Monday, November 17, 2014

Pirate Costumes in the Movies Part 3

Against All Flags wasn’t the only movie to steal sailing-ship scenes from Black Swan. Film clips from the 1942 movie were still being recycled forty years later, in 1982, when an Australian film company made The Pirate Movie, an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.



The film is a bizarre mish-mash of the 19th century original and 80s fashion and music. Framed by a story in which a shy, mousy girl named Mable falls for a handsome young fencing instructor named Fredrick. A knock on the head puts Mable into a dream state and takes us back in time to pirate days, where the plot of the original Operetta unfolds (more or less).
The movie certainly doesn’t know what it wants to be, and the costumes echo this difficulty. The original 80s scenes look like the 80s all right, but once we’re in dreamland, all kinds of things happen.

The original pirate ship harbors men wearing stereotypical pirate gear… eye patches, fancy satin vests, beautiful wide-sleeved pirate shirts that lace up the front. But their costumes cover an unusually wide range of time, ranging from the mid 1600’s through the 1900’s (The dream sequence is set firmly in 1876, with dates mentioned in the movie locking it in place.) One assumes that this is supposed to reflect the dream state of the proceedings.

Fredrick himself appears throughout much of the movie in white tights, cream colored thigh boots, and a vest that looks like Sargent Pepper was involved in a paintball fight.



This at least is understandable. It’s an effort to make the romantic leads “relatable” to the teenaged audiences of the time. The male lead’s clothes have been seriously touched by the 80s, even while all those around him come from much earlier times.

Likewise the female lead, surrounded by “sisters” in Victorian summer dresses, first appears in a decidedly 80’s off-the-shoulder number with a skirt hiked up to the hip. Later, when the sisters change into bathing suits circa 1900, Maud keeps her slinky dress. (The remark that she’ll have a hard time finding a husband seems especially out-of-place here.)



Irrationally, she shows up later for a swimming scene in a corset and bloomers. I suppose they were sexy, and sexy sells.  Also sexy was the off-the-shoulder white blouse and peach colored satin shorts she wears through most of the movie.  

In one way the production did know what it was trying for. The female lead consistently stays in provocative clothes, and the male lead wore what was designed to attract teenage female viewers. The costume that best shows off his sex appeal is a simple white loincloth.

The actor, Christopher Atkins, had made an enormous splash only two year before, when he had starred opposite Brook Shields in The Blue Lagoon. This idyllic story of two young people, marooned on a tropical island made Shields a major star and Atkins a major heart-throb. Showing him in this outfit was probably the wisest move made by the company.



The movie didn’t do well, and received terrible reviews. It probably would have completely slipped from memory, except that it’s about pirates, and provides such an odd little footnote in the list of pirate movies.

On a much larger budget, Cutthroat Island aimed much higher, spent a lot more money, and came out about even in the ratings department. It was supposed to be an opportunity for Geena Davis, previously known as a star of light comedies, to become an action heroine.



Unfortunately, difficulties casting a leading man, messed up the production and drove up expenses, and it turned out that Davis didn’t have a strong enough personality to be quite believable as a pirate captain. This, combined with an overabundance of times when the leads nearly fall to their deaths, only to be saved by landing on a piece of waded-up sailcloth, or a banana leaf, and topped off by the film’s extremely weak ending, made the movie one of the biggest flops of all time.

There was certainly no problem with the costumes. It was becoming acceptable for a movie to be shadowy, and the production makes good use of firelight and candlelight for atmosphere. All the costumes are suitably worn and dirty.

This is a world where even the good guys don’t wash too often. Even the rich party-clothes of the nobility seem a little tawdry, a little tarnished.



This movie takes place in the late 1600’s, the era of Captain Morgan. Davis spends most of the beginning of the show in a very practical suit of men’s clothes (a set of garments that’s actually about 100 years too late, but which matches much of the other clothing in tone).

But female pirates need to wear sexy clothes, and the story gives Davis a chance to wear a beautiful noblewoman’s dress, with all the accoutrements, as she goes into town to look for someone to translate the inevitable treasure map. Circumstances lead to a chase, which leads to Davis loosing most of this outfit. She has a great scene driving a team of white horses madly through town, wearing little beside her expensive embroidered bodice and a pair of bloomers.

