Romantic Hero or Bloodthirsty Robber? Unraveling Pirate Myths

For many of us, the life of Long John Silver or Blackbeard is a thrilling tale of defiance, independence, and romance. Who hasn't longed for the life of a pirate, free to go and do as we please without concern for convention or even common sense? But how much of what we have seen and heard is fact, and how much is pure fiction? In this essay, I will attempt to separate the romantic ideas of literature and film from the dark and sometimes unpleasant facts of history and its most famous cut-throats.

The Jolly Roger and Other Pirate Flags

We can all recognize the image of the pirate flag, or "Jolly Roger", waving proudly from the tall mast of a pirate galley. The skull and crossed bones has become the ultimate identifier of pirate affiliations. But what does it really mean?

History reports that the first pirate flags were not black, but red, as red was the universally recognized symbol for danger. A red flag meant that the pirates would show no mercy and would not surrender. Even the name Jolly Roger is believed to be descended from the French term jolie rouge, meaning "lovely red flag". Other sources say that the term comes from the English "Old Roger", another name for the devil. It was not until the pirate Emmanuel Wynne that the Jolly Roger acquired its characteristic look, though some sources credit this to Captain Richard Worley, and other pirates who followed often took this design to the extreme.

The skull and crossed bones was not the only symbol to appear on pirate flags, as later pirates began using the flag as a kind of instant messenger. Skeletons, the hourglass, red hearts, the cutlass, pistols, and even wings sometimes appeared in flag designs, each item having its own meaning based on its incorporation into the overall picture. For example, skeletons and skulls or bones signified death, while a bleeding heart may have meant a painful death. The hourglass usually signified time, as in how much time a ship had to surrender, and the cutlass or pistol implied violence.

Again, the vast majority of these designs appeared on red flags, but some pirates did choose to place their symbols on a black flag, as black was the color of death. A black pirate flag was known as a "Black Jack", like the one used by Edward Teach (Blackbeard), while a red pirate flag was known as a "red jack", like the one used by Christopher Moody. The term "jack" is a nautical way of saying flag. The English "Union Jack" was actually flown as a pirate flag by Captain Henry Morgan. There was also a white flag, which was flown to indicate not surrender, but that the pirates would give chase if the enemy vessel tried to flee. Unlike most cinema depictions, the Jolly Roger was not flown continuously. Pirates were fugitives from the law, and to fly the Jolly Roger was to risk being attacked by a naval warship. Most of the time, the pirate flag was not raised until the other ship was well in range, and it was usually followed by a warning shot to emphasize the point.

The Life of a Pirate

Many movies and popular comics have glamorized the lives of a pirate captain and his crew, endlessly sailing the seas in search of fortune and fame, but the reality of such an undertaking is far less appealing.

During the Golden Age of Piracy, starting around 1700, ideas about sanitation, sickness, and disease were still coming out of the Dark Ages. Medicine was still limited to folk cures, leeches, and the treatments of purging and sweating. Life on board a pirate vessel was often dank, smelly, and dangerous. Bathing was unheard of, and the holds of many pirate vessels were loaded with explosive gunpowder that was sensitive to the slightest spark. Sailing ships were plagued by rats and insects, which often ended up in a pirate's food. Meals consisted mostly of watered-down rum and a kind of stew called salmagundi, which was heavily seasoned to disguise the flavor of spoiled meat. Fresh water was in short supply, and diseases like tuberculosis, lead poisoning, scurvy, and shingles were common. Injuries were common as well, but finding a qualified doctor was difficult and surgery was almost out of the question. If amputation was necessary, a barber, carpenter, or cook might serve as a surgeon, sometimes with tragic results.

Besides disease and injury, there was the constant threat of violence from rival pirate gangs or being captured and hanged by the navy. At worst, a pirate might be marooned by his own crew, left to die on some deserted island for crimes against his shipmates. One such marooned pirate was Ben Gunn, from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Another, and perhaps the inspiration for Stevenson's character, was Philip Ashton. He was marooned for sixteen months after being kidnapped from the vessel of Nicholas Merritt by the infamous pirate, Edward "Ned" Lowe. More than once, Lowe tried to force Ashton to sign his pirate articles, threatening him with violence if he refused. Ashton finally managed to escape while in the Gulf of Honduras after going ashore with the ship's cooper to fetch water. He was later rescued by a landing party from the ship of John Ford, who was anchored in the Bay of Honduras.

Needless to say, the life expectancy of a pirate was rather short, and the rewards seem hardly worth the effort. Any fortunes made were promptly spent at the first available port, and the idea that pirate gangs buried vast amounts of treasure is mostly myth. Certainly some pirates may have hidden away small caches of gold, but the tales of fabulous buried fortunes are almost purely folklore. One has to keep in mind that any spoils resulting from a pirate's activities had to be shared with his shipmates, who could number a hundred or more, and the captain and quartermaster, or "first mate", would require extra shares. By the time the shares had been divided, there would hardly be much left worth burying.

One such treasure was reportedly buried on Oak Island in Nova Scotia by the notorious William Kidd. According to the legend, a fabulous fortune, or perhaps something else, is buried at the bottom of a deep pit which fills with water before the treasure can be reached. Nicknamed "The Money Pit", it has already cost millions of dollars and quite a number of lives, all with no result. Kidd was also believed to have buried a portion of his ill-gotten goods on Gardiners Island, near Long Island, New York, but like the Money Pit, this elusive treasure has yet to be uncovered.

A Captain's Best Friend: The Parrot

A famous fictional pirate, Long John Silver, kept a talking parrot as a pet in Stevenson's classic Treasure Island. While there are almost no written accounts of such a practice, we can safely assume that Stevenson's idea was based in fact.

Historical evidence shows that cats were commonly kept on board sailing vessels as a way of keeping the rat population under control, and many woodcuts from the 18th century show pirates in the company of hunting dogs. Large work animals like horses could also be found, especially if the pirates intended to conduct their affairs on land, and the occasional chicken was not unheard of. A parrot or other exotic animal would certainly fetch a fair price in the royal courts of Europe, and many a self-respecting pirate may have kept his own exotic pet as a kind of status symbol.

Even today, ships' cats are considered lucky by sailors, especially those cats exhibiting polydactly, or extra toes. The author Ernest Hemingway, who was given one of these cats by a ship's captain, is still well known for the six-toed cats that roam his former home in the Florida Keys. Black cats were said to be especially lucky, and to allow harm to come to a ship's cat was thought to invite doom and destruction. Cats were believed to carry fierce storms in their tails, which they could unleash on an unsuspecting ship.

Overall, humans and animals have been co-existing for millions of years, so it is safe to assume that pirates were no different. Animals on board a ship not only served a useful purpose, but might also provide entertainment for the crew or an easy extra income. Dogs not only hunted food and guarded loot, but could be trained to perform tricks for coins while in port or be entered into dog fights for a share of the prize money. Horses not only carried pirates and their booty over land, but could be entered in races or serve as, however unthinkably, emergency rations. New World monkeys could be taught to panhandle crowds in a busy market as well as hunt for food in a dense jungle, and when they had outlived their usefulness, could be sold to rich merchants as charming exotic pets. One has to remember that most pirates were essentially opportunists and scavengers, so any chance to make a quick doubloon was a good one.

Pirate Talk

Ask any child how to identify a pirate, and one of the first things they may tell you is what a pirate says. Children's programs are full of pirate imagery made over into something less menacing because the pirate archetype intrinsically appeals to the imagination, and playgrounds the world over resound with cries of "Argh!" and "Avast, ye scurvy dogs!". But what are they really saying?

Contemporary fiction is mostly to blame for the colorful language of pirates. The idea that a pirate says "argh" was popularized in the 1950 production of Treasure Island, and was meant to mean "aye" or "yes". Another exclamation, "avast", is actually a nautical term used to attract attention, like saying "look". Since scurvy was a fairly common disease, to be called a "scurvy dog" was obviously an insult.

Most pirate talk, however, is simply a collection of common nautical terms still used by sailors today. The front of a ship was called the bow, and the back of a ship was called the stern. Port meant the left side of the ship and starboard meant the right side, especially when facing the bow. The term "rigging" meant the ropes and lines that held the sails, while the sails themselves were called "sheets". A pirate's "mates" were his friends or fellow pirates in good standing, while his enemies were referred to as "swabs" and "lubbers". Every member of a ship's crew had a designated job, and each job had its own unique title. The "powder monkey" was the person in charge of gunpowder and ammunition, while an apprentice sailor or ship's boy was called a "grommet". If a pirate claimed to be "first mate", a position more commonly known as quartermaster, it meant that he was second only to the captain of the ship.

Other pirate terms arose out of contact with cultures outside Europe. For instance, a "dhow" was a kind of sailing ship common in the middle east, while "junks" sailed from China and "Virginians" sailed from the American colonies. Popular pirate prey included the "East Indiaman", a large merchant vessel often bound for India or Turkey, and the occasional fat "Barbary" headed for Spain with gold stolen from the New World. Unruly pirates were cast into the "brig", a shipboard jail, and awaited a punishment that might include "keelhauling", "dancing the hempen jig", or "meeting the captain's daughter", none of which were as pleasant as they sounded.

Pirate Stereotypes: Hooks, Pegged Legs, and Eye Patches

Many a pirate has been depicted with the now characteristic eye patch, hook, or pegged leg, but how much of this is fact? Obviously, piracy was a dangerous occupation. Flying splinters, explosive gasses from cannons and muskets, and any number of diseases could mean the loss of an eye. Prosthetic eyes made from shell were uncomfortable and expensive, so most sufferers simply covered the missing or damaged eye with a patch. It was cheap, comfortable, and practical. Contrary to some myths, pirates probably did not wear eye patches as a means of preserving their night vision. Not only that, but having only one eye created a huge disadvantage for the wounded pirate, making him a liability to the rest of the crew.

There are a few recorded instances of pirates wearing wooden prosthetics, but amputation was a common treatment for injuries to the extremities, so pegged legs, like eye patches, were not just found on pirates. Eighteenth century medicine was a dangerous and expensive undertaking. Even if the patient managed to survive the amputation, he might still die from gangrene or a staph infection. Then there was the matter of paying for the prosthetic. Historically, there is evidence for prosthetics of all kinds among pirates, but it is doubtful that after such a crippling injury a pirate could continue his rogue's lifestyle. It is far more likely that the injured crewman was left behind somewhere rather than imperil the rest of the ship. Oddly enough, there are quite a few records of pirate Articles which offer compensation for such an injury, though the likelihood of a pirate ever surviving to collect this compensation was slim.

Pirate Fibs: The Flying Dutchman and Other Tales

A great number of pirate legends have gained recent exposure, thanks in part to modern cinema and children's television. One such legend is that of The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship reported by sailors near the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. The ship's captain, reportedly a Dutchman named Bernard Fokke, was understood to hold the record for the fastest transit between Holland and the West Indies. Some speculated that Bernard had made a deal with the devil in order to make the trip so quickly, but common sense would say that this was probably not the case. The story goes that Bernard's ship encountered a fierce storm while rounding the tip of Africa, but the stubborn captain refused to give way to the storm, allegedly vowing that he would make it through even if it took him until the end of time. Of course, the ship was lost in the storm. From that day forward, sailors off the coast of Africa would report seeing a ghostly ship foundering in the frequent storms that ravage the cape. The story itself dates from the early 1600's and is similar to the Christian folktale of the Wandering Jew, although some credit the story to Captain Falkenburg, while others say the captain's name was Hendrick Van der Decken. No matter what the version, the tale ends with the ship being lost with all hands aboard. Sailors feared the ghostly image of the doomed ship as an omen of bad fortune, and storms never failed to follow her. There have been reported sightings of the Flying Dutchman right up until the 19th and 20th centuries, one of which was made by Prince George of Wales.

