This is the story of Emilio Salgari, the man who created amazing pirate stories long before Jack Sparrow was cool.
Back in the nineteenth century, when the internet didn’t fight “fake news” on a daily basis, life was a lot easier for authors and journalists. Certainly, this meant that writers could deceive anyone with striking stories that no one would call into question. They would even come up with intriguing personalities (clearly not their real ones) to make themselves look as their fictional selves: attractive and fascinating. Among them, there was one particular writer whose life story was quite the opposite to this.
For a moment, imagine yourself dressed as a pirate, writing epic stories about your adventures, and making yourself famous because of them. Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, this was more or less the life Emilio Salgari had as a renowned writer, except he wasn’t a pirate, and he never really got the chance to experience the adventures he wrote about. But he was indeed very famous for his writings, which ironically, revolved around buccaneers and battleships. As a matter of fact, he was the man who created amazing pirate stories long before Jack Sparrow was cool.
Salgari was born in Verona on August 21, 1862. And like many other kids his age, he fantasized about sailing away and having the most envied adventures of all. He dreamt of exploring the seven seas and turn himself into a mighty captain. This is why, later on, he studied to become a seamanship at a Naval Academy in Venice. I know what you're thinking. Stories like this always develop in the same cheesy way. Everything he asks for in life is granted like a magical wish. He becomes insanely famous and dies peacefully. Well, this isn’t that kind of story.
Shortly after he tried to attend Naval Academy, he had to flunk out because his academic performance was not the best. So his dream of becoming an explorer of the seas was doomed. Salgari never graduated, but this didn’t stop him from pursuing his true passion. He decided that he could still do it in another way. That’s when he came with the idea of exploiting his love for adventure through writing.
Salgari began his career as a reporter for an Italian newspaper called La Nuova Arena. Although this was a huge opportunity, journalism didn’t seem to be what he was looking for. Tired of real life events, he started publishing series about amazing endeavors around the world. Sure enough, most of these tales presented him as an avid adventurer who had been pretty much everywhere, from the Sudan desert, all the way to Nebraska, even though this wasn’t slightly true. Passionate as he was, he even signed his texts as Captain Salgari, although he wasn’t a sailor nor a pirate. Luckily, his writings were so good, they quickly gained other people’s attention. Even though he couldn’t make a living out if this, he really enjoyed sharing captivating stories with everyone else.
If there was something that really made him stand out from other writers at that time was his infinite creativity. Even though his real voyages hadn’t been so far away, he wrote about the most exotic places and cultures around the world as if he knew them like the back of his hand. For a man who didn’t know really that much about adventures, his stories made up for the lack thereof. Salgari was so driven by his passion he eventually wrote over 200 stories and novels!
His contributions to literature were so significant, he has been considered one of the best Italian authors of all time. Not bad for a guy who writes about a life he never had. Among his vast catalogue, the most popular stories revolved around pirates and epic buccaneers. Some of the top titles include Black Corsair and Sandokan. Unfortunately, this path of glory didn’t last long. As I told you before, this is not the classic cliché.
His life as a writer wasn’t enough to support his family and they constantly had to deal with significant amounts of debt. Sadly, this was just the tip of the iceberg. During this time, his father committed suicide and his wife Ida developed a very rare disease. It looked like nothing could go worse, and Salgari felt like there was no point of even trying anymore. After his wife was committed to a mental institution, Salgari committed suicide through the ancient japanese ritual of seppuku (also known as “harakiri”).
He left three letters, addressed to his family, his coworkers, and his publisher. This last one, while brief, was poetically bleak:
“To you that have grown rich from the sweat of my brow while keeping myself and my family in misery, I ask only that from those profits you find the funds to pay for my funeral. I salute you while I break my pen.”
Emilio Salgari was a very talented writer. He could travel the globe without even knowing what was out there. His powerful imagination has captivated audiences with epic battles and intriguing characters one must read about at least once. Even though his life was not the one he wanted to have, he still dedicated his life to what he loved the most: the sea.
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Images from the series Black Sails