Later she has occasion to switch clothing with a streetwalker by way of a disguise. Davis succeeds here in being sensual and sexy, and the dirty, worn clothing is both scuzzy enough and attractive enough to stand beside any pirate costume ever.



Further proof here that the details tell you who the main players are. When the streetwalker is wearing the outfit, she has quite good in-period hair and makeup. Davis wears it with “natural look” makeup and hair that would have been popular among the movie’s viewers when it was released. The result is a look that’s not accurate but far more attractive, while not seeming to stray too much from the rest of the movie’s look.)

The authorities were slightly boxy red coats and full-bottomed wigs, a-la Captain Hook, but without the panache. It’s easy to dislike them, especially the governor, whose white makeup and beauty mark are entirely in period, but which make him look effete and slimy.

Dawg (played by Frank Langela) Davis’s uncle and nemesis, is the only person in the movie with a wildly unlikely look. As a successful pirate, Dawg should be wearing an embroidered coat, even if it’s in disrepair. Instead he wears a period vest, with no shirt under it.



It’s unlikely that anyone in the time of the movie would have actually dressed like this. A shirt was underwear, and a vest wouldn’t have been worn without one, especially since the vest would be wool. But Dawg is a man who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. The strange clothing, his close-cropped hair, different from anyone else in the cast, set him completely apart.

If only the rest of the movie has stood up as well as the clothes.  


Monday, November 10, 2014

Pirate Costumes in Movies - Part 2

As we discussed in the previous article, the costumes in pirate movies have jobs to do. They need to make the star look good, give us a strong sense of the exotic, and enhance the theme of the movie. With the advent of Technicolor, pirate costumes needed to fulfill another requirements. They needed to be colorful!

The first movie we’ll look at is The Black Swan, from 1942. For the time, this show had a relatively gritty look. It also gets one thing about pirates just right… Shipboard clothing was often very different from what the pirates wore to impress the ladies on shore.



Tommy Blue, a secondary character and comic relief, doesn’t care much for his appearance. He’s usually in work clothes, baggy pants, a head scarf, and my favorite, a baggy shirt with the sleeves ripped off at the elbows. This small details was the reason I first began to like the movie.  

The main character, Jamie, is shirtless (sexy male lead) or coatless throughout many of his shipboard scenes, but on shore he wears a dashing cape and a black hat – not period clothing at all, but romantic, as befits a leading man. I don’t know how much input the actor Tyrone Power had into his costume, but these are clearly clothes that are used to make him look good.



Another character in this movie is Henry Morgan, closely based on the historic pirate. The costume designer (Earl Luick) takes this very seriously… The fictional Morgan, governor of Jamaica, dresses much as as the historic Morgan would have done… Including a “full bottomed wig,” an extravagant piece of headwear that looks extremely foppish, even stupid to the modern viewer. But this character is supposed to be sympathetic.



This problem is solved partially by dressing the character in somber tones – grey, brown, earthy red. His wig is a restrained as the style of the time would allow. And the actor is given a charming bit of business where he takes the wig off, scratches his head and then puts it back on. This both establishes that the character isn’t comfortable in his elaborate formal attire, and endears him to the audience.

Later on, as with most of the piratical characters, Morgan goes to sea and appears in a much more practical outfit… Pirate clothes in the more classical sense, rugged, drab and plain.



Contrast this with the evil Don Miguel, who wears the same type of formal clothing that Morgan does in his “official” scenes. The bad guy’s outfit is far more over-the-top. It’s very shiny satin, elaborately decorated with lace and bows (both appropriate to men of the time, but effete by modern standards). The wig is shiny as well, and extreme in both length and fullness.

The character’s black beard (not historically typical) and eyebrows contrast with all this, letting us know that, even though he looks like a poof, this bad guy needs to be taken seriously.



