"Ship Ahoy!": Pirate Ships as Depicted in Movies and Models

By Bloom, Jim | Sea Classics, June 2010 | Go to article overview

"Ship Ahoy!": Pirate Ships as Depicted in Movies and Models


Bloom, Jim, Sea Classics


There is often quite a difference between how pirate ships appeared in history and the versions we see in today's popular media

Most of us have a good idea of what the typical menacing pirate looks like (or should look like). The arch-villain type is represented by the classic Robert Newton portrayal of the cajoling, malevolent Long John Silver in Walt Disney's 1950 film of Stevenson's Treasure Island (with his characteristic guttural "arrrs" - he may have invented this trait). Or, maybe the athletic cinematic swashbucklers, Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, (1935) and The Sea Hawk, (1940) or Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate (1952) do it for you. If you prefer your pirates to be debonair, witty, effete, and foppish, you'll favor Johnny Depp' s Jack Sparrow in the recent Pirates of the Caribbean series. The more literary among you might relish old prints of artist N.C. Wyeth's marauding seadogs from the 1911 American edition of Treasure hland. Sinister images abound of the notorious Edward Teach aka Blackbeard.

But what about the ships captained by these colorful rogues? While illustrators of pirate adventure books and film-makers have provided some striking - if not always accurate - depictions of pirate vessels, it is the manufacturers and marketers of model ships that have been the most energetic and culpable in perpetuating the false impression that there was a typical, generic pirate ship.

Some purveyors of would-be pirate ship replicas, catering to a less discriminating clientele, offer models that are more in the nature of nautical décor than faithful reproductions of actual ships. These merchants might be excused, since their customers simply want to provide a "salty look" to their sea-side vacation home and don't really care whether they really look like the pirate ship for which they are named. These are pretty crudely fashioned mantel-piece adornments and do not even pretend to authenticity. However, those who equip the serious model maker should not get off so lightly.

And it's surprising how many of them - often charging very fancy prices - try to get by with offering bogus wares. The temptation to capitalize on the pirate craze inspired by cinematic or TV publicity seems to lure these erstwhile sober and accurate practitioners to founder on the shoals. I will spend some time discussing these examples because exposing their errors can serve as a handy guide to the actual ships they purport to represent.

First, some basics. It's a no-brainer, but pirate ships were hardly ever specifically designed as pirate vessels. No pirate chief ran down to the shipwright's offices and ordered up a custom-built prowling sea-robber ship. There were preferences, to be sure, but chance (hijacking the next available vessel on the horizon) usually dictated the type of ship the "scurvy crew" would man. Many times, pirates "traded up" as they went along - meaning they moved onto a newly captured vessel when it was superior to theirs in terms of speed, firepower, and maneuverability or any combination of these factors. Some pirate ships transferred from legitimate use to piracy when the crews mutinied - likely as not armed merchantmen, as warships were not so easily seized. Other pirate ships were retired privateer ships. Privateers were, functionally, state approved pirates, so these fast and well-designed pirate ships were often employed as pirate vessels when the privateering contract expired.

Rather than deal in generalities and non-existent rules of thumb, I thought it would be more instructive to consider the vessels actually used by some of the morefamous pirates, and how these are represented - or misrepresented - in miniature wood or plastic facsimiles.

Some kits were issued as replicas of the ships of the related infamous pirate but others were given a more generic piratesounding title. It will be noticed that the three most-notable pirates, represented by models of their respective ships, Kidd, Blackbeard (Teach), and Morgan, had at one point in their career, large "line of battle" ships. …

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