Aye Before E, Except After Sea
Written by Denis Faye

(June 18, 2012) 

Ahoy! There be research ahead!

How you research your big pirate script depends entirely on how accurate you plan on making it. If you want to take Angus’ advice and keep it real, start with his book Piracy, The Complete History. You’ll find 360 pages of lore that leaves no treasure chest unopened.  

Another excellent authority is English naval historian David Cordingly, whose book Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates offers much insight into the golden age of piracy.  

If you want to take your research even deeper, Angus recommends the British National Archives in London for firsthand accounts. If you don’t’ see yourself hopping across the pond anytime soon, you can check out their Web site here. 

You might also dig around for colonial-era newspapers circa the early 18th century. According to Angus, “They give verbatim accounts of pirate trials and the statements and the last gallows statement by the pirates before they were hung. They’re a fantastic resource.” 

However, if you’re not willing to let the truth get in the way of a good story, you might as well just have an Erroll Flynn marathon, launch Final Draft, and start writing. If you need inspiration beyond that regarding the more fanciful side of the pirate legend, spend an afternoon chatting with the nautical nerds on the message boards. 

Ask pirate expert Angus Konstam what Hollywood gets right about pirates and you won’t get much of a list. “Well… They hang around on ships; they got that right. Beyond that, they just get it wrong,” confides the writer/historian, in exactly the Scottish brogue you’d expect from a pirate expert named Angus.

Of course, it’s not just the accent that gives him credibility. He’s also the author of over 60 tomes on pirates and maritime history, including Piracy, The Complete History and Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate.

Despite being one of the world’s foremost experts in scallywags and scurvy dogs, Angus knows not to expect everyone to share his passion for nautical detail. Jack Sparrow may have little resemblance to real seafarers of yore, but that doesn’t mean we can’t love him. When it comes to the silver screen, this month’s expert concedes to Technically Speaking that “sometimes you’ve just got to chill out and enjoy it or the spectacle.”

What does Hollywood get right about pirates, from a historical perspective?  

There actually hasn’t been a historical pirate movie, I don’t think ever. What you’ve got is the sort of Hollywood brand of pirates, which is totally different from the real thing, it creates its own genre.

First of all the way they speak, that’s all come from the actor Robert Newton who was in the Disney Treasure Island [Screenplay by Lawrence E. Watkin] as Long John Silver. He was the one doing all that “Arr, matey” stuff for the first time because he came from the southwest of England where they actually speak like that. So he was just doing his native district’s accent.

Second thing is the dress. That’s down to the 19th century, that’s down to illustrator Howard Pyle. He created the pirate look. What he did was when he was illustrating, he wanted to create something that looked “swashbuckling,” so he’d done sketches of Spanish peasants and Spanish guerillas with headscarves and earrings and sashes and he just took that look and ran with it. Then people in his stable like N.C. Wyeth and Frank Schoonover, they did exactly the same thing, they just copied Howard Pyle’s look and now that’s standard pirate.

What did pirates actually dress like and talk like?  

Well, they kind of talked like you or I, they talked like sort of… well, you know, like people did from the 18th century. Pirates came from all over. There were French pirates, there were Spanish pirates, there were American pirates, there were Scottish pirates, Irish pirates and they all had their regional accents. They didn’t all sound like they came from one little corner of England. It’s almost like every pirate comes from about two villages in the south of England.

That would be a good movie, Pirate Village.  

Yeah, exactly. And the dress thing, they dressed, funny enough, like 18th century seamen would have dressed, breeches or petticoats and shirts. They didn’t dress up like Spanish guerillas.

Was there more of a formality on a pirate ship than there is in the movies?  

No, no not really. Seamen, especially in the Caribbean, were wearing Bermuda shorts or an equivalent, these sort of light cotton things sawn off at the knee, that was sort of popular, they were wearing standard breeches in colder weather or sea jackets. They dressed like sort of seamen you’d find in any port. If somebody came in dressed in a head scarf with earrings and a sash around their neck and a parrot on their shoulder they would be looked at very strangely.

And the other thing is that pirates were pretty democratic, and there are occasions like Howell Davis, who was a sort of pirate captain in the early 18th century, decided he’d go into a little seafaring port for slave traders and so on, go to the bars and just have a good time ashore like seamen do. He dressed up in all this captured finery that they got from various ships they’d captured, and he was just about going ashore and the crew said, “Oh no you don’t, that stuff’s all held in common, that belongs to all of us in the crew. We don’t agree that you’re wearing it so get it off.”