One more costuming note: While we don’t know about Tyrone Power’s input into his costume, we do know about George Sanders, who played evil pirate captain Leech. Sanders was forced into the role by his studio. He demanded, however, that his character wear a long, distinctive red beard. Why? He didn’t want his fans to see him playing a dirty, unsophisticated character. And he wanted to make it as easy as possible for stunt doubles to take over.



In Against All Flags, a lower budget pirate movie, color was an even more important feature. Many of the characters wear very modern shades of very bright colors (notice the lavender stripe on O’Hara’s head scarf, and the matching feather). Such shades are only possible with modern chemical dyes.



The female pirate’s main job is to be sexy, and she comes outfitted with a gold spanged green coat that sets off her hair, and a pair of black leather crotch-high boots that have one, only one, obvious function.



O’Hara also features a hairstyle that makes no pretense of being current with her costumes. It’s an interesting fact that in movies set in the past, characters often wear hairstyles current to the time the moves was being shot. (Saying “modern” doesn’t quite work with a movie that was made over 60 years ago.) The people who analyze such things tell us that this helps the audience to relate, since the character’s “head” is in the present.)

There’s also a scene where she gratuitously puts on an evening gown – probably just so the men in the audience have a chance to see Maureen O’Hara in an evening gown.

The bad guy, played by Anthony Quinn, also wears the height of sexy pirate fashion. Tight bright and color-matched, the costumes display the character’s success as a pirate. The very white shirts highlight his swarthy skin, emphasizing his exotic attractiveness (Quinn was Mexican American). His black silk head scarf sets off his dark eyes.


The good guy, played by Errol Flynn, is much more conservatively dressed throughout. This serves to remind the audience that he’s not really a pirate, only a navy officer spying on them.

Flynn, who had been the king of the swashbucklers for years, was no longer the man he had been. Deep in alcoholism, he was forbidden to drink on the set, but got around this rule by spending his evening injecting oranges with vodka, then snacking on the fruit during the day. He was pickled throughout most of the film.



This wasn’t a serious pirate movie… Not with the bad guy in such tight white velvet pants, and the leading man almost too drunk to stand. Other signs? Ship footage from The Black Swan, a decade before, is prominently used during the movie.


But all the costumes were brand new.   

Monday, November 3, 2014

Pirate Costumes in the Movies

I’ve written quite a bit about pirate clothing, but have not yet touched on what makes pirate costumes so special when they’re in the movies.



When we’re looking at a picture of a historical pirate in a book, or making our own costumes to wear for events, the largest consideration is whether or not this looks like pirate clothing. Movie costumes must meet a number of requirements.

In a movie, costumes must meet budget requirements, clearly identify the wearer as star or walk-on, provide a flavor of long-ago-and-far-away, and match the theme of the movie. Keeping the star happy is another consideration, which comes into the story of several pirate movies.



We’ll look first at The Black Pirate (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks was one of the earliest of the great Hollywood stars. He was the sexiest man on the screen, a dashing figure who did all his own stunts and swept the ladies off their feet, both on screen and off – kind of like a combination of George Clooney and Jason Statham. He was one of the three stars who created the United Artists studio.

When he set out to do a pirate film, he threw all historical accuracy out the window. After all, who knew what pirates looked like anyway? Fairbanks wanted to show off his (for the time) outstanding physique. At home he exercised in the nude, and his costume for this movie was as close to nudity as he could get in the mid 1920’s. In fact, it looks like nothing so much as a pair of running shorts and a tank top.



If you look closely at the group picture, you will see that the rest of the pirates are in standard pirate gear, baggy shirts, baggy pants and boots, though a few striped shirts show up as well.

The difference is star power. Very often, even today, stars are let loose a room full of assorted costume pieces to “create” their character in front of a mirror. Fairbanks in The Black Pirate is probably the most exaggerated version of this. He dressed himself so scantily that the posters don’t even show his costume as it really was… Notice how they modestly cut him off at the legs. Apparently the public wasn’t ready for such sex appeal. (At least in certain cities. Other posters were more explicit.)



Another very early pirate whose costuming dates back to the silent age is the infamous Captain Hook. Barry, Hook’s creator, was very specific in his description of the pirate. Hook looked like – and dressed like – Charles II, king of England from 1660 to 1685, a career as a ruler that runs almost exactly parallel with Captain henry Morgan’s career pillaging the Spanish Main.



