- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006


Long before Errol Flynn buckled on a sword or Johnny Depp sailed the Caribbean, the popular image of the pirate has been of a dashing rogue fighting for love, redemption or adventure even as he seeks fortune.

A new exhibition at the Mariners’ Museum uses artifacts, images and costumes to examine how literature and film have transformed the brutal thieves and murderers of the high seas into legendary icons.

“As you see the different artifacts we have on display, it’s almost stunning to realize how much the romanticized pirate has permeated society, culture,” said Marc Nucup, curator of “Swashbuckler: The Romance of the Pirate,” which nearly doubled museum attendance during its opening weekend in July.

“When you hear the word ‘pirate’ or you see imagery that invokes the pirate, you’re not thinking the real individual — Blackbeard or Bartholomew Roberts,” Mr. Nucup said. “You’re thinking what has come out of movies, what has come out of books.”

The nautical museum is exploring pirates in popular culture at a time when pirates seem to be more popular than ever.

Sports teams have pirate mascots, advertisers use pirates to make products such as beer or rum seem exotic, and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” starring Mr. Depp, has earned more than $370 million so far this summer. The museum plans to keep the display up through summer 2007 for the expected release of the next movie in the “Pirates” franchise.

Before the romance of pirates there was, of course, the reality. An early Dutch book, “Bucaniers of America,” by Alexander Exquemelin, recounted stories of pirates operating in the mid-17th century and was “designed to shock the genteel reader with true exploits of cruelty, thievery,” Mr. Nucup says. The exhibition includes a 1684 English translation of the book.

The golden age of piracy on the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea ended around 1730, as Colonial governments became more organized and were able to suppress pirate activity, Mr. Nucup says.

Pirate tales, however, continued to be written — and increasingly embellished. They also were wildly popular, featuring anti-heroes living outside the constraints of civilization.

In 1814, Lord Byron’s poem, “The Corsair,” about a pirate captain, sold out its entire run of 10,000 copies in London in one day. By 1822, when Sir Walter Scott came out with his novel, “The Pirate,” pirates were becoming legendary characters, Mr. Nucup said.

“They are not just necessarily villains,” he said. “They could be disgraced noblemen. They could be driven to piracy just by circumstance. This is where the romanticism starts.”

Romanticized pirates made for great subjects in paintings, as well, and the show includes early 20th-century buccaneer-themed works by Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.

The tradition of swashbuckling pirates carried over easily into movies, essentially escapist fantasies. “Captain Blood,” a 1935 film starred Flynn, who epitomized the gentleman pirate — a man of breeding, charm and polish.

The show contrasts that Hollywood image with that of a real gentleman who made a lousy pirate. In 1717, Stede Bonnet left a respectable life in Barbados to cruise the East Coast of the American Colonies. The next year, he was captured by South Carolina authorities and hanged.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s title character in the 1926 film “The Black Pirate” became the basis of the movie pirate — charming and athletic. He’s a nobleman seeking to avenge the death of his father.

The real Black Pirate, Bartholomew Roberts, earned the nickname “Black Bart” because he captured slave ships. He was gutted by a cannonball while trying to escape a British navy warship in 1722, and his body was thrown into the sea.

The exhibition also features weapons. Mr. Nucup explained that movies tend to show pirates using rapiers in drawn-out sword fights modeled after the sport of fencing, while in reality, cutlasses, axes and knives were more practical.

Hollywood also tends to ignore reality when designing pirate costumes — mostly military-style coats with heavy embroidery. Real pirates wore whatever clothing they could find — usually made of plain wool or linen — and often couldn’t be distinguished from common sailors, Mr. Nucup said.

Pirate movies also get it wrong when it comes to mode of transportation, often featuring large, three-masted vessels. Most real pirates had small ships that could get away quickly, he said.

The exhibition finishes with examples of modern-day pirates, such as terrorists who were chased off the coast of Somalia early this year by the guided missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill.

Interspersed throughout the displays are activities for children, as well as for adults who are game. Visitors can clamber about a pirate ship set and watch their antics on camera. They also can make pirate flags and hats and try to decipher a pirate code hidden throughout the exhibition test.

WHAT: “Swashbuckler: The Romance of the Pirate”

WHERE: The Mariners’ Museum, 100 Museum Drive, Newport News, Va.

WHEN: Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

TICKETS: Adults, $8; children 6 to 17, $6; children 5 and under, free.

PHONE: 800/581-7245. WEB SITE: https://www.mariner.org/

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