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Ah Hoy! Who were the Real Pirates of Penzance?

Ah Hoy! Who were the Real Pirates of Penzance?

Pirate Ship

Ah Hoy! Who were the Real Pirates of Penzance? 

When you hear about the Pirates of Penzance, no doubt, you’ll think of the comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan “The Pirates of Penzance” that dates back to the 1870s when it was first shown in Broadway, New York.

The video below gives us a glimpse into the musical- just to get us in the mood of the pirate’s life! 

The Major-General’s song...

Major Generals Song

Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance

The opera’s London debut took place on 3rd April 1880 at the Opera Comique. The performance was so popular it ran for a total of 363 performances.

The opera's London popularity was in addition to its success in New York, where it had already been running for three months.

It's interesting to know that the first performance of the opera was not actually in London but in the South Devon town of Paignton. This first UK performance took place in 1879.

But what was all the fuss about?

The plot, characters and music in the opera appealed to thousands of spectators. Set during the reign of Queen Victoria, the opera takes place in Penzance and opens at a scene on a rocky seashore.

To give a very brief description of the plot, the story focuses on Frederic, also referred to as The Slave of Duty, because of his commitment to his duties. He reaches the age of 21 and officially comes of age at the start of the show. He is a pirate but does not agree with piracy. Instead, he wants to go ashore and find himself a wife. 

On his 21st birthday, he sets ashore and conveniently bumps into a lady (Mabel) who could potentially become his wife. Followed by the pirates though, they bring chaos on to shore. Frederic sides with the civilians. Despite aligning against the pirates, they intend to make Frederic come back to the pirate ship- stating that because his birthday is on a leap year, he is not officially 21. Therefore, he must make sure he has had 21 birthdays before he quits piracy. Frederic prepares to join the pirates again.

All ends well however, as policemen from shore attack the pirates and essentially give many the freedom they secretly desire. They intended on killing the pirates but their lives were saved thanks to Frederic’s maid Ruth. Many of the pirates marry a lady and the story ends well. Frederic marries Mabel- his sweetheart. 

Pirates sunset

The Real Pirates of Penzance 

While the opera is, in itself, infamous. Many of us will know that The Pirates of Penzance is a story that was actually based on real pirates- based in the heart of Cornwall. 

So who were the Pirates of Penzance? Do we know anything about their history?

During the nineteenth century, Penzance was (despite rumour) a respectable town. 

The performance was scattered with “proper” English manners and the genteel. The respectability of some of the gentlemen on shore is parodied with the criminal nature of some of the pirates.

The overarching question within the plot is, of course, who is the more moral?

As well as asking questions of morality, the parodies of pirates and gentlemen is very funny to watch. 

Penzance Harbour

Why Penzance?

While Penzance was indeed a respectable town in the years the opera was performed, just 100 years before the show was created, the famous Cornish town was inhabited with real-life pirates. 

It was a difficult time for the people of Penzance who were affected by what was called Barbary Piracy.

Barbary Piracy

Barbary piracy involved pirates invading Penzance and taking people as slaves. The men, women and children that were captured and enslaved were taken to North Africa. This form of piracy took place for most of the 18th century. 

It wasn’t new. In fact, these barbaric pirates had been raiding coastal locations in Cornwall since the 1600s. One of the worst raids took place just off Penzance and 60 residents were captured.

Eventually, although it was a slow process, America and the UK combined to put a stop to barbaric piracy.


The truth about the Pirates of Penzance REVEALED

Myth 1: Pirates were glamourous, like the Captain Jack Sparrow type.

Myth Busted: Piracy was not all about treasure, although there is evidence to suggest that part of piracy was a bid to get treasure. Instead, it was more about slavery. Historical evidence suggests that people were taken away from their homes and ransoms were sent back to their families and loved ones with the hope that they would be returned home.

Myth 2: Pirates were only based in Cornwall.

Myth Busted: The world of Piracy affected the whole of the British coastline. Many of the pirates started their piracy journey after naval service for her majesty. However, during the reign of King James I, he became good friends with the Spanish King. As a result, battling was halted and the size of British defence was decreased. The Navy men that were left without a job were near starving and many took the option of piracy to survive.  

Myth 3: There is nowhere in Cornwall you can find out what the piracy experience was like.

Myth Busted: Cornwall is proud of its history and there are plenty of places where you can discover more about piracy and the history of Penzance. 

If you are taking a trip to Penzance, we recommend a visit to Penzance harbour and Falmouth harbour, where there are various places you can discover more about pirates in Cornwall.

And for a more sensual experience? Have dinner at The Waterside Meadery. The restaurant is open between 6pm to 10pm every day of the week and offers a family dining experience with a difference. Dine like a true pirate and soak up the unique atmosphere. 

Eat by candlelight (with your hands!) and drink Cornish Mead. It is all part of experiencing what it was like to dine as a pirate in medieval times.

Ah Hoy! It’s a Pirate’s life for me!