Hook’s costume of long coat, fancy buckled shoes and extravagant wig remain largely consistent throughout his many appearances, from 1904 (the original play Peter Pan) to the present.   Hook’s extravagant dress is only limited by the constraints of the film’s budget and the requirement of the character to move.



For over a hundred years, Hook wore a flamboyant cavalier hat with an extravagant plume, a long coat covered with gold trim, tight breeches that ended at the knee and buckled shoes. It’s a pretty close approximation to what Charles himself wore, but Hook’s coat was red, always. Why? It could be just the image of the thing, a pirate captain in a red coat. Or it may hark back to Captain Morgan, who, famously, raised a navy in Jamaica by putting on his best red coat and going from tavern to tavern all night long, making speeches about patriotism and gold.



Only with the most recent incarnation of Hook has he lost his trademark look. In the current TV series, Once Upon a Time, Hook has a new coat, in dark brown leather and – for the first time, boots. The red remains only in his vest.



Why the change? Partially to update the character, making it possible for him to become a love interest. The traditional Hook regalia appeared too “swish” for the 21st century. Indeed, Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins decided between themselves that Hook and Smee were lovers. In order to meet the requirements of the storyline, Hook had to modernize. The leather coat transforms a historic figure into a modern bad-boy, just like that.

Hook also sport guy-liner nowadays, and that can only refer back to the 21st century’s most all-pervading pirate, Jack Sparrow. Jack changed the pirate costume game. We’ll analyze him later.

Come back next week for more Pirate Costumes in the Movies.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Skull and Crossbones

The symbol of the skull and crossbones is the essence of the pirate mystique. Modern pirate fans wear the symbol everywhere… Jewelry, belt buckles, tattoos, and of course the pirate flag. Let’s look at this symbol, and see what it might have meant to pirates, and how it became their emblem.



The skull and crossbones got its start during the Black Plague, which hit Europe in the mid-1300’s and killed over a third of the world’s population. This horrible event had a profound effect on the survivors. People of the time knew nothing about germs. They believed the disease was a punishment from God.

The most popular method to ward off the plague was to carve a cross on the front door of one’s house, along with the words, “God have mercy on us.” It was also believed that the smell of flowers would help prevent infection.



What does this have to do with bones? Well, it’s pretty obvious that these methods didn’t work. The dead piled up at a rate that broke the system. It’s funny when Monty Python does the “Bring out your dead” routine. But in real life it wasn’t funny at all.

Beginning at this time Death becomes a character in his own right. Survivor’s guilt caused those who lived through these terrible events to imagine Death as a malign being who stalked them constantly, and the sight of rotting bodies familiarized everyone with the process of decay.



This was the beginning of the Memento Mori, the reminder of death. Painting, statues and later even jewelry carried the image of personified death. And the earliest examples were truly horrifying.
Artists knew that corpses desiccate, that the skin falls off in patches, that the hair remains mostly intact long after the rest has decayed. They showed this in their artwork. “Death” wasn’t an empty black shroud or a clean, aesthetic skeleton. It was juicy.



As the horrors of the plague faded, slowly, from the conscious of the survivors, the image gradually became less ghastly. By the 1600’s – the earliest dates for Golden Age pirates, the rotting, worm-ridden corpse had become a clean, dry skeleton. These skeletons were shown in pictures doing everyday things such as dancing, resting, and speaking to the living.

Memento mori jewelry was also popular as gifts to those who had attended a funeral. A part of the deceased estate would be spent to create these morbid pieces. But in the days before photographs these may have been the only remembrances some people had of friends and relatives who had passed.



The message here was still the same. People were supposed to remember that wealth, status and beauty were temporary. Death was permanent. Because of this, people should worry more about the state of their souls than the state of their wallets.

By about 1700 – Squarely in the time period of the pirates – another change had taken place. The skeleton had been reduced to a few symbolic bones. Conveniently, these were often shown crossed beneath a skull, the most poignant and recognizable of human bones.



