Here’s a brief look at what I consider the mostly likely origin, or more correctly, inspiration, for J. M. Barrie’s eponymous villain’s most notable feature–his hook, not to mention the reason he had one. Although the novel, for both children and adults, was published in 1911, it was based on Barrie’s 1904 play. Curiously, annotators and Peter Pan scholars seem to have missed the likely origin of hook and crocodile, although I could be mistaken–there is a lot of published work on Peter and Wendy aka Peter Pan.
Barrie’s inspiration for Captain Hook is commonly ascribed to a combination of the painted images of King Charles II, plus various references to various historical Captain Cooks. There are several of the latter captains, in fact, including a couple who were buccaneers in the 1680s. Cook, Hook, right? And a dashing pirate captain might look like a dashing rakish king, correct?
For more detail, here’s Barrie’s perfectly written description of Captain Hook, from Chapter V, The Island Come True:
“In the midst of them, the blackest and largest jewel in that dark setting, reclined James Hook, or as he wrote himself, Jas. Hook, of whom it is said he was the only man that the Sea-Cook feared. He lay at his ease in a rough chariot drawn and propelled by his men, and instead of a right hand he had the iron hook with which ever and anon he encouraged them to increase their pace. As dogs this terrible man treated and addressed them, and as dogs they obeyed him. In person he was cadaverous and blackavized, and his hair was dressed in long curls, which at a little distance looked like black candles, and gave a singularly threatening expression to his handsome countenance. His eyes were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly. In manner, something of the grand seigneur still clung to him, so that he even ripped you up with an air, and I have been told that he was a raconteur of repute. He was never more sinister than when he was most polite, which is probably the truest test of breeding; and the elegance of his diction, even when he was swearing, no less than the distinction of his demeanour, showed him one of a different caste from his crew. A man of indomitable courage, it was said of him that the only thing he shied at was the sight of his own blood, which was thick and of an unusual colour. In dress he somewhat aped the attire associated with the name of Charles II, having heard it said in some earlier period of his career that he bore a strange resemblance to the ill-fated Stuarts; and in his mouth he had a holder of his own contrivance which enabled him to smoke two cigars at once. But undoubtedly the grimmest part of him was his iron claw.”
So presents the man in all his glory, a Captain Peter Blood might-have-been, or a Captain Blood had he truly turned ruthless pirate, although the character of Captain Blood wasn’t created until eighteen years later by Rafael Sabatini.
A quick digression by way of annotation: the Sea-Cook is Long John Silver from Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and yes, many men and women in the 17th and 18th century Caribbean, including English buccaneers and pirates at times, smoked cigars. For more information on the latter, see my blog post Of Buccaneer Christmas, Dog as Dinner, & Cigar Smoking Women.
Iron Hooks & Hands in the Seventeenth Century
But first, before I reveal the answer most obvious once you’ve read it, we’ll make a very brief examination of seventeenth century hooks and iron hands. Notably, there are few if any historical references to pirates with them during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy from circa 1655 to 1730. Offhand, without doing a detailed review of my notes (only half of which are digitized or well-organized), I can’t think of any.
Typically, we see only stumps, not hooks or other prostheses in most seventeenth and eighteenth century images. One sixteenth century barber-surgeon, Ambroise Paré, designed and built various sophisticated prostheses, but these were fairly rare, in part due to their obvious expense. Far more commonly, a simple hook or wooden hand was used as a prosthesis.
Famous explorer Henri de Tonti, an Italian-born French citizen, wore an iron hook. One of the lieutenants of René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, de Tonti explored much of the Mississippi Valley, fought against the English alongside France’s Iroquois allies, wrote an account of some of his exploits with La Salle, and died in 1704 in Old Mobile, Alabama of yellow fever. He had lost his hand in action in Sicily in 1677 when a grenade exploded. An epic swashbuckling figure, his likeness could have been taken as a model for Captain Hook, although this is unlikely.
