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The Real Life and Fictional Characters Who Inspired J.M. Barrie’s Captain Hook

by Rachel McGinnis

Captain Hook has been immortalized as one of the greatest, most infamous villains in literature.  Created by James Matthew Barrie in his play in 1904 and restored for a number of novels and stories in 1911, this character has been making readers shudder from his sinister behavior for over a century.

Who could forget his cadaver-like appearance or his melancholy blue eyes that burned a fiery red when he became angry or violent?  For that matter, who could forget his hook that was used to menace both his enemies and his crew?  He was the fearless captain of the Jolly Roger whose only apprehension stemmed from the sight of his own blood, which was described as strangely-colored and thick.  Hook was said to be the only man that Barbecue, Captain Long John Silver of Treasure Island, feared.

Barrie revealed in his speech, “Hook at Eton,” which was delivered to Eton pupils in 1927, that the fictional Captain James Hook was a former student of Eton College and indicated that disclosing the identity of this character would create a scandal, implying that he was someone of great importance prior to his transformation into the barbaric captain.  Captain Hook’s gentleman background is apparent through his maddening concern for maintaining good form although his reaction to others that illustrate good form, such as Smee and Peter Pan, is hardly indicative of a gentleman or the like.

Hook is an exceptionally strange and convoluted character, both a villain and a gentleman, which begs the question: what inspired J.M. Barrie to create such an elaborate and complicated scoundrel?  Who was J.M. Barrie’s muse when he developed this character?

Although there are several theories regarding the inspiration for Captain Hook, none have been indefinitely proven as the source of Barrie’s creativity, nor did Barrie reveal a particular individual that led him to author Captain Hook.  Both factual and fictional individuals have been cited as potential sources, with the earliest nonfiction source being the English sea captain Christopher Newport.

Captain Christopher Newport was, among other things, a 16th century privateer employed by Queen Elizabeth I of England.  Given that the line between piracy and privateering has historically been blurred, his employment as a privateer is one of the most profound similarities connecting him to Captain Hook.

Having analogous premises, the primary difference between the occupations was that privateers where employed by a respectable company that funded the excursions and took a portion of the cargo that was seized by the privateers, while pirates were not associated with any sort of organization and retained the expropriated cargo.

Christopher Newport is famed for having led more attacks on Spanish ships and settlements than any other English privateer, which led to a somewhat infamous reputation and potentially created a basis for Captain Hook.

Newport was a privateer for roughly twenty years and, during this time, presented King James I with two baby crocodiles to satiate the king’s lust for exotic animals.  Barrie’s use of a crocodile in the story Peter Panis possibly based on Newport’s presentation of this unusual, fierce animal to the king.  Additionally, Christopher Newport was largely identified as a man of the sea who repeatedly left his wife in order to complete five dangerous voyages across the Atlantic Ocean indicating that, similar to the captain, he was both courageous and lacked a female presence for a large segment of his adult life.

Nonetheless, perhaps the most striking similarity between Captain Hook and Captain Christopher Newport was that both were missing a hand.  After leading his crew onto an enemy ship off the coast of Cuba, Newport lost his arm in the battle and shockingly replaced it with a hook.  Similar to Barrie’s Captain Hook, Newport lost his right hand although many contemporary film versions, such as the film Hook, inaccurately portray this character without a left hand due to the difficulty of completing everyday tasks without the supposedly dominate right hand.

Although there are a number of similarities between the legendary Christopher Newport and the fictional Captain Hook, there are also a number of stark differences.  Captain Newport was renowned for treating Natives with respect, using trade to procure their cooperation, which is entirely distinct from the warring relationship J.M. Barrie depicts between Captain Hook and the Redskins of Neverland.  Additionally, Newport reportedly used persuasion, eloquence, and example to control and command his crew.  During a time in which hangings at sea and various other brutal methods were popular forms of punishment for unruly crews, Newport’s approach to discipline was singular and unique.  His concept of maintaining order was also very different from Captain Hook’s who repeatedly threatened to use violence and his hook to maintain thoughtless obedience.

Another factual individual that some historians believe to have inspired Barrie’s Captain Hook is Captain James Cook.  The most striking similarity between these individuals is their name, Captain James Cook and Captain James Hook.  Captain Cook was an 18th century navigator and explorer known for researching the eastern coastline of Australia and mapping regions of New Zealand.  He was killed in 1779 by Hawaiian natives after his ship, the Resolution, was severely damaged and forced to return to Kealakekua, Hawaii.  After learning of this misfortune, the natives lost respect for Captain Cook because they did not understand how a god could have let this hardship befall him, which led to his demise.  Historians have speculated that the Lost Boys who are catalysts in the downfall of Captain Hook are based on this native tribe, which was responsible for the downfall of Captain Cook.

