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An Empire of Their Own

If you are a writer, probably the nearest thing you will get to flying in by helicopter to a throbbing rock concert is the L. A. Times Festival of Books. I was there this weekend to give a talk, and it was as close to being Mick Jagger as I am likely to get. Thankfully, unlike Jagger at Altamont, no one punched me in the face as soon as I arrived. Perhaps shuttle buses don't inspire the same blind rage as choppers.

There were 130,000 people there over two days. 130,000 people of all ages, races and creeds. For books. In Los Angeles. I was swept away. I felt like grabbing some of the people who swarmed the UCLA campus like the lost honeybees and asking them, "Who are you wonderful people?"

My talk was about my new book. Being in LA, I began with a movie: namely, the third installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean epic. I spoke about how every writer, when he begins a book must think of a one-sentence description of it to use at parties and on airplanes. Mine was "It's about the real-life Pirates of the Caribbean."

Which is horseshit, of course. Because the movie is, like almost all representations of pirates in our culture, a complete and utter fantasy, as divorced from the actual facts as is, say, George Tenet's memoir. For a film like Gladiator, the producers made sure that every details of the film was rigorously authentic, down to the stitching on Russell Crowe's sandals. If I remember correctly, they reconstructed the actual Coliseum on a computer at a cost of some millions of dollars. You see, they had to get it right.

For some reason, gladiator movies hire archeologists and pirate movies hire makeup artists. I can think of no other historical figure that have been as divorced from their reality as Henry Morgan and his ilk. Including witches.

In my book, I write about how the privateers of the Caribbean were key players in the fate of the New World. They were used by England and France to dislodge Spain from its vast holdings in Central and South America, beginning in the mid-1600s. They weakened the great empire, exposed its intellectual and logistical flaws, loosened its hold on the islands and the Spanish Main, caused Spanish kings to move resources away from places like Florida, eventually giving the new United States a foothold there.

So the fact that pirates had become jokes bothered me. I wanted to restore them to their rightful place in history. But how had they been torn out of in the first place?

In researching the book, I began to realize that the pirates had renounced everything that people valued in the world in the 1670s. They'd given up on God. They'd gone beyond nationalism, as they were a collection of misfits, runaways, political refugees and born killers from a handful of European countries, along with escaped African slaves (the famous — and deadly — maroons.) The early buccaneers had even paired off in apparently homosexual unions and then forbidden the use of last names, as there were crimes and other things in their past they didn't want to talk about (a move that would have horrified a Spanish nobleman). Many of them could not return home. When they met a strange ship on the open waters and the other crew called to them to ask where they were from, they often replied, "From the sea."

And they were radical democrats. They elected their own captains, voted on their own missions, got hazard pay, health insurance and bonuses for courage. Most American corporations would struggle to match the benefits they took for granted. For the 17th century, a hundred years before the French Revolution, their politics were unthinkable.

So it occurred to me that this wide gap between who the pirates were and whom we now saw them as had actually been started by the pirates themselves. They had separated themselves from the narratives of the 17th century. They were new men, freer than anyone on the planet. They simply didn't fit into any understanding of the century. Freaks. Contrarians. That's how the world saw them from the beginning.

And so, the next time you see a trailer featuring Mr. Depp as an effete and brain-addled fop, the simple reaction would be to laugh. But the deeper response is to realize that Jack Sparrow has a kind of authenticity. He is a representation of how odd the pirates really were in their time. Even the Stones in '69 did not disturb the world as they did.

÷ ÷ ÷

Stephan Talty is the author of Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign, the real story of the pirates of the Caribbean. "A pleasure to read from bow to stern," raved Entertainment Weekly, which gave it an A grade. His book Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture was published to critical acclaim in 2003.

His posts appear every Tuesday throughout the month of May on the blog.

Books mentioned in this post

Stephan Talty is the author of Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign

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