Even so, Tonti’s written account of his fascinating adventures with La Salle was published in both French and English in the late nineteenth century. In fact, Tonti even had a run-in with alligators on the Mississippi near the villages known as the Akancas (Arkansas): “The first day we began to see and to kill alligators, which are numerous, and from 15 to 20 feet long.” (From Tonti’s 1693 Memoir.)
So, historical digression aside, where might J. M. Barrie had had his inspiration? Almost certainly from the following passage in Alexandre Exquemelin’s 1684/85 edition of The Buccaneers of America. For centuries a bestseller, there is little if any doubt that Barrie read the book. If you had any interest in pirates or maritime history in general, you probably read it. It’s been decades since I first read the passage below, but it immediately struck me as the inspiration for Hook’s hook and crocodile…
“Yea, we ourselves, desirous to revenge the disaster of our companion, went in troops the next day to the woods, with design to find out crocodiles to kill. These animals would usually come every night to the sides of our ship, and make resemblance of climbing up into the vessel. One of these, on a certain night, we seized with an iron hook, but he instead of flying to the bottom, began to mount the ladder of the ship, till we killed him with other instruments.”
So there we have it: crocodiles eating pirates, a buccaneer ship with a crocodile climbing it, and an iron hook used to defend against it! It’s but a small leap from here to Captain Hook and the crocodile who took his hand…
Copyright Benerson Little 2020, first published April 10, 2020, last updated April 11, 2020.
If I may make one simple proposal during this time of grave danger and accompanying uncertainty and change, it is to write letters to your family friends.
By this I mean write them by hand, on real paper, and send them even to those who are only a mile or two distant. You can’t–or shouldn’t, barring emergency or other in extremis–visit them in person. But you can send a memento, a physicality, a material example of your own nature, even of your soul if you’re up to it.
The joy of opening a personal letter remains unmatched even in this day of high technology in communication. Inevitably there is a shallow patina of something somehow impersonal laid over even the most sensitive, evocative missive when sent via an email, text, or message.
Not so with a handwritten letter.
The slower pace of the pen permits more reflection–and thereby more honest emotion.
Writing a letter by hand creates a material artifact, a memento that can opened, read, put away, to be later read and re-read.
A physical object creates a physical, and therefore emotional, attachment, in both the writer and, especially, the recipient.
Any paper and pen will serve. For decades I’ve used an antique laid 24 lb. watermarked business paper, and lately I’m attached to a simple fountain pen with a stub nib and sepia ink, with a sepia signature icon printed on the top of the page, an image borrowed from a late nineteenth century book on fencing.
But letters need not be so formal or involved. Any paper and ink will serve: plain paper, legal pads, used paper with a blank side, note pads, even brown paper bag–all are perfect. In fact, the more quaint, the more character.
And to write with: ball point or gel pens, fountain pens or Sharpies, even cut quills or calligraphy nibs with a variety of inks, including the classic iron gall ink so favored by our ancestors of prior centuries.
Your handwriting is illegible? Don’t worry, your letter will have an infuriating charm. You can’t write in cursive? Print your letter by hand. Soon enough the letters will flow one to the next. Voilà! You’re writing cursive.
Make corrections, write additions in the margins, write postscripts and post postscripts. Doodle in blank areas. Write a line in secret code. Illustrate what you have difficultly putting in words. Put messages on the back of the envelope.
Refuse to write by hand? Do you have a typewriter? Many of us still do, or have access to one, they’re even a small fad these days. If you have one, use it. I have a collection of old letters from my first fencing master, all written on his old typewriter, many of the letters of uneven height and ranging from light to dark depending on which finger struck the key, with corrections to his Hungarian-English made with white-out and ball point pen.
They are as charming as any handwritten letter.
If you don’t want to wait the days, even weeks, for an international letter to reach your correspondent, then scan or photograph it, and email it. Drop the original in the mail as a backup, and also so its physicality–its material evocation–will reach its intended.
