Myth Busting the Wild Lives of Pirates
Between movies, books and Halloween costumes, we think we know what pirates looked like, how they acted, how they dressed and how they talked. It’s too bad many of those ideas stem entirely from fiction and contain very few shreds of truth. If you’re trusting Disney movies or Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island to educate you on pirates, you’re in for a big surprise.
Real-life pirates were much different than the charming swashbucklers you think you know. Let’s take a look at some of the common legends and myths surrounding notorious pirates and separate fact from fiction.
The Eye Patch in the Room
You can't watch a pirate movie without seeing at least a few pirates wearing an infamous eye patch. All it takes is common sense to realize it’s not likely that hordes of pirates lost eyes sailing the high seas and stealing booty. Having said that, eye patches are authentic pirate gear but for a vastly different reason.
When moving between decks, the lighting changes drastically. Pirates wore eye patches to keep one eye adjusted to the dark. When they went below deck, they could remove the patch to quickly see with the eye that was already adjusted to the dark.
A Practice as Old as the Sea
Okay, so maybe it's not quite that old — we had to build ships first — but for as long as humans have been traveling across the water, pirates have tried to steal the riches and supplies they transport. Pirates didn't just suddenly appear in the mid-17th century.
Ancient Egyptian pharaohs complained of pirates looting trade ships for olive oil and grain as well as attacking port cities and ships along important trade routes. Pirates have been around for thousands of years, and they still exist in the 21st century.
If you grew up watching Disney's Peter Pan — and who didn’t? — a certain pirate captain probably played a role in how you think pirates looked and acted throughout history. So, did pirates really substitute hooks for limbs?
According to pirate experts, yes, they did. With all the fighting they did, some were bound to lose a limb here and there. Rather than go into early retirement, they replaced their missing limbs as best they could — assuming they survived. Hooks were often used to replace hands, along with the stereotypical wooden peg that helped keep pirates on their feet.
Hail to the Pirate Queens
Sure, there have been way more male pirates than female ones — but female pirates were hugely successful! They weren’t as well known as their male counterparts, but some still made pretty big names for themselves.
Cheng I Sao, for example, started a pirate empire with her husband that grew to include hundreds of ships. Anne Bonny and Mary Read worked together to grow their riches and terrorize fishing and cargo ships. Rachel Wall, one of the few famous American pirates, turned to piracy after falling on hard times — and she was pretty good at it.
Getting paid if you’re injured at work is a benefit that workers had to fight for decades ago, but pirates were actually way ahead of the game on this one. In spite of the stereotype that they were cruel masters, pirate captains were actually fair when it came to compensating their workers.
If a member of the crew lost a body part "in action," they were granted compensation for their loss. It was usually extra money to add to their spoils, which was helpful if they needed to buy a fancy golden hook.
Contrary to what you see portrayed in movies and novels, pirate captains were not tyrannical dictators who ruled their ships with an iron fist — not most of them, anyway. In fact, on most ships, captains were chosen by crew members in an election.
Not only were they elected by their crews, but they could be removed from their position if the crew felt they were falling short of their leadership responsibilities. Captains had a duty to do well by their crew, and they paid a steep penalty if they didn't.
Flying the Flag
The good old skull and crossbones was a popular flag, but it wasn't the flag that every pirate ship flew while sailing the seas. Instead, they started with a friendly flag that didn’t alert enemy ships to their real intention until the ship was too close to get away. Then, they raised their pirate flag at the last minute to strike terror into the other sailors' hearts.
Each pirate captain typically flew a completely different design. Captain Low allegedly had a blood-red skeleton on his flag, while Black Bart's flag showed himself holding an hourglass with the devil.
Piracy and a Show
It could get pretty boring spending so much time on a ship with not much to do all day. Pirates often spent years at sea, with only brief excursions on land where they could find entertainment. That meant they had to find ways to entertain themselves during their voyages.
Most ships had a band on board to play music every night, and some even had theatrical groups put on performances for their crews. After a long, hard day of pirating, it was nice to sit back, relax and enjoy some music or a show.
Caesar's dramatic escapades weren't limited to his time as Roman Emperor. In fact, when he was a young man, he was captured by pirates who held him for ransom. Legend has it — and it is strongly corroborated — that when they told him his ransom price, he laughed at them and told them they should double it. They hadn't realized the importance of the man they had on board.
While a captive, Caesar supposedly practiced his poems and speeches on the crew and had no qualms about bossing them around. After he was released, he sent men to find and kill his captors. Hold a grudge, Caesar?
Fleets, Not Loners
One common myth is that a pirate ship is a lone island, with the captain serving as the crew's sole source of authority on the independent ship. Although that was certainly true in some cases, that wasn't the case for many pirate ships.