This was the time when the Jolly Roger was invented. Most pirates flew a black flag when they went into battle. It was a symbol that they had come to fight. But individual pirate captains began to want to mark themselves, to claim what might be called “Brand recognition.”

Eyewitnesses described pirate flags as bearing a “Death’s Head.” Sometimes it was a death’s head with crossed bones. Sometimes it was Death or the Devil. Jack Rackham’s flag  was said to show “A death’s head with crossed cutlashes (cutlasses)”

Pirate flags also showed other memento mori images. An hour glass symbolized that time was running out. A spear or dart spoke to haw quickly and unexpectedly death could strike. These symbols had been common for quite a while. People recognized them. Notice how closely this 16th century necklace resembles Black Beard’s flag.


Why? The message that death was coming, that life was more important than money was a potent image to inspire potential robbery victims to give up their cash in order to preserve their lives.

Pirates, after all, didn’t actually want to fight. They wanted to take the money and leave, ideally without getting hurt or killed themselves. A merchant ship who’s captain was thinking about the value of human life was much more likely hand over the goods peacefully than a man who was thinking about his finances.



And did pirates adorn themselves with their symbol? Probably not. After all, these images were mostly associated with religion (the church strongly approved of the memento mori message) and graveyards, neither of which was a matter of much interest of pirates.

Pirates also wanted to be able to deny their occupation. If the port authorities got too nosey, or the navy showed up, the pirates wanted to be able to say, “Hey this is all a misunderstanding. I'm an honest privateer/trader/merchant. You have no grounds to arrest me at all.” It was a lot easier than fighting your way clear. It also worked on a fairly regular basis.

So did pirate wear the beautiful rings with the skull and cross bones? Probably not. Or if they did it was most likely only as a way of keeping the gold near until it was needed to purchase a drink or entertain a lady.





Monday, October 20, 2014

Jewel of the Caribbean

Martinique is one of the larger islands in the Lesser Antilles, with 436 square miles of land. Like most of the Caribbean, it is highly volcanic. Most of the high ground (including Mount Pelee, (a volcano that has erupted 4 times since 1700) is in the north. Because of this, the northern part of the island is rain forest, while the south is savannah, a wide range for such a small place.




It was charted by Columbus in 1493, but the Spanish weren’t interested in a place with no gold. The island remained in the control of the Carib Indians until 1635, when the French took control of the island, after the English chased them out of their colony at St. Kitts.

Funding for the colony came from the Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique (Company of the Islands of America) founded by Cardinal Richelieu – yes, that Cardinal Richelieu, the bad guy in The Three Musketeers.

The Caribs rose against the French in 1636, and again in 1658, when the French used their superior firepower and armor to drive the natives entirely off the island. In 1685 Louis XIV created the Code Noir, which allowed the importation of African slaves.



From then on, the culture and cuisine of the island was an intermingling of African, Native and French influences. At various times there were rebellions and even massacre, but those three remained.



First one fort, Saint Louis, was built to protect the large natural harbor. Then another fort was added, named Fort Royal, was added in the north part of the island. Though the second structure was located in a malarial swamp, the French overcame this by draining the swamp and improving the land. (An ideas colonists in other parts of the New World should have copied.)

Martinique grew tobacco and later sugar. Wars were fought and the Dutch were repeatedly held off. Under the guidance of administrators appointed by the king, the forts were improved. An enterprising governor built the first distillery, and began rum manufacture. The island prospered.

The city of Saint Pierre, near Fort Saint Louis, became a cultural hub of the area, and became known as the Paris of the Caribbean.



France was a Catholic nation, but there were few priests in the Antilles (which was, after all, the aft end of nowhere back then.) Because of this, the area drew French Protestants (the Huguenots.) France was not enthusiastic about having a Protestant sub-culture. First Protestant nobles relocated to Martinique, where they stayed despite various edicts sent out against them by the king. The French, like so many other people, seemed to feel that if they were far enough away from Europe, they could do what they liked.

