Keep to the Code: Lawless and Lawful Pirates of the Caribbean

Keep to the Code: Lawless and Lawful Pirates of the Caribbean

What a literary close reading can tell you ‘bout those bloody pirates and their (non)-existent morality

What makes a pirate a pirate? Let’s take a look at the long list of crimes cited at the hanging of the most famous pirate of all, which tellingly ends with “… and general lawlessness.” I’m of course talking about Captain Jack Sparrow, the main character of Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). Jack Sparrow is a pirate because he is not a citizen, i.e. he does not abide the law. On the contrary, he robs and plunders ships. The very definition of a pirate is his lawlessness.

The list of Jack’s crimes (“numerous in quantity and sinister in nature”) includes “piracy [i.e.: attacking and robbing a ship, OED], smuggling, impersonating an officer of the Spanish Royal Navy, impersonating a cleric of the church of England, sailing under false colors, arson, kidnapping, looting, poaching, brigandage, pilfering, depravity, depredation, and general lawlessness.”[1]

However, these lawless criminals do have a book of rules: the Pirate’s Code. When, in PotC, the crew of the pirate ship the Black Pearl attacks Port Royal and find governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann, they could – as plunderers are wont to do – just have knocked her out and gone about their business of robbing the governor’s house. However, then you would not have a movie. The actual narrative of the story starts when Elizabeth invokes the Pirate’s Code by asking for ‘parley’. Bound by the Code, the pirates are obliged to take her to their captain, Barbossa, for negotiations. After negotiating, Elizabeth presumes she will, conform the Code, be taken off the ship and sent home. But Barbossa is having none of it: “Secondly, you must be a pirate for the Pirate’s Code to apply, and you’re not. Thirdly, the Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” Those bloody pirates are lawless then after all, eh? Perhaps, but the real reason Barbossa kidnaps Elizabeth is because he believes her to be the daughter of the pirate Bootstrap Bill Turner, whose blood sacrifice they need for the crew of the Black Pearl to be liberated of their curse. And not because he doesn’t care about the Code.[2] “Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, miss Turner.”

When performing a literary close reading of Pirates of the Caribbean –dissecting and analysing closely what is being said and done in this movie – you see that it is not only scattered with one-liners, but also with rules. And the Code is everywhere. So much so, that they get fed up about it.

“Parley?! Damn to the depths of whatever muttonhead thought of parley!”

For example, one of the rules the pirates live by (it is not stated if it is in the Code or not, but since the Code even includes a recipe for rum, it might well be) is that “a woman aboard brings bad luck”. However, pirates do not heedlessly follow the rules like a citizen might follow the law. When Jack and Elizabeth’s paramour Will are recruiting a crew to go after Barbossa and rescue Elizabeth, they also recruit a woman, Anamaria. First mate Gibbs argues that she cannot join because of the rule. But Jack disagrees: “It will be far worse not to have her.” Which turns out to be true, considering Anamaria’s superb steermanship.

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Jack sees a storm is coming.

One of the defining moments in the movie is when all the scrummage on Isla da Muerta is done, and Will returns to the Black Pearl without Jack Sparrow. Before they left the ship to head to the island, Jack told Gibbs to “Keep to the Code”. The Code states that when a man falls behind he should be left, so when Will returns alone Gibbs, visibly reluctant, has to sail away and leave Jack behind. At the end of the film, Jack is to be hanged but rescued just in time by both Will and the crew of the Black Pearl. Gibbs explains himself disregarding the Code: “We figured they were more actual … guidelines.” Which of course, harkens back to Barbossa’s decision at the beginning of the movie.

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Jack questions Gibbs’ Code abiding abilities.

So, the following question comes to mind: Why do the pirates have a Code, while they’re 1) defined by their lawlessness and 2) not intending to keep it at all times?

Let’s get to the one rule Jack Sparrow swears by: “The only rules that matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” Jack is actually spurred to tell his ‘law’, because Will denies that his father could have been a pirate: “he was […] a good respectable man who obeyed the law.” Jack explains his law with three examples, which correspond to three aspects of his world view:

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The Law of Captain Jack Sparrow

1) “For instance, you can accept your father was a pirate and a good man, or you can’t ”.

This example embodies the emotional or psychological aspects of Jack’s law. Will’s father was a pirate, Bootstrap Bill, and Will might want to resist that for his hatred of pirates, but it is the truth and he’ll have to face that fact one day. It also signals the morale of the movie, about which more later.

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Will’s initial hatred towards pirates causes him to refuse the facts.

2) “I can let you drown, but I can’t bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesies, savvy?”

The practical or physical aspect. Certain decisions you make – shall I drown Will for him being an irritating, pirate-hating twit? – are based on whether it is practical of physically possible – I cannot sail this ship alone. (Of course, we all know, or at least want it to be so, that Jack also doesn’t drown Will because he is a good guy. They both are.)

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Jack has a practical sort of mind.

3) “Can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?”

The moral aspect. Will now has to decide what his morals are: does he view all pirates as criminal, cruel persons and thus sailing under Jack’s command as out of the question, or will he loosen his beliefs about pirates? In short, does Will give Jack the chance to show him he is a good man?

And of course, although Jack is a scoundrel and not always very nice, we know him to be a ‘good man’ in the end. That’s why Gibbs disregards the Code and rescues the one who fell behind from the gallows: it is against Gibbs’ morals to let Jack to his fate. Just as Will has to accept that his father was a pirate ánd a good man, Jack is both pirate and good[3]. The morale of PotC is that if a pirate is not following the Law ánd can be a good man, then going against the law can sometimes be good – morally right. Just as Governor Swann says at the end of the movie “Perhaps on the rare occasion, pursuing the right course demands an act of piracy, piracy itself can be the right course?” So, although a pirate is defined by its very lawlessness, that doesn’t mean he has no sense of morality. All the more so, since a pirate has to choose which rules to follow and whén, you can perhaps reason that a pirate has more sense of right and wrong. After all, while you as citizen just have to follow the Law, a pirate has to think about it.


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

All video material is copyrighted by Walt Disney Pictures.

[1] Please note Elizabeth saying “this is wrong”, and governor Swann answering “Commodore Norrington is bound by the law. As are we all.” Yes, except that a pirate exempts himself from it.

[2] Actually, the pirates in the movie are all very aware and accepting of the punishments for their crimes. Barbossa does not disagree with the curse because he believes stealing gold should not be punished, but because “punished we were, disproportionate to our crime” – because he disagrees with the degree of punishment. And the Law’s degree of punishment in those times was indeed quite severe. Moreover, when confronted with rescuing Jack at the end of the movie, Will says “I accept the consequences of my actions.” They know and understand the law and its consequences, but choose to disregard them anyway.

[3] In this respect, the backstory of Jack which I discovered when browsing the internet is quite telling. Apparently, Jack became a pirate (branded a pirate) not because he plundered a ship of its goods, but because as captain of a slaveship he did not deliver the slaves to their ‘owner’ but set them free. Thus ‘stealing’ the ‘owner’ of his ‘goods’. I don’t know if this is the official history of the character Captain Jack Sparrow, but it sure is a great one.

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