Armies of pirate ships grew under the leadership of captains, sometimes growing to rival the size of the navies of some countries. This collaboration gave their armies greater strength and power in their seafaring exploits. After her husband's death, for example, Cheng I Sao expanded and commanded her already massive fleet to achieve unbelievable grandeur.
Modern food storage technologies obviously weren't around when pirates first started storming the seas. So, they had to come up with another way to keep their menus fresh and their stomachs full. One popular solution was to take animals on board with them.
This might sound odd, but it was actually a perfect plan. Animals like chicken and cows provided them with fresh eggs and milk and, in some cases, fresh meat as well. It was a pretty creative, if crowded, solution for the ships. If you can't get to the farm, take the farm with you!
Today's pirates don't just consist of people downloading movies from sketchy websites — a form of piracy a bit less violent than traditional options. Pirates are still very active on the open seas, although their boats have been updated a bit since the sails and anchors of the 18th century.
Most acts of piracy today take place in the waters near Somalia, Nigeria and Indonesia. It may not be the golden age of piracy anymore, but it’s still very much alive today, even though it doesn’t impact global trade routes on a large scale anymore.
Clothing Fit for a Seaman
We can thank Disney for a lot of the images we have regarding pirates. From Treasure Planet to Pirates of the Caribbean, the studio has made a lot of movies about seafaring crews that have shown us pirates in a lot of different outfits.
The clothes they actually wore, however, were a bit different than the ones they often wear when portrayed on screen. In reality, they usually wore popular maritime clothing of the times, with the captains, of course, spending a bit more to wear nicer, more fashionable items.
Was Blackbeard (real name Edward Teach) really as cruel and terrifying as the legends say? Historians say all the signs point to yes. He was exceptionally cruel, even for the most cutthroat of pirates, and he worked hard to uphold his reputation as one of the most fearsome men sailing the seas.
Blackbeard operated his ships during the golden age of piracy, which meant he had a lot of competition for claims of both glory and cruelty. One story claims he shot one of his own men simply so the man — and the rest of the crew — wouldn't forget how cruel and violent he was.
Because pirates spent so much of their lives at sea, they needed a way to stay connected to events happening on land. They actually had a vast communication network as well as a large mailing system of sorts, with some of their ships mailing letters between relatives and back and forth to network contacts.
Their network didn't stop with letters, however. Some pirates even had retirement plans in place, with ships available to take those who were returning to land life to start calmer lives in America away from the ocean. Talk about a career benefit!
A Good Night's Sleep
Even pirates need their beauty sleep. After all, they need plenty of rest to be ready at a moment’s notice to plunder ships and wreak havoc. Even swabbing the decks takes a lot of energy. On a ship that rocked and rolled with the waves all night, the best way to sleep was in a hammock.
Captains, of course, got their own quarters, usually even with a real bed, but not everyone on board had that luxury. Hammocks were pretty comfortable, however. They were soft and swayed with the movement of the ship, so sailors didn't fall out of their beds.
Shiver Me Timbers
Perhaps one of the most iconic aspects of TV and movie pirate life is the way they talk. From their "arrgh, matey" to their "shiver me timbers," we would recognize the phrases known as pirate-speak anywhere. Hollywood, however, has once again pulled the wool over our eyes with that one.
Pirates didn't actually talk like that. In fact, they didn’t even speak alike — at least, not as a whole. They came from all over the world, so they obviously had many different ways of speaking, depending on their area or origin. It’s not clear where this misconception originated, but it’s a fun one.
According to historical accounts, this particular legend holds a fairly high degree of accuracy. Pirates marooned other pirates at times, and most weren’t as lucky as Jack Sparrow. If a crew member was particularly troublesome or causing a lot of issues for the rest of the crew, it wasn’t uncommon to find the nearest deserted island and abandon the troublemaker there.
Jack Sparrow's gracious "gift" left by his crew mates was pretty accurate as well. Pirates usually left their former crew member a gun with a single shot inside to serve as a fast and easy "out" in lieu of starving to death.
A Different Kind of Treasure
Gold, silver, jewels and, of course, rum, are the kinds of treasure we’re all familiar with when it comes to plundering pirates determined to make off with the goods. Interestingly, another kind of treasure — one few people know about — was highly valued by pirates: maps.
Pirates loved finding detailed maps and atlases among their booty. Knowledge of the world and all its different parts was a valuable commodity (as it still is). One pirate, Bartholomew Sharp, found a printed and colored version of an atlas and presented the coveted item to the King of England as a gift.
Love and Piracy
We've probably all heard the joke about a pirate's true love being the sea. Although many pirates did, indeed, love the sea and the freedom that came with their work, many of them viewed it as a temporary career and also found love on land. Sometimes, they had families on land during their pirate careers; sometimes, they settled down and had families after they retired.
