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Pirates: Separating Fact from Mythology

Origin of Piracy

Kids and adults alike have an avid fascination with all things pirate. They are a popular Halloween and party costume and what kid does not like to do the comical imitation, 'Arrrrrh matey's' when goofing off with friends. The recent Disney series, The Pirates of the Caribbean, has romanticized this profession of ill-repute. Piracy is an ancient 'profession' dating back at least to ancient Greece where they threatened trading routes and seized cargo of grain and olive oil from Roman ships. It continues even to present day especially in the South China seas.

A pirate is a robber who travels by water although coastal areas were sometimes raided by these thieves. The golden age of piracy began in the 1650's lasting until about 1725. Thousands of men and some women became pirates by trade at this time including Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Henry Morgan, William 'Captain' Kidd, 'Calico' Jack Rackham and Bartholomew Roberts. Pirates were also known as corsairs or buccaneers. Corsairs operated in the Meditteranean Sea between the 15th and 18th centuries. Muslim corsairs included the deadly Barbarossa (red beard) brothers who were based along the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Christian corsairs were based on the Island of Malta. Buccaneers lived on the Caribbean Islands of Hispaniola and its tiny turtle-shaped neighbour, Tortuga. Their name comes from the small wooden huts or boucans in which they smoked the pigs they captured as hunting was their first profession. Their lives as pirates began when the governors of Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, paid them to attack Spanish treasure ships and ports. Gradually, these buccanners became out of control, their government backers lost control of them and they became true pirates, attacking any ship for its booty.

Separating Pirate Fact from Myth

Nearly all of our stereotypes about pirates originate from the golden age of piracy during which time Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the classic, Treasure Island. This story influenced all pirate literature and film which followed. Most of the most durable cliches - treasure maps marked with an X denoting location of the treasure, the black spot as a token of impending doom - come from his imagination although most writers, including Stevenson, probably also developed some aspects of their characters from existing folklore or legends. Long John Silver, the one-legged ship's cook with a parrot companion perched on his shoulder was Stevenson's most enduring creation and together with Captain Hook and crew from James Barrie's Peter Pan, you have the enduring recipes for pirate lore to this very day. So what was truth and what was pure fiction regarding pirates of the golden age? There is always a grain of truth in most legends and a great deal of exaggeration and embellishment come from the seafaring tales! So read on you land lubbers, if you dare, and hope all the pleasures you derive from these freebooters are not dashed away!

Buried Treasure: illustration of William "Captain" Kidd overseeing a treasure burial

Buried Treasure: illustration of William "Captain" Kidd overseeing a treasure burial

Physical Features of Pirates

Many of the physical features we love to emulate when dressing or acting out our pirate fantasies have some basis in fact. Some are merely from the fertile imaginations of Stevenson and other authors penning pirate tales.

1. Clothing:

  • Pirates did wear scarves, bandannas, hats etc. as protection from the sun.
  • In general, all crew members dressed practically such as avoiding loose clothing that might snag on a spar.
  • A few captains adopted the frilled shirts, frock coats and full-bottomed wigs plundered from victims as their everyday look.

2. Hooks, peg legs, eye patches:

  • Battle and bad weather often resulted in serious wounds to pirates and amputation was the primary method of dealing with major liimb injuries.
  • Typically, the ship's carpenter would saw off the injured limb and tie off or cauterize the blood vessels.
  • Amputation of hands was often survived but less often successful was the amputation of legs.
  • Although rare, the peg-legged pirate has been historically documented.
  • The 16th C French buccaneer, Francois le Clerc was nicknamed, "Jambe de Bois" due to his wooden leg.
  • Eyes lost due to injury or infection would have been painful but survivable so the eye patch was undoubtedly a fairly common sight on a pirate.

3. Earrings:

  • Contrary to depictions by popular 19th C artists, there is little evidence that pirates wore earrings.
  • They were not a fashion statement at the turn of the 18th C so there is no reason in terms of making a fashion statement that they would have worn them.
  • The wills of seamen often mention gold rings, gold or silver buttons and buckles but earrings are not mentioned as personal possessions.

4. Pirate Lingo:

  • "Arrrh" is first heard of in movies of the 1930s.
  • Actor Robert Newton played many a pirate in film and television and was born in Dorsett in the West country of England.
  • His West country accent featuring a strong rolling R likely fixed, 'arrrh' as the stereotypical pirate speak. Because of his roles in popular films depicting Long John Silver and Blackbeard, Newton is forever remembered as the stereotypical pirate!
  • A lot of pirate lingo such as, 'avast' and 'ahoy' are terms used by mariners be they pirates or not.

Pirates and Pets

The image of a parrot on the shoulder of a pirate, squawking, "Pretty Polly" are enduring ones in literature and film but do have some basis in fact.

