The Caribbean is adorned with a gilt of romance and adventure that has largely been crafted with the help of fanciful writers imagining a faraway land where just about anything is possible. And I am not (only) talking about the scriptwriters who created Johnny Depp, I mean, Jack Sparrow, nor of J. M. Barrie’s most accomplished villain, Captain Hook. I refer to a long literary tradition that, in English, at least, goes as far back as Daniel Defoe, arguably the first professional novelist in English language, and his Robinson Crusoe (1719). In the following lines I want to look in some detail at specific examples that have shaped the myths that, by now, have become an intrinsic part of the perception of the Caribbean (if not, in my experience, of daily life in the region).
Pirates and shipwrecks, buried treasures, forgotten castaways and local savages populate the Eurocentric imagination when it turns towards the Caribbean in ways that are more interesting and relevant than Disney can imagine. I am aware that this is the perspective of a largely dismissive outsider, who feels superior to anything beyond the nucleus of “dominant” culture, but identity is also forged by the image others have of one’s self. In this respect, the narrative structure of most of the classic texts dealing with Caribbean adventures takes the shape of a travel narrative where some respectable members of the dominant culture embark, for perfectly honorable reasons, on a journey towards remote lands, where they will come in contact with the truancy of pirates and the savagery of locals. Such is the case in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), the pirate adventure par excellence, which has provided many of the stereotypes later exploited in, for instance, Halloween parties.
Stevenson’s pirates are a childish crew of simple-minded, unintelligent, undisciplined and lazy mercenaries who are only interested in their spoils and their rum. In other words, they are the worst kind of people, both superstitious and largely cowardly, whose only motivation is greed and fear. It is upon this background that Stevenson’s captains stand out as superior men, able to manipulate, motivate and control this sort of rabble for days on end out at sea. Nevertheless, the qualities that most often mark the leadership of these captains over their men are an unusually large dose of cruelty and a perfectly immoral disposition. This is the case with Captain Flint, in the Treasure Island, the original owner of the treasure, whose map has led to the adventure and whose spirit still commands extreme terror among the pirates looking for the gold. Such too, for instance, is the case with Captain Teach in Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae (1889), a most notorious captain who ruled “by the terror he created.” Nevertheless, Teach is also “like a wicked child, or a half-witted person” and consequently he is tricked and ultimately killed by the Master of Ballantrae, who, for once, is not an honorable member of the dominant culture, but rather a mischievous anti-hero who secures with his ignominy the fall of his entire family.
Long John Silver, the chief mutineer in Treasure Island, subtly escapes the stereotype of Stevenson’s evil captains and, perhaps therefore, establishes the paradigm of how a pirate should look and behave: Silver is fearless, ruthless and resolute; he has lost a leg (the left one) and carries a parrot on his shoulder, which occasionally speaks inappropriately. Nevertheless, Silver is, above all, astute. He has no scruples whatsoever, is ever ready to double-cross anyone and is only interested in his own gain. Yet, Long John Silver remains likeable both to Jim Hawkins, the boy-narrator of the novel, and to the reader, simply because his character is developed at a far more human level than the excessively self-righteous “goodies” and the caricaturesque “baddies.”
While Stevenson’s is the most widely known and, therefore, shared vision of the figure of the pirate in the Caribbean, there are far less damning portrayals that problematize the issue. For instance, Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855) deals extensively with the travels of, naturally, highly respectable English gentlemen who fare in the direction of the Spanish colonies to rescue an abducted lady and to uphold the glory of the Queen of England. Set in the years immediately preceding the Spanish Armada (1588), Westward Ho! traces the career of Amyas Leigh, a fictitious English captain whose character is built upon the historical figures of Francis Drake, who served the Crown in highly dubious enterprises. Far from casting any doubt on the plundering and murder that come with Leigh’s exertions, Kingsley in fact commends the bravery of men such as Drake, who for centuries have upheld the place of England/Britain as the ruler of the sea.
While Westward Ho! is an eminently Victorian novel, firmly entrenched in the nauseous pride of Imperial Britain, it issues forth a perception of the Caribbean as an area where commonly accepted rules are suspended, due to the presence of the Papist Spanish all around the region. The same is true of Stevenson’s setting, where common sense and “civilized” behavior prevails, in the end, but only through the agency of providence, chance or destiny. Which is often the artifice used to introduce the final theme of tales of pirates in the Caribbean that I want to touch upon this week: the hunt for a buried treasure.
Like so many other myths and legends, there might have been a historic origin to the tale of the hidden treasure: it is said that Francis Drake, acting as a privateer, once struck such a large shipment of silver on its way from Portobelo (modern Panama) to Spain that he was unable to carry all of it in his ship. I’ll let you figure out the rest. Be that as it may, Edgar Allan Poe made use of this not-so-urban myth and recycled it in his short story “The Gold-Bug” (1843), which, incidentally, served as inspiration for Stevenson’s Treasure Island. “The Gold-Bug” tells the anecdote of a man in Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, who one day stumbles upon a unique bug and a parchment, where he discovers a coded message that eventually leads him to a buried treasure. The tale is consistent with the characteristics outlined above in that chance, and only chance, leads the man to the parchment, although, once he discovers the message he is confident he will be able to decipher it, simply because Captain Kidd, the presumed author of the message, would not be “capable of constructing any of the more abstruse cryptographs.” And yet, Kidd uses a human skull by way of pointer to establish the exact location of the treasure, and the lucky ones who find it, also find plenty of human bones surrounding it, as proof, perhaps, of the captain’s cruelty.
This, however, is as far as I’ll get this week. Next one, I will discuss the figure of the castaway and the indigenous inhabitant in Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island, and I will let you into a couple of secrets, including the original one-legged sea captain and, who knows, maybe a hint as to whether you might find a buried treasure. I hope that is enough to lure you to join me!
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD NEWSPAPER ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 2010.
READ PART II OF THIS FEATURE: OF CASTAWAYS AND CAPTAIN KIDD’S TREASURE.