The Real Pirates of One Pieceby Rebecca Silverman,
I discovered pirates through a bizarre combination of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking novels (and the weird 1988 film) and Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island when I was in elementary school, and my fascination with them was only fueled by my father's purchase of LucasArts' game The Secret of Monkey Island when I was in middle school. From that point it was basically a foregone conclusion that when Eiichiro Oda's One Piece manga hit, I would be a fan. And I am – not only do I enjoy the story and the characters, but I also love the way Oda incorporates the real pirates of history and legend into the series. Whether it's someone as obvious as Blackbeard or as random as Sadie in Impel Down, many of the characters have historical roots that make One Piece that much more fun. So come join me in learning the story behind the series and some of the real pirates who populate One Piece!
Unfortunately, her history as recorded by Saxo Grammaticus doesn't tell us much more beyond the fact that she was really good at being a pirate, so Alf was sent to stop her, eventually marrying her while his first mate Harald got to marry Groa. Alvida clearly shares Alfhildr's dangerous streak and piratical success, and her later team-up with Buggy is similar to Alfhildr's eventual leadership over a band of male pirates. However, it's possible that Alvida isn't the only lady pirate in One Piece to owe her existence to Alfhildr – Vivi, the princess of Alabasta, also runs off to sea and piracy, and “Boa” sounds suspiciously like “Groa,” one of the most steadfast among Alfhildr's pirate band. Oda seems to have picked up where history left off, and I for one appreciate it, because Alfhildr's story, no matter how little of it we know, is worth telling.
Of course, the obscurity of Alvida's namesake is a bit of a departure for Oda. (At least until we hit Sadie the Goat.) Most of his pirates are much more recognizable, such as Marshall D. Teach, who goes by the name of Blackbeard. Most of us have heard of the real Blackbeard, Edward Teach, best known for the epic showdown he lost against Lieutenant Maynard. Real-life Blackbeard got his name from his enormous black beard, described by one historian as “cover[ing] his whole face...suffered to grow to an extravagant length...up to his eyes; he was accustomed to twist it with ribbons...and turn [it] about his ears.” Apparently, he also enjoyed sticking lighted matches under his hat when he went into battle, just to be even more terrifying and inhuman. His fearsome nature became so legendary that after Lieutenant Maynard cut off his head, Blackbeard's decapitated body supposedly swam around the ship three times before sinking.
While Oda's Blackbeard isn't quite up to that level of terror, his beard is definitely starting to look more like his real-life counterpart's post time-skip. He's also just about as ruthless, cutting a swath through his enemies and operating on a “what's yours is mine even if I have to kill you to prove it” basis. He even takes a guy's name – Blackbeard kills Thatch, one of Whitebeard's other sub-commanders, while the real-life Blackbeard was sometimes known as Edward Thatch rather than Teach. So when he kills Thatch, he's really just taking back what's his. Both Oda's Blackbeard and the historical one share an immoral nature, seeing nothing wrong with what they do. Perhaps the closest link between the Blackbeards is a belief in their own superiority and power – real Blackbeard never went into a fight he didn't think he could win, up to and including his fatal battle with the lieutenant in 1719. According to records, he congratulated Maynard on his winning blow with a “Well done, lad,” before dying with five bullets and 20 sword cuts all over his body. We'll see if Oda's Blackbeard is as tough to bring down.
Incidentally, the pirate museum in St. Augustine, Florida, has a re-enactment of Blackbeard's final fight and a chance to talk to his disembodied head as it dangles from Maynard's bowsprit. You know, just in case you want to compare Oda's version to history.
There's no scarcity of female pirates in One Piece, though many of their real-world counterparts are fairly obscure as far as history is concerned. So it's no surprise that Oda would base a character on one of the best known lady pirates of the 18th century: Anne Bonny. Where Jewelry Bonney is willing to lend a hand to a fellow pirate in need (although it helps if it will benefit her), Anne Bonny famously told her lover Calico Jack Rackham, “Better you had fought like a Man than be hang'd like a Dog,” when he came to say goodbye before his execution.