Another notable legend was that of Davey Jones. Unlike the cinema interpretation, the real Davey Jones was a reference to the devil or any evil spirits believed to haunt the seas. To be sent to "Davey Jones' Locker" meant to die at sea, and obviously, not be on your way to heaven. A sailor gone to Davey Jones' locker would eventually end up as another lost soul to man Captain Davey's unearthly pirate ship, an idea which was heavily embellished upon by Hollywood. As for the appearance of Jones himself, no one can say for certain, though the representation of him as having tentacles for hair is an interesting one. It is believed generally that he may have resembled a mermaid or kraken, but more likely he resembled a ghost or some other sort of demon. The interpretation was really up to the one hearing the tale. There are quite a few references to Davey Jones in pirate lore. The term itself dates back to 1751 and a man named Roderick Random. Davey Jones was the sailors' devil, and his "locker" was the deep sea where he kept the souls of dead sailors. Over time, the reference to Davey Jones came to mean anything bad. To "be in Davey's grip" or to "have the Jonses" meant to be frightened, and a pirate's favorite curse might be that he would "see you to Davey Jones' locker", a very serious threat.

Unconventional Pirates: Explorers of the New World

When one thinks of pirates, the image of a mapmaking explorer hardly comes to mind, but quite a few famous pirates were responsible for shaping the face of history through exploration in the new world. During the Golden Age of Piracy, America was still a group of small colonies and the Caribbean, or West Indies, was controlled mostly by the Spanish and the French. A privateer, or liscenced pirate, was someone who had been hired to make life miserable for the enemies of a particular government.

One of the most notable of these privateers was Captain Henry Morgan of Wales. Morgan arrived in Barbados as part of an expedition sent by Oliver Cromwell under the command of another notable privateer, General Venables, in 1655. After capturing the island of Jamaica, he was part of the flotilla that attacked Santiago, Cuba, and in 1663, commanded his own ship that attacked the Mexican mainland and the port of Campeze. In 1665, Morgan began conducting his notorious affairs on land, landing at Frontera and marching 50 miles inland to attack Villahermosa. On the way back to Jamaica, Morgan paused long enough to sack Granada in modern day Nicaragua. In 1668, he attacked the town of El Puerto de Principe in Cuba. Later that same year, Morgan vowed to lay seige to the town of Portobello, and successfully captured the fort of San Geronimo. In 1670, Captain Morgan enacted his most daring plan ever, an attack on Panama, and in 1671, Morgan succeeded where even the great Frances Drake had failed and took not only Panama, but every last island and town he encountered along the way. By the time he was 45, this wealthy privateer had been made governor of Jamaica by King Charles II. Not bad for a pirate.

Other pirates were perhaps not so charmed as Henry Morgan. Take the brief career of Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard. Born in Bristol, England, around 1680, he joined the privateers during Queen Anne's War. Arriving in the Bahamas in 1716, he apprenticed for a year under Admiral Hornigold before receiving his own ship, the Concorde, in 1717. Blackbeard renamed his ship the Queen Anne's Revenge, and in 1718, sailed north to the Carolinas. Blackbeard settled in Bath Town after receiving a pardon from Governor Eden. When Teach met fellow pirate Stede Bonnet later that same year, he was so amused by the "dandy" captain that he took Bonnet and his men into his own company. By the end of 1718, Blackbeard had parted ways with Stede Bonnet and had managed to outstay his welcome in Bath Town. He was killed by Lieutenant Maynard under the direction of Virginia's Governor Spottswood near the town of Okracoke.

Teach had built for himself a reputation as a devilish fiend, but firsthand accounts relate that quite the opposite was true. Unlike his fellow pirates, there are no records of anyone ever dying at the hands of Blackbeard, even during a pillaging. Reports also say that he had a number of wives, fourteen to be exact, and that Teach was generally kind to those who cooperated. Accounts say that Blackbeard was a master of intimidation and theatrics, placing lit fuses under his hat or in his beard in order to give himself a more fiendish appearance.


There is no question where romanticism ends and history begins, but this fact has done nothing to dampen the pirate spirit. In all, the pirate has been the idealistic symbol of brotherhood and freedom for generations, in spite of their historically uncivilized behavior. Pirate tales of sea monsters and fabulous treasures will continue to enchant and inspire generations to come, ensuring that the pirate mystique of sailing ships and exotic ports will live on indefinitely.

Posted by Under The Black Flag on 7:21 π.μ.. Filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

0 σχόλια for �Romantic Hero or Bloodthirsty Robber? Unraveling Pirate Myths�

Leave comment


Ads by Smowtion


stat tracker

2010 Under The Black Flag. All Rights Reserved. - Designed by SimplexDesign