There’s always been a vision of pirates as better than they were, as symbols of anarchic freedom even as they rape, pillage, and loot their ways across the seven seas. In all the blundering thunder and noise of the Pirates of the Caribean franchise, they did get one thing right, if only as a half forgotten bit of background texture between CGI and Depp’s performance. Pirates were the gypsies and vagabonds of the seas, despised refuse of the world and yet symbols of a freedom that any man would kill to gain.
The last great pirate of the Golden Age of piracy was a charming fellow named Black Bart (not to be confused with an outlaw of the American west who took the name a century and a half later). Bart was born poor and Welsh in 1695, the combination of which could be fatal to a man in his century. He went to sea at age thirteen, and over the next twenty years gained some competence as a navigator, though never rising higher than third mate. The opportunity of his life came when the slaver ship on which he sailed was boarded by pirates, who took a few of the crew for their own. This was hardly unusual, and since many crewmen on legal ships were impressed into service, it amounted to little more than a change of scenery for some, in addition to a pay raise and decreased life expectancy. Bart caught the pirate captain’s eye both for his knowledge of navigation and of the Welsh language, which allowed the two to communicate without the rest of the crew understanding.
Bart objected to his drafting into piracy, though his protests were paid little heed. And a few weeks later, when the ship’s captain was killed in an ambush while attempting to grift the Portugese governor of Principe, it was Bart who was elected the new captain by a vote of the crew. And in true pirate fashion, his first deed was to avenge their previous captain, invading the island and massacring its inhabitants.
Yet for all the images of violence, of savage barbarism practiced upon bloody decks, murder was hardly their default position. While the stated no-prisoners policy of the Dread Pirate Roberts made for good story telling centuries after the fact, the reality was less murderous. Far from bloodthirsty slaughter of every captured sailor, most ships were simply looted and released for the simple reason that a reputation for mercy meant that sailors didn’t tend to fight back. No prisoners? That’s the kind of reputation that would lead to nothing but work, work, work. Spare the crew and it becomes merely a business transaction.
And so in the span of a couple of years, Bart’s crew had managed to grind all sea trade in the Caribbean and West Africa to a halt. In three years, Bart seized nearly five hundred vessels. Five hundred. They raided a ship every other day on average, taking down the equivalent of the Spanish Armada one by one. Finally cornered by the British, and killed by cannon fire, Bart was wrapped in chains and sunk into the deep by his own crew, honoring his final request that the authorities not capture his body.
His crew fared little better than Bart. About a third were Africans and were sold by the Royal Navy into slavery, sent to be worked to death in the Caribbean. Of the two thirds who were white, half were given trials and hung in England, while the rest managed to plead that they were impressed into service and were released.
There’s an obvious, easy story here that would map well onto film. We have an outspoken protagonist with a life of adventure. There are sea battles enough to liven the film, but also lovely documented tricks and grifts that make such a film as much a series of heist stories as a film about pirates. Once upon sailing into a harbor with full black flags streaming in the wind, two dozen captains abandoned their ships without even putting up a fight, fleeing into the port’s town instead. But there’s a far more fascinating story lurking in the details.
Here was a man who legally could not rise to the rank of Captain because of his low birth, and yet once outside the law was elected to the acclaim of his peers. These weren’t mere thugs with ships, these men who held elections nearly a century before anyone began insisting that certain truths were self-evident. One man, one vote. And Bart famously codified the rules of the ship, a list of eleven laws that all crewmen swore to uphold. They forbade gambling, the abduction of women, and laid out what amounted to disability insurance, guaranteeing certain payouts in the case of death or dismemberment. And in a time when the slave trade was shipping thousands of Africans to the New World, when black skin meant chattel, this former slave runner commanded dozens of freed slaves. Even as they looted an entire maritime economy, these men were some measure more admirable than the ones within the system. Of course they were criminals. The only path open to moral men in an immoral system is criminality.
As for constructing a film around his story, the difficult element would be in convincing a studio not to insist upon Bart being played as a Jack Sparrow clone. It’s a role that requires both more darkness and more subtlety. It’s a role that calls out for someone like Ian McShane, although of course he did show up in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie as well. No love interest, no whitewashing, no happy ending. Follow those three rules and a studio could turn out a film of both depth and mass appeal.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.