Tia Dalma is featured in the second and third installments of the series, and she is shrouded in magic and mystery. She lives in the remote interior of a creepy swamp, her home a sinister tree house with a massive snake loitering in a branch at its doorway. Our initial encounter with her is occasioned by Sparrow’s terrifying but urgent trek to see her and solicit her help with getting information about a certain key. As Sparrow anticipates, Tia Dalma is able to explain the origins and purpose of the key.
Sparrow leaves Tia Dalma satisfied with the outcome of his visit. However, by the close of the movie Sparrow has a new set of troubles: he and his ship have been dragged into the sea by the Kraken, Davy Jones’ sea monster. Dead Man’s Chest closes with Sparrow’s crew and comrades returning to Tia Dalma for refuge. She consoles them and promises to lead them on a journey to rescue Jack from the underworld. At World’s End begins with that rescue mission. Tia Dalma has joined Jack’s crew and repeatedly uses her intuitive powers to help guide the crew to Jack. Before the film is over we come to understand that Tia Dalma is in fact the sea goddess Calypso, bound in human form, a lynchpin in the film’s plot, and the cause for Davy Jones’ monstrous embodiment.
Tia Dalma is a symbolic embodiment of the Caribbean, implied by various components of her persona shaped by a Caribbean identity. Among the most immediately apparent is her speech. Unlike the other characters in the series, most of whom quite curiously do not have Caribbean accents, hers is very pronounced—an 18th century Miss Cleo, if you will. This is particularly meaningful because the films in some ways erase traces of a black Caribbean presence, which at that time would have consisted primarily of slaves, and instead feature Blacks as part of various pirate crews in what strikes me as disproportionate excess. This erasure is particularly evident in the opening film of the series, The Curse of the Black Pearl, in which all the servants in the governor’s mansion are quite peculiarly white. Kevin Frank argues that this is a result of Disney’s “utopian ” impulse and its unwillingness to represent the reality of the region’s black and enslaved population (59). Tia Dalma’s Caribbeaness is further inscribed by her hair, which like Sparrow’s is dreadlocked, a hairstyle closely associated with reggae icon Bob Marley and with the Caribbean in general. Additionally, her face is adorned with markings that approximate tribal scarification, linking her to the region’s slave presence.
Both Sparrow and Davy Jones have been seduced by Tia Dalma. However, because she broke Davy Jones’ heart, he caused her to be bound in human form. He also removed his heart, placed it in a chest, and hid it away so he could no longer be hurt, transforming himself into a grotesque monster, his external persona mirroring the anger and heartbreak he felt inside. Before Pirates of the Caribbean part three is over, Calypso is released from bondage in her human form. First she manifests as a giant-sized version of Tia Dalma then explodes into a landslide of crabs that crawl into the ocean, resuming her identity as goddess of the sea and literally submerging herself in a Caribbean identity.
My reading of the film is then that Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones’ relationship with Tia Dalma is a metonymy for Europe’s relationship with the region. Using this analytical platform, I’d like to suggest that the Pirates of the Caribbean films invoke magic and mythology to help situate the region as enchanting and seductive, yet foreboding and deadly, and these characteristics co-conspire to render the region feral, primitive, and menacing. To further explain, Tia Dalma/Calypso’s potent and mythological seductive capacity persists in an ongoing tradition of situating the region as enchanting and bewitching, rendering helpless those outsiders who dare come in contact with it. Like Sparrow and Davy Jones, these outsiders become helpless in their infatuation with the region. The Caribbean as marvelous reality was perpetuated from Western Europe’s initial encounter with it, evident in Columbus’ description of Hispaniola: “Española is a marvel; the mountains and hills, and plains, and fields, and the soil, so beautiful and rich for planting and sowing …There could be no believing, without seeing.” This “marvelous” identity of the Caribbean is what persists in Tia Dalma’s representation of the Caribbean and reinvigorates a historical effort to portray it (and other colonized areas) as enchanting and seductive.
This rendering of Tia Dalma and hence the Caribbean as magical suggests that those bodies associated with the region, namely slaves and native Amerindians, are also inferior and subhuman given the West’s traditionally logocentric posture and its resistance to embracing or acknowledging non-material or spiritual forces outside the confines of conventional organized religion. As Edward Said suggests, classifying colonized groups as backward and irrational clears space for Western assumptions of superiority relative to those groups. As such, Tia Dalma’s representation of the Caribbean and her immersion in magic and myth collaborate to recommend that the Caribbean is backward and to alleviate Western responsibility for the savage violence enacted against the region and its people.