The Golden Age of Piracy is said to have taken place between the mid-1680s and 1730, but sometimes it feels like it never ended. With Johnny Depp stinking up screens for the fourth time in the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, it's left to the Museum of London Docklands to set the record straight: "The Muppets' democratic outlook and anarchic spirit echo aspects of pirate life which appeal to people as an escape from the everyday world," reads the splendid caption beneath the poster for Muppets Treasure Island. Ah, Kermit lad – hoist the main sail.
In fairness, the exhibition does a fine job of steering the visitor through the dense political waters that surrounded piracy, while simultaneously exploring those lighter facets of the trade that have seeped into popular culture.
The central narrative follows the life of Captain Kidd, a Scottish sailor who drifted from the navy through state-sponsored privateering to outright piracy during a short and fairly miserable career that ended with him swinging from a rope in front of a mocking crowd at Execution Dock, Wapping in 1701.
Kidd was a pirate and a murderer but also a political victim who had taken to piracy in the Indian Ocean after receiving the backing of five prominent Whig lords, who were hoping to make some tax-free plunder while aggressively "protecting" British commercial interests abroad. The power of the Whigs had waned by the time Kidd returned to London and his death was inevitable, even though he tried to save his life with fanciful claims of buried treasure in a letter written while he was in Newgate prison. That letter is one of many impressive objects in the exhibition, which includes sea charts made in Wapping and a stunning scale model of a ship, the Loyal London, which was commissioned by City merchants in 1666 to hunt pirates. More lurid are the cannons, cutlasses and pirate flags, the door from Newgate and the stark iron gibbet cage, much like the one in which Kidd's body was left hanging as a warning to others for days after his death.
There's an evocative mock-up of a cabin and items that explore piracy in popular culture, including Errol Flynn, Charles Laughton and some racy fiction (Pleasuring The Pirate by Emily Bryan looks a particularly salty read) plus a whole case of Jack Sparrow-related paraphernalia.
To 30 October (020 7001 9844)
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies