It’s not too hard to spot when widespread romanticizing of pirates began: 1883. The popularity of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island spawned a genre of pirate novels, and those novels were made into pirate movies, which gave rise to comic books and Halloween costumes. Driving much of the current wave of pirate popularity, Disney went and adapted one of their theme park rides into a movie, and the result was actually good. So call it the fault of Stevenson and Johnny Depp.
Hollywood and pirate novels would have you believe that pirates were swashbucklers living a life of pleasure on the seas, fighting only when they had to. They make it easy to see past the fact that they were stealing gold and other valuables by making the people they were stealing it from seem worse than them. Well, I enjoy Talk Like a Pirate Day as much as most other geeks, but I think it’s important to add a dose of reality. So I’m here to dispel some of the more popular myths about pirates, and to confirm a few as well.
1. Pirates only fought as hard as they had to. Sure, they preferred to take their prizes without a fight, but when they fought, they were ruthless — the better pirates were, anyway. Captain Jack Sparrow could never have become a captain of a real pirate ship; he would’ve been killed by his crewmates for a coward.
2. Pirates buried their treasure so nobody else could find it. This probably happened occasionally, but was the exception, not the rule. Pirates didn’t expect to live very long, considering the business they were in, so planning for the future wasn’t high on their list of concerns. Since pleasure right now was their only real desire, they’d take any treasure they got to a pirate-friendly port and spend it all on liquor and women as quickly as ever they could. Besides, what crew would stand for their captain burying the treasure they’d won together?
3. Pirates made their victims walk the plank. There’s no evidence this was done much, if at all. Pirates’ preferred means of punishment was keel-hauling, which meant tying their victims to a rope and dragging them under the ship. Considering that ships’ hulls tended to accumulate debris from the water, this tended to result either in wounds (if the victim was dragged quickly) or drowning (if slowly). Either way, considerably worse than walking the plank, I’d say.
4. Pirates obeyed a code of honor. There were codes among the crew on most ships, mostly to keep order. The codes determined how to divvy up the loot, how bad behavior was to be punished, and such. But pirates were about as likely to care about their prisoners invoking any sort of code as you would be if an ant you were about to step on were to do so. There’s a story of a pirate, in trying to find a village’s gold, cutting out one prisoner’s heart to feed to another. And Blackbeard is known to have cut off women’s fingers to obtain their diamond rings. In general, the more ruthless a pirate was, the higher regard other pirates had for him.
5. The most famous pirates were the best ones. The reason you’ve heard of most well-known pirates is because they were captured and either killed immediately (as with Blackbeard, for example), or brought to trial, where their exploits were written down. It’s reasonable to assume that a pirate who managed to avoid capture entirely was better than one who couldn’t, don’t you think?
6. Pirates said “Arrrr” and “Mateys” and such. I’m sure this won’t surprise you, but no, they didn’t. They had particular ways of speaking, especially among the British pirates, but the phrases we most associate with pirates came from Hollywood.
7. Women were considered too weak to be pirates. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, despite being unrealistic in virtually every other way, actually got this one right. Anne Bonny and Mary Read were the most famous, but there were actually quite a few female pirates. Many of them disguised themselves as men, but it seems that was more to protect themselves than for any other reason.
8. Pirates disappeared a long time ago. There are still pirates around today, particularly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Worldwide losses from piracy are estimated at between $13 and $16 billion US dollars per year. Modern pirates, like those of centuries ago, kidnap, murder, and mutilate their victims, to say nothing of stealing their ships and cargo.
9. Pirates flew the Jolly Roger, wore eyepatches, kept parrots as pets, and had peg legs. This one is very likely true! There’s evidence that the famous skull-and-crossbones flag was flown by many pirates, after they took down the national flag that had lured their prey close enough to capture. There are accounts of parrots being kept as pets by some pirates, and, given the nasty business piracy was, it’s quite likely that some needed eyepatches and had peg legs. I do have to say that the idea that some pirates wore eyepatches without needing to, as MythBusters tested plausible six years ago, is highly unlikely, considering that the loss of depth perception would almost certainly have outweighed the gain of night vision below decks.
In summary: There’s nothing wrong with having some fun by talking like a pirate, or dressing up as one for Halloween. Just keep in the back of your mind that you’re talking much more like a Hollywood pirate than a real one, and that real pirates were (and are) horrible people you wouldn’t want to be within 20 yards of, and not just because they hardly ever bathed. It’s fun to pretend the myths are true — just remember that you’re pretending.
[This post original ran last year.]