I’ve more than half a century of letters sent to me, all stowed in shoe boxes and bins, all half-organized at best. They’re on all sorts of paper and matching and mismatching envelopes: formal embossed letterhead, white notepaper with my father’s scrawl, thin airmail stationary written finely on both sides to eek out as many words as possible, heavy antique stationary, even common typing paper.
My mother has kept my father’s letters written when he was in Vietnam during the war, and two years later when he was off the coast aboard the USS Constellation. I wrote many letters during my overseas deployments in the US Navy in the 1980s. They are physical, material mementos of difficult days–and often they were the primary means of long distance communication, making them even more precious.
Re-reading them is a physical and psychological insight into the past: mine and my friends’ and my loved ones’ pasts, and the connected world we lived in–and still do.
To open one is briefly bring the past present again.
They are no less precious today as this great pestilence rages. And with profound sadness, for some they may be the last physical memory left in the hands of friends and loved ones.
You’ve got pen and paper. Start writing.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2020. First posted April 1, 2020.
Set amidst the 1665 London plague, Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini spins the tale of an English officer too often abandoned by the goddess Fortune.
It’s not Sabatini’s best work, but it’s an enjoyable read and, in particular, it clearly show’s his worldview: one romantically cynical, in that he understood well the foolishness and fecklessness, even the depravity and cowardice, of much of humankind, while simultaneously asserting that good can, and often does, triumph in the end.
Sabatini understood that to succeed honorably, even nobly in such a world, one needed not only courage, but wit as well. And it never hurt to have a sharp sword too.
In particular, the novel, whose details are almost certainly drawn from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and the Diary of Samuel Pepys, shows numerous parallels with today’s Covid-19 pestilence. After all, people don’t change. They lie, they deny, they seek supernatural counsel, they indulge in quackery, they hoard, they exploit, they scapegoat, they profit from the death of the members of some groups over others.
And yet, many rise above the baser nature of humanity, and behave nobly, with great courage and sacrifice.
And, romance though it is, Fortune’s Favorite shows this hopeful, uplifting side of humanity amidst death and the panicked fear of it.
And it has an excellent description of swordplay in action too!
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published March 30, 2020.
Associated with our announcement of the creation of Treasure Light Press and the forthcoming publication of its first title, Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, The 100th Anniversary Annotated Edition, here’s a look at Captain Blood dust jackets over the years!
In a future post I’ll cover trade and mass market paperback covers.
The dust jacket of the first hardcover edition above is iconic, if not entirely historically accurate, but then, fiction book cover illustrations almost never are. Artist and illustrator N. C. Wyeth–a student of Howard Pyle–does, however, well-conveys the color and swashbuckling adventure of the novel.
Notably, as in many of the dust jackets below, Captain Peter Blood is sporting a mustache. However, only in the magazine serial, “Brethren of the Main,” published prior to the release of the novel, does he wear one. In the novel he does not. The Wyeth illustration has been used in numerous subsequent editions.
Also notably: according to authors Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley (see below), Captain Blood did not reach the bestseller list the year it was published. (See the end of the blog for a few notes on identifying true first editions.)
In 1924, Vitagraph motion picture studio released a silent version of Captain Blood, of which only thirty minutes unfortunately still survive. Starring J. Warren Kerrigan–a poor choice if his personal character were to be compared to that of the fictional hero of the book, for he was no Peter Blood nor even an Errol Flynn–the film did much to further promote the novel. In fact, the novel was printed in full or in part in hundreds of newspapers as part of the studio campaign.
The illustration above is not a dust jacket, but the cover of the Astor Theatre program for the 1924 version of Captain Blood, starring J. Warren Kerrigan. The program art is based on the design of the novel’s 1922 US edition.
