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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.