Are pirate captains really posh boys gone wrong? Harry Mottram sets sail to investigate the unscary world of pirates and children
Shot, stabbed and made to walk the plank. Poor pirates. Abused by children from the moment they appeared in print and outwitted ever since. Peter Pan ran rings around Captain Hook, while Jim Hawkins shot Israel Hands at point blank range in Treasure Island, and young Nancy Kington and Minerva Sharpe were more than a match for Bartolome the Brazilian, in Celia Rees’s Pirates! novel.
Pirates are the lovable baddies who for all their bluster and colourful dress are beatable. They make the same mistakes of all baddies. Their arrogance and bluster gives the young protagonists a chance to trick them into mistakes and eventually beat them. OK, younger children may be scared of them at first, but secretly they are no more than pantomime villains.
But there’s something else: they represent a sense of freedom, adventure and escape. We are of course talking about the traditional 18th century pirate portrayed in Treasure Island, Pirates of the Caribbean and fantasies such as Peter Pan. Today’s pirates of the Somalian coast who butcher, blackmail and extort don’t quite fit the criteria, despite the fact they are barely distinguishable in commercial activities from the tricorn hat wearers of another age.
If there is one characteristic that binds fictional pirates together it is class. Despite their desperate image they have all been well educated. It’s just they’ve gone wrong. In Peter Pan we have a posh villain in Captain Hook who is “never more sinister than when he is most polite, and the elegance of his diction, the distinction of his demeanour, show him one of a different class from his crew…” Long John Silver is rather more down to earth but nevertheless is equally aloof from the sea salts who make up his band of mutineers as the coxswain tells Jim Hawkins: “He had good schooling in his young days, and can speak like a book when so minded…” And in Arthur Ransome’s Missee Lee, the eponymous female pirate is a frustrated Latin scholar who has ended up as a buccaneer by accident.
Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean attempts to convince us he’s a rough sort but his dandy manners and affected deportment were clearly no stranger to silk as a child. Children aren’t afraid of the mincing buccaneer. They love him and his one liners. He’s the cheeky kid who out smarts the teacher and almost gets away with it. The authors’ subtext in all of these pirate yarns is a warning to children who think they can be naughty and get away with it. Poverty, prison and crocodiles await, even if the writer gives them a get out of jail free card so as to keep the possibility of a sequel alive.
Fictional pirates of children’s literature have another more pertinent purpose – to be brought down a peg by their nemesis: children . Whether it is Nancy Kington in Celia Rees’ Pirates!, Oliver Finch in Sid Fleishman’s The Ghost In The Noonday Sun, or even Nancy Blackett in Arthur Ransome’s Missee Lee, the young protagonists are full of self-confidence, resourcefulness and intelligence. All are ideal children who we’d all like to have as our own or can identify with. It’s another subtle message from the writers: be good and with a bit of pluck you can defeat baddies.
Below is the official trailer for the 1990 film version of Treasure Island that had a young Christian Bale as Jim Hawkins and Charlton Heston as Long John Silver: