The Real Pirates That Inspired Jack Sparrow and The Pirates of the Caribbean

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Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, flanked by Henry Every and Calico Jack Rackham

Credit: Disney/Wikimedia Commons

It’s time to meet the pirates behind the Pirates!

gibbs (left) and jack sparrow (right) in pirates of the caribbean
Credit: Disney

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was one of Disney’s most successful live-action series in recent years. Loosely based on the attraction at the Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World, the five-film series followed Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), William Turner (Orlando Bloom), and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) on more than a few adventures around the Caribbean in both real, and fictional locales.

(L-R) Kiera Knightley, Geoffrey Rush, Mackenzie Crook, Kevin McNally, Lee Arenberg and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribbean: At Worlds' End
Credit: Disney

Related: Amid ‘Pirates’ Return Rumors, Johnny Depp Making Epic Comeback

What may come as a surprise is that, whether directly or indirectly, much of what became Pirates of the Caribbean was actually inspired by real pirates that ransacked the Caribbean in the early 1700s. In this article, we take a look at the real scallywags and buccaneers of the Golden Age of Piracy and how they influenced the characters on the big screen from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and beyond!

Was Jack Sparrow Inspired by a Real Pirate?

The simple answer: no. He was inspired by many pirates! The lovable, sometimes blundering Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) can trace his characterization back to several different pirates of the Golden Age, but, most notable, one that shares his name.

Johnny Depp as a confused Jack Sparrow in the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise
Credit: Disney

John “Calico Jack” Rackham

In addition to sharing a name with Captain Jack (Depp), Jack Rackham had a penchant for dressing well, even at sea. His nickname was derived from his affinity for that fabric from India, Calico, which he wore often. Pirates during this period would often take and wear finery from the cargo of their victims or from the victims themselves, much like Jack Sparrow (Depp) is seen doing during the brawl in the tavern on Tortuga in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006).

Jack Rackham's Flag being flown by Captain Barbossa
Credit: Disney

Also, like Sparrow (Depp), Rackham bucked the stereotype and the superstition of sailing with women and famously sailed with two of the most infamous female pirates of all time: Anne Bonny and Mary Read, but more on them later!

Henry Every

Of all the Pirates of the Golden Age, Henry Every got closest to achieving Jack’s (Depp) goal of immortality. Though not restricted to the Caribbean, Every holds the distinction of being one of the few pirates of his generation to actually escape justice. Having made millions of dollars in today’s money, Every successfully evaded the authorities and disappeared just before the turn of the 18th century.

Avery sells his Jewels, an engraving by Howard Pyle
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Every’s Jolly Roger also served as the inspiration for the one Jack Sparrow (Depp) would fly at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), though with a little embellishment to make sure audiences knew it belonged to the infamous Captain.

Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy

Another buccaneer from which Jack Sparrow (Depp) certainly gleaned a bit of his look, “Black Sam” Bellamy, was given that nickname for his long dark hair, which wore tied simply, as opposed to many of the era who whore white powdered wigs, like Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy
Credit: Gregory Manchess/National Geographic

Fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise know that, while definitely self-interested, Jack Sparrow (Depp) was more benevolent than many pirates, beginning his career in piracy by freeing an entire shipload of enslaved persons and enraging Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander). In this way, Sparrow (Depp) and Bellamy were very much alike, as multiple accounts relate Bellamy’s mercy and fairness to his victims, allowing many to even retain their ship or trade-in.

Edward “Blackbeard” Teach

Perhaps the most infamous pirate of all time, Edward Teach, or Blackbeard, actually shared some common traits with Sparrow (Depp), even though he appeared as a character in Stranger Tides, played by Ian McShane, as a much different version than the historical Blackbeard. In the actual historical account, Teach was a much different man.

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, painted in 1920
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to the majority of surviving accounts, Blackbeard, like Sparrow (Depp), was more concerned with freedom than with killing people. One historian even thinks that, until his final battle, Blackbeard may not have killed anyone! Though this is unlikely, Blackbeard was much more merciful than even he would have had people believe, relying instead on a fearsome aspect and reputation to get his way.

Were Other Characters Inspired by Real Pirates?

