Pirates: Explore beneath the surface

A new exhibition running at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth takes a deep dive into how perceptions of piracy have evolved since the 17th century, and the reality behind romanticised accounts of their activities. Carly Hilts visited to find out more.

From black-hearted villains like Long John Silver and Captain Hook, to more benignly comical seafarers like Captain Pugwash and Captain Jack Sparrow, the image of the pirate has been a cultural touchstone for centuries. The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of piracy was only brief, spanning c.1680-1730, but their activities continue to resonate (and be romanticised) to the present day. Much like their landlocked criminal contemporaries, highwaymen, pirates have been transformed into swashbuckling anti-establishment antiheroes, whose daring deeds belie their true nature as violent robbers. A new exhibition running at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall sets out to explore how perceptions of piracy have evolved over time, and to reveal the facts behind the legends.

The National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth. Image: National Maritime Museum Cornwall

‘Pirates: explore beneath the surface’ (which runs until December 2024; see ‘Further information’) is divided into two broad themes. The first focuses on fictional portrayals and their cultural impact. Early incarnations such as Lord Byron’s The Corsair (1814) and Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate (1822) establish the rose-tinted tone that was emerging even within a generation of when pirate attacks were at their fiercest – but the main emphasis is on perhaps the most influential pirate tale of all: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). Carefully chosen objects, immersive story-telling elements, and arrays of illustrations from various editions of the book all come together to demonstrate how Stevenson’s novel and subsequent screen adaptations have shaped popular imaginings of piracy (and established some keenly held myths along the way). Visitors can also learn about how pirates have been portrayed in films, Disneyland rides, cartoons, and computer games – and, of course, on the stage: no Cornish exhibition on the subject would be complete without mentioning The Pirates of Penzance (1879).

Highlights of the Caribbean

From the heady heights of buried treasure, peg-legs, and parrots, the second half of the displays draws visitors firmly into historical reality, piecing together how maritime robbers were actually viewed by their contemporaries. Unlike the ‘Jolly Roger’ (which, as shown in an absorbing section exploring the diverse designs featured on known pirate flags, was far from a universal symbol), the situation was not black and white: 17th- and 18th-century citizens eagerly consumed melodramatic retellings of piratical (mis)deeds, while still turning out in huge numbers to watch captured individuals hang.

Ian Kingsnorth
On stage and on screen: these images (above) represent just two fictional incarnations of pirates, namely Errol Flynn’s dashing appearance in The Sea Hawk, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta The Pirates of Penzance. Images: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo/National Maritime Museum Cornwall

Visitors also learn about what life was like on board a pirate ship, from the distinctive cultures that evolved among the crew, to the codes and constitutions that governed their lives, defined how loot should be shared out, and provided compensation for those injured in action. At a time when few in England had the right to vote, these seem to have been strikingly democratic and fair-minded communities – though a nearby case crammed with weaponry and an ominous cat-o’-nine-tails reminds viewers that this was no egalitarian utopia.

Undeniably ‘piratical’ artefacts, from swords and pistols to doubloons and pieces of eight, combine with manuscripts, costumes, and a host of interactive elements to bring these themes vividly to life. If you want more detail about specific individuals, there are also large touchscreewns allowing visitors to navigate the life stories of figures including the privateer-turned-pirate William Kidd; Edward Teach, better known as ‘Blackbeard’; Stede Bonnet, whose ill-fated adventures inspired the recent TV comedy series Our Flag Means Death; and rare examples of female pirates such as Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Closer to home, we encounter Mary, Lady Killigrew, who operated out of Pendennis Castle near Falmouth; and find references to the fearsome ‘Barbary Corsairs’, North African pirates who raided the Cornish coastlines in the 16th and 17th centuries, kidnapping captives for the Ottoman slave market.

Video screens are also put to good use, showing short interviews with academics and experts that add another layer of perspectives including insights from archaeology and Caribbean studies. In one recording, Charles Ewen of East Carolina University talks about the discovery and excavation of the wreck of Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and how little we know about the man himself (despite his household-name notoriety, he was only active for two years). Meanwhile, Alexis McDavid – Outreach Officer at National Museum Jamaica – offers an important alternative to narratives focused mainly on British ne’er-do-wells, talking about the impact of pirates on the populations of the Caribbean islands that they frequented, and about lasting legacies of colonisation and enslavement.

Visitors to the exhibition can also learn about the rather more child-friendly Captain Pugwash, and the now endearingly simple animation techniques that brought his stories to life in the 1960s.  Image: courtesy of Isabel Ryan

For anyone who reaches the end of the exhibition still clinging to a fantasy that a life of robbery on the high seas was more dashing than dastardly, they will be brought sharply down to earth by the concluding displays. Just before the exit, visitors find a series of statistics revealing the proportion of known pirates who were hanged, killed in battle, drowned, or met other sticky ends, compared to those who were pardoned or survived into retirement. The odds weren’t good – and the consequences of capture are grimly hammered home by the final object on show: an 18th-century gibbet akin to those used to display the rotting corpses of executed pirates, as a deterrent to anyone who might feel tempted to follow in their wake.

Further information
‘Pirates: explore beneath the surface’ runs at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall until December 2024. Entry is included in museum tickets (£16.90 for adults, £8.50 for 5-17s, under-5s free). It is a collaboration between NMMC and Royal Museums Greenwich. For more details, see www.nmmc.co.uk.