Pirates – At World’s End

Posted: July 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

johnnyAhoy me hearties! Recently I was reading Fiona Jeffries’ book Nothing to Lose but Our Fear, a series of interviews with contemporary theorists and activists discussing fear, dignity, courage, and hope, when a news story about Johnny Depp visiting sick kids in a Queensland hospital dressed as pirate Captain Jack Sparrow came on the TV. I’d just finished the first interview in Fiona’s book, with Marcus Rediker, a historian of the sea, pirates, slavery and rebellion. In 2005, I had the good fortune to meet Marcus and participated in a workshop with him. After reading his interview, I decided to use it to help flesh out this post on the film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

At World’s End is very much about the end of the world, or better, the end of worlds; the end of the pirate brethren, the end of business, the end of life, the end of love, and the end of slavery. The movie begins with what is probably the most powerful opening scene in a Hollywood family film (and a Disney film at that). It starts with a shot of a hangman’s noose, surrounded by soldiers, and then the flag of the East India Company.

When watching this scene it’s important to remember that the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are in many ways aimed at children and that they romanticise pirates and portray them as heroes. It’s also important to fathom that during 2007, the year the film was released, a ‘state of emergency’ was being promoted in many parts of the world, involving the suspension of legal, civic, and human rights.

As Marcus Rediker explains, during the historical period in which At World’s End is set – “Public hangings were big spectacles meant to teach lessons about private property, about power, about class, staying in one’s place. The same was true on-board a ship, especially a slave ship, where a captain would pick out a ‘troublemaker’ among the crew or among the enslaved, then use him or her as a medium through which to enact power through violence. The captain multiplied the power by calling everyone up on deck to make them witness its gruesome, bloody effects.”

“The regime of violence aboard the ship was central to the work experience of sailors and to their reasons of resistance. And it was certainly crucial to the decisions of pirates to set up alternative societies in which the cat-o’-nine-tails would not govern.” At public hangings, there was also “a long and powerful tradition of cursing the authorities, of ‘dying game’, refusing to give in, declining to show fear.” And many of those who turned up to watch public hangings did so to show solidarity with those who were going to be hanged.

The deep-sea sailing ship “was one of the most sophisticated technologies in the world in its day, and piracy showed what might happen when a group of working people took it over. The takeover of ships resembled the factory seizures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sailors, as pirates, seized their workplaces and organised them in new ways. They elected their captain, they changed the system of discipline, and they feasted on food and drink. This was the antithesis of the shipboard life that they had known on merchant and naval vessels. They took control of a powerful machine, which made them dangerous to the powers of the day.” One of the reasons why authorities wanted to hang pirates was because they used these powerful vessels to help create societies that subverted the typical social order. It wasn’t simply that they were attacking private property; their mutinies were also showing how things could be run in a different way.

The two main themes of At World’s End are – the struggle between the global brethren and the East India Company – and the struggle over Davy Jones’ heart, around the question “what do you want most?”

Marcus Rediker argues that pirates often saw themselves as part of a ‘global brethren’. “Pirates were called the ‘villains of all nations’. That is a big, international proposition. And they were indeed made up of all nations. They were out there on the seas enacting dramas of global interest, and I do think they were often conscious of this.”

In At World’s End the struggle between the global brethren and the East India Company is clearly a struggle between capital and labour and pivots around the question “whose side are you on?”

The East India Company was the forerunner of today’s multinational corporations. During its heyday, the Company was not only a worldwide trading power, but effectively became a sovereign power, ruling large territories and creating its own colonies. For example, Singapore, where the second scene of At World’s End takes place, was purchased for the Company by Sir Stamford Raffles to create what eventually became one of the world’s greatest trans-shipment ports. For one hundred years, the Company pillaged large areas of India, exercising military power and assuming administrative control, with its own system of taxation and its own private armies. The Company had up to 280,000 armed men at its disposal and used its power to monopolise much of the subcontinent’s trade and development.

In At World’s End, Company man Lord Beckett declares that the power of the East India Company means that “the immaterial has become immaterial.” Yet, in the film, the Company’s destructive might is reliant on Davy Jones’ captured heart. Throughout At World’s End, the struggles over this captured heart concern the different values of the pirates and the Company, and most crucially involve love.

It is the two main female characters around whom all of the film’s struggles pivot. From the beginning of the movie, pirate collaborator Elizabeth Swann plays an active role in the combat. Rejecting hegemonic masculinity in her first scene, she asks “what makes you think I need protecting?” Elizabeth’s fighting ability eventually leads to her becoming King of the pirates. And as King she inspires the pirate brethren to fight against the Company. When all seems lost she explains “it’s not over” and asks “what shall we die for?”

The pirates hoist their colours, predominantly black and red flags, and fight for freedom, “by the sweat of their brows, the strength of their backs, the courage of their hearts” and with the power of nature on their side.

