Really, It’s in Your Best Interest to Join Captain Jack in a Life of Piracy

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Today we share the final entry selected for publication from an assignment in ENGL 801 “Introduction to Graduate Studies”: a piece of public scholarship (700-1,000 words) which tailors an academic paper and its scholarly intervention of 10-12 pages for a general-interest audience.

Read more about the assignment and the first publication, “Over the Garden Wall is Trying to Scare Your Kids, and That’s Not a Bad Thing” by Ben Trickey (MA ’23), in last Thursday’s post, and catch up on the second and third: “Death and the Afterlife in Ecclesiastes and Hamlet” by Anne-Sophie Tooley (MA ’22) and “Sex List” by Hunter Scott (MA ’22). Now, on to “Really, It’s in Your Best Interest to Join Captain Jack in a Life of Piracy” by Achilles Seastrom (MA ’23) —

Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head / Instructor for ENGL 801 (Fall 2021)


I’d like to ask you a question that Jack Sparrow, excuse me, Captain Jack Sparrow, once asked a young Will Turner: “So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?”

Far be it from me to tell you what to do, but I highly suggest you all get on board the Black Pearl before you drown in melting ice caps and rising sea levels.

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has been charming audiences for nearly two decades. When the first movie was released, Captain Jack Sparrow’s quirky, uncouth charm quickly made him an icon in his own right (Petersen). However, Jack and the rest of his swashbuckling cohort also continue a long tradition of pirates as social revolutionaries rebelling against capitalism. Jack and his fellow scallywags also set their own precedence for viewing pirates as a keystone figure in conservation.

And I know what you’re thinking. Pirates are the bad guys. They pillage and plunder and don’t get me started on what they would do to a drunken sailor!

Yes and no. Pirates got dirty. We should not excuse the violence they used to voice their revolutionary tendencies. However, their intention, whether the pirate be swashbuckling brigand or modern media pirate, is usually to resist systems that exploit and prey upon people and nature alike in order to line the pockets of the few (Dawdy and Bonni). When we talk about conservation, there is perhaps no figure as important as one that can stand against exploitative profit-driven capitalism.

While historical pirate figures are valuable in the climate crisis conversation because they are anti-capitalist, we should also note that, like most humans, they are not always kind to nature. Among their various transgressions, they contributed to the decline in the giant Galapagos tortoise population as they would store tortoises alive in their holds as a meat source for long journeys (Dunham).  However, where historical pirates failed, Captain Jack and crew encourage healthy interactions with the natural world that balance human needs with the power of nature. Though it is inadvisable to lash sea turtles together to make a raft.

Unlike many of us, the pirates of Pirates of the Caribbean willingly interact with nature. They long for it even. Think of Captain Barbossa in The Curse of the Black Pearl lamenting how his curse of immortality has not let him feel “the wind on [his] face nor the spray of the sea” for a long time.

But Barbossa also thinks steering a ship around a whirlpool is fun. Seems like a questionable role model to me…

Sure. It’s silly to think that life on the high seas wouldn’t come with potential dangers (pirates have peglegs for a reason!). Pirates do not reject nature out of fear, however, because they meet nature’s dangers with appropriate and balanced human intervention. They have the right tools and skills to live at sea. In At World’s End when Captain Jack, having once again lost the Black Pearl, sails a dinghy into the horizon, he’s aware of the risks. He’s also aware of how to balance his needs with nature’s power. While the Black Pearl may have been a preferable vessel, he’s countering the dangers of nature with a sturdy boat and his own excellent sailing skills. He meets the dangers of nature with human intervention that ensures his survival without neutralizing or otherwise exploiting nature.

Unfortunately, us landlubbers usually react to nature’s potential dangers and difficulties by entirely removing ourselves from nature or by neutralizing nature’s power. In academic circles, this is called “ecophobia,” and it contributes to the exploitation and destruction of nature that lead to climate crises (Estok). We might mitigate these consequences if we learn to interact with nature more like Jack.

Wait! No! Don’t sail across the ocean in a dinghy. That’s not what I meant!

There are legitimate reasons to remove and protect ourselves from nature. I am not advocating that we all spend our vacations steering Spanish galleons around whirlpools. However, reexamining how we interact with nature and recognizing the necessity of human/nature relationships will help us take impactful steps forward in the fight against climate change.

Let us now reach for our metaphorical dinghy.

When learning to properly react to our own ecophobia, we should examine the ecophobia that Jack and his unruly bunch experience even though they live in balance with nature. Just as Captain Jack is a prime example of pirates’ balanced interactions with nature, he’s also a prime example of ecophobia. Jack’s choices are often motivated by a fear of death. Death is commonly the most extreme example of nature in our cultural literature. It is the inevitable, natural destination from which human intervention cannot save us. Jack’s reaction to his fear of death is to seek immortality by assuming the curse of the Black Pearl in the first movie or by stabbing Davy Jones’s heart in movies two and three. This solution, which would control nature and entirely remove Jack from its power, is an example of ecophobia in action.

Yet Jack repeatedly overcomes his ecophobia. He sacrifices his chance at immortality in the first movie in order to save Elizabeth Swann and does the same in the third movie in order to save Will Turner. He confronts his own ecophobia and, at the end of every movie, chooses to return to sea rather than remove himself from nature.

In the spirit of Captain Jack Sparrow and the various pirates who found joy in a balanced relationship with nature and in the spirit of generations of pirates joined by their revolutionary need to resist the overpowering, exploitative structures of capitalism, I invite you to re-imagine your place between the human world and the natural world. We may begin to address melting ice caps and rising sea levels if we all took a little more direction from pirates.

I ask you again, “So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?”


Works Cited

Dawdy, Shannon Lee and Joe Bonni. “Towards a General Theory of Piracy.” Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 3, Summer 2012, pp. 673-699. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41857267.

Dunham, Will. “Giant Galapagos Tortoises Crawl Back from Near -Extinction.” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 31 Oct. 2014, pp A. 13. ProQuest, https://er.lib.k-state.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/giant-galapagos-tortoises-crawl-back-near/docview/1619078010/se-2?accountid=11789.

Estok, Simon C. “Theorizing in a Space of Ambivalent Openness: Ecocriticism and Ecophobia.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 16, no. 2, Spring 2009, pp. 203-225. Oxford Academic, https://doi-org.er.lib.k-state.edu/10.1093/isle/isp010.

Petersen, Anne. “’You Believe in Pirates, Of Course…’: Disney’s Commodification and ‘Closure’ vs. Johnny Depp’s Aesthetic Piracy of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 29, no. 2, April 2007, pp. 63-81. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23416141.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Directed by Gore Verbinski, performances by Johnny Depp, Geoffery Rush, Bill Nighy, and Orlando Bloom, Walt Disney Pictures, 2007.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Directed by Gore Verbinski, performances by Johnny Depp, Geoffery Rush, Bill Nighy, and Orlando Bloom, Walt Disney Pictures, 2006.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Directed by Gore Verbinski, performances by Johnny Depp, Geoffery Rush, and Orlando Bloom, Walt Disney Pictures, 2003.


Achilles Seastrom (MA ’23)

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