Pirates: Truth, Facts, Legends and Myths

Pirates on the March
Pirates on the March. Art by Frank Schoonover

With new books and movies coming out all the time, pirates have never been more popular than now. But is the iconic image of a peg-legged pirate with a treasure map and a parrot on his shoulder historically accurate? Let's sort out the facts from the myths about pirates of the Golden Age of piracy (1700-1725).

Legend: Pirates buried their treasure:

Mostly myth. Some pirates did bury treasure - notably, Captain William Kidd - but it was not a common practice.

Pirates wanted their share of the loot right away, and they tended to spend it quickly. Also, much of the "loot" collected by pirates was not in the form of silver or gold. Most of it was ordinary trade goods, such as food, lumber, cloth, animal hides, etc. Burying these things would ruin them!

Legend: Pirates made people walk the plank:

Myth. Why make them walk off a plank if it's easier to throw them overboard? Pirates had many punishments at their disposal, including keel-hauling, marooning, lashes and more. Some later pirates allegedly made their victims walk off a plank, but it was hardly a common practice.

Legend: Pirates had eye patches, peg legs, etc.:

True! Life at sea was harsh, especially if you were in the navy or on board a pirate vessel. The battles and fighting caused many injuries, as men fought with swords, firearms, and cannons. Often the Gunners - those men in charge of the cannons - had the worst of it: an improperly secured cannon can fly around the deck, maiming everyone near it, and problems such as deafness were occupational hazards.

Legend: Pirates had a “Code” which they adhered to strictly:

True! Almost every pirate ship had a set of articles that all new pirates had to agree to. It clearly set out how the loot would be divided, who had to do what and what was expected of everyone. One example: pirates were often punished for fighting on board, which was strictly forbidden.

Instead, pirates who had a grudge could fight all they wanted on land. Some pirate articles have survived to this day, including the pirate code of George Lowther and his crew.

Legend: Pirate crews were all-male:

Myth! There were female pirates who were just as lethal and vicious as their male counterparts. Anne Bonny and Mary Read served with the colorful "Calico Jack" Rackham and were famous for berating him when he surrendered. It's true that female pirates were rare, but it was not unheard of.

Legend: Pirates often said “Arrrrgh!” “Ahoy Matey!” and other colorful phrases:

Mostly myth. Pirates would have spoken like any other lower-class sailors from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland or the American colonies at the time. While their language and accent must certainly have been colorful, it bore little resemblance to what we associate with pirate language today. For that, we have to thank British actor Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in movies and on TV in the 1950's. It was he who defined the pirate accent and popularized many of the sayings we associate with pirates today.


  • Cordingly, David. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996
  • Defoe, Daniel (Captain Charles Johnson). A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.
  • Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009
  • Konstam, Angus. The Pirate Ship 1660-1730. New York: Osprey, 2003.