It’s common knowledge that naming the ship was one of the toughest jobs facing Bruckheimer and company in bringing us Pirates of the Caribbean. Coming up with the right mix of romance and menace wasn’t easy. But in the end The Black Pearl must go down as one of the classic names for a pirate vessel.
Other fictional pirate ships include Captain Hook’s Jolly Roger, Jamie Warren’s Black Swan and Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. Fictional pirate ships benefit from having a literary individual available to name them, and also from there being no rush in the process. Naming Scarlet MacGrath’s pirate sloop for my own series, The Pirate Empire, took over a year. The Donnybrook finally fit my requirements of being realistic, Irish in origin, and implying violence, since the word is Irish slang for a huge chaotic fistfight.
In the seminal pirate novel of all time, Treasure Island, Robert Lewis Stevenson gives us two ship names, the Hispaniola on which Jim Hawkins has his adventures, and the Walrus, Flint’s pirate ship of days gone by.
Hispaniola is the name of the island that today holds two nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, a perfect, exotic ship to take an English boy on adventures. But to a modern reader, who has seen Wally Walrus cartoons, and maybe a meme involving a bucket, a walrus seems an odd choice to reference in a book about pirates. But let me take you back in time, to an era when men in wooden ships explored the edges of the known world.
A rocky, frozen shore is in sight, and the longboat goes into the water. The sailors bend to the oars, and are drawing near, when what a first appeared to be a rock stands up to a height taller than a man, bellowing a war cry to the frigid air. The creature looks like nothing the men have ever seen. Huge fangs, like swords, protrude from its mouth. It seems to have no arms or legs, and is massive, as large as the longboat itself. Into the men’s minds flash images of sea monsters, unknown creatures outside of the natural order of the world.
The creature rushes into the water and disappears for a moment. But then it rises under the longboat, throwing men into the water and ripping the sturdy craft to splinters. Five men are killed, three more struggle back to the ship, terrified.
Later, speaking to natives of the island, the captain asks the name of this horrifying apparition and gets the word “walrus.” A fitting name, suddenly, for a terrifying ship.
Historical pirates were more pragmatic. Nearly one fifth of all pirate ships were named Revenge, or some variation thereof, from Blackbeard’s elegant Queen Ann’s Revenge to the somewhat clunkier New York Revenge’s Revenge (which is confusing, but conveys the message that someone was ticked off about something.)
Second in popularity was the name Ranger. It conveyed speed and the ability to travel great distances. Pirate Charles Vane had several ships, and named each one Ranger in turn. Other pirate ship names included Defiance, Rover, and variations on the word “fortune,” including Happy Fortune and Royal Fortune. Pirates named their ships to tell the world who they were and what they wanted. One ship was called the Bachelor’s Delight.
Henry Avery’s crew voted to change the name of their captured warship from the Charles II to the Fancy. And another pirate crew named their ship the Flying Dragon and later changed it to the Fiery Dragon. One wonders if this was meant to be more frightening, or if it announced some misadventure with the galley stove.
Many pirates, however, saw their ships mainly as tools, and made no effort to customize the vessel’s names. Sometimes, such as Sam Bellamy’s Sultana, this produced a vessel with a pleasant, piraty name. For other ships, such as the pirate ship Merry Christmas, not so much. Some pirate ships carried names such as the Holy Trinity or the Rose Pink.
The tendency for pirates to simply use whatever name the ship came with also caused such incidents as a battle involving the ships Anne, St. Anne, Mary Ann and Marianne, all of which joined together to attack the merchant ship Mary.
Modern authors sometimes go overboard when trying to give their ships names that sound evil, but it’s important to remember that pirates thought of themselves as the good guys, and the navies and merchants who had beaten, humiliated and functionally enslaved them to be the evil ones. So names like the Poisoned Damnation don’t really work. A pirate was much more likely to name a boat after his sister or mother than to call her the Drunken Wench.