Barbary Coast, Captain Blood, Captain Hook, Corsairs, Errol Flynn, Gilbert and Sullivan, Howard Pyle, Jack Sparrow, Jolly Roger, mariners, Napoleonic Wars, Narnia, Peter Jackson, Pirates, Scharb, shipbuilding, Tamora Pierce, The Black Pearl, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Tortall, Treasure Island, Umbar, USS Philadelphia, xebec
“Oh, a pirate’s life is a wonderful life,
A-rovin’ over the sea,
Give me a career as a buccaneer
It’s the life of a pirate for me…”
Wallace/Penner, Peter Pan (1953)
Dear readers, welcome, as ever.
Being clever, you can tell immediately where this posting is going to go. Yep, the corsairs of Umbar.
A corsair is another word for pirate. And, when we think “pirate”, first there’s the late-19th-early-20th-century work of Howard Pyle.
And the silly pirates from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
And Long John Silver, from Treasure Island.
And then there is Captain Hook and the Jolly Roger.
And Errol Flynn in the 1935 movie, Captain Blood.
And who could forget Jack Sparrow and The Black Pearl?
We think that Tolkien has something rather different in mind, however. Let’s start with a little history.
Umbar’s past in relation to Gondor is summed up by Damrod in “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”:
“ ‘Aye, curse the Southrons!’ said Damrod. ‘Tis said that there were dealing of old between Gondor and the kingdoms of the Harad to the Far South; though there was never friendship. In those days our bounds were away south beyond the mouths of Anduin, and Umbar, the nearest of their realms, acknowledged our sway. But that is long since. ‘Tis many lives of Men since any passed to and fro . Now of late we have learned that the Enemy has been among them, and they are gone over to Him, or back to Him—they were ever ready to his Will—“ (The Two Towers, Book 4, Chapter 4,“Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)
Damrod’s mistrust is confirmed by what Beregond says to Pippin in “Minas Tirith”:
“…There is a great fleet drawing near to the mouths of Anduin, manned by the corsairs of Umbar in the South. They have long ceased to fear the might of Gondor, and they have allied them with the Enemy, and now make a heavy stroke in his cause. For this attack will draw off much of the help that we looked to have from Lebennin and Belfalas, where folk are hardy and numerous.” (The Return of the King, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)
As Damrod has said, Umbar is to the far south.
Here is a view of it as imagined by the Czech artist, Scharb.
To us, this resembles cities along the southern Mediterranean coast, especially as seen in old engravings of the Barbary Coast.
Take, for example, this copperplate of Tunis, from 1778.
There are all kinds of ships depicted here, from three-masters to a galley, in the center, to a small xebec, to the far right.
The galley seemed once to be the characteristic ship of the pirates of the Barbary Coast, coming from earlier Turkish galleys.
What the Czech artist appears to have picked up upon, however, is something from P. Jackson’s third The Lord of the Rings film, in which the xebec
is the model for the corsairs’ vessels.
Jackson’s corsairs look like this (including Jackson himself, mugging to the left).
The crews of actual Barbary ships probably looked more like this:
This makes perfect sense, as these are North Africans, and very tough people, as European mariners came to know. Their swift, daring ships attacked any vessel which might bring them profit.
The young United States first paid them tribute to keep them away from US ships.
But, as the government somewhere found the money, it began a shipbuilding program to provide the country with its first national navy.
This particular ship was the ill-fated USS Philadelphia, which ran aground and was captured by the pirates.
It was destroyed, however,
in a daring raid by Stephen Decatur, seen in this miniature.
The United States fought two wars against the Barbary pirates, 1801-5 and 1815, doing a great deal of damage to the pirates.
Ultimately, however, it was a combination of governments and navies, including the US, the British, and the Dutch, which put a stop to piracy in the southern Mediterranean after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.
So, like Scharb, we took the idea from JRRT that Umbar was in the far south and, influenced by our experience, not only of the Barbary pirates, but of Narnia and the country called Calormen
and of Tamora Pierce’s “Tortall” with its Carthaki southland,
we imagined the corsairs to look like this.
So, dear readers, what do you think?
Thanks, as always, for reading.