The French also tried to populate the island by offering land to their own peasants, in exchange for a very brief (3 year) stint as indentured servants. The deal looked good, but in fact few of the new settlers lived past the three year mark. Work in a climate much hotter than Europeans were used to, and a host of tropical diseases, life spans were drastically reduced.

The French government sent over a thousand lower-class Huguenots between 1686 qne 1688, intending them to work as indentured servants in the fields, the nobles of the island rebelled.



With the enlightenment, notions about the rights of individuals had begun to blossom, and this had begun to affect the notion toward slavery. While Europeans had no compunction with enslaving Africans, but the idea had begun to form that a person shouldn’t enslave someone who was like them.

The French Protestant workers were far too much like the French Protestant nobles to be enslaved by them. The few Catholic nobles urged them all to emigrate, hoping to seize the lands held by the Huguenots. Under these circumstances, the ruling French Protestants left the island for the Carolinas, home to Protestant English. They took the Huguenot slaves with them. One third of the population disappeared almost overnight.

The Catholics who thought that getting rid of their rivals would make them rich were for invasions in later wars by the Dutch and the English. Still, the sugar trade was so profitable that the French government ransomed the island again and again.
Declining sugar prices reduced the profitability of the large plantations, and slavery was abolished in 1848.



On May 8th 1902, Mount Pelee erupted, killing everyone in Saint-Pierre and the surrounding countryside in under three minutes. The only survivor, Auguste Cyparis, was in jail for the night, and was protected by the thick walls of the prison. He later joined Barnum and Baily’s circus in the United States, and became a celebrity by repeating his story.

During bygone days, pirates did sail the waters of Martinique, to capture ships and sample the local rums. Blackbeard captured his Queen Anne’s Revenge, formerly a French merchant ship, in these waters, and men like Bellamy or Charles Vane may have stopped in for a drink.

Today Martinique is one of the jewels of the Caribbean, an expensive hotspot for the super-rich and a budget destination for those seeking a good time for less, both at the same time. Rum is still manufactured here, just as it was during the Golden Age of Piracy.




Monday, October 13, 2014

Could Pirates Read and Write?

Were Pirates literate? Or illiterate? Is that something we can know 300 years after the fact? What did they read and write anyway?



We can get some information from statistics from the time, but statistics can be misleading. For instance, throughout much of the 1600’s, “literacy” was defined as being able to write your name. Being able to read didn’t figure into it at all. Nor did such basics as knowing the alphabet.

In the year 1700, approximately half of English men could read, and about 25% of English women. Of course, this was heavily weighted at the top of the social scale. In other words, the richer you were the more likely you were to be able to read and write. Noble families had the time and money to employ tutors. Well-to-do merchant houses needed to have members who could keep accounts and write letters.

But lower class people, laborers, shoemakers, tradesmen, and sailors, among others, had little use for reading or writing. They didn’t live in a world where reading was expected. People tended to stay close to home. Knowledge was often transmitted through tradition, the spoken word. Signs were often pictures. Books were rare and expensive.



But lower-class people – sailors, pirates – also had ways to become educated. Though only half as many women as men could read or write, those that did often taught their children. Moreover, especially in the Protestant countries like England, there was a fresh emphasis on reading the Bible. Churches often gave reading lessons to those who could not afford them.

And not all of the rich pursued an education. Captain Henry Morgan spoke of being educated, “More with the pike than the pen.” Just because your family could afford an education didn’t mean that you dedicated yourself to it.

So, at least some of the sailors who became pirates would reasonably be literate. Of course, this covered a lot of ground. Yes, literate at the time meant being able to write your name. But it’s possible to read without being able to write. Writing requires practice, and fine motor skills. It is a skill of the fingers as well as the mind. People who worked with their hands might well read better than they could write.


Or the reverse might be true. We think of the phrase, “Make your mark” as a request for an illiterate person to use a crude “X” to sign a document. But it’s a matter of record that some of the “marks” made by illiterate sailors were elaborate drawings. A person who had fine motor skills but no education might be very good at drawing.

Mutineers were the ones who invented the “round robin.” This was a method of signing a document in such a way to hide who the leaders in a conspiracy were. Instead of placing signatures in rows, the names were arranged in a circle. If the mutiny was stopped, there was no way to tell who had started it. Pretty clever for a group that was barely literate.



