“Who says pirates have to be scary?”
It’s a question protagonist Monkey D. Luffy asks in Netflix’s live-action adaptation of the immensely popular manga One Piece, and it’s at the heart of recent reconceptions of pirates in popular culture.
Set in a fictional, sea-centric world where pirates regularly face off against the government’s authoritarian marine force, Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece has captured the imagination of adventure readers around the globe — first as a manga, then as an anime. With more than 500 million copies sold, the ongoing manga is the bestselling comic of all time. And it’s all about pirates, one of Western pop culture’s most enduring yet least diversified character types. For existing One Piece fans, the new Netflix series will most likely be judged in the context of its beloved source material. But, for those unfamiliar with the manga and anime, One Piece will most likely be judged in the context of the pirate adventure stories that have come before.
In our culture, most depictions of pirates — fictional, historical, or both — have been directly inspired by a specific subset of pirates: white, European male captains living during the Golden Age of Piracy, between the 1650s and the 1730s. (Think Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and Calico Jack.) Most of this narrow depiction of pirates can be traced back to one book: A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. Published by Captain Charles Johnson (believed to be a pen name for Robinson Crusoe novelist Daniel Defoe) in England in 1724, the book contained (perhaps exaggerated) biographies of famous pirates. It introduced concepts including the Jolly Roger, pirates with peg legs, and buried treasure, and was a major influence for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and J.M. Barrie’s depiction of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Moving forward, we can see its impact on characters like One-Eyed Willy from The Goonies or Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
In actuality, pirates throughout history have been much more diverse than A General History of Pyrates, and Western pop culture in general, have suggested. Joel Cook, a maritime historian and archaeologist based in North Carolina, explores this idea as the host and co-writer of Rogue History, a digital series produced by PBS that explores historical figures who have lived outside of the law. The first season of Rogue History is about pirates, and it dispels many of the narrow, often whitewashed ideas audiences hold about the history of seafaring marauders. Cook has been interested in pirates since he was a kid hanging out in his mother’s classroom, reading about the history of the open seas. “As I got older, I started to understand the complexities of pirates,” Cook tells Polygon. “By the time I got to East Carolina University, I was interested in the Middle Passage especially. I started understanding how pirates were involved in the slave trade.”
One episode of Rogue History is devoted to Black Caesar, a pirate of African descent who was believed to be part of Blackbeard’s crew, but who is probably a composite of many pirates of African descent who lived during that time period. As chronicled in A General History of Pyrates, Blackbeard entrusted Black Caesar to blow up his flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, in case the captain was killed or captured. This tale has sometimes been used to imagine a relationship of mutual trust and respect between the two figures, one that belies Blackbeard’s active role as a slaver. “Blackbeard had a big hand in the slave trade,” says Cook. “Even though we know that Black Caesar was probably part of his crew, it wasn’t like, Oh, this was a great relationship, and they were friends. That’s not what that was.”
The story of Blackbeard is being reimagined in Max’s Our Flag Means Death, a queer pirate dramedy that follows the crew of a fictionalized version of real-life figure Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby). In Our Flag Means Death, Blackbeard is played by indigenous New Zealand actor and filmmaker Taika Waititi. Here, the iconic pirate’s persona as an all-powerful, almost mythological figure to be feared is put in human context. Ed, as he is called by Stede, has grown tired of his life as a fearsome pirate captain. When he falls in love with Stede and finds temporary acceptance among the mostly queer, BIPOC crew of The Revenge, the series does not treat it as a weakness, but rather an opportunity for healing. In the series, Blackbeard’s expressions of violence and cruelty, the most notorious elements of the man’s mythos, are not treated as intrinsic aspects of the character’s personality, but are contextualized within his past trauma and his present pain.
For Cook, this represents a broadening in depictions of pirates in pop culture. “I don’t think anybody, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of good or evil, just does stuff without thinking,” says Cook, referring to the caricatured flatness of many pop culture pirates. “There’s something going on in your brain. And I think that, with Our Flag Means Death, it shows the thought process [behind the actions], especially with Blackbeard.”
Compared to other historical figures, pop culture has always had a particularly loose relationship to accuracy when it comes to depictions of real-life pirates. This is probably in part because we are lacking verified historical detail about much of pirate history. “There’s not enough reliable evidence for anybody to be able to fully make cast-iron claims,” says Sam Conniff, author of the 2018 book Be More Pirate. “That’s perhaps why it’s so interesting and useful. It’s quite malleable.” In his book, Conniff uses examples from the Golden Age of Piracy, including the implementation of workers’ compensation and the acceptance of queer partnerships, as inspiration for challenging modern systems of inequality in radical and productive ways.
Netflix’s One Piece adaptation is not quite as radical in its subversions of traditional roles as Our Flag Means Death, but it still represents a broadening of the pirate mythos in Western culture. For one, it trades the traditional white, male captain figure for teen pirate Luffy, who shares 20-year-old actor Iñaki Godoy’s Mexican accent. Luffy is a stretchy kid with big eyes, a straw hat, and an earnest optimism that isn’t unlike Stede Bonnet’s own high expectations for the world and the people in it. Though Luffy will tell even those who aren’t listening that he plans to find the One Piece treasure and become King of the Pirates, the first season of Netflix’s adaptation is actually about Luffy convincing various people he respects to join his crew.
When Luffy asks “Who says pirates have to be scary?” it’s mostly a rhetorical question, but it’s one answered thematically through various characters on the show across eight episodes. What makes a pirate? Technically, robbing others at sea. But the pirate protagonists at the heart of One Piece and Our Flag Means Death spend very little on-screen time engaged in the illegal, violent taking of others’ wealth. Instead, they stitch flags and straw hats back together. They stage elaborate theater and learn about one another’s trauma in fields of citrus fruit. Traditionally, the pirate fantasy has been defined, often inaccurately, by a glorious, violent rejection of the social status quo in favor of a freer, more lucrative existence. Now, the metaphor is taking on new shapes. It’s not a fantasy of wealth or power, but a fantasy of community and belonging.
It’s been five years since Conniff published Be More Pirate, and much has changed in that time — both in our real world, and in the pirate pop culture that has been made by modern storytellers to reflect it. “Here we are, once again, feeling like the world is pretty fucking unfair,” says Conniff, comparing the mood to the systemic inequalities that led to the Golden Age of Piracy 300 years ago. “We want stories that are going to enable us to change that. So, once again, we sit around the fire, telling tales of pirates.”