In Nothing to Lose but Our Fear, Marcus Rediker outlines some of the history behind pirate symbols and the importance of ‘the colours’ – “Pirates adorned a black flag with symbols of death: a skull and crossbones, or, more commonly, an entire skeleton, which was often holding a knife, a sword, a dart, or an hourglass. Frequently the weapon strikes a heart, from which drops of blood drip down . . . The black flag has two basic meanings. One was straightforward and unmistakable . . . surrender or die. A second set of meanings associated with the Jolly Roger grew from the labour history of the sailors who became pirates. The flag represents a commentary on the lives common sailors were forced to lead. The symbolic skull and crossbones originated among merchant captains, who drew it in the ship’s log to record the death of a sailor. Pirates used the same symbol to make an ironic commentary: ‘we’re trapped in a deadly employment, so we’ll take this symbol of death and put it on our flag. We will fight under it and we will find life under it. We will live differently, in a new kind of society of our own making’.”

“The other symbols fit the same pattern because weapons, the striking of the heart, the hourglass, death, violence, and limited time, were all part of the experience of the common sailor, who felt that he could escape that world only by becoming a pirate . . . Pirates also used a blood-red flag, which was a traditional naval symbol: a ship would run up a red flag to indicate that they would not surrender, nor would they accept the surrender of the other side.” In his book The Slave Ship, Marcus Rediker has written about the Liverpool sailor’s strike of 1775, where sailors marched on City Hall under the red flag. Later, the red flag became a symbol of workers’ and communist movements.

And why, in At World’s End, do the pirates commit themselves to a clash with the might of the East India Company? As Jack Sparrow explains at the Brethren Court – “we must fight to run away.” The need to fight, so we can run away, is a widespread understanding of anti-capitalist movements. Alternative worlds can only be constructed by running away from the world of  the Company. However, even if the Company’s world is ending, it wont let you escape in peace. Instead, it continuously attacks, forcing those who seek freedom to defend themselves, and to protect the alternative worlds they’re trying to create.

Marcus Rediker also examines the importance of ‘running away’ for the global brethren, pointing out that; “Rulers contrived all kinds of extraordinary measures to keep sailors on the ship, slaves on the plantation, and workers in the factory. But in all three settings, workers continued to escape: as deserters, in the case of sailors (often done in groups); as runaway slaves who would form Maroon communities (resistant communities established by escaped slaves in the Caribbean); and as workers who would slip away and go to the next factory town to find a better situation.”

When At World’s End sets sail for its final confrontation, it is the escape of the film’s wisest character, and most powerful female protagonist, that decides the fate of the pirates. Here Tia Dalma, a black witch, is revealed as the heathen goddess Calypso. We also discover that it’s Davy Jones’ denial of his love for Calypso which has corrupted him. It was Jones who told the brethren how to bind Calypso into a human form, so they could tame the ocean. But the pain of his betrayal was too much for him to live with. His guilt became so great he carved out his own heart; making him heartless and brutal. When Lord Beckett came into possession of Jones’ still-beating heart, he and his crew were forced to do the Company’s bidding. As Tia Dalma and Jones continue to struggle with their love for each other, she promises to give him her heart, once she is free. And Jones eventually admits that his heart will always belong to her.

In mythology Calypso was a Greek goddess. In At World’s End she is the ‘goddess of the sea’. Yet, in a Caribbean context, calypso is the music of slaves and workers. Often forbidden to talk to each other, and robbed of their links to family and home, slaves used calypso as a means of communication and a way to secretly mock the slave masters. Calypso was used to spread news (this is what happens in the opening scene of the movie with the song ‘Hoist the Colours’ calling to the global brethren, which then continues to the second scene on the other side of the world where Elizabeth is singing the song in Singapore). Many Caribbean islanders considered calypso songs to be the most reliable source of news and these songs were used to speak out against political corruption and oppression.

In At Worlds End, Tia Dalma/Calypso represents black women, slaves, witches, and the power of nature. As pirate Captain Barbosa explains to the Brethren Court, it is their capture of Calypso that has “opened the door to Lord Beckett and his ilk” and she must be released so that labour (“the sweat of our brows and the strength of our backs”), rather than business, can again master the seas. It is Tia/Calypso who provides Jack Sparrow with a compass that can point to what he truly desires – “what do you want most?” And it is she who suggests, facilitates, and directs, the pirate’s journey to Davy Jones locker, to the Brethren Court, to the final battle, and to her eventual release from captivity.

When looking back at history, those like Marcus Rediker and Fiona Jeffries recognise the importance of slavery, witch trials, misogynist violence, and the destruction of matriarchal societies, values, and practices, to the early development of capitalism. And they, like the pirates in At World’s End, have learned to deeply appreciate the need for the liberation of black women, the need for an end to slavery, to ‘states of emergency’, to the violence of the Company.

In order to release Calypso from her bonds, the brethren discover they must speak to her “as if speaking to a lover.”

Working together, assisted by the liberated power and anger of Calypso, the pirate hands of the Black Pearl and the newly freed crew of the Flying Dutchman defeat Lord Beckett and the East India Company. In the final conflict, assured of his dominance, Lord Beckett, thinking that Jack “expects us to honour our agreement”, readies the Company’s cannons and declares “it’s nothing personal Jack. It’s just good business.” Moments later he repeats these as his dying words, with his ship disintegrating around him. He dies in the flag of the East India Company. The pirates have successfully fought, so they can run away.

Nick Southall

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