Anne Bonny was only ever on the lookout for one person: herself. One of two female members in Calico Jack's pirate crew (and I personally find Mary Read's story much more fascinating), Jack was the second pirate Anne ran off with after she left her father's Carolina plantation, where she reputedly threatened to kill a servant with a case-knife. Like Jewelry, Anne did have firm ideas about what the pirating life was supposed to be, and she and Mary Read were the only two crew members to try and fight off the Navy when their ship was taken. In fact, Anne is reported to have fired below decks when no one turned up to help the women fight. Popular lore has assigned her an impressive sexual appetite, which is possibly the reason for Jewelry's insatiable hunger for pizza and other food items, but as a woman who ran off with two men, that seems more like an 18th century smear campaign to me, because no good woman would have sex with multiple partners or become a pirate.
The most interesting thing about Anne Bonny is that she got away in the end – at her trial, she “plead her belly” (she was pregnant), and while Mary Read died in prison, Anne's wealthy father is said to have bailed her out. Whether that's true or not, we know that she vanished from history after her child was born. We'll have to keep an eye on Jewelry to see if she eventually sails off into the sunset as well...
You don't get much further from the source than One Piece's Bellamy the Hyena stands from his namesake, New England's “Black” Sam Bellamy. Where Oda's character is cruel, vindictive, and arrogant (less so post-time skip), the real Sam Bellamy was sort of a Robin Hood figure. He saved his hatred for the Navy, specifically the British Navy, because of their habit of pressing young men into service. He dressed well (just look at that hair!) and conducted himself in a gentlemanly manner; at one point his ship captured a sloop and, having no use for it, voted to burn it. Bellamy told the captain, a Captain Beers, that he wished he could give it back, but he could not go against the popular vote. It's hard to imagine Bellamy the Hyena apologizing for sinking the ship of a “hen-hearted numskull” like his historical inspiration. Black Bellamy's philosophy is basically summed up in his speech to Captain Beers: “They [the Navy] vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage.”
As pirates go, he's pretty damn inspirational, and it's even rumored that he died for love – Sam Bellamy went down with his ship Whydah in a storm off Cape Cod in 1717 while trying to get home to his lover, Maria. (She was around fifteen years old, mind you, but that was 1717!) In 1984, the wreck of the ship was discovered, and it turns out that ol' Sam was a pretty successful pirate too. According to maritime historian David Cordingly, excavations brought up 8,397 coins, 17 gold bars, 14 gold nuggets, gold dust, 6,174 small pieces of gold, and almost 400 pieces of African jewelry. That's One Piece stuff right there, enough to make you grab a water-proof metal detector and head to the beach. Chances are that Sam Bellamy, unlike the Hyena, wouldn't mind you having it if you needed it. If you could use your plunder to stick it to The Man, he'd like that even more.
On the flip side of the Bellamys is Bartholomew Kuma, named in reference to Bartholomew Roberts, a much more mysterious (and less benevolent) real-life pirate. In One Piece, Kuma is a giant of a man who, despite his checkered past, seems to adhere to a fairly strict moral code and even asks his victims where they'd like to go before he sends them away with his power. Bartholomew Roberts, on the other hand, was cold and calculating, never hesitating to take on a ship with superior firepower, leading to an impressive record of over 400 ships plundered.
Unlike Kuma, Black Bart began his career in legitimate maritime pursuits. (Well, legitimate-ish; he was a sailor on A Slave ship.) He switched to piracy after the ship he crewed was taken by the pirate Howell Davis, getting elected captain after a mutiny soon thereafter. His general practice was to burn captured ships down to the waterline, possibly as a sign that he could get another at any time. Most unlike his One Piece character, Bart was a classy dresser – he even went into battle in sumptuous fabrics and covered in jewels. One rumor, which is totally unsubstantiated but a lot of fun, says that Black Bart was actually a woman, which would explain how he became Davis's favorite crew member so quickly and also offer an explanation for why he kept so covered up at all times, even when his stomping grounds were the Caribbean and South America. We'll never know for certain, because he instructed his crew to throw his body overboard immediately should he die, and that's just what they did in 1722.