  • Exotic pets were popular among sailors for show and for the high price they could fetch at European markets.
  • Parrots were especially popular because they were colourful, could be taught to talk and were easier to care for than monkeys.
  • Cats would have been at least stow-aways on a ship and useful for controlling the rat population.
  • Ahoy - The pirates version of Aloha, it usually means 'hello' but can sometimes mean 'goodbye'.
  • Avast - Stop
  • Aye, aye - Yes
  • Belay - It can mean to either batten down or secure something or to stop or ignore as in, 'Belay that last command'.
  • Hempen halter - The hangman's noose
  • Hornswaggle - To cheat or defraud
  • Landlubber - A landsman
  • Look lively - Shake a leg, hurry up
  • Me hearties - My crewmates
  • Parley - A conversation between opposing sides to discuss a stop to the fighting or argument.
  • Freebooter - From the Dutch for 'free' and 'plunder'. It is used in reference to a pirate.
  • Davy Jones Locker - The imaginary place at the ocean's bottom where dead sailors and pirates go. It is a reference to death.
  • To have the Davies or Joneseys - To be frightened

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Learn to Speak Pirate!

Pirate Society

Pirates are often portrayed as carefree, not following rules other than to attack rich galleons and drink lots of rum. However, in order to survive on the high seas and successfully attack and pillage ships, pirates needed to have an organized society.

  • They did have rules and regulations. Most crews had a code that all members had to acknowledge or sign.
  • Punishments for lying, stealing or fighting on board ship were outlined in the code.
  • Pirates took the code seriously as the punishments were often severe.
  • A successful pirate ship had good officers. They were more than killers and thieves.
  • There was a clear division of labor.
  • The Captain was in charge and had clear command in battle.
  • The quartermaster oversaw the operation of the ship and divided the loot.
  • Other positions included boatswain, carpenter, cooper, gunner and navigator and the ship's success depended upon each man performing his duty well, efficiently and faithfully.
  • Their careers were usually short-lived as many were killed or injured in battle, when fighting amongst themselves or they succumbed to illness and/or infection for which there was little treatment. Scurvy was a common ailment on long voyages when fresh fruit was limited.
  • Pirates were not all uneducated thugs as all social classes were represented.
  • William Kidd was a wealthy, decorated sailor when he became a pirate around 1696 after participating in a pirate hunting mission.
  • Not all pirates were criminals depending upon your point of view! Privateers were issued Letter of marque and Reprisal which allowed them to attack enemy ports and vessels either keeping the plunder themselves or sharing some of it with the government which had issued the letter.
  • Sir Francis Drake was an English privateer considered a hero by the English whereas the Spanish whose ships he plundered considered him a pirate.
  • In many cases, a career in piracy was better than the alternative. It was not often the case that pirates could not find honest work.
  • When stopping a merchant ship, the crew would often find new members in merchant crewmen who offered to join the pirates.
  • This phenomenon occurred because honest work at sea consisted of merchant or military service with horrible working conditions.
  • Sailors were underpaid, often cheated of their wages, beaten for the least infraction and often forced to serve.
  • It is not hard to imagine why these seamen would choose a more diplomatic and humane life on a pirate vessel.
  • Although it was rare, women did serve as pirates although they usually had to disguise themselves as men as women were forbidden on ships for obvious reasons.
  • Anne Bonny, Mary Reid, Grace O'Malley and Arabella Drummond were women who dressed as men and became pirates.

Treatment of Victims

Pirates used almost every torture imaginable on their unwitting victims. Although they had well formed social groups they were cruel and barbaric with their victims.

  • 'Walking the plank", is a popular image in literature and film representations of pirates. In most films from Cutthroat Island to Carry on Jack, some poor victim has been made to walk the plank. Unfortunately the practice does not bear out in known accounts from the early 18th C.
  • Pirates did use a torture known as 'sweating'. The victim was made to run repeatedly around the ship mast until they collapsed from exhaustion.
  • In 1718, there is an account of a crew that tied a prisoner to the ship main-mast and threw glass bottles at him before ending his agony by using him for target practice.
  • Lighted tapers were often placed between a victim's fingers until they told the pirates the location of any treasure.
  • Pirate Stephen Heynes was so cruel that his own crew begged him to stop the torture of victims because they could stand to watch no more.
  • Women were often raped repeatedly by the entire crew or tortured in other ways until they gave up the location of their jewelry.
  • Victims were often keel-hauled, where they were tied to a rope and thrown overboard. They were then dragged down one side of the ship, under the vessel, over the keel and back up the other side. Any barnacles or sharp debris on the ship's bottom would cut into the victims leading to injury and infection if they survived the ordeal.
  • It was about 1829 that historians were able to identify an actual case of plank walking. On July 23, 1829, The Times newspaper reported the attack of the Dutch ship Vhan Fredericka by pirates near Cuba. Because the crew refused to reveal the location of their gold stash, the pirates tied the crews hands behind their backs, blindfolded them and tied cannon balls to their feet, then making them walk the plank. One passenger who gave them the needed information was spared and put ashore. This story may very well have given birth to the prevalent myth of plank walking being a common pirate punishment!
  • Pirates who committed an offense against their code were often marooned on an island and left to die of starvation, exposure and dehydration.

