Pirates: Truth, Facts, Legends and Myths

Anne Bonny on her ship artist rendering

Anushka.Holding/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

 

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 the facts from the myths about pirates of the Golden Age of piracy, which lasted from 1700 to 1725.

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, and so on. Burying these things would ruin them!

They 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, dispensing lashes, and more. Some later pirates allegedly made their victims walk off a plank, but it was hardly common practice.

Many Pirates Had Eye Patches and Peg Legs

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 could fly around the deck, maiming everyone near it. Other problems, such as deafness, were occupational hazards.

They Lived by a Pirate “Code”

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. 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.

Crews Were All Males

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 not unheard of.

Pirates Often Used Colorful Phrases

Mostly myth. Pirates would have spoken like any other lower-class sailors from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, or the American colonies. 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 1950s. It was he who defined the pirate accent and popularized many of the sayings we associate with pirates today.

Sources:

Cordingly, David. "Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates." Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996, NY.

Defoe, Daniel (Captain Charles Johnson). "A General History of the Pyrates." Edited by Manuel Schonhorn, Dover Publications, 1972/1999, USA.

Konstam, Angus. "World Atlas of Pirates." Lyons Press, 2009.

Konstam, Angus. "The Pirate Ship 1660-1730." Osprey, 2003, NY.