A UK photoplay edition associated with the 1924 Vitagraph film. Again, Peter Blood sports a mustache he doesn’t have in the book. His costume, however, maintains a fair degree of historical accuracy. The cover illustration is the same one used in the original UK (Hutchinson) first edition. As with the Wyeth illustration, this one has been used in full or in part for numerous subsequent UK editions.
In 1927 a Riverside Press edition (Houghton Mifflin) was published with the dust jacket above, and remained in print for at least twenty-five years. Both the dust jacket and the four illustrations inside are by Clyde O. Deland, the most impressive being that of the cover and perhaps of Col. Bishop being forced to walk the plank, and the least being that of the famous duel on the beach–it looks rather stilted and lacks the dynamism of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth duel impressions. The illustrations are above average for historical detail. I’ve seen a simple drawing in black, based on the illustration, on the front hardcover of some library editions.
In 1929 a German edition was published. Mine has small notes in pencil regarding historical personages and such–Rafael Sabatini’s books have a knack for inspiring the study of history. I’ve often wondered how this reader, assuming he or she read it prior to WWII, regarded the rise of German authoritarianism and dictatorship–and the rise of the Nazi party–in light of the very opposing values of the novel.
A quasi-photoplay edition was published in 1935, timed with the release that December of the famous film that also made Errol Flynn a star. By quasi I mean that its end papers are illustrated with scenes from the film. There are no images placed within the pages, however. The cover is copied from a hard-to-find publicity still from the film, shown below.
An identical dust jacket, lacking only the film information, was also released around 1935 or soon after. I’ve seen this dust jacket on Grosset & Dunlap editions with and without the end papers from the film. Notably, all Grosset & Dunlap editions with this jacket have a statement on the front flap or back cover that it is a reduced price edition, made possible by using the original plates and the author accepting a reduced royalty. I’ve also seen library editions (no dust jackets) with a simple drawing in color, based on the image above, on the hardcover, and I’ve seen the full image itself also used.
Newspaper ad for the 1935 film, showing a US edition dust jacket with Errol Flynn. This jacket was never actually produced.
Hutchinson in the UK also published an edition timed with the release of the “new talkie film.” It has no images from the film in the book itself.
Appropriately, given that Peter Blood was half Irish and considered himself an Irishman, an Irish language edition was published in 1937. The text font is beautiful. Sabatini, as did and do many writers, put his pirate hero in boots. In fact, mariners in this era did not wear riding boots–which is what the myth has pirates wearing–aboard ship, or even ashore–unless mounted on a horse.
A rather youngish-looking (definitely not in his thirties) Captain Peter Blood on the dust jacket of the 1973 edition published by Hutchinson Library Services Ltd in the UK. Purists will note the incorrect grip on the smallsword.
There are numerous Russian editions of the novel, many of them well-illustrated. This is not a dust jacket per se, but the printed cover of a hardcover dual edition: Captain Blood: His Odyssey and The Chronicles of Captain Blood (aka Captain Blood Returns in the US).
The cover of the Easton Press leather edition. The ship is of a later period and Peter Blood is wearing boots, as in the novel but not as he would have in real life–again, unless he were about to mount a horse or had just dismounted…
Last, my favorite recent hardcover edition. In Spanish, it’s well-illustrated with line drawings, and its design does justice to the story.
Dust jacket illustrations, collectible and evocative as they are, are there for a reason: to induce the potential reader to buy the book. And no matter how appealing they are, they pale when compared to the actual text. A battered old library copy sold for a buck at a yard or library sale is still a great read.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from collecting a variety of editions with dustjackets!
Captain Blood First Editions
A quick word of warning to those of you who collect books, especially those looking for first editions. Later editions or printings of Captain Blood are often listed, sometimes mistakenly, sometimes purposefully to deceive, as true first editions. It is easy to mistake later editions for firsts, given that many editions list the original publication year–1922–but not the year of the later edition or impression. For example, both the 1922 first and the 1924 US photoplay state 1922 as the year, but I’ve often seen the 1924 listed as a true first, as I have later editions. Editions published in the 1930s typically list only 1922 as the year of publication.
