published in 1922. The Sea Hawk, set in the late 1600s, is the story of Sir Oliver Tressilian, who is betrayed and sold into slavery by his own brother. Sir Oliver is later freed by Barbary pirates who invite him to join their ranks. Taking on the Muslim name Sakr-el-Bahr, which means “hawk of the sea,” Sir Oliver sets out to command his own band of pirates and exact revenge on his evil brother.
Even more popular than The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood became an international bestseller and made Sabatini a household name. Following a similar formula as his earlier works, Captain Blood is the story of Peter Blood, a doctor who is enslaved for treating a rebel in Barbados. He escapes and steals a warship with a band of fellow prisoners, turning to a life of piracy and revenge. The story is filled with sea battles, treasure, romance, and politics, and helped popularize and romanticize the lore of piracy. The stories Sabatini wrote are thrilling and colorful, despite the fact that they bear little resemblance to reality.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
James Matthew “J.M.” Barrie was a Scottish playwright and author who, much like the central character of his most famous story, would never truly grow up. Peter Pan first appeared on the London stage as a 1904 play, and seven years later was released as a novel entitled Peter and Wendy. In the book, Peter — the boy who will never grow up — takes the Darling children to Neverland, where he lives with the Lost Boys. His nemesis in Neverland is Captain Hook, an evil pirate who's determined to bring Peter and the Lost Boys to their end.
Hook's legend in the story is that he was Blackbeard's boatswain and was the only man Long John Silver ever feared. Hook lost his right hand when Peter cut it off and fed it to a crocodile, who loved the taste so much that he followed Hook around hoping for a chance hors d'oeuvre. In both the play and novel, Hook is a much crueler character than the Disney film. He kidnaps Wendy and the boys, then challenges Peter to a duel to the end to save them. When Hook loses the duel, he commits suicide by jumping into the crocodile's waiting mouth. With Captain Hook's hook for a hand, and with his plan to make Wendy and the Lost Boys walk the plank, Barrie's tale succeeded in further perpetuating pirate stereotypes.
Captain Hook is thought to be based on English privateer Christopher Newport. Known as an impeccable dresser, Newport had long dark hair, and though his hand hadn't been mauled by a crocodile, he once gave King James I a pair of baby crocs. Newport later sailed for the Virginia Company of England, bringing supplies and colonists back and forth between England and Virginia.