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Shiver Me Timbers Pirate Talk

wetwigCapt. Jack Sparrow, the anti-hero of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, is cinema’s most unusual pirate. As played by Johnny Depp, Sparrow is a far cry from the macho swashbucklers portrayed by Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power. Disney executives, critics and ordinary viewers alike did not know what to make of Depp’s jolly buccaneer, one whom Depp had based in part on rocker Keith Richards. Desiree Cooper, of the Detroit Free Press, wrote what was in many minds when she called Sparrow “one of the most brilliantly entertaining gay characters of our time.” Though Depp refused to go so far, he did admit to Mark Binelli of Rolling Stone magazine that he deliberately made Jack sexually “ambiguous.” “Because women were thought to be bad luck on ships. And these pirates would go out for years at a time. So, you know, there is a possibility that one thing might lead to another. You’re lonely. You have an extra ration of rum. ‘Cabin boy!’” Depp told Binelli that he was inspired by Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, B. R. Burg’s controversial study of English sea rovers in the 17th century Caribbean Sea. Professor Burg studied 17th century English life as well as same-sex societies throughout history to conclude that pirate society was “one of the most unusual homosexually oriented groups in history. . . . The presence of sodomites among those who make their livings from the sea is not a startling revelation. . . . Yet pirate homosexual practice is distinct from that common either to sailors or to men in other ages and in other societies where masculine sexual bonding has flourished. . . . Among pirates, either aboard their ships or while living on isolated West Indian islands, homosexual acts were not integrated with or subordinated to alternate styles of sexual conduct. They were the only form of sexual expression engaged in by members of the buccaneer community.” Needless to say, not everyone agreed with Prof. Burg’s conclusions. Historian Hans Turley, author of Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, dismissed them out of hand, arguing that “the evidence for piratical sodomy is so sparse as to be almost nonexistent.” And pirate vessels were not 17th century versions of today’s RSVP cruise ships, no matter how much we might want them to be. On the other hand, Nigel Cawthorne wrote in his History of Pirates that “many early pirates were homosexuals who had little time for women. After years in single-sex buccaneer colonies ashore or at sea in ships, they turned to shipmates, sadism or the abuse of cabin boys for sexual gratification.” All things considered, we may agree with Stephen Wayne Foster and Stephen Donaldson; who wrote in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality that “while it is easy to criticize the dearth of documentary material offered by Burg, his conclusions cannot be readily dismissed.” Sexual or not, many pirates formed long-lasting partnerships with other pirates, in a system known as “matelotage.” According to Cawthorne, “two “matelots” would keep their property in common with the longest lived inheriting. When women joined the buccaneers on Tortuga Island off the northern coast of Hispaniola, matelotage continued but, if one man married, the woman was shared by the two partners.” According to Prof. Burg, “as practiced by buccaneers on Hispaniola early in the seventeenth century, matelotage was probably no more than a master-servant relationship originating in cases of men selling themselves to other men to satisfy debts or to obtain food. . . . However, the generally recognized bond it created between men and the understanding that an inviolable attachment existed between the two as long as the master wanted it to remain so gave matelotage a sacrosanct aura among buccaneers.” Pirate matelotage was common enough to be mentioned in pirate memoirs of the day, such as Louis Le Golif’s Memoirs of a Buccaneer or Alexander Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America. The General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, written by Daniel Defoe under the pen name of “Charles Johnson,” tells the story of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two female pirates who were also “matelots.” Thanks to Pirates of the Caribbean, pirates — or at least the type described by Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel Treasure Island — are more popular than ever. A decade ago pals John Baur and Mark Summers, who apparently had nothing else to do, created “International Talk Like a Pirate Day” in honor of these jolly buccaneers. Each September 19 — a day chosen by Summers because it’s also his ex-wife’s birthday — would-be cap’ns and chum buckets do their best imitation of Stevenson’s Long John Silver, as played by the late Robert Newton, “the patron saint of Talk Like a Pirate Day.” Now in its second decade, Talk Like a Pirate Day has become an international phenomenon, with adherents in Australia and other countries. So, ahoy me hearty and shiver me timbers! If you can’t be a real pirate, at least you can talk like one, arrr!

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