Arrrgh! Parrot Mateys!

ParrotPirate

“Here’s Cap’n Flint—I calls my parrot Cap’n Flint, after the famous buccaneer”, says Long John Silver to the young Jim Hawkins. And so with the introduction of this saucy-tongued, sugar-nibbling bird in Treasure Island arises the trope that indelibly connects pirates with these pets.

Borrowing from Robert Louis Stevenson’s late 19th-century novel, pop culture has since bolstered this image. Parrots are depicted with pirates in subsequent literature, such as the Swallows and Amazons children’s book series of English writer Arthur Ransome, and in numerous cinema features, most notably Disney’s animated version of the J.M. Barrie classic Peter Pan and also the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. And if all this wasn’t enough, a costumed parrot mascot even performs at professional baseball games for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Only One Cap’n Flint?

On the surface, the notion that a few sea marauders of the Atlantic kept pet parrots seems plausible. After all, Christopher Columbus reportedly brought back dozens of the birds from his voyages, even offering a couple Cuban Amazon parrots as gifts to Spain’s Queen Isabella (1, 2). Within years of the explorer’s first expedition to the Caribbean, the parrot trade surged. The birds fetched high prices from wealthy and high-ranking Europeans who fancied the exotic creatures (3). By the 17th and 18th centuries, buccaneers frequented tropical areas. And while there, some would have taken parrots and other exotic animals onboard, if not as pets then at least for purposes such as bribery or trade at coastal settlements (4).

Under the Black Flag, David Cordingly’s historical accounts of maritime piracy, and Parrot Culture, Bruce Boehrer’s book detailing the socio-cultural impact of his avian subject, both credit Stevenson’s novel for popularizing the pirate-parrot link (5, 6). However, no mention is made specifically of sea brigands who considered such birds as their pets. In this sense, Boehrer refers to Stevenson’s Cap’n Flint as an “artistic embellishment” (7). On the other hand, Cordingly relates several accounts of buccaneers bribing English officials, offering the birds as a form of enticement or as a shrewd manner for acquiring favors (8). Whether any pirates kept parrots as companions seems questionable. Clearly, though, the sea brigands had access to the birds, as did many adventurers of that time.

“Pieces of Eight!”

Aside from buccaneers, seaman, and merchants who sailed overseas, only the wealthiest and most well-connected of people could obtain parrots. Pirates, though, didn’t really need them as pets, even if some may have occasionally regarded parrots as “souvenirs of their travels” (9). The value of these creatures is still undeniable, but other items held much greater interest for buccaneers. For the most part, they were seeking treasure as well as the replenishment of food and drink, arms, and supplies for their ships (10).

As to the reasons behind the parrot’s popularity with European aristocrats, a couple of characteristics must be considered. First, the bird hailed from far-away origins and boasted colorful plumage. Second, along with its exotic features, the parrot’s ability to mimic human language made it a highly desirable conversation piece—literally—for collectors (11). Obviously, the repeated litany of comments from Long John Silver’s pet created a lasting impression on pirate enthusiasts. Yet for the young protagonist in Treasure Island, the experience appears to be more than just unforgettable.

Jim Hawkins reports at the end of Stevenson’s novel that he’s still haunted by nightmares of Cap’n Flint. In those dreams, the green parrot continues to squawk excitedly about Spanish silver coins. “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”(12)

Sources:

  1. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 81.
  2. Boehrer, B.T. Parrot Culture: Our 2500-Year-Long Fascination with the World’s Most Talkative Bird. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. p. 54.
  3. Robbins, L.E. Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. pp. 25-29.
  4. Cordingly, D. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006. pp. 9-10.
  5. Cordingly, D. p. 8.
  6. Boehrer, B.T. pp. 114-116.
  7. Boehrer, B.T. p. 115.
  8. Cordingly, D. p. 9.
  9. Cordingly, D. p. 9.
  10. Cordingly, D, pp. 107-109.
  11. Boehrer, B.T. pp. 4-5.
  12. Stevenson, R.L. Treasure Island. New York: Penguin Group USA, 2008.
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