Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) is enigmatic, charismatic, jovial, and mischievous. He’s an integral part of what has made the Pirates of the Caribbean (PotC) franchise so beloved. Now infamous in the blockbuster cinema canon, Sparrow has been immortalized with his own Wikipedia page, entire websites devoted to his lore, and perhaps the most infamous Saturday Night Live Digital Short of all time. The intertextual nature of this character is incredibly vast.
Sparrow’s intertextual appeal is driven by the mystery that surrounds him. Mystery is seemingly built into his identity—his very DNA, even—and he devotes a lot of energy to maintaining his mythos; as the legend of his escape from a desert island using sea turtles shows, Sparrow not only crafts his mythologies, but lets them take on new lives of their own. He is legend inasmuch as what he tells others as what they tell of him.
Naturally, the legend of Captain Jack Sparrow raises a lot of unanswerable questions. While he does get broken down and taken to task more than one in the PotC franchise, all his oddities and curiosities are never fully revealed. Sparrow, more often than not, is an absolutely inscrutable character, and no amount of research and questioning can elucidate a fulfilling understanding of him.
With this notion of the character’s mythos in mind, there is a curiosity about Sparrow that begs to be explored: a particular fascination with eunuchs. In what context does this fascination occur, and what might it tell us about the infamous captain of the Black Pearl?
It’s important to note up-front that in the PotC franchise, the films have no (overt) eunuch characters. According to the PotC Fandom Wiki, the only “notable” eunuch in the PotC shared universe appears in the novel The Price of Freedom. In the films, eunuchs are only mentioned, and under specific circumstances:
Why is this the case? Answering that is a tough question, but understanding the context of his comments about Turner is key to addressing Sparrow’s fixation.
Sparrow calls Turner a eunuch twice in Curse of the Black Pearl. The first time is in the blacksmith shop where Turner is an apprentice. When Turner returns to the shop after a meeting with Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce) and finds Sparrow trying break his bonds and hide from the British soldiers hunting him across Port Royal, a conflict ensues. Realizing he can’t get out of the conflict so easily, Sparrow first tries intimidation and condescension to avoid a drawn-out fight. Only upon learning Turner is a well-trained swordsman with an air of bravado about him does Sparrow begin to panic and frantically fight.
During the fight, he attacks Turner verbally and physically, belittling him for spending so much time crafting weapons and practicing his swordsmanship. It is in this back and forth — after he ridicules Turner for a supposed inability to “otherwise woo” a love interest — that Sparrow remarks: “You’re not a eunuch, are you?” However, rather than distracting Turner or bruising his ego long enough to make an escape, the comment only seems to incense the conflict, to the point where Sparrow has to “cheat” and draw his pistol on Turner.
Later on in Black Pearl, Sparrow calls Turner a eunuch again, but in a very different context. By this point in the film, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his crew have ransacked and destroyed the ship Turner and Sparrow commandeered to save Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). During the battle between the Pearl and the HMS Interceptor, Sparrow — who had been taken prisoner by Barbossa — escapes the brig and attempts to find Turner, Swann, and the gold piece necessary to break an old, Aztec curse.
At this point, Sparrow and Turner both know Barbossa actually needs Turner’s blood to break the curse, not Swann’s. Turner’s father—known as “Bootstrap” Bill—was a former Black Pearl crewmember. After Barbossa committed mutiny against Sparrow and took command of the Pearl, Bootstrap was enraged. As Sparrow’s friend, Bootstrap avenged him by sending a piece of the gold to his son so that the mutinous crew would be cursed forever. After sending Bootstrap to the depths for this act, Barbossa and his crew realized their error. Ever since, they have been searching for Bootstrap’s child and the gold piece ever since; they need that child’s blood to end the curse. Sparrow, knowing all of this, desperately wants to regain control of the Pearl, already having tried to bargain with Barbossa for the ship.
With the battle lost and the gold piece back in Barbossa’s hands, Turner is Sparrow’s last play for control; now that the Interceptor is destroyed, the survivors — including Sparrow — are Barbossa’s captives. Barbossa is set on taking them back to the treasure and spilling all of Swann’s blood to hopefully lift the curse. His bargain having failed and his attempt to regaining control over the gold piece falling through, it’s possible Sparrow realizes now that he needs to bite the bullet and remain Barbossa’s captive until they get back to Isla de Muerta—the island where the cursed gold is kept. He needs to buy himself as much time as possible, and that’s where the young Turner messes up his plan.
When Turner threatens to kill himself if Swann is not set free and the incredulous Barbossa asks, “Who are you?,” Sparrow attempts to intervene. He says Turner is “no one,” a somewhat distant relation with a “lovely singing voice,” and yes: Sparrow once again calls him a eunuch. Unfortunately, Turner reveals what Sparrow has been attempting to keep close to the chest, and his entire plan backfires.
In Dead Man’s Chest, the circumstances and context of Sparrow’s insinuation of Turner as a eunuch are again very different. In an attempt to find Sparrow and retrieve his compass for Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) — who has imprisoned Swann for allowing the pirate to escape — Turner finds himself on an island of cannibals. Once there, he is captured by the cannibals and brought to their village, where he encounters a familiar face.
It initially looks as though Sparrow has been elevated to a god-like status to the island natives, who present Turner as a sort of gift to the pirate. Speaking in their native tongue, Sparrow apparently dissuades them from killing and eating Turner, using phrases like “eensy-weensy” while prodding his friend like a piece of old steak. Sparrow then says “eunuchy — snip, snip,” to which the natives ooh and ahh in recognition.
Before encouraging them to imprison Turner, Sparrow quickly whispers “save me” to his friend before he is taken away. We learn, in this moment, they don’t view Sparrow as a god—rather, they are priming him to be a human sacrifice. Turner is then reunited with the crew from the Pearl, who find a way to escape their cage and save Sparrow from an otherwise untimely end.
In the minds of many audience members, there’s existed little doubt that Captain Jack Sparrow is a complex character. He’s inherently amoral, self-serving, and enigmatic, but at the same time he shows loyalty, a sense of what he feels is right, and compassion. And as weird as it sounds, Sparrow’s invocation of the eunuch in his relationship with Will Turner is emblematic of these complexities.
First, consider how Sparrow leverages the idea of the eunuch in an adversarial context. When faced with Turner as an obstacle, he needs to find ways to win. This makes sense, given his true skillset; as DVD commentary for Black Pearl reveals, Sparrow is actually “the worst swordsman of the main characters.” Throughout the franchise, he only really wins duels by violating the traditional rules of engagement. Examples of this include:
Despite his reputation and experience, Sparrow is at a disadvantage when it comes to direct conflict. He needs other tools in order to win the day, and much of that boils down to his silver tongue.
With attitudes of the Colonial Era frankly negative toward eunuchs (they would eventually lead to a criminalization of eunuchs in British colonial territories such as India), it’s not much of a surprise Sparrow would try and weaponize them. Sparrow likely sees Turner — by all accounts a strapping young lad with what we might today consider a rather masculine profession and the build to go with it — as a man of insecurities; exploiting them through the insinuation of a lack of “manhood” would be an advantage he would try to seize.
If you talked anyone who’s seen Black Pearl even once and asked them what Sparrow’s goal is throughout the narrative, pretty much everyone would say it’s to get his ship back. His motivation is almost painfully simple, but it’s essential to the heart of the first film in the PotC franchise. This is ultimately an issue of control and power for Sparrow; without his ship, he is nothing, and that’s reinforced over and over again throughout the film.
Invoking the eunuch as a controlling mechanism, therefore, should not be surprising. Even though he plays it fast and loose, Sparrow is a schemer who will say and do whatever it takes — even capitalizing on opportune moments. So, after plans A through Y fail him during the battle between the Pearl and the Interceptor, he’s got to find a way to leverage whatever he’s got left against Barbossa.
Trying to stop Turner from messing it up for him, Sparrow attempts to steer the dialogue between his nemesis and his friend. His last shot is trying to save the Ace in his pocket (Turner) for the right moment, and that being blown too early would completely destroy the plan. In this moment, he plays up the legend of Turner’s “eunuch” status as a way of belying the truth of who Turner is. To control the situation, Sparrow needs to keep Turner in his place and create a barrier between him and Barbossa that can be scaled later — for the right price, of course.
Of all the ways in which Sparrow leverages the eunuch motif for his own desires and goals, how he uses the concept in Dead Man’s Chest might be the most telling about his character. Initially, the scene where he interacts with the cannibals and stops them from killing and eating Turner makes it seem like he’s invalidating Turner’s worth in an altruistic move. Rather than let the cannibals eat his friend, he uses that smooth, silver tongue of his to convince them the young man’s no good. In reality — as they take Turner away and Sparrow whispers “save me” to his friend — he’s merely attempting to save himself.
You can argue Sparrow’s merits and wisdom in this moment until the end of time, but it appears his invocation of the eunuch has one of two purposes: either frantic Sparrow just wants another live body to increase the chances of survival for the remaining crew and himself, or he has faith in Turner’s ability to get him out of this situation. Regardless of the answer, it’s all selfishly motivated. In order to save himself, Sparrow must in turn save someone else — long enough to be rescued, that is.
It could be argued that branding others as “eunuch” to diminish them is a sort of crutch for Sparrow — a kind of catch-all tool he can use in moments of crisis. Whether for winning conflicts, establishing power dynamics, or to save his own hide, Sparrow leverages the idea of the eunuch as an inferior directly in his relationship with Turner. This could be related to Sparrow’s insecurities in comparison to his fictional foil. Where he lacks morals, Turner has them in bulk; his swordsmanship is far outmatched by Turner’s; and Sparrow’s obsessive self-concern is dwarfed by Turner’s care for others throughout the franchise. Perhaps feelings of inferiority make Sparrow want to create an inferior in order to retain power.
The reasons for Captain Jack Sparrow’s insistence on calling Will Turner a eunuch are many, but there will never be one true answer. Sparrow is an enigma by nature, and as a character is altogether unreliable. Given his desire to control the narrative, you could argue there’s a metatextual element at stake here — the Sparrow we see on-screen is only the Sparrow he wants us to see. Whether or not this is the case, we’ll never know; in the meantime, all we can do is speculate about a character of legend.
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Nick Schofield is a writer based outside of Boston, Massachusetts. He is a marketing professional by day, and is the founder of Rex Machina, a science communication blog focusing on paleontology and natural history. Nick regularly contributes to Rogues Portal and Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs and has been published in journals such as The Worcester Review. His professional writing portfolio spans journalism, medical device, regulatory, IT, and cybersecurity industries. When he is not writing, Nick is often found geeking out over craft beer, hanging out with his partner and their cats, or crocheting until his hands seize up.
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Want to read more about eunuch villains? Catch the book Painting Dragons by Tucker Lieberman.