Thursday, 17 February 2011

Positive Disabled Characters in Fiction

For me, Long John Silver is a positive disabled character in fiction. Anyone who fights against injustice and repression, in my book, is a positive character.

According to Silver (in ‘Long John Silver’ by Bjorn Larsson) he lost his leg, shot by the cowardly Deval, while boarding a captured ship. Once the leg has been taken off John persuades the ships carpenter to fashion him a new leg from wood. Thus, he begins his life as a disabled pirate – no mean feat (no pun intended!)

Silver is a pirate; there’s no argument there. Conventional history and some fiction condemn pirates as bad guys, villains.

Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Henry Every (Avery), Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, Grace O'Malley and Calico Jack (Jack Rackham) were portrayed as bloodthirsty scourges of the seven seas, and therefore enemies of the state; however, Elizabethan privateers (a posh name for state sponsored pirates) Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Richard Grenville were rewarded for their acts of piracy by the Queen Elizabeth.

Sailors back then had a tough life. Often as not shanghaied, or pressed into either the Royal Navy or onto a merchant vessal captained by a sadist who held the very existence of his crew members in his hands.

All too often men turned to piracy as a last resort; either that or succumb to the, all too often, violence of sadistic skippers. So, it was hardly surprising that bad captains were killed in acts of mutiny, with the sailors then electing a captain from amongst themselves – of course once embarked on such a course there is no turning back.

Yet, pirates, much maligned by writers, were a very civilised bunch. Silver gets a bad press in Treasure Island where Stevenson seeks to lionise the likes of Jim Hawkins, Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey and Captain Smollet; for, to do otherwise would make Silver and his crew the heroes – and, that’d never do in a Victorian novel.

Pirates, for all their faults, had many positive and honourable qualities. In the heyday of piracy, 1690-1730 as many as ⅓ of pirate crews, in and around the Middle Passage, were black – most likely taken from slavers that fell into the hands of the pirayes. This is not to say some pirates weren’t also slavers; but, it does suggest that amongst some of them a degree of democracy was in operation.

So, I still maintain Long John is a positive disabled character in fiction.

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