Captain Jack Sparrow is probably the most famous fictional pirate seen in generations, pushing infamous figures like Captain Blood and Treasure Island‘s Captain Flint right out of the limelight. While the drunken antics and crazed shenanigans of the crazy captain have become iconic to Johnny Depp’s portfolio, fans have been asking for years whether a character that creative (and downright strange) could really be spun out of whole cloth.
Who was Captain Jack Sparrow based off of? Well, much like James Bond (to read about the men who went into that iconic character’s makeup, check out this article) there are a few interesting men who’ve gone into Captain Jack’s recipe.
Calico Jack Rackham
Perhaps the most flamboyant pirate to ever plunder the Caribbean, Jack Rackham was nick-named “Calico” because he favored bright clothing made from the expensive fabric. Originally a quartermaster on a British naval ship, when the crew mutinied Rackham was declared captain. In light of the fact that the crew were mutineers, Rackham’s suggestion that they take to piracy was well-received. After all, men who abided by the code of a pirate ship (yes that was a thing too, look here) tended to be treated better than those who served on regular navy ships. Especially when they won the engagement, and there was plunder to be had.
Noted for his crazed style, way with women (Rackham sailed with the two most infamous female pirates of the 18th century; Anne Bonny and Mary Read) and his stupid amounts of courage, Rackham is often what comes to mind when people picture a pirate captain. Even his jolly roger, a death’s head skull with crossed cutlasses beneath it, remains famous to this very day.
Captain Jack Ward
On the other side of the world, also pirating it up along the coast of North Africa, was a British pirate captain by the name of Jack Ward. Ward, who earned the nickname “Birdy” (Sparrows, in case you missed the obvious, are birds) became one of the most famous pirates of his time, commanding hundreds of men as he raided and ravaged shipping lanes all along the Barbary Coast. A wild drunkard and a terror on the high seas, Ward eventually converted to Islam and took the name Yusef Reis. After that he quit drinking, and proceeded to live like a king on the massive amount of wealth he’d claimed over the years.
What does this have to do with Jack Sparrow, aside from the similar name? Well, if you’ll recall in the first film, Sparrow had a brush with the East India Trading Company. That would have put him in the proper geographic area, before he came to the Caribbean. His eye makeup is actually similar to kohl, which was popular in North Africa (where it was a traditional cosmetic), and even his headband is worn more like a turban than a kerchief. Lastly though, the dangling coin in his hair bears the crescent moon of Islam, and many of Sparrow’s hand gestures are very Middle Eastern.
Johnny Depp is a huge fan of Keith Richards, and when asked to play a half-crazed drunken pirate captain the eternal rocker is the persona who came to mind. Richards’ appearance in later films just sealed the deal, really, and made it that much clearer where at least some of Sparrow’s strange tics and odd mannerisms came from.
A Little of One, Half a Dozen of The Other
In the end Captain Jack Sparrow is a strange chimera of historical pirate lore, acting talent, and onscreen improvisation. While there is some persuasive evidence that Sparrow’s costume and persona came from some infamous pedigrees, the character himself has too much mixed inspiration to be anything but a unique creation.
For more information about Johnny Depp, check out a fact sheet here.
To find out why pirates dressed the way they did, take a look at this article.
“6 Mind-Blowing Easter Eggs Hidden in Famous Movie Costumes” by Cezary Jan Strusiewicz at Cracked
“The Legend of Captain Jack: From Birdy to Sparrow” by Shibli Zaman at SuhaiWebb.com
“‘Calico’ Jack Rackham” by Rob Ossian at Pirate King