A rainbow coalition of pirates

The most realistic plot twist in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" is the inclusion of an Indian who actually fought, and defeated, the British East India Company.

Published May 29, 2007 4:49PM (EDT)

Judging by the news that "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" grossed $400 million worldwide in ticket sales over the last six days, I was not alone this weekend in attending to the latest adventures of Johnny Depp and friends. But then, How the World Works has always been a sucker for a film series in which the British East India Co., perhaps the greatest exemplar of imperialism, colonialism and rapacious capitalism ever rolled up and packaged into one handy corporate entity, is accurately portrayed as one of the foulest evildoers ever to roam the high seas.

Trust me, if the masters of the actual East India Co. could have employed ghost ships from hell to guard their opium-laden merchantmen against pirate attacks while en route from India to Hong Kong, they would have done so gladly. So unlike some critics, who seem to have found the plot of "At World's End," with its tragic love affairs between sea goddesses and squid-faced men, multiple resurrections and international alliances of multiculturally balanced pirate navies a little, uh, unrealistic, my own credulity remained blithely unstrained. A movie designed to rake in box office receipts from Singapore to Saskatchewan requires a globally credible villain. The East India Co. fits the bill.

My initial response to the cultural diversity of the Nine Pirate Lords of the Brethren Court, who must convene in order to save the world of piracy from the assault of supernaturally enhanced imperial authority, was nonetheless initially uncharitable, verging on the cynical. Chinese pirates for the East Asian market! A Turk and an Indian (misidentified in a number of reviews as "Arabs") for South Asia and the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. An African! France and Spain for some de rigueur Old World glamour! This is what globalization has wrought -- a rainbow coalition of pirates, in service of the Disneyfication of the known universe. Yes, I agree, it's a small world.

But the production notes for the movie, once you dig them out of what has to be one of the worst-designed Web sites for a major motion picture ever created, promise that the pirate lords were based loosely on actual historical characters. A handy Wikipedia breakdown suggests that the Indian representative, Sri Sumbhajee, may have been modeled on the early 18th century Marathan sailor Sambhaji Angri.

The Marathans successfully carved out autonomy from the Mughal empire under the leadership of the warrior king Shivaji in the 17th century, and fought a series of wars against the British East India Co. that lasted until their ultimate defeat in 1818. Sambhaji was the son of Kanhoji Angri, a man labeled by some sources as the "admiral" of the Marathan Navy. He appears to have been something of a pest to the East India Co., not only routinely capturing heavily laden merchantmen, but also successfully thrashing repeated naval assaults from the British.

Which, astonishingly enough, relates to the core political message of the "Pirates" movies, if one dare be so bold as to take such a concept seriously. In "Pirates" we're expected to root for the anarchic lawbreakers against the forces of repressive order. That's why the third film starts with a bunch of pitiful about-to-be-hanged islanders being told they no longer have any constitutional rights. But it's always been kind of a nifty trick for a supposedly squeaky clean, family-friendly corporation like Disney to market pirates, famous for raping, pillaging and murdering their way across the seven seas, as not only PG-13 entertainment but also as freedom fighters against totalitarian rule. This is an effort laden with gross contradictions, leading to such hysterical high points as the shock expressed by Disney when Keith Richards, who makes a cameo as the keeper of the Pirate Codex in "At World's End," claimed to have snorted his own father's cremated ashes. Whether joking or not, what could possibly have been be more piratical in spirit then that!? But Disney frowns on true piracy -- and for understandable reasons. In a global marketplace, there are bound to be some cultures where potential ticket-buyers would look askance at nasal consumption of one's progenitors.

But the saga of the Angri family, or what little of it can be ascertained without spending time in a research library, poses a pertinent question: Who gets the last word on defining who is, and who is not, a pirate? From the perspective of the Marathans, Angri, father and son, were commissioned naval personnel legitimately warring against foreign invaders. They were freedom fighters! But to the East India Co., they were annoying "pirates."

Most likely, they were a bit of both. Identity, then and now, is a fluid thing, no matter what fundamentalists of any stripe are primed to declare. But while we leave that question to the historians to argue over, one conclusion seems inescapable. The inclusion of an Indian "pirate" -- whose family actually battled the real-life East India Co. to a standstill 300 years ago -- in the Brethren Court of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" is the most realistic plot twist of the entire trilogy. How that will play in Mumbai will be interesting to watch.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works India Johnny Depp