Notably, true firsts have the first dust jacket shown above, and list both the year 1922 AND the month and the year of all impressions, except for the first impression, up to the date of the published edition. For example, the eleventh impression of the first edition lists the dates of the second through eleventh impressions, the last given as “ELEVENTH IMPRESSION, OCTOBER 1924.” The dust jacket spine lists the printing, for example, “Twelfth Printing” for the eleventh impression.
For more information on identifying firsts, see The Last of the Great Swashbucklers: A Bio-Bibliography of Rafael Sabatini by Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2020), and also “Collecting Rafael Sabatini” in Firsts: The Book Collector’s Magazine (March 2001, Vol. 11, No. 3).
True firsts in fine or near fine book and dust jacket conditions (very rare!) command large prices, so if you’re looking to buy one, make sure that’s what you’re actually getting. Especially beware of firsts whose dust jacket is actually a modern–and usually so noted–reprint. They’re typically much over-priced. For example, I’ve seen a near-fine original first without dust jacket, which can often be found for $25 or less, combined with a $25 reprint dust jacket–and listed for a few hundred dollars. It’s a ripoff. It’s the original dust jacket, or author signature, or both, that command the great prices.
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published February 12, 2020. Last updated May 12, 2020.
With the floor beneath the tree still looking like the decks of the Arabella just before she sank in her final swashbuckling action, here are a few lines in sweet memory of past Christmas mornings and in happy anticipation of future ones, at least for anyone who has ever pretended to be the pirates of fiction and film–or who inspires such fantasy in their children:
“Bars of gold and pieces of eight,
Spanish galleons of goodly freight;
Buried treasure to seek and gain:
Lads [and Lasses]! what ho, for the Spanish Main!”
–A. E. Bosner, The Buccaneers: A Tale of the Spanish Main
Recently, while searching for Spanish colonial Caribbean buildings and fortifications for a game table on which to play Blood & Plunder by Firelock Games–a project that will likely take me years but should be ready when my third and fourth children are old enough to play–I came across a truly iconic 28mm version of the classic Spanish fort by King’s 3D Prints, and I had to have it.
Why? Well, as I’ll explain in more detail shortly, because… Captain Blood. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Classic Hollywood swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara and others. The intelligent buccaneer romances of Rafael Sabatini. And most especially, childhood memories.
Not to mention that I’m working on a fully-annotated version of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, and it would make a great inspirational prop.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say up front that I do historical consulting for Blood & Plunder (and Oak & Iron too). It’s a great game created by great people, with an emphasis on both enjoyable game play and historical accuracy. In fact, the creators of South Park love the game, and even featured it in episode 7, season 23 this past November 13 (2019).
But Firelock, which has a wonderful, beautiful, broad line of ships, vessels, figures, &c, doesn’t make a Spanish fort with the particularly iconic sentry box (I’m not trying to put you on the spot, Mike!), and this is what really makes “Spanish” Caribbean forts stand out to me. And not just Spanish forts, but European forts in general, even though pirate movies make us think that all such forts are Spanish Caribbean, or in some minds, “pirate” forts.
So, again, when I found this 3-D printed Spanish fort, I had to have it. More full disclosure: the seller recognized my name, knew I had written books on the subject of piracy and consulted for Blood & Plunder, and said he loved the game, it’s what got him interested in the period. And he sent me more than I had purchased, with a tongue-in-cheek piratical request that, if I didn’t mind, I’d put a small plug in for his product.
I decided therefore that this was a good excuse for a blog on Spanish Caribbean forts, so here we are, plug included, and I’m happy to do so. The 3-D printed fort is a very nice piece of work, perfect for evoking pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention the brave men and women who tried to defend their lives and property against these often brutal sea thieves.
