Real-World Inspiration Behind Dreaded 'Pirates of the Caribbean' Vessels

It's okay to quiver if you see these ships approach.
Christopher McFadden

The ships from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" film franchise felt as notorious and dangerous as the characters themselves — and while some of the ships in the films were built from scratch, none of them could have hit the silver screen without the inspiration of real-life vessels from centuries — and in some cases millennia — ago.

Pirate ships petrified colonial nations

Pirate ships served as a nexus to some of the most compelling stories from their era — when spontaneous raids, betrayals, planks, and cutthroat terms of untrustworthy surrender left the citizens of several colonial nations petrified of the Caribbean waters.

1. Black Pearl's real-life basis in naval warfare

The Black Pearl ship on location
The 'Black Pearl' in port. Source: Edward Russell/Flickr

The most-featured ship in the first film of the "Pirates" franchise is Captain Jack Sparrow's, called the "Black Pearl." In the world of the film, the Black Pearl was originally a merchant vessel that belonged to the East India Trading Company — one the protagonist Sparrow hijacked.

However, there is a real-world basis for the terror of the Black Pearl. With a length of 156 feet (47.5 m) and armed with 32 cannons in the film, the Black Pearl is built like a galleon.

As a class of ships from the late-16th to 19th century, the galleon was an enormous, multi-deck, square-rigged sailing ship with three or four masts. European nations and merchant fleets made primary use of these in the golden age of sail ships.

2. Queen Anne's Revenge became Blackbeard's prize

Historical photo of the ship Queen Anne's Revenge
A model replica of the Queen Anne's Revenge. Source: Qualiesin /Wikimedia Commons

In a sequel film, "Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," the ship called "Queen Anne's Revenge" was based on a real merchant sailing vessel. It began its career as a French privateer called "La Concorde" amid Queen Anne's War — between 1702 and 1713 — after which it continued service as a slave ship.

The ship was later captured by Blackbeard (Edward Teach) and his pirates on November 28, 1717, near the island of Saint Vincent in the West Indies. Blackbeard sailed the ship from the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean, attacking British, Dutch, and Portuguese merchant ships along the way.

In June 1718, shortly after blockading Charleston harbor, Blackbeard ran Queen Anne's Revenge aground while entering Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina.

The Queen Anne's Revenge was a frigate ship with an alleged 40 cannons and reportedly weighed 200 tons (roughly 181.4 metric tons). It had a length of roughly 100 feet (30.48 m).

3. East India Trading Company ship names in 'Pirates'

pirate ships east indiamen
Full-size replica of a Swedish East Indiamen. Source: Fred J / Wikimedia Commons

Several ships that sailed for the real East India Company showed up in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise — but for some, the only factual bases were their names.

Such cases included the ship HMS Endeavour, which (in the film) was the flagship of Lord Cutler Beckett of the East India Trading Company; the frigate HMS Raven; and the HMS Diamond, a British Royal Navy ship of the line that was transferred into the service of the East India Trading Company.

4. Flying Dutchman: mix of legend and history

The ghostly Flying Dutchman ship
Model replica of a Dutch Fluyt. Source: Michael Czytko / Wikimedia Commons

The Flying Dutchman is one of the most unique fictional ships in the "Pirates" franchise. But it has mixed origins — taking inspiration from a galleon and a "fluyt" ship, which is a Dutch sailing vessel initially built for cargo.

The fictional Flying Dutchman also took a visual cue from the 17th-century Swedish warship, called the Vasa — which is now displayed in a museum. This film franchise's ghost ship was also inspired by the legend of a ship with the same name — also called "De Vliegende Hollander" in Dutch — but its reputation is simply nautical folklore.

5. 'The Empress' is based on Chinese junks

Modern version of a junk ship in Hong Kong
A modern-day "junk" ship. Source: Botaurus-stellaris / Wikimedia

The Empress ship made its only appearance in the sequel called "Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End," where (in the film) it was first captained by Sao Feng, and later under Elizabeth Swan. Notably, "the Empress" was built to reflect a vessel simply called "junk," which is still in use today.

A junk is a type of traditional Chinese sailing vessel with fully-battened sails. The earliest designs came into use in 2800 B.C.E. The term "junk" was often used by Europeans in the colonial period to refer to any large to medium-sized ships sail in China and Southeast Asia.

However, the most interesting historical basis for the fictional Empress is the captain — Sao Feng — whose character is based on the 19th-century navy colonel of the Qing Dynasty and former pirate, Cheung Po Tsai.

6. HMS Interceptor based on US naval tradition

Lady Washington ship or the HMS Interceptor
The 'Lady Washington' replica, in California's Morro Bay. Source: Mike Baird/ Flickr

Also appearing in the first "Pirates" film was the HMS Interceptor — which played a fictional brig in the British Royal Navy, serving under King George II. In the film, it held the title of fastest vessel in the Caribbean.

However, the HMS Interceptor still exists as a replica of the historical Lady Washington, which was a small, merchant sailing vessel that sailed the waters of the Caribbean during the latter half of the 18th century. Notably, the same ship has also made appearances on TV in the 1994 sci-fi film "Star Trek: Generations."

While real pirate ships of sail will (probably) never haunt the Caribbean again, there's no shame in yearning to march down to the nearest harbor, charter a worthy ship with sails for a journey toward the defunct Port Royal in the Caribbean, and dream of bringing the pirate legends back to life. Or maybe, there is.

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