Friday, 3 October 2008

Steampunk Pirates

I was sent this interesting image which seems to have been produced by an artist calling themselves Winter Rose. It is apparently a steampunk pirate flag. It has excellent steampunk elements with that Victorian art nouveau styling. The curling plant imagery reminds me of the Natural History museum in Oxford which has a roof supported by iron pillars each of which was cast to resemble a different type of tree.

Steampunk Pirate Flag by Winter Rose
Anyway, this got me thinking about what examples I had seen of steampunk pirates. They effectively appear in the computer game 'Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura' (2001) with an attack on an airship in the opening short movie. There were a couple of other examples that I could think of. Of course the first comes from Jules Verne one of the grandfathers of the steampunk genre. In 1886 he wrote 'Robur the Conqueror' which is about an inventor called Robur who has constructed a heavier than air vessel, called the 'Albatross' capable of flying around the World, leisurely, in three weeks. It has numerous vertical propellors to keep it aloft and horizontal ones to drive it. At one stage it attacks the 'Goahead', which, in the story, is the most sophisticated airship of the day. Robur gives himself the title 'Master of the World' and has a secret island base on Island X. In many ways he is the precursor of the 20th century super villains. Robur has a flag which I have not found anywhere on the internet: a golden sun on a black background which he places on the top of numerous large structures around the World. In 1904 Verne produced a sequel called 'Master of the World' in which Robur produces a vehicle called the 'Terror' which can turn into an aeroplane, a car, a speed boat or a submarine and can travel at 150 mph on land and 200 mph in the air.

'Robur the Conqueror' can be read online at:
'Master of the World' is found at:

These are some book covers which show how people interpreted these stories visually:

I found this image of a similar vehicle called 'The Eclipse' but have been unable to track down which novel, if any, it comes from. Any ideas?

In many ways Robur resembles Captain Nemo in 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' written by Verne in 1870 in that it features a man who has created a vehicle ahead of its time, in Nemo's case, the submarine 'Nautilus', which allows him to travel the World unchallenged. His motives are his own which put him in an ambivalent moral position and suggest to the reader that society needs to be careful in developing these new technologies. Nemo and Robur are rather like Greek heroes such as Aeneas and Odysseus who roam the World, often driven by personal tragedy, and sometimes with a nihilistic attitude to those they meet. The parallel between the two characters is brought out notably in the movies. '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1954) features James Mason as a bearded Nemo who looks very much like Vincent Price's Robur in 'Master of the World' (1961). They are the black-bearded ones in the posters below.

The 'Master of the World' movie owes much more to the first book, 'Robur the Conqueror' than to the book it is titled after, though apparently there were abortive plans to make a movie of that too. Price's character seeks to bring peace to the World by threatening to bomb any country which does not comply. This was a common theme in novels of the 1920s and 1930s, i.e. the use of airpower as a deterrent to war.  It can be seen as a parallel to how people perceived nuclear weapons during the Cold War which was at its height at the time of these movies. Notice that the movie makers went for an airship rather than the heavier-than-air vessel featured in the novels.
I should mention 'The Warlord of the Air' (1971) written by Michael Moorcock, the first in the Oswald Bastable triology which features an Edwardian soldier from our world travelling to an alternate 1970s in which the First World War never occurred and there are still colonial empires. Bastable becomes a member of the British airship fleet but increasingly becomes disillusioned with the oppression of peoples that has kept the empires in place.
Whether, even Verne's characters, can be seen as true pirates is for discussion. They do not raid in the way we would expect pirates to do, but they look very much as we imagine 'sea dogs' to appear and they have a moral ambivalence about them. Recently I saw the movie 'Stardust' (2007) which features Britain in, it seems, something like the 1840s and a link to a world where magic and witches are real. In this alternate world there is a clear aerial pirate (also a transvestite and there are implications that he is gay), Captain Shakespeare played by Robert De Niro. He is more clearly a pirate with an appropriate crew and his vessel is a pirate ship with a large balloon on top. However, he does not go on pirate raids, rather he harvests lightning in the heart of storms. The lightning is stored in tubes, is marketable and is useable as a weapon. The style of Shakespeare's vessel is more 18th than 19th century.
Captain Shakespeare's Vessel

The final example I would look at comes from what I would term a bakelite-punk movie, 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow' (2004). This features a British military base which flies above the Pacific. One of its officers is Captain Franky Cook played by Angelina Jolie sporting a eye-patch. The movie is set some time in the 1940s but in a world where the Second World War has not occurred, though it is implied Japan has invaded China. Technology has advanced faster than in our world. Cook serves the British empire but her manner, to some extent, is like that of Robur and Nemo. She could be seen as being in the privateer rather than a pirate. However, the vessel that is her base owes a lot to that envisaged in 'Robur the Conqueror'. The fact that Sky Captain Joe Sullivan has a base close to a lake in eastern USA and is a freelancer has some parallels to Robur. Getting images of the flying bases over the Pacific featured in the movie has proven tricky and I could only find the one below. Beneath that is Jolie in her role as Cook (of course this can be seen as a reference to the real Captain Cook in the Pacific). Her outfit and pose seems to owe much to Mussolini and the uniforms of the Italian Fascists rather than anything from the British Royal Airforce or Royal Navy.
British Flying Aircraft Carrier
Captain 'Franky' Cook
So, what we have seen so far, rather than real steampunk pirates, are either inventors who hope to shape the world by using airpower or really privateers (or, in Shakespeare's case, a kind of electrical trawlerman). A real aerial pirate story in a steampunk setting would be interesting. I would be grateful, if you have come across any, in whatever media: book, movie, game, etc. if you would alert me to them. This is a potentially wonderful subset of the steampunk genre.
P.P. It turns out I am not the only one on the quest for steampunk pirates, some people are actually doing something about it, check out:
and a female steampunk pirate outfit:
This Halloween, steampunk pirate outfits seem to be de rigeur.


MCG said...

Your mystery airship "The Eclipse" is from pulp favourite Frank Reade Jr. See here for other weird and wonderful aerial dreadnoughts:

According to that page the Frank Reade stories came before Verne!

You might enjoy George Griffith's turn of the century scientific romances "Outlaws of the Air" and "Angel of the Revolution" which are available online.

Charlie Cornelius said...

I think the airship 'The Eclipse' is connected with the character Frank Reade. See:

Rooksmoor said...

Charlie thanks for this, I will follow your lead up. Rooksmoor.

Rooksmoor said...

MCG thanks for the comprehensive references. You and Charlie seem to have been more effective in your searches. Anything I turned up on the Eclipse related to modern day aircraft. I will have to explore these Frank Reade stories, as I have never heard of them before, in contrast to the Verne books.

Finverra said...

what about the Disney's movie Treasure Planet which is a cyber/ steampunk movie that has space pirates, adventurers, and flying ships. oh and lots of treasure, (it's probably cyber punk though :(

Rooksmoor said...

Finverra, I certainly think that falls into the Steampunk genre in terms of the technology and the styling. I have never seen it which is why I did not think of it, so thanks for drawing it to my attention.


Spoon1993 said...

If you're interested, paranormal romance author Meljean Brook has begun a Steampunk pirate series called "The Iron Seas." The first entry is a short story titled "Here There Be Monsters," and the whole series promises to be an extremely intelligent, well thought out endeavor.