Historical Context for Pirates 5

I’m a little behind the times at the moment. I’ve just returned to the LA area after over three weeks of travel, which included a great visit to London to see friends and present at a conference and also Tel Aviv to visit family. As a result, I did not see the trailer for the 5th film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (Dead Men Tell No Tales) until last night when I saw the live-action Beauty and the Beast (it’s awesome, go see it).

You can check out the trailer here on YouTube.

Based on the trailer, the film is up to its usual swashbuckling high jinks. Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), prolific pirate hunter [a few minutes on Google and Google Books has convinced me he didn’t exist] has returned from the dead to seek revenge upon Jack Sparrow. There are throwbacks to the whole franchise. Barbarossa is back, played by the amazing Geoffrey Rush. Like the previous film, we have warnings that those who die not necessarily stay dead. I’ll even wager a guess that the young sailor might be the son of William Turner and Elizabeth Swan (seemingly absent from this film?).

2 minutes, 35 seconds does not provide much to contextualize the movie, but there was one bit that made me sit up in my seat and pay attention 56 seconds into the trailer:

Barbarossa: I have heard stories of a Spanish captain who has hunted and killed thousands of men.

Salazar: No, no, no, no – men? No, no, no, pirates!

rs-pirates-of-the-caribbean-d798238e-4eb8-4030-97d8-1d7cab00b95b

Captain Salazar…afflicted with greyscale?

Captain Salazar’s career as a pirate hunter combined with his posthumous rage and revenge has caused him to completely dehumanize pirates. This is not out of step with the pirate extermination campaign that took place during the early eighteenth century when the British sought to eliminate Atlantic pirates altogether.

Who were pirates? The majority of Atlantic pirates were from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.[1] For the most part, pirates were ex-privateers (legally-sanctioned to rob enemy ships and paid in booty) who continued to rob ships during peacetime. Others were former merchants, sailors, or members of the Navy who did not want to work under strict laws. Some were sailors who only engaged in piracy for a brief period of time to quickly gain wealth. The number of pirates who specifically chose to engage in piracy for the purpose of robbing and committing murder on the high seas was surprisingly small.

However, the greatest insult of piracy was the willful attack against their sovereign nation. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century laws against piracy referred to a term commonly attributed to Cicero: hostis humanis generis. During the age of the Roman Republic, Cicero wrote that pirates were ‘enemies of all’. Over time, new interpretations of this phrase changed its definition to ‘enemies of mankind’.[2] This is because pirates cast off their allegiance to their home countries and declared themselves of no nation and as a result, their capture meant certain death.

The goal of the Admiralty was to totally eradicate piracy from the waters and they were largely successful thanks to the expansion of Admiralty courts into the American colonies and because of an increased naval presence throughout the Atlantic. Whether this new Pirates film goes into detail about this or not remains to be seen, but I’m looking forward to the shenanigans of the new film and I’m curious to see how the idea of hostis humanis generis plays out. To that effect, stay tuned for when I eventually review the movie.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales comes out 26 May 2017.

 

Further reading:

Amadeo Policante, The Pirate Myth: Geneologies of an Imperial Concept (London, 2015)

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, 2004)

[1] Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates During the Golden Age (Boston, 2004), 51

[2] Amedeo Policante, The Pirate Myth: Genealogies of an Imperial Concept (London, 2015), 11 – 12.

About Rebecca Simon

A California-girl based in London working on a PhD in early modern Atlantic history at King's College London: piracy, executions, British law. https://twitter.com/beckalex
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