Pirates were (perhaps surprisingly) loyal family men. One story even says that as Captain Kidd was sentenced to the gallows, he asked the people around him to send his love to his wife and daughters, regretting how sad they would be upon his death.
Even Pirates Had Rules
Pirates might break a lot of other laws, but they had strict rules aboard their ships. The specifics varied from captain to captain and ship to ship, but most revolved around the division of treasure as well as general conduct and discipline.
It has been claimed that Bartholomew Roberts (Black Bart) even had a curfew for his men, enforcing a rule that lights must be out by 8:00 p.m., and if men wanted to continue to drink, they had to do it above-deck. Even pirates had to abide by the rules at bedtime.
Once Upon a Pirate Ship
A stereotype certainly exists that pirates were crude, uneducated people who prowled the seas for riches. Although they certainly went after all the riches they could get their hands on, many of them were far from uneducated.
Reading navigational charts was essential for operating a successful pirate ship, so at least some members of the crew had to be literate and mathematically capable. That meant that books, as well as gold and jewels, were among the items they plundered from their victims, in part for knowledge and in part to give them something to read for entertainment.
In any good pirate movie, you can expect to find at least one talkative bird, but did pirates really keep parrots as pets? Experts say they did. Cats and dogs were too difficult to wrangle on board ships, so they turned to other pet options.
While parrots and other exotic birds were expensive in most of their home countries, they were able to buy them cheaply and easily in the Caribbean ports they visited quite often. The birds were bright, colorful and could be taught to speak — good entertainment all around.
After amassing all that gold, some pirates used it to buy themselves some fancy accessories. Many of the pirates we see depicted in paintings and movies are wearing earrings — certainly a fashion statement for the ages. However, making a fashion statement wasn’t the only reason they wore earrings.
According to historians, pirates believed that applying pressure to the ears would help keep seasickness at bay. For a group of people who spent most of their lives at sea, anything to ward off seasickness was likely to be popular. They started wearing earrings to help keep their stomachs from becoming queasy.
History's Most Powerful Pirate
While there is some room for debate, many historians agree that one of the most powerful pirates in history was a woman named Madame Ching Shih. At her height, she commanded more than 300 ships and somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 men.
Leading such a vast pirate empire was bound to be tiring, so when the Chinese government promised forgiveness for pirates in 1810 in exchange for ceasing their activities, she decided to retire and enjoy her substantial wealth. She ran a gambling house until she died as a rich old woman.
Of course, if your career involves plundering and murdering, you're bound to be a bit of a social outcast. Pirates usually found themselves on the outskirts of society, but not all pirates were doomed to the life of an outsider. Some were actually accepted and respected members of their community.
Rumor has it, for example, that Captain Kidd helped found a church in his hometown — not the most typical of pirate activities. Some pirates, upon returning home, were regarded as fairly prominent and respectably wealthy members of their society.
Golden Age of Piracy
While piracy has existed throughout history, the period from 1650 to 1720 is generally known as the Golden Age of Piracy. Every great movement or group has its peak, and for pirates, that was it. It was a time when no trade route was safe, and piracy impacted the world in a very pressing fashion.
It was during this time that people like Henry Morgan and Blackbeard appeared on the scene and made names for themselves. All it took was some heinous acts and master thievery to write themselves into history books as some of the most famous pirates that ever lived.
Growing the Economy
Pirates may have made their money attacking trade ships and disrupting trade routes, but that didn't mean their contribution to the economy was all bad. In fact, for many towns, they provided an economic boost. After all, they had to spend all that money and gold somewhere.
Port cities and other towns that pirates visited were strong beneficiaries of the pirates and their loot. They basically functioned as tourists, pouring loads of money into cities and then leaving again. Overall, they added a lot to the economies of port cities around the world.
A Pirate's Life for Me
For some, a pirate's life was a better life than living on the law-abiding side of things. Many merchant sailors found themselves living in horrible conditions on board, with their pay sometimes withheld and not enough food to go around. It was not usually a good life.
Pirates, on the other hand, were generally paid fairly and treated well by their captains, and their ships had plenty of provisions on board for all the crew members. For seafarers during this period, piracy was generally a better career opportunity.
Pirates may have stolen and plundered from merchant ships for their own gain, but not all of them did so out of greed. One pirate, known as Black Sam Bellamy, even considered himself to be the Robin Hood of the open seas.
His ship was very democratic, and to this day, there is no record of him ever killing one of his captives. He even gave a speech arguing that while the merchants cheated and exploited the poor, he and his crew stole from the rich in the piracy equivalent of "sticking it to the man."