Even if we open up the possibility that Oda will reveal Kuma as female, he's certainly not the snazzy dresser Black Bart was. Both do seem to share a fondness for order, however: of all of the pirate articles (shipboard rules) that have survived, Black Bart's is the most complete, including items like “lights out at eight” and “no gambling” among the eleven rules. (Also, musicians only get to rest on Sundays.) Kuma's Bible, on the other hand, is more likely a reference to Captain Kidd, who is said to have buried his Bible in the sand when he turned from “respectable” privateering to piracy. On further historical examination, this was highly unlikely. Captain Kidd's vilification most likely arose from his backers' fall from political favor; they took Kidd down with them. If that's the basis for Kuma's book, he'd better keep watching his back.
A privateer (government sanctioned pirate) gone rogue, Jean Lafitte's name actually fits his One Piece counterpart well. Oda's Lafitte was a former law-abider as well, a policeman fired from the force for excessive violence. He later becomes a higher-up in Blackbeard's crew, just as Jean Lafitte worked his way up the maritime ladder, starting low and ending up a captain. At one point, he even issued a retaliatory wanted poster – the governor of Louisiana offered $500 for Lafitte's capture, so Lafitte turned around and offered $1,000 for the governor's. But unlike in Oda's version, the real Jean Lafitte went back to the right side of the law, at least temporarily – when the war of 1812 broke out, he refused to join the British Navy and offered the governor his services and extensive crew. Possibly still upset about that whole wanted poster thing, the governor turned him down, but a man named Andrew Jackson didn't, so Jean Lafitte went back to being a privateer, aiding in the war effort. In fact, he provided the ammunition for the Battle of New Orleans.
Still, Lafitte was a man who couldn't be happy within the law for long, so he eventually went back to being a pirate, only in Texas instead of Louisiana this time. Like Anne Bonny, he just sort of drops out of history around 1820, although some accounts say he came back to the right side of the law and died in the 1850s, possibly in Illinois. What we do know is that he never lost his taste for a fight, which can't necessarily be said for Oda's Lafitte, although there must be something about him that keeps his crew in line. Perhaps he's living off of his past reputation? We may eventually find out, but we certainly know that the State of Louisiana (and Texas) is doing pretty well with Jean Lafitte's reputation – his name stands out on many tourist attractions, and there's an entire society devoted to researching and promoting his life and history. That makes it kind of surprising that Oda's version isn't a more important character. Maybe we should keep an eye on him.
Sadie the Goat is one of the more bizarre pirates – she worked the riverfront in New York City in the mid-19th century after starting out as a pickpocket, and she got her nickname because her preferred method of attack was headbutting men in the stomach. She made the switch from street crime to piracy after tangling with a bouncer at a particularly seedy tavern called “The Hole-in-the-Wall.” The bouncer in question was a woman named Gallus Mag, and she had a tendency to bite off people's ears. So she bit off Sadie's and put it in one of her jars. Later, after her piracy days were over, Sadie got the ear back and wore it around her neck for the rest of her life.
It's pretty hard to imagine Oda's Sadie, the dominatrix guard of Impel Down, doing any of those things, so where's the connection? Oda's Sadie is glamorous in her own way, very sexual in nature, and she really enjoys harming others. Sadie the Goat may not be either of those first things, but oh boy, did she enjoy her violent work. She led several different bands of (predominantly male) criminals in their efforts to rob people, and in her riverfaring days, she had them row out to an anchored vessel, climb aboard by the anchor chains – which is not as easy as it sounds – and depending on the day or ship, either take goods from the deck or take the whole ship. At one point Sadie's band, the Charlton Street Gang, commandeered a sloop and spent some time sailing up and down the Hudson, making the occasional prisoner walk the plank. (This possibly makes her the only real pirate to use that punishment; most pirates were much more inventive. Look up “woolding” for a better idea of pirate tortures.) The glee with which Sadie the Goat operated is the best link between her and Oda's Sadie, apart from being women in predominantly masculine places (prison guard, NYC street gangs in the 1860s). At the very least, I'm sure both Sadies would enjoy each other's company.
There are many more links between One Piece characters and the real pirates of history, along with a few fictional ones. Vander Decken IX is supposedly the descendant of the original Flying Dutchman, captain of seafaring legend. Silvers Rayleigh is almost certainly a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silver, while Basil Hawkins probably owes his name to Jim Hawkins of the same book. (Sadly, there's no Guybrush Threepwood.) So come fill in the blanks in the forums and offer your thoughts on the pirates of One Piece – and may you have fair winds and following seas in all of your journeys.
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