W.E.B. Du Bois once described the Atlantic Slave Trade as the “most magnificent drama of the last thousand years of human history,” so why are these historical atrocities absent from modern depictions of pirates?
During recent campaigns for British colonialism to be included in the educational syllabus and the current controversy of white actors taking black roles in film and television, one of the highest grossing film franchises of all time announced a reboot. The Pirates of the Caribbean series has grossed $4.5 billion dollars worldwide. However, despite its global reach, the series refuses to reflect its global audience, nor recognise the history it draws from. Instead, this pirate’s franchise perpetuates myths of white exceptionalism.
There is a western tradition of painting over the cracks of imperial history, of indifference, when it comes to the unforgivable actions of the British Empire during the Golden Age of Piracy. In 1729, Lord Chamberlain refused to licence Polly, John Gay’s sequel to The Beggars Opera, censoring one of the most successful events of the period and restricting an accurate depiction of the reality of black pirates. Fast-forward to 2007 and the third film in the series, Pirates of the Caribbean At World’s End, becomes the highest grossing film of the year. A scene in which the morality of the slave trade is discussed was cut from the theatrical release, echoing the censorship that occurred nearly 300 years ago when it deleted.
Of course nobody was expecting a nuanced discussion on the arbitrary brutality of the Trans Atlantic slave trade from a movie based on an amusement park ride – and nor should they. There is a time and place for this discussion and a family-friendly film should not have to sacrifice its escapism. However, setting a film in say, the Caribbean, and only having black actors cast in supporting roles plays into the “Single Story” dilemma proposed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. For many, this will be the only cultural depiction of the Caribbean or of the time period that they will be exposed to, and what is the underlying subconscious message they will be receiving? White pirates went on ludicrous adventures whilst being pursued by those uptight colonisers!
The least a film series titled, The Pirates of the Caribbean, could do is provide a substantial representation of actors of Caribbean descent. After all, the world of pirates has been described as “A mix’t multitude of all country’s”, Black Sam Bellamy’s infamous crew of 1717 contained a crew of two-dozen Africans liberated from a slave ship along with other nationalities. Other ships of the time were described as being ‘Half French, half Negroes”. Then there are true accounts of the mutiny aboard the slave ship Gambia Castle, which was renamed Delivery and the folklore legends of Black Caesar, the African pirate to draw from. Instead, the most successful pirate franchise delegated Afro-Caribbean male roles to those of intimidating, laconic henchmen, such as “Bo’sun” Barbossa’s First Mate in The Curse of the Black Pearl whose name roughly translates to boat servant.
Afro-Caribbean females fare a little better in this series, such as the female captain of the first film, Anamaria (played by Zoe Salanda) who is inexplicably dropped from this minor screen role by the second film. The most prominent role given to an actor of Caribbean heritage is the spectacular Naomi Harris, who plays Tia Dalma, the Voodoo Queen. However this role is in itself problematic. She seems to exist as an atavistic trope of the magical black character that supports the white protagonist, as observed by Spike Lee. Tia Dalma is introduced to the audience at her residence, a haven for escaped slaves; an interesting but fleeting acknowledgement to the period setting, the encircling history that surrounds each film, threatens to break and reveal a more interesting plot.
By the fourth film, the infamous pirate Blackbeard, as played by Ian McShane, has transformed his crew into Zombies using the “Dark Arts” in another culturally insensitive decision from the series. Haitian folklore was the cultural birthplace of the Zombie and the legend goes that humans could be controlled by a sorcerer called a “Bokor” who uses them for his own ends, often menial work – a fitting analogy for the slave trade. This was later appropriated by Hollywood during the American occupation of Haiti who re-represented Zombies to become more threatening as highlighted in the 1932 film White Zombie, where a white plantation owner is threatened by a Zombie. To draw a comparison between the modern motion pictures’ vision of a flesh-eating Zombie and the origin would be virtue-signalling, but it is worth noting that the film reverts back to the master-slave dynamic of Zombie folklore for Blackbeard’s crew who were 60% black by 1717, a fact that clearly is not represented in the casting of the film.
Another damaging trope the series entertains is that of the flesh-eating savage. The link between skin colour, flesh-eating myths and white peril is complex. Black pirates were accused of being flesh-eating savages in white newspapers, and the stereotype of the flesh-eating other is shown at the start of the second film, Dead Man’s Chest, in which Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) and his predominantly white crew are at risk of being eaten by these savages. Moreover this sequence was filmed on Dominica, a Caribbean country that was colonised and used to import slaves. Interestingly, the pirates who do not make it off the island alive are not majority white. Whether consciously or not, the film’s projection of images of white exceptionalism and distortion of history can further entrench racist misconceptions of the past.The franchise need not be cancelled, but with a reboot on the horizon, this huge platform can and should do better. It is not just this franchise that perpetuates these myths, rather this is just an easy example with plenty of material to choose from. Pick any modern pirate television show, from Crossbones to Black Sails, and see the near-all white cast. Watch the predominantly white cast of Horrible Histories teach you about piracy, have playable black pirates included only as “extra content” in the best selling Assassins Creed Black Flag pirate video game and you will soon arrive at a false conclusion. ‘The most dramatic event of human history’ has become but a footnote to these fun, white pirates who ruled the seas.
By James Doherty
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