Pirate Insignia and Buried Treasure

1. Although it is a romantic notion and the idea of finding buried treasure appeals to every person, pirates rarely buried treasure. The persistance of the myth is due mostly to the central theme of Treasure Island which involved a search for buried pirate treasure.

  • Most loot gained during an attack was quickly divided up amongst the crew. They would rather spend it immediately than bury it.
  • A lot of the treasure gained consisted of perishable items like fabric, silk and food.
  • Pirates understood that their life was hard and they might be gone tomorrow so they preferred to spend immediately rather than later.
  • Only two instances of true buried treasure have been well documented.
  • In 1573, Francis Drake attacked mule trains carrying Spanish silver from a South American mine to the Carribbean from where it would be transported to Europe. Drake amassed about 170,000 lbs of silver which was too much to transport back to his ship. The crew buried most of the treasure after loading as much as they could. The same night, English ships returned to the shore and recovered their buried treasure that Drake and his men had left behind.
  • In the 1700's, William Kidd buried treasure on the islands at the mouth of New York harbour. Only part of the treasure Kidd reported he had buried was ever found and treasure hunters sought the remaining booty but to no avail. Is there treasure still buried near New York from William Kidd or did Kidd exaggerate the amount he had stashed leaving no more left to find? We will probably never know.

2. Pirate flags were truly flown by pirates - this account is true!

  • Flags were flown to terrorize their victims into surrendering before a fight ensued.
  • The earliest flags were red (symbolizing blood and battle) or black (for death) reminiscent of the plague ships which flew black flags as a warning to other vessels.
  • The skull and crossbones, which became known as the Jolly Roger was first flown in 1718 by Captain Richard Worley who flew a black flag with a white death's head and crossed femurs. This had been a symbol of death since medieval times.
  • Eventually, each Captain and ship had its own customized flag.

Many stories and movies have romanticized pirates as charming adventurers. Everyone is charmed by Jack Sparrow of The Pirates of the Caribbean fame. People love to emulate in voice and costume these rogues of the sea. However, Robert Louis Stevenson although creating a number of mythologies surrounding pirates did get one fact authentically portrayed - his pirates were murderous and cruel. So thar ye have it! Many stereotypes 'o band 'o pirates be pure fiction but many have a basis in fact. woe ye're not too disappointed!

Works Cited

Foxe, Ed. Pirate Myths and their Origins. September 22, 2009.

Minster,Christopher. Ten Facts About Pirates: Separating Pirate Truth from Fiction. June 3, 2012.

NMM learning team.Ships, Seafarers and Life at Sea: Pirates. Royal Museums Greenwich. January 28, 2005.

Pirate Flags, June 4, 2012.


Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 09, 2015:

So happy you enjoyed the hub! I enjoyed writing it.

Lee Cloak on March 09, 2015:

Great hub, full of very interesting detail, well done, Thanks!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 02, 2013:

Farley, I love a good joke! Thanks for stopping by....

Farley Simpson on June 30, 2013:

I once tried to enlist as a buccaneer. I pleaded with the head pirate, but he said "I've my buccaneers, begone!". Looking around, seeing none, I replied "Where are your buccaneers?"

"On me buccan head!" the pirate replied.

parwatisingari from India on June 12, 2012:

love it, sharing a link for those who want try pirate talk.

this was my attempt on talk like a pirate day.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on June 05, 2012:

Crystal, I have to agree with you. I like the Johnny Depp version of pirates much better but reality is so often unlike what we see on the big screen! Glad you enjoyed the topic!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on June 05, 2012:

So glad you learned something Chaplin! I'm sure a lot about middle aged knights has been romanticized in a simlar manner. Another topic for another day! Thanks for reading and commenting!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on June 05, 2012:

Kalmiya, thanks for reading and commenting. I'm so glad you enjoyed the topic.

Crystal Tatum from Georgia on June 05, 2012:

This was a really interesting and enjoyable read. Obviously, we've romanticized piracy quite a bit. Thanks for shedding light on the reality of this lifestyle. I much prefer the romanticized version that includes Johnny Depp, but I enjoyed learning some facts!

Sarah Johnson from Charleston, South Carolina on June 05, 2012:

I learned a lot from this pirate hub! Makes you wonder what other pieces of history we have romanticized this way. Thank you for sorting out the pirate truths!

Kalmiya from North America on June 05, 2012:

This is a great hub about pirates and very thorough. It seems a crazy life but as an alternative to conditions as a regular sea man, not a bad (albeit short) alternative. The lore is certainly fun as aftermath. Thanks!

Natasha from Hawaii on June 05, 2012:

Try to convince people it isn't a pirate boat, mostly =)

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on June 05, 2012:

Wow, Natashalh, thanks for the ego boost. What is it that you do on the boat all day?

Natasha from Hawaii on June 05, 2012:

LOVE IT. I work on a wooden boat and all day, every day, it's pirates, pirates, pirates. Sometimes they get genuinely upset with me if I try to tell them a little bit of history about pirates and pirating. Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and sharing.

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