So, the whole idea of the very dandy pirate captain comes from J.M. Barrie who wrote Peter Pan and with the stage productions of it, wanting to make Captain Hook look fancy.

Pirate captains didn’t quite look as fancy as they did, and there was this leveling effect of the democracy on board.

So all that captains ruling by fear business, that’s all hogwash?  

Well, no. Captains were elected by the crew, but some of them, like Blackbeard, were so charismatic and probably a little bit psychopathic, so voting against them wasn’t a good thing. I’m sure intimidation comes into it. So there are elements that Hollywood get right and actually, in the last Pirates of the Caribbean [Screenplay and screen story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio], the portrayal of Blackbeard by Ian McShane. He looked the part, and he got it right. He actually spoke kind of right.

Did the pirate egalitarianism apply to race?  

There are two ways of looking at this. Pirates had mixed race crews, and that didn’t seem to be a problem for them, but at the same time if they captured a slave ship, they treated the slaves as a commodity the same as if it was full of rum or tobacco or something. But if the person, regardless of the color of the skin or where they came from knew their way around a sailing ship, they were useful and if they didn’t, then they weren’t. But I wouldn’t paint them as some sort of prototype of a multiracial community too fast.

What about all the superstition?  

Seamen have always been superstitious so that’s just par for the course. That’s just something to do with having a dangerous job. Sailing was dangerous business. You had to climb these masts in the storm to pull in sails. It’s not for the fainthearted or the unfit, and that’s where superstition comes in.

Are there any pirate movies that you like?  

I like them all. I love the old Errol Flynn ones like The Sea Hawk [Screenplay by Howard Koch & Seton I. Miller] and Captain Blood [Screenplay by Casey Robinson]and so on, but you’ve just got to view them as great entertaining Hollywood movies, not a source of historical accuracy.

When you read about modern pirates, they seem like evil people, and yet when you see representations of pirates from 300 years ago, a lot of them are good guys or misunderstood guys. How do you feel about that?  

Well, it’s the same line. A lot of pirates when they were captured in the pirate heyday, from about 1710 to 1725, they basically said they were rebelling against the system; it was so unjust, they were getting a raw deal. They were seeing themselves as sort of downtrodden. Today, you get captured Somali pirates who’ve said, “Well, we were fishermen but all these international fishing boats have fished our waters and, because there’s no law, there’s no Somali coast guard, it’s just free pickings out there, so we’ve turned to piracy because we’ve been starved out.”

A lot of modern pirates, yeah, they are pretty bad people, but if you speak to ones who are captured, they’ll give you a hard luck story and say they were kind of forced into it. And that’s exactly the line you would get from pirates of the early 18th century. A lot of captured ones said, “When our ship was captured, we were forced to join the pirates.” Whether that’s true or not actually, it’s hard to say.

Are there any pirates in history that you would genuinely consider good guys?  

Defining a pirate is difficult because one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. In Britain, they view John Paul Jones as a pirate because he went and attacked merchant ships and raided places ashore in the northeast of England and in Scotland – but he’s the founder of the U.S. Navy.

The Spanish regarded people like Sir Francis Drake, who’s one of the great English naval heroes, as a pirate. Sometimes it’s difficult to draw the line. They were all kind of a pretty nasty bunch, and I’m not sure I’d like to bump into most of them either, especially someone like Blackbeard. From the historical point of view I’d like to but I’d like to be able to do it from a safe distance.

What would you like to see in a pirate movie just once that you’ve never seen before?  

You have all these crazy Pirates of the Caribbean scripts where they’ve got fighting skeletons, and they’ve got magic, and they’ve got all this hokum, but the actual, real pirates of that era, people like Blackbeard were so colorful you could probably have a damn, good movie without resorting to any of that. I’d love to see a good movie about Blackbeard but done properly. Let’s just keep Ian McShane. He’s perfect in that role so let’s just keep him.

If you had one piece of advice for a writer embarking on a script about pirates what would you tell them?  

The real piece of advice is real pirates are far more interesting than Hollywood pirates, and if you can go back to looking at what these people did and how they spoke and how they acted and what they wore and everything else and get that right, then you can hang that in the framework of outrageous things they did, then you’ve got a fantastic script. Real history has just really been untapped by Hollywood and what a great opportunity.