So what does it all come down to? It’s reasonable to assume that about 1/6th of the crew of any given pirate ship had some skill in reading and writing. Of course, navigators and officers are more likely to have these skills. But it’s not a done deal. A pirate captain could rise through charisma and a gift for strategy, so literacy was not a requirement.


And one last thing… On a pirate ship, men with skills and time on their hands often shared those skills with those who wanted to acquire them. School on a pirate ship? Yes, it probably happened.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

Pirates and Tattoos

I have answered several questions about pirates during the Golden Age and the tattoos they wore, but my answers have not been very popular.  You see, pirates from 1690 – 1720 or so simply didn’t wear tattoos. Or if they did, the markings would be as rare as nuns with similar marking today.

It’s true that Europeans, and especially sailors, have been getting tattoos for many years. But just not quite enough years. The heart of piracy’s Golden Age lies almost exactly 300 years ago. Tattooing has only been popular for about 240 years.



The precipitating action… the event that brought tattooing into the minds of European sailors, was the voyage of Captain Cook to New Zealand and Polynesia in 1771. Even the word “tattoo” dates from this time. Cook recorded it as “tattaw” and it was also spelled “tattau” before today’s spelling was settled upon.

Why didn’t this happen before? Europeans had developed their own traditions of body art before the Roman Empire, and they had certainly met Native Americans who practiced the art. In fact, Pocahontas, a real historical figure, was marked in this way. But until Cook’s voyage to the South Seas, it just didn’t catch on.

Perhaps Cook just had some art-loving sailors on his ship. Maybe the body art they encountered was unusually beautiful or impressive. Or perhaps the sailors were desperate for a lasting souvenir of their trip to the far side of the world. The Pacific Islands may have sponsored especially fond memories due to a culture that encourage young women of all classes to gain wide sexual experience before marriage, even to the point of having one or two children, just to prove to prospective husbands that they were fertile.



In any case, tattoos became a traditional memento that sailors brought back from their journeys. Very soon, a traditional set of symbols sprang up to mark special occasions in a sailor’s life. Many of these survive today.

Swallow – Originally this was a mark of having committed to become a sailor or have “gone to sea” since anyone becoming a member of the crew would expect to serve a year of more. Today it is reserved for someone who have sailed more than 5,000 nautical miles. In addition, if a sailor was drowned, it was said that a swallow would carry his soul up to heaven.



Dragon – Signified someone who had sailed to Asia.

Golden Dragon – A sailor who has crossed the International Dateline.

Anchor – Had crossed the Atlantic.

Crossed anchors, or an anchor on the hand between the thumb and forefinger – One who had reached the rank of bosun.



A fully rigged ship – Noted that the wearer had sailed around Cape Horn.

A rope around the wrist, or the word “Hold Fast” across the knuckles – Mark of a deck hand.



A pig on one foot, and a rooster on the other – Two animals often found on sailing ships as part of the food supplies. As neither could swim, it was believed that God would use a miracle to save the innocent animals in a storm. Supposedly, this magical luck would transfer to a human who wore the marks.

An anchor – Link to home and family (often with the word “Mom” of “Dad”



A nautical star – talisman to guide the wanderer home.

But wait a minute! What about Captain Jack Sparrow’s tattoo? What about the “P” branded on his forearm? Maybe pirates had other ways to mark themselves?

Sorry to disappoint you. But Jack may have been the one exception. (There are tattoos, after all, even in a nunnery.) And Jack had been to Singapore.

And in a world where slaves were common, and where people of all nations could become slaves through simple bad luck, Captain Jack’s P is probably a sign that he’d been caught and was in danger of being sold by someone who wanted to regain a little of what Jack had stolen.



Besides, no pirate wanted a permanent mark which associated him with the Sweet Trade. It’s called “plausible deniability.” The chance to look up from your beer and say to the authorities, “Pirates? There ain’t no pirates round here, mate. You must have been thinking of some other tavern.”

Which gave the pirates a chance to get back to their drinks and their women. That was the point of the thing, after all.