Had a question come in via Twitter the other day, asking why pirates have traditionally been depicted as having parrots on their shoulders, so thought I’d post some quick thoughts…
Truth be told, there is little evidence that lots of pirates did have parrots perched on them – the image appears to have begun with the film Treasure Island. However, there is plenty of evidence that pirates, as with all sea-farers, liked to bring back exotic things from their travels. So the first thing to say it this: parrots fit well into this ‘exotic’ theme, and could fetch a good price back in England. They were very out of the ordinary.
But this raises the question of why the image emerged in the consciousness of those who made Treasure Island, and why it then resonated. What function did it serve? For a pirate to be seen with a parrot signifies something about their context: pirates are not ‘of this world’, but come from and inhabit a place with different, or unfamiliar, species. The inclusion of the parrot helps the film communicate this, and helps distinguish the pirate from the common thief.
However, we might go a little deeper. Parrots could be taught to speak, and a parrot can be seen to be a sort of truth-teller. In film it often reveals uncomfortable truths: it says what should not be said, in company that should not hear. It may be reading too much into it, but a pirate having a parrot signifies at one level their power of revelation: they speak truth to power.
Yet they do so not with some huge gravitas, but with the subversive manner of humour. Parrots are funny. But, in their repetitiveness, they are also insistent. They say what needs saying – repeating over and over the truths that need airing. Parrots are thus the perfect foil for the pirate, and a sort of anthropomorphic version of them: exotic, other-worldly, and bringing uncomfortable revelation…yet with a cheek and lightness of touch too.