While Disney certainly took inspiration for Jack Sparrow (Depp) from dozens of different pirates, he wasn’t the only one inspired by the real Pirates of the Caribbean. Below, you’ll see who inspired many of the big names in the franchise, including some of the mythology of Pirates, as well as an infamous pirate hunter that made his way to the big screen!

Captain Barbossa

The classic pirate villain of Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Hector Barbossa (Rush), was everything that audiences would have expected from a pirate. He had the look, the lingo, and even had a classic pirate curse! Of course, in order to build a classic pirate like Barbossa (Rush), there needed to be some classic source material.

Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Credit: Disney

When it comes to Captain Barbossa (Rush), shades of his character can easily be seen in Bartholomew “Black Bart” Robertswho was a commodore himself, and who had, by the end of his career, captured over 400 ships! There was also definite inspiration taken from pirates like William Kiddwho spurred a legend of buried treasure, much like the Isla De Muerta, Charles Vane, who was as ruthless and fearsome as Barbossa, and of course, Blackbeard, who, more than anything inspired Barbossa’s (Rush) classic pirate look.

Blackbeard (Ian McShane)

Ian McShane as Blackbeard in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Credit: Disney

Ironically enough, the Blackbeard (McShane) audiences saw on the big screen was less inspired by the real Edward Teach and was much more similar to his contemporaries. McShane’s Blackbeard bore more similarities in appearance and behavior to pirates like Charles Vane, who was, as mentioned before, a ruthless and violent pirate captain.

Elizabeth Swann

Though there weren’t many historical inspirations behind Will Turner (Bloom), Elizabeth (Knightley) actually has a lot in common with two of the most famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary ReadSailing, along with Jack RackhamBonny, and Read, developed fearsome reputations of their own, much like Swann (Knightley) as the Pirate King in At World’s End.

elizabeth swann in pirates of the caribbean
Credit: Disney

Like Swann (Knightley) in Dead Man’s Chest, they often disguised themselves as male sailors, and though later captured, Bonny escaped imprisonment and disappeared, presumably to raise her child, much like Elizabeth (Knightley) ended up doing following At World’s End.

The Brethren Court

Though there was never a real Brethren Court as we see in the movies, there were both elements of the court, as well as actual characters, taken from real history! For example, there really was a pirate code established by Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, and in fact, the movies mention that the code was laid down by “Bartholomew.”

Takayo Fischer as Mistress Ching in the Brethren Court in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Credit: Disney

The other inspirations are just as direct as in the case of the two pirate lords, Capitaine Chevalle (Marcel Iureș), who was directly inspired by Caribbean pirate Olivier La Buse, and  Mistress Ching (Takayo Fischer), an almost carbon copy of Zheng Yi Sao, a famous Chinese pirate queen, and one of the most successful in history!

Commodore James Norrington

Of course, he’s not a pirate, but James Norrington (Jack Davenport) bears a strong resemblance to a historical figure of the Golden Age of Piracy. Though he held many roles, Woodes Rodgers has gone down in history as one of the most famous pirate hunters of all time. Like Norrington (Davenport), Rodgers made it his goal to exterminate the threat of piracy from the Caribbean and the world at large once and for all.

Jack Davenport as Commodore James Norrington in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Credit: Disney

Also, like Norrington (Davenport), Rodgers had a bit of a fall from grace, ending his first term as governor of the Bahamas in financial ruin and being sent to debtors prison. His historical counterpart had a bit of a happier ending, however, being reinstated as governor and being seen largely as a national hero.

What Real Pirate Tales Could Disney Still Tell?

There are obviously more examples, such as Davy Jones (Bill Nighy); though his historical counterpart is, like himself, fictional, there are many other stories that Disney could bring to life. There are so many, in fact, that it could be a good time to explore other Pirates of the Caribbean, with the occasional cameo from the original cast, instead of focusing on them entirely.

Bill Nighy as Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Credit: Disney

Related: Keira Knightley Drombs Bombshell About ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’

Fans could see the discovery of Captain Kidd’s treasure, the escape of Anne Bonny, or even explore the concept of another pirate turned pirate hunter, such as Benjamin Hornigold, or even what happened to Henry Every and his pirate success! There’s plenty of potential for amazing stories if only they look. Of course, they could leave well enough alone and let the outstanding first films stand as they are…

What do you think about the real Pirates of the Caribbean? Let Inside the Magic know in the comments below!

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