A Pirate's Life for Me

A Pirate's Life for Me

a literary close reading of Pirates of the Caribbean, part two

Yo ho, yo ho /
a pirate’s life for me

Last time, we discovered that although pirates are seen as lawless they actually have their own book of law – the Pirate’s Code. The movie Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) shows that pirates like Captain Jack Sparrow do have a sense of morality. But there’s a catch. They may call it ‘commandeer’ or ‘salvage’, pirates are nevertheless stealing and robbing ships. We pillage, we plunder, we rifle, and loot / Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho. According to the King’s Law, they are criminals being liable to death. Pirates are literally out-lawed[1], and thus anyone can kill them without being punished for it (probably even honoured for it).

Piracy is punishable by death. Pirates Ye Be Warned.

So, why the hell would someone choose to become a pirate when that’s punishable by death? What outweighs the risk of being killed? The key actually lies in that pirate song: a pirate’s life.
Let’s first look at what the pirates do with their pirate life. Their main port is Tortuga, a town which you could call ‘lively’ by the very least. What do they do there? Eat, but mostly drink – a lot. And sleep with women. These things are echoed by Barbossa when he explains the curse of the Black Pearl to Elizabeth:

“The more we gave them [the gold coins] away, the more we realized, the drink would not satisfy, food turned to ash in our mouth, and all the pleasurable company in the world could not slake our lust.”

But after Elizabeth had her horrifying encounter with the skeletal pirates in the moonlight, Barbossa continues and adds something to his story:

“We are not among the living so we cannot die, but neither are we dead. For too long I've been parched of thirst and unable to quench it. Too long I've been starving to death but haven't died. I feel nothing. Not the wind on my face, nor the spray of the sea, nor the warmth of a woman’s flesh.”

Barbossa longs to feel alive again.

Anyone who ever spend a day sailing knows that the best bit about a boat is the feeling of the wind through your hair. What a pirate is above all is a seaman[2]. And what a pirate longs for more than anything in the world, is his ship. This is shown the best by Jack’s ceaseless chase of his ship the Black Pearl. When stuck on an island with Elizabeth in the first movie, he explains:

“Wherever we want to go, we go. That’s what a ship is you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails. That’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is … what the Black Pearl really is … is freedom.”

So, a pirate chooses to be outlawed for the sake of freedom – the freedom of the sea. At the cost of his life. What this really means becomes clear in the next two movies: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End (2007). In her hut in the jungle, the sorceress Tia Dalma explains the myth surrounding the captain of the Flying Dutchman, Davy Jones – “a man of the sea”. She asks what vexes a man and several of the pirates drop suggestions: “The sea? Sums! The dichotomy of good and evil. … A woman.” A woman indeed. Gibbs argues, “No no no, I heard it was the sea he fell in love with.” Tia Dalma counteracts: “Same story, different version.” As we later discover, the sea is indeed a woman – in fact, it is the goddess Calypso. Also known as Tia Dalma.

Tia Dalma narrates the myth of Davy Jones.

A pirate falls in love with the sea, who is as mysterious and dangerous as a woman. But this comes at a cost, the love for the sea causes a heartache “[…] too much to live with, but not enough to cause him to die.”[3] The treacherousness of the freedom of sea is refered to multiple times throughout the movies. For example, when Bootstrap Bill explains to his son Will why he did not want him to lead a pirate’s life, he says both “it was always my fate to die at sea” and “I would taste a lie if I say it [a pirate’s life] wasn’t what I wanted.” Although a pirate’s longing for the sea is the heart of his life, there are two things more sacrosanct which are ashore: his burial ground and his love. The myth of Davy Jones makes this abundantly clear. First, when men die at sea it is Davy Jones’ task to ferry them to the underworld: they cannot just sink to the bottom of the sea. Why? Because the bottom of the sea, or Davy Jones’ Locker, is “not a place of death but of punishment”[4].

The Black Pearl, the symbol of freedom, trapped in Davy Jones Locker. Tellingly symbolized as a neverending beach.

Being Captain of the Flying Dutchman is also some sort of punishment: the captain must sail ten years at sea, and has then only one day to come ashore to spend time with his loved one. You could say that for a pirate this sounds wonderful, especially since the captain is practically immortal, but apparently it does not sound wonderful. That’s Jack Sparrow’s dilemma when he considers stabbing Davy Jones’ his heart, and thereby replacing him as captian of the Flying Dutchman. “Sailing the seas for eternity” sounds like heaven for a pirate, but having only one day ashore for ten days does not – a lack of rum and women ensues. Moreover, you have the ferry the souls to the underworld. Disregarding this duty is ill-advised as Davy Jones discovers – he and his crew turns into sea monsters.

Going all tentacly, as Jack Sparrow calls it, is not advisable.

Davy Jones, as the “man of the sea”, the ultimate pirate, discovers a catch. A pirate choses a life of freedom – freedom from the law, a life at sea. However, not only does this come at the cost of your life by command of the Law, but you are still not completely free. Now, having chosen the pirate’s life, they are bound by the sea. And that comes with a cost as well. When they release the goddess Calypso, i.e. the sea, from her human bond (Tia Dalma), Barbossa asks her “[…] release your wrath upon those who claim to be your master, or mine.” That’s the quintessential pirate thought, they do not want to be subservient to anyone – let alone the law, but they recognise that all seamen are subservient to the sea.
Pirates want to live a life full of rum, women and freedom. They want to feel the wind in their hair. But a pirate’s life for me means living between the fear of death by hanging and the fear of death at sea. It’s only fitting then, that the other pirate song starting with yo ho not only claims that “never shall we die”, but also

some men have died and some are alive /
and other sail on the sea

signalling the inbetweenness of a pirate’s life – or death

Arguably the best scene in all the Pirates’ movies, which simultaneously narrates Calypso’s story and the pirate’s bond with life and death.


Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl. dir. Gore Verbinsky, (2003).

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. dir. Gore Verbinsky, (2006).

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. dir. Gore Verbinsky, (2007).

All video material is copyrighted by Walt Disney Company.

[1] Note that when, in the Curse of the Black Pearl, the navy duo warns a Jack Sparrow wandering towards the Interceptor “this dock is off limits to civilians,” he counters with “I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t know. If I see one, I shall inform you immediately.” Pirates themselves also see themselves as outlawed, i.e. not a civilian.

[2] You could write another blog about the masculinity let alone misogyny of the pirate’s universe. I’ll leave that for now.

[3] As Tia Dalma says about Davy Jones. A sentence which harkens back to the curse of the first movie, in which the pirates “are not among the living, so [they] cannot die, but neither are [they] dead.”

[4] Tia Dalma again, when explaining why she could bring back Barbossa, but not Jack (who has been killed by the Kraken, the beast Davy Jones uses to send seafarers to Davy Jones’ Locker).

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