Alternatively, it has been proposed that J.M. Barrie was inspired by various other fictional characters he was exposed to prior to composing his story, Peter PanTreasure Island, which was written in 1883, contains Captain Long John Silver who, similar to Captain Hook, was yet another malignant sea captain known for his duplicity.

Although he is a literary figure renowned for his treachery and deceitfulness, Silver is initially portrayed by Robert Louis Stevenson as a kind, polite, almost gentlemanly figure and was based on William Henley, a crippled, clever friend of the authors.  Silver is repeatedly described as merry, cheerful, and intelligent and only later does he become the dreaded Captain Long John Silver who lacks concern for loyalty or human life.  Similar to Captain Silver, Captain Hook is an educated man described as both ruthless and gentlemanly.  It is perhaps from Captain Silver that Barrie was inspired to create an educated man that chose a life of piracy and treachery.  Evidence of Barrie’s knowledge of Captain Silver is apparent from his reference to the “Sea Cook” and “Barbecue” in his novel, which are alternative names for Captain Long John Silver.

An additional similarity between Captain Silver and Captain Hook is the loss of a limb. Captain Hook lost his hand and replaced it with a hook. Captain Silver lost a leg, but did not replace it.  Instead, Silver used a crutch and was exceptionally dexterous and able-bodied, which is similar to Captain Hook who prefers and values his hook so highly that he proclaims he would pray for his children to be born with hooks instead of hands.

An additional difference between the characters is their appearance.  While Captain Hook resembles a cadaver and has a dark complexion and eyes that occasionally emit a red glow, Captain Silver is depicted with pale skin, robust and full of life.  Finally, Captain Silver is married to a woman of African descent while Captain Hook does not have any interaction with females, which prompts him to kidnap Wendy Darling so that she can become a mother for him and his crew.

Another fictional character that possibly inspired Barrie’s representation of Captain Hook was Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, which was published in 1851.  Captain Ahab, similar to Captain Hook, was depicted with a black face and eyes that glowed like coals, “eyes of red murder.”  Both Herman Melville and J.M. Barrie used the archetypal imagery of a darkened countenance to illustrate the astounding villainy of Captain Ahab and Captain Hook.  These men were the primary sources of evil in the stories and, as such, were given dark complexions that contrasted with the pale skin of the various other (apparently less evil) characters.  The captains had unique appearances that created the facade of foreignness and, given the historical fear of the nonnative and unknown, their appearances made them increasingly frightening to the reader.

The use of a hook to replace Hook’s hand consumed by the crocodile is similar to Moby Dick’s use of an ivory leg to restore Captain Ahab’s lost appendage.  These characters are often identified by these trademark makeshift appendages while both characters are also said to have attended college at some point in their lives before becoming seamen.  Perhaps the most important similarity between the pair, however, is the depiction of their demises.  Both Captain Ahab and Captain Hook meet their doom at the mouth of a seagoing monster, a whale and a crocodile, respectively.  Captain Hook, who previously relied on the ticking clock that the crocodile swallowed to alert him to the presence of the beast, was unaware that his enemy was at hand because the clock had run down and was no longer ticking the alarm.  In a strange coincidence, Melville makes a reference to a whale that has swallowed a gold watch in Moby Dick as well, yet the author makes no reference to the watch’s ticking.  Finally, both captains are primarily driven by their intense, seething hatred throughout the stories, Ahab by his disdain for the “Great White Whale,” Moby Dick, and Hook for his abhorrence to the “Great White Father,” Peter Pan.

Although there are a number of similarities between certain factual and fictional figures, there is no way of knowing which individuals may have inspired J.M. Barrie to create his degenerate and infamous Captain Hook.  Without Barrie’s acknowledgement of a particular biographical inspiration, it can only be surmised that Barrie’s inspiration was possibly one of these individuals, a combination of these potential sources, or the result of an unknown individual that Barrie was personally acquainted with during his lifetime, such as the Davies children who inspired him to compose the story of Peter Pan.  Regardless, Barrie’s combination of Captain Hook’s unique traits guarantees that this disreputable character will without a doubt continue to live on in infamy.