Historical Film as a Learning Tool: Pirates of the Caribbean

Rebecca Simon, PhD Student

The inevitable question that comes up in every PhD student’s conversation is, ‘What is the topic you’re researching?’  Or some variant of that inquiry.  In response, we have all developed our ‘elevator answer’ – a quick, one-sentence summary of three or four years of painstakingly detailed original research.  Mine is, ‘Pirate executions and the transference of British law to the American colonies during the early modern period.’  I don’t want to sound immodest, but I have to admit that this is a great way to introduce myself at parties.  My elevator answer is always greeted with a look of excited interest followed by an enthusiastic, ‘You research pirates?  You must love those Pirates of the Caribbean films!’

I have been researching public responses to piracy in print during the early modern period since I started my Master’s degree in 2008.  If I had been given a pound every time I heard that quip, I would never need to apply for any form of funding again.  As someone with a passion for historical film, I have come to embrace the association my research topic has with the Disney franchise.  In fact, I would like to argue that one could use Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in a university module of Atlantic or maritime history.

As a seminar tutor for the first-year module, The Worlds of the British Empire, I recommend films that tie into every lecture topic and I welcome students to suggest others that I have missed.  I am a firm believer that popular film can and should be used as a resource to study history to put the information in context.  I did this with success when I taught history at the secondary level and if I taught a module on early modern Atlantic history, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film would be an essential introduction.  Although the film is fantasy-genre and based on the popular ride at the Disney parks in the United States (which is in turn loosely based on the novel, Treasure Island), there are numerous thematic elements one can glean from this film: English colonisation in the Caribbean, the rise of the Royal Navy’s authority in the Caribbean and, of course, the history of early modern Atlantic piracy.  These are all important themes in the film, but one I’d like to focus on is the element of maritime culture that sets the tone for the entire story.  To be specific, the Pirate’s Code.

To recap the film, Elizabeth Swann, daughter of the governor of Port Royal, Jamaica (Navy stronghold of the Caribbean and former pirate-haven) finds herself about to be taken by pirates in her own home, because unbeknownst to her she is wearing a necklace of a piece of cursed Aztec gold that she’s mistaken as a pirate medallion. Before they capture her, she invokes the code of parley:  ‘I invoke the right of parley.  According to the Code of the Brethren set down by the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew, you have to take me to your captain…If an adversary demands parley, you can do them no harm until the parley is complete.’  The pirates’ honour dictate that they cannot break the code so they take her to their captain, Barbarossa, and thus the adventure of the film commences.

I’m sure you know the rest of the film’s plot, so forgive me if I choose now to break into a bit of actual history.  The mention of and adherence to the Code is a solid piece of maritime and pirate history from the early modern period.  All merchants and sailors had laws of behaviour to follow in order to maintain order and decorum on a ship.  It may surprise you to find out that pirates had a similar code.  The pirates Elizabeth refers to are likely Henry Morgan and Bartholomew Portugues, men who were actually privateers (legally-sanctioned to rob enemy ships) and active in the late 1660s Caribbean.  There are very few surviving pieces of their own documents, but Alexander Exquemelin, author of The History of the Buccaneers of America (1684 English translation) claimed that Henry Morgan had a code of conduct and honour for his men to adhere.  It has been claimed that pirates were men bound together by a common struggle for survival as seamen and then as outlaws.  As such, they attempted to construct a world where people were justly dealt with. To maintain an egalitarian order, they had to establish sets of rules for all men to obey.

Throughout the film, the pirates are told to ‘keep to the code’ if something goes wrong.  In this case, the particular code they refer to is to leave any man who falls behind.  This is an example of a pirate code that comes from legend; I have never been able to find a specific mention of this in my primary or secondary research.  But the pirate codes that existed were there to maintain order and civility on all pirate ships.  In A General History of the Pyrates, one of the key primary sources historians consult when researching piracy, the pirates’ Code of Honour is listed for the readers’ benefit.  The code was a list of ten articles that promised men equal food and drink provisions and forbid stealing, gambling, whoring, desertion and fighting.  The code established a curfew, allowed rest on the Sabbath and promised monetary compensation for all illness and injuries incurred while on the ships.  The pirate Edward Low, active in the early 1720s, had a similar code of conducts for his pirates, which forbid fighting amongst crew members, thievery and drunkenness, which was printed in the 1 August 1723 edition of the Boston News-Letter for all to read.

Egalitarian order and inspirations from the Pirate Code are present throughout Pirates of the Caribbean.  Former Captain Jack Sparrow was marooned from The Black Pearl by his first mate, Barbarossa who then took over the ship as captain.  Although mutinies were of the worst crimes and betrayals to commit at sea, Barbarossa had been unanimously supported in his mutiny and thus continued to rule the ship even under the curse of living death.  Pirates on The Black Pearl had their specific role and station.  When Jack Sparrow commandeers his own ship, he assembles a crew with the agreement that he is captain, but the men have a choice to serve under him – including Will Turner, who harbours a hatred for pirates.  Another theme present throughout the film is the maritime superstition that women on ships were bad luck.  I could go on for ages as to why women were seen as bad luck, but this superstition comes from the Code: ‘No boy or woman to be allowed among [the pirates]. If any man were found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to the sea to be disguised, he was to suffer Death.’ Elizabeth is sequestered away on The Black Pearl and Jack Sparrow’s first mate, Gibbs, warns him against bringing a female pirate, Anamaria, on board their ship (who is disguised as a man) numerous times.  Of course, women in the film did not cause shipboard bad luck and by the nineteenth century women were no longer seen as maritime curses.

Although Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is largely a fantasy/adventure film, it is one of the most memorable and recognizable movies about pirates in film history; it contains historical relevance that should not be discounted by teachers and professors.  Past the swashbuckling and ‘savvying’ there are numerous themes concerning Atlantic history context about the history of piracy, the Navy and maritime culture and superstition that make the movie a valid resource for students.  Case in point: when people ask me to clarify which pirates I research, I respond, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean pirates’ and they immediately know what I’m talking about.

3 thoughts on “Historical Film as a Learning Tool: Pirates of the Caribbean

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