Most people are probably familiar with this iconic fort from the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Originally meant to be a comic depiction of a the sack of a Spanish Caribbean town by not-too-rapacious buccaneers–although in reality there was nothing comical about these attacks–it has been somewhat altered to bring it in line with the film series. But no matter, we’re all familiar with the pirate ship Wicked Wench bombarding the Spanish fort, its sentry box in plain view, even though no pirate ship would ever have survived such a cannonade. Buccaneers attacked Spanish forts from the shore, not from the sea, and for good reason.
So iconic is the image of the sentry box that it’s displayed prominently at the entry to the ride at Walt Disney World, and even more prominently at the nearby Pirates of the Caribbean lodging, in which there are several at the pool.
The opening scene at the Disney ride, at least once you’re past the scenes of the dead or undead pirates, in which ship battles fort, was without doubt inspired by the similar scene in the 1935 version of Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. In it, following the plot of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, a Spanish pirate making a reprisal against English buccaneers launches an attack against Port Royal (although in the book it’s Barbados–screenwriter Casey Robinson streamlined the plot). But in reality, not even the most famous of all admirals, Michiel de Ruyter of the Netherlands, with a battle fleet at hand, could defeat the fortifications of Barbados, much less would he have been able to at Port Royal. It’s a fiction, albeit a fun one, which has been carried on by numerous swashbuckling novels, pirate films, and, especially, pirate video games, their arcade nature making such battles a natural fit.
The iconic Spanish fort made its way into other pirate films as well, such as The Spanish Main (RKO, 1945) starring Maureen O’Hara, Paul Henreid, Binnie Barnes (doing some excellent swordplay, by the way), and John Emery (also doing some excellent swordplay, much better than Henreid’s, notwithstanding that Emery had to lose to him in the finale).
Period depictions of the sentry box, used on forts across Europe actually, are more difficult to find.
In spite of a review of the plans of numerous seventeenth century Spanish Caribbean and other Spanish Main fortifications, the sentry box seldom shows up, although here it does in a somewhat inaccurate vista of Nombre de Dios.
And here’s a fort at Cumana, Venezuela, in 1704:
There are in fact three Spanish forts with the iconic sentry box–all very “piratey”–in the US, all worth visiting. Most impressive is the Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The image at the head of this blog post was taken there in 1987.
In St. Augustine, Florida, is the Castillo de San Marcos, a classic Spanish fort, one attacked both by buccaneers and by Carolinians in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
And nearby, at Matanzas, where the Spanish slaughtered an entire French colony in its early stages (in many ways a reprisal for French slaughter of Spaniards), is the Fuerte Matanzas, probably the coolest little fort in the world, evoking buccaneers and the Spanish Main close up. Every kid should have one!
There’s also a similar fort section, albeit a reproduction, at Fort Condé, or Fort Louis de la Mobile as it was originally known before it was relocated in Mobile, Alabama–French this time.
I know the Disney ride is fun and the Flynn film is outstanding entertainment, but I can’t recommend enough that you visit these forts in the US, and even better, visit those in the Caribbean and Latin America as well. For additional information, there are several good books on the subject of Spanish forts in the Americas, and I recommend starting with Fortificaciones en IberoAmerica by Ramón Gutiérrez, available as a print book and pdf as well.
And if you need a Spanish fort to set on your desk, well, you know where to find one!
Copyright Benerson Little, 2019. First published November 23, 2019, last updated April 26, 2020.
Cutthroat Island finale, Morgan Adams (Geena Davis, right) versus Dawg Brown (Frank Langella). Carolco, 1995.
In advance of my forthcoming series on “The Duel on the Beach,” a fun look at the Hollywood trope of swordplay in the rigging.
