The pirates of my childhood were a benign bunch. Captain Pugwash and the barely animated crew of the Black Pig outwitted the black-bearded, black-hearted Cut Throat Jake. A swashbuckling Errol Flynn beat the wicked French and won the heart of Olivia de Havilland in Sunday afternoon re-runs of Michael Curtiz’s 1935 masterpiece, Captain Blood. Even Robert Newton’s Long John Silver, whom I watched not in Disney’s Treasure Island but in a spin-off TV series, regularly ar-harred his way through poetry about buccaneers and buried gold and old romance.
In their different ways, these fictional pirates were all on the side of good against evil, cracking jokes as they pitted themselves against humourless, venal and usually foreign figures of authority. They were part of a literary tradition that stretches all the way from Jacobean stage depictions of