Penzance, Cornwall: Pirates
Art Imitating Life
A creative work—a song, a book, a movie, or a play—is sometimes based upon a true event. An artist gets his inspiration from a historical event and creates his work based upon what happened in the near or distant past.
I was speaking with some friends recently, and we were talking about pirates. I don’t remember how the discussion started, but it inspired me to write this article, to combine two of my favorite interests—travel and the performing arts—into one Hub.
The travel in my article is the town of Penzance in the county of Cornwall in England. The performing arts aspect of this article is Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, Pirates of Penzance.
Where is Penzance?
Penzance is located in Cornwall, the westernmost county in England. Known as the “Capital of the Cornish Riviera,” it’s the end of the line for British Rail (BritRail), and is only 10 miles from Land’s End, the westernmost tip of England.
Penzance faces due south and is surrounded (protected) by craggy cliffs on three sides. The town’s location causes it to have a temperate climate all year. Produce is ready to be picked and flowers bloom earlier in Penzance than in all other parts of Great Britain. Penzance is the only town in England where I have seen palm trees growing.
The isolation caused by its being surrounded on three sides by the sea—its rugged surroundings— would make for a peaceful, idyllic existence, wouldn’t you think?
You wouldn’t be more incorrect.
Westernmost Part of England
Pirates from the Sea!
Because of the town's isolated location, Penzance has always been open to attacks from the sea. During the 16th century, Spanish raiders destroyed most of the town. The oldest buildings you see today in Penzance date from the 18th century.
For people living in the United States and Australia, buildings dating from the 18th century would be considered very old. For people living in England, buildings dated from the 1700s would not be thought of that way.
Have you ever visited the town of Penzance in Cornwall?
Pirates from the Land!
Penzance is surrounded in three compass directions by sharp cliffs and a ragged coastline. The roughness of its surroundings doesn't end when the rocks reach the sea. The sharp rocks and raggedness of the coast extend below the sea.
It was very easy for an unsuspecting ship to be slammed about in the water and pushed up against the rocks, breaking apart. The pirates came not from the sea, but from the land. Townspeople in Penzance would have someone watching from up on the cliffs to see if a ship laden with cargo was approaching. The lookout would signal to those waiting down below that a ship was in sight. Soon enough, the ship would be pushed up against the jagged rocks and break apart. The townspeople would gather as much of the treasure as they could, and quickly hide it in caves in the surrounding hills.
Life Imitating Art
W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) were musical collaborators. Gilbert wrote the words and Sullivan wrote the music for 14 comic operas. One of the best known of these was Pirates of Penzance. The opera had its debut in New York City on December 31, 1879. Its London, England debut was on April 3, 1880.
Gilbert and Sullivan were both born in London, England. Both men were aware that pirates frequently invaded the town of Penzance and that the townspeople of Penzance often took advantage of ships being torn apart along the town's rocky coastline.
There were even rumors of smuggling by the townspeople. I've traveled to Penzance a few times and once asked some men in the town about the rumors. I had heard it whispered that smuggling still went on, and I wanted to see what reaction I would receive from the townspeople.
I didn't receive a "yes" or a "no." It was more like a knowing wink.
Have you ever attended a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance?
Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance
Pirates of Penzance (also know as The Slave of Duty) is about a young man who was apprenticed to a band of hapless pirates. The young man, Frederic, was to be released upon reaching the age of 21. As he was about to be released, it was learned that Frederic was born on February 29th, a date which occurs every four years. The pirates then calculated that Frederic would not be released from his apprenticeship until he was 63 years old.
Frederic made it his mission to break up the band of pirates, since they were never very successful at what they set out to do. The pirates were all orphans, and they vowed to never take as prisoner anyone who was an orphan. Word of this got out, and every person who was ever captured claimed they were an orphan. The pirates, upon learning they had captured an orphan, soon released their captive.
Have you ever attended a Penzance and Newlyn Rugby Football Club game?
Today's Cornish Pirates
There are still pirates in the town of Penzance in Cornwall. The Cornish Pirates—the Penzance and Newlyn Rugby Football Club—a professional rugby union team founded in 1945, train and play their home games at Mennaye Field in Penzance.