We can probably blame Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for the trope’s ultimate inspiration. In the novel [Spoiler Alert!], Jim Hawkins climbs aloft aboard the schooner Hispaniola to escape the murderous pirate Israel Hands, ultimately burning the salty thug’s brains with a brace of pistols. Why the hungover, perhaps even still-besotted, sea-thief didn’t simply use a musket to murder the lad is unknown. Perhaps he was too fogged by rum to think of it, or he didn’t have a musket at hand, or knew he wouldn’t be able to hit the bold lad. More likely, it’s simply a much better scene to have a murderous pirate armed with a knife slowly climb aloft while his victim waits at the extreme point of retreat.
“One Step More, Mr. Hands” by N. C. Wyeth for the 1911 Charles Scribner’s Sons edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Doubtless inspired by Treasure Island, Charles Boardman Hawes includes a scene of fighting aloft in his Newberry award-winnning novel, The Dark Frigate.
But the primary origin of the trope, whether for Mr. Stevenson or Hollywood in general, is almost certainly the simple fact that the masts and rigging are too enticing not be used: a vast network or “jungle gym” overhead with boundless possibilities. It’s simply impossible to ignore the setting towering aloft above a vessel’s decks. It’s a nautical gymnasium begging to be used! And so it often has.
Before going further, we should quickly examine what sailors did, and still do, aloft. They set, take in, and furl sail. They hoist spars and masts aloft, and strike the same as necessary. They stand lookout. They man the tops in battle, enabling armed seamen to fire on the enemy below. They make repairs. They skylark.
Although fighting aloft was routine–men firing from above at men below–there’s no evidence of anything other than with firearms, grenades, and sometimes swivel guns occasionally fired at the enemy also aloft. No swordplay on yards, in other words. Note that in the painting below, no one aloft is wielding a sword, nor are there lines rigged from which to slide down or swing across (another popular but false Hollywood pirate trope).
Actual fighting aloft would look something like this:
But when it comes to film, The Black Pirate (Vitagraph, 1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks set the standard for action aloft–but not for swordplay aloft, of which it alas had none. The film included circus-like aerial stunts and a famous scene in which Fairbanks slips a sword or dagger into a sail and slides down its face, cutting the canvas as he does.
In Captain Blood (Warner Bros., 1935) starring Errol Flynn, the action aloft is more mundane, although it does include some brief swordplay, and includes a lesser trope: pirates sliding down on ropes during boarding actions, swinging from ship to ship, and occasionally from yard to yard, none of which actually occurred to ship to ship combat. Still, it’s fun.
In Against All Flags (Universal International, 1952) Errol Flynn as Brian Hawke climbs aloft via the lubber’s hole (for shame!) to cut down the main-yard. He’s lucky the pirates were lazy, otherwise the yard would’ve been slung with chain in time of battle and his rapier of little use in cutting through. When he sees pirates coming at him from aloft and alow, rather than fight them he escapes instead, using Douglas Fairbanks’s famous technique. The film was remade, almost scene for scene, as The King’s Pirate (Universal, 1967), but an acrobatic escape was substituted for the sword-in-sail trick. Against All Flags was one of Flynn’s last films, certainly one of his last good ones (arguably a tie among these last films with Crossed Swords, The Master of Ballantrae, and a more serious film, The Warriors). Against All Flags also starred Maureen O’Hara in her last swashbuckler. She’s as dashing as Flynn in the film, and as good if not better with a sword.
The Crimson Pirate (Warner Bros., 1952) showcased Burt Lancaster’s acrobatic skills aloft, but lacked swordplay:
Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) had plenty of action aloft, including an homage to Treasure Island:
But the real action was between Pan and Hook on the main-topsail yard:
And also in Return to Neverland (Disney, 2002):
The action is included on the Disney theme park attraction:
And even in the Disney theme parks Fantasmic! show:
The trope also made it into a series of Dominica Peter Pan postage stamps in 1980, shown below as a Disney pin:
But it was Cutthroat Island (Carolco, 1995) that did it’s best to include a sword fight in earnest on a yard aloft. The film was a box office bomb. Even so, Geena Davis did a creditable job, and the soundtrack is excellent.
