How Pirate Fiction Changed When It Crossed the Atlantic


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

The 19th century saw the beginnings of anti-pirate collaborations between the American and British navies and, in more or less the same period, some interesting transatlantic pirate fiction sales. Pirate fiction sold well in the U.S., which inspired James Fenimore Cooper, of The Last of the Mohicans fame, to try to do one better.

Vintage nautical binoculars, book, and world map
Pirate fiction sold very well in the U.S. (Image: Aris-Tect Group/Shutterstock)

American Pirate Stories: Breaking Stereotypes

James Fenimore Cooper had a background as a midshipman and was irritated by Walter Scott’s fanciful, to his eye, depictions of maritime scenes. Cooper, therefore, wrote The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea in 1823, a tale of heroism featuring John Paul Jones, who was a Scotsman and a key naval commander for the Americans during the revolt against the British. He was, hence, a military hero to the Americans, while the British denounced him as a turncoat and a pirate.

Portrait of James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper’s characters in The Red Rover, such as the cross-dressed female cabin boy, broke stereotypes. (Image: Mathew Benjamin Brady/Public domain)

In 1827, Cooper followed up with The Red Rover, another pirate novel and a rather convoluted one, notable for its tragic free black character, Scipio Africanus; a cross-dressed female cabin boy called Roderick; and a noble trickster pirate figure in the Red Rover who passes as a gentleman named Captain Heidegger.

Cultural Shift

Besides Roderick, with the Anne Bonny-like figure in The Red Rover, the United States also offered a rare example of a full female swashbuckler, a fictional pirate cast in the Mary Read model. In 1844, author Maturin Murray Ballow published the novella Fanny Campbell: Female Pirate Captain, A Tale of the Revolution, which was inexpensive, fully illustrated, and extremely popular.

What all of this set up was a major cultural shift in which pirates, even she pirates, could be the good guys or gals, and even when they were not, they were definitely being reframed as darkly conflicted and tragically noble, forced to assume an air of false bravado to survive among swashbucklers. Pirates, in other words, were increasingly understood as performers.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Legendary Heroes

And then came Robert Louis Stevenson, another Scotsman who wrote about pirates. In 1889’s The Master of Ballantrae, and especially in the 1882 Treasure Island, which children still hear about long before they’re even old enough to read. Stevenson fixed in the minds of millions a particular set of pirate clichés. 

His pirate fictions are full of treasures filched from other texts: The General History and its many pirated editions and Washington Irving stories from The Money Diggers, which had a lively presence as transatlantic fiction and upon the melodramatic stage. 

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the writers responsible for influencing pirate fiction forever. (Image: Henry Walter Barnett/Public domain)

In his pirate novels, Stevenson makes the figure of the pirate not only a compelling anti-hero but also a figure who comes unmoored from time. His pirates are vaguely Caribbean, vaguely 18th century, and vaguely familiar, but all in a floating uchronic sort of way.

Treasure Island was penned in the late 19th century, but it mostly stars pirates from the Golden Age, except that they anachronistically sport tattoos and earrings, neither of which was fashionable until the end of the 18th century. It is a clear example of how 19th century authors like Stevenson turned Golden Age piracy into national legend, almost something to be proud of.

Captain Hook in Peter Pan

We can say something similar about J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, first published in 1904, in which Barry described the debonair Captain Hook as the only man whom Barbecue feared (Barbecue was a nickname for Long John Silver). Hook smokes two cigars at once, dresses vaguely like Charles II, and has hair reminiscent of Blackbeard. In short, he is laden with historical references, but he exists only in Neverland.

These were all serious works, writing intended for grown-ups, if you will. But Treasure Island and Peter Pan were works initially marketed for children. Their legacy is stuffed with play-acting. Peter Pan began as a stage play in 1904. 

Treasure Island, while it started out as a serial novel, has been adapted for the screen dozens of times. It has been animated and imagined in outer space as well as re-enacted by the Muppets, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Wishbone, the Jack Russell Terrier. It has been featured in comic books, video games, and unauthorized sequels. Across two centuries, pirates had changed from a global economic threat to endlessly trendy children’s fare.

Modern Pirate Fiction

Pirate creativity did not end with Barrie. Raphael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, John Carlova’s Mistress of the Seas, Tim Power’s On Stranger Tides, and so many other 20th century creations have added to the archive of fictional pirate entertainments for adults, and we won’t even discuss the genre of pirate pornography, which is extensive.

Importantly though, the modern era takes its cue from the 19th century in continuing to insist that pirates are always from the golden age and that piracy is primarily of the Caribbean. Because there is a historical basis for such pirates, pirate fictions tend to be imbued with a certain degree of historical weight, even as their inspirations drift further and further away from the record.

Common Questions about How Pirate Fiction Changed When It Crossed the Atlantic

Q: How did James Fenimore Cooper’s pirate characters break stereotypes?

Some of the characters Cooper used in his pirate fiction didn’t act like the typical pirate characters audiences were used to. For example, one of his works featured a free black character and a cross-dressed female cabin boy.

Q: What are some of the characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate characters?

In his pirate fiction, Stevenson makes pirates anti-heroes who are compelling for audiences and can be unmoored from time. Some characteristics of his characters are a bit more vague, such as being 18th century or Caribbean.

Q: How does the modern era take cues from the 19th century regarding pirates?

Some qualities in pirate fiction in the modern era come from the 19th century. Some examples include insisting that pirates are always from the golden age and that piracy is almost always in the Caribbean.

Keep Reading
Were Pirate Forces a Real Threat to Governments?
The Fantasy of a Pirate Stronghold in Madagascar
How European Powers Started and Ended the Era of Pirates