Lord Byron’s Pirate Captains Were Exotic and Charming


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

“Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” is how Lady Caroline Lamb described Lord Byron shortly before beginning a riotous affair with him. Lord Byron had a questionable reputation and tendency toward rebellion that made him a perfect pirate writer. Two of Byron’s big hits in the early 19th century were The Bride of Abydos in 1813 and The Corsair in 1814.

Statue of Lord Byron
Lord Byron’s reputation and rebellious tendencies made him a perfect candidate for writing pirate fiction. (Image: Sonse/Public domain)

The Corsair

The Bride of Abydos and The Corsair were tales in verse featuring piratical tragic heroes from the Mediterranean Sea—magnetic leaders of men who are undone by being unlucky in love. In The Corsair, the Greek pirate Conrad falls for a murderous, if decisive, maid of the harem named Gulnare (her name rhymes with despair). Conrad, you see, is a pirate whose “heart was formed for softness”. 

In the dedication to The Corsair, which sold 10,000 copies on the day of its release, Byron teased, “If I have deviated into the gloomy vanity of drawing from self, the pictures are probably like.” To encourage the notion, John Murray, Byron’s publisher, released a second edition of the poem that included illustrations of Conrad looking suspiciously like his creator.

Painting of Lord Byron
Lord Byron’s successful works of literature didn’t save him from the public dissolution which was to come next. (Image: Thomas Phillips/Public domain)

The core plot of The Corsair features Conrad leaving his wife to launch a sneak attack against his arch nemesis, an Ottoman sultan. He successfully sets fire to the Sultan’s palace but is captured when he insists that his men halt their getaway to rescue all the palace women. One of those women, Gulnare, offs the Sultan and frees Conrad and gratitude for the pirate chivalry. But the gender role reversal makes Conrad deeply uncomfortable.

A Financially Successful Exile 

Shortly after the publication of these poems, Byron’s marriage suffered a public dissolution when his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, decided he was unbearable and possibly insane. Rumors of cruelty and adultery, possibly with his older half-sister, flew, and Byron had to leave England forever. This did not really hurt his sales. 

While living in exile, Byron and his publisher continued to allow his audiences to conflate his infamous personal biography with that of his pirate antiheroes for the greater glory and fame (sales) of all.

While Byron, wandering through Europe, was largely producing narrative poetry about sexy misanthropes, spitting in the face of tyranny, back in England, his poems were being adapted again and again for the melodramatic stage, many of them to major success.

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

Byron on Stage

The Bride of Abydos, whose hero, Selim, becomes a pirate because he believes he’s fallen in love with his own sister, likewise garnered understandable attention. At one point, Zuleika, Selim’s consanguine lover, was played by a reputed former lover of Byron’s, the actress Charlotte Mardyn.

The Corsair had at least half a dozen stage spectaculars based on its story, often featuring music, dancing, occasionally water tanks and live horses, corsairs dancing with sabers and orientalist costumes, and frequently some scenes of the seraglio with a chorus (of course) of scantily dressed women. 

In one memorable version, the 1832 Lord Byron in Athens or the Corsair’s Isles, an actor appears to play Byron himself, dressed in oriental costume and reciting lines from the original poem. The combination of such adaptations was Verdi’s Byronic Opera Il Corsaro, which premiered in 1848, the year of revolutions, and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint -Georges Ballet Le Corsair in 1856, both of which are still performed.

Byron and Scott’s Pirates

Painting of Walter Scott
Walter Scott wrote historical fiction that, together with Byron’s poems, exposed the British audience to a new version of pirates. (Image: Thomas Lawrence/Public domain)

Byron infused his piratical figures with an innate nobility and a larger-than-life level of charm. They are dark, brooding, and exotic-sized figures. Politically problematic, to say the least, but their legacy has cast a long shadow. Byron made pirates overtly sexy in a way they really hadn’t been before, at least to modern American or European audiences.

Hard on the heels of the poetical Corsair Conrad came some important novelistic hot takes on the hot but doomed pirate captain. This time, not a story of Mediterranean corsairs but Atlantic pirates and Vikings. 

The poet Walter Scott, who had, according to some views, ceded the field of poetry to Byron, turned to writing historical fiction. And the same year that saw The Corsair fly through 10,000 copies in a day also witnessed Waverley, a fiction of the Jacobite rebellion, running through three printings and some 4,000 copies.

Between Scott and Byron, the British audience was exposed to pirates through all available means at once. Poems, plays, songs, novels, reviews, and even some moralizing pushback which is always good for sales.

Both Byron and Scott based their characters on sources that had plausible roots, but both romanticized them heavily and successfully. The message they and their adapters sent came across very clearly. Pirates are bad, but pirate captains are brooding and attractive.

Common Questions about Lord Byron’s Pirate Captians

Q: What are The Bride of Abydos and The Corsair?

These works of literature feature piratical heroes who are unlucky in their love lives. The stories of these tragic heroes based in the Mediterranean Sea are told in verse. Both of these works are considered big hits in the bibliography of Lord Byron.

Q: Why was Lord Byron forced to leave England?

After Lord Byron published his big hits, it didn’t take long for his marriage to fall apart and for rumors to spread; rumors of cruelty and adultery. For these reasons, he was forced to leave England and live in exile.

Q: How did Lord Byron and Walter Scott change the way the British audience viewed pirates?

Both Lord Byron and Walter Scott created their characters by leaning on historical facts but still creating romanticizing them to a great degree. Because they exposed the British audience to such characters, they sent the message that pirates may be bad, but pirate captains are cool.

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