Purdue News

June 28, 2006

Expert sinks pirate myths, stereotypes with real history

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Real, historical pirates can be just as entertaining as the romantic, humorous swashbuckling Hollywood heroes, says a Purdue University historian.

Frank Lambert, a professor of history and author of "The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World," says that Hollywood films have always played a "bit fast and loose" with historical accuracy when it comes to pirates. Pirates will be weighing anchor in theaters nationwide on July 7 when Walt Disney Pictures releases its sequel "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

"When historians try to put pirates into context, it only raises more questions about who was a real pirate," Lambert says. "You might say a pirate is in the eye of the beholder. The definition of pirate is a robber at sea without sanction from a nation. But under that definition, the Barbary pirates, perhaps the most famous of all, are not pirates. They were privateers, many from Europe, encouraged by Britain to raid American shipping because the new country was a competitor."

Lambert says the real history of pirates is more engaging than a Hollywood story. Often, pirates were Europeans who were unemployed merchant sailors or navy men.

"Sometimes they were common criminals who partook in felonious activities and fell into the life," he says. "Many lived on the fringes of society, and others, such as England's Sir Francis Drake, were proclaimed heroes."

Lambert also says some of today's pirate fans may find this genre appealing because it is a different take on what could be seen as a modern-day equivalent — terrorism.

"Once again we currently have people not connected to a state who are creating havoc just like pirates did when they pillaged ports in the 18th and 19th centuries," Lambert says. "Today's fear of terrorism has helped rekindle an interest in pirates, who terrorized and intimidated people around the Atlantic world.

"Disney is making piracy safe with these movies. These are romantic figures in a magical, mythical story. The pirates in fiction, as well as the pirates from 200 years ago, are a lot safer than the pirates we face today."

Source: Frank Lambert, FLambert@cla.purdue.edu or contact Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu, to schedule an interview.

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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