Oh Captain: Jack Sparrow

Posted by CB Droege

Ship’s captains have been an important part of genre fiction for a long time. Thusly, in our first genre feature series, we’re looking at ship’s captains. Today’s captain is Jack Sparrow of the Black Pearl.

It’s difficult to find a character who has been more influential in the colonial pirates subgenre of fantasy. Of course, it’s hard to find good colonial pirates subgenre at all, so that might not be saying much, but however you slice it, Jack Sparrow is in the public consciousness, and has forever changed the way we think about pirate captains.

Perhaps what makes Sparrow’s story so interesting is that it comes from such an unlikely place. The Pirates of the Caribbean began as an amusement park ride. Riders at the famous Disney Parks creation float lazily along a guided path through a strange mix of scenes, beginning in what seems to be a mid 1900’s Louisiana Bayou, complete with alligators and a run-down fishing shack, and moves quickly out into a colonial era Caribbean port town, where the riders are exposed to an increasingly hectic scene of devastation and plunder. Finally, the ride takes readers into a cave filled with skeletons and treasure, including piles and piles of gold coins. There is no real story to follow here, and so the film was free to wander.

Neither Sparrow, nor his ship, the Black Pearl, are featured in the original ride design - although an animatronic Sparrow sitting in a pile of coins is now the last scene that the riders see before emerging from the cave at the end.

Sparrow was invented to be the protagonist of the movie, as there was no defined character at all in the ride. Despite this, Sparrow’s character is actually quite a bit deeper than he first seems in the movies, having a storied past, and compelling motivations.

Sparrow took command of the Black Pearl in a very mystical way, which results in all of the following stories, despite those parts of the story only being hinted to in the movies. The ship was originally called the Wicked Wench, and belonged to the East India Company, a major trading and mercenary force in colonial era Caribbean.

Sparrow’s career as a pirate began when he refused to deliver a load of slaves. He was branded (literally) as a pirate, and his ship was scuttled. He made a deal with Davy Jones, a legendary pirate who had, upon his death become a sort-of god of the Caribbean sea, in which he would be allowed to have the Wicked Wench back from the depths in exchange for his soul. The ship was renamed the Black Pearl, and Sparrow got himself a new crew from among the fiercest pirates.

This turned out to be a mistake; after only two years, the crew mutinied and marooned Sparrow on an unsettled island. Although he did not stay there long, it kept him from his crew for ten years, while they sought Cortez’s stash of Aztec gold, he continued building a reputation in other ways.

Ironically, Sparrow spends very little on-screen time even on the Black Pearl, much less in charge of it, but he never stops referring to himself as captain. Something Davy Jones reminds him of when he attempts to renegotiate their deal.

The conflict with Davy Jones and the attempt to free his own soul doesn’t really come into play until the second movie. His constant struggle, his overriding goal, is to become immortal, so that he may sail the Caribbean as a pirate forever. To this end, he sought the Aztec gold. It was cursed, however, and he found that he could have none of it, even when he finally found it.

He also attempted to bargain and gable with Davy Jones for immortality, which didn’t work. In the new movie, which will be soon in theatres, Sparrow is seeking the fountain of youth, another immortality scheme which is likely not to pan out for him.

Sometime between the mutiny and his arrival at Port Royal - a time for which very little detail is ever revealed, and which seems to consist mostly of inconsistent, invented tales of piracy which Sparrow himself spreads - he was made the Lord of the Caribbean pirates. How the pirates of the world are able to travel, communicate, and organize well enough to have a world council is never explained, but one suspects that it is somehow supernatural, as it is all tied to the ancient defeat of the goddess calypso, in the same event that put Davy Jones into his station. This position seems o bring him more pain than comfort or prestige, however, and he carries out his duties reluctantly.

It’s important to note the combination of accuracy and anachronism in the film, as they seem to be intentional, unlike many stories from the time. The inaccuracies which are not simply pirate lore parody are supernatural in nature, lending the story its fantastic elements. Although dates are given in the 1700s, the story seems to take place in a world which is perpetually stuck in the colonial era, as it seems that untold generations have passed with little change to the politics and technology of the world. In our real history, the period of violence and privateerism in the Caribbean which occurred between the establishment of trade in the New World, and the buildup of Spanish and British navies in the region is actually rather short, not even spanning two generations.

Judging from the composition and inferred history of the council, it has been around for hundreds of years itself, with the leadership being passed down mostly hereditarily. Entire generations pass during which time the council may not even meet. Some of the regions that the other council members are from would not have even been experiencing heavy piracy at the same time as the Caribbean. So, is the setting an alternate history or simply a completely fantastic world? Perhaps this will be revealed in a future story.

The part of Jack Sparrow is played in every movie so far by Johnny Dep, who based the loopy mannerisms of the character on rocker Keith Richards, who later makes an appearance in the movies himself in the role of Jack’s alleged father, Captain Teague.

Come back tomorrow when we will feature Captain William Adama. If there is a Ship’s captain which you would like to see featured in this series, let us know in the comments.