Not to be beat, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End included swordplay between Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow on a yard aloft during a storm while dueling ships were whipped around at the edge of a giant maelstrom:
The Adventures of Tintin (Columbia Pictures et al, 2011) featured animated if improbable-but-exciting swordplay aloft:
Swordplay, or at least swords, aloft has continued in recent pirate films. Below is Son Ye-jin as Captain Yeo-wol in The Pirates (Harimao Pictures, 2014), engaging in aerial swashbuckling.
The trope made its way even into the recent Thugs of Hindostan (Latina Pictures, et al, 2018), a pirate-ish, Bollywood, stick-it-to-the-English Indian film:
Action aloft also made its way onto television in the form of the final episode in season four of Black Sails, in a scene in which I as historical consultant had some input.
But the trope has found its way into more than just film. A significant but largely unstudied contribution to pirate culture is that of various collector’s cards: tobacco, bubble gun, and arcade. Typically inspired by popular illustration, film, and general cliché, the cards often include images of swordplay and other fighting aloft, invariably via contrived circumstances often involving pirates or merchant seamen attempting to escape aloft. In the 1930s card just below, failed mutineer-pirates retreat aloft to little avail.
Below, in a 1930s Holloway Pirate Treasure trading card, merchant seamen flee aloft to make their last stand, again to no avail.
Below, a Swedish/French bubble gum card dating to the 1930s. This time it’s not a merchant seaman retreating aloft, but a duel over the plunder on a night “full of stars, the air calm, the sea tranquil.” One of the pirates, Mulrooney, has hidden a brace of pistols in the rigging. He drops his cutlass and climbs aloft, followed by his armed adversary Hawkins. Mulrooney, in most dishonorable fashion–even for a pirate–arms himself with his hidden pistols and shoots Hawkins dead.
Comic books are another significant source of modern pirate culture, and like the cards above they typically reinforce existing tropes. Here the sword fight is on the bowsprit, one man armed with an anachronistic rapier (unless he’s an Iberian or perhaps an Italian under Spanish rule) with quillons in the wrong place, the other armed with an anachronistic “soup ladle” cutlass.
But just how easy would it be to fence aloft on spars? It wouldn’t be. By way of experiment I’ve attempted footwork on a balance beam, much as in the photograph below but with much less danger. At first it’s not easy to maintain balance and any “fencing” done is best done by way of slow choreographed movements. Put simply, I fell often, more even than the time a friend and I fenced with sabers at midnight in New Orleans under live oaks on a carpet of acorns (it was a mast year). Still, after a bit of practice one can move conditionally well on a flat beam–but still not sufficiently to prevent a likely fall. A rounded spar would be much more difficult to fence upon.
Aerial fencing, usually on rooftops or on beams or scaffolding attached to them, and usually as stunts or photo opportunities, is not uncommon:
Any real fencing on a beam or spar would obviously quickly result in a fall. Many years ago I saw a fencing high wire act performed at the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus: it was composed of simple choreographed movements, as expected.
In similar fashion, the modern aerial troupe Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean performs a tightrope fencing act on tour, including this past summer at the Miami Seaquarium:
But could swordplay aloft have happened in reality? Even rarely? The answer is akin to that of the myth of buried pirate treasure. Did pirates bury treasure? No, although it’s possible to find a rare instance of a couple of shipwrecked pirates burying their plundered shares to keep other pirates from stealing it. Further, it’s possible to imagine a rare similar but more significant exception, for example the shipwreck of pursued pirates who bury their plunder to prevent a pirate hunting landing party from finding it. But there’s no evidence anything like this ever happened. Similarly, there’s no evidence of swordplay aloft among pirates or anyone else at sea, as thrilling and pregnant with possibility the prospect is. Even so, it’s possible to imagine a rather contrived, but still possible, circumstance. Hollywood does it all the time.
Copyright Benerson Little, 2019-2020. Last updated 28 March 2020.