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The Truth about Pirate Myths

Pirate myths tend to fall into three categories:


  1. Those that are completely fabricated and untrue;

  2. Those that have some basis in reality but are not typical to all pirates; and

  3. Those that are kind of true but are not unique to pirates and have somehow been attributed to pirates over all other seafaring folk.

The important thing to remember about pirate mythology and stereotypes is that they can not be applied to all people who engaged in piracy. There was no “How to be a Successful Pirate” self-help book written in every language that laid out you were only a pirate if you had a wooden leg, wore an eyepatch and buried your treasure. Even being publicly named a pirate really only applied if you were unfortunate enough to find yourself convicted of piracy charges. Ironically, the most successful pirates are the ones we know nothing about because they never got caught!


Here I'll answer some of the most common questions about pirates. Did they:

  • make their victims walk the plank?

  • bury their treasure?

  • really have wooden legs, parrots and said “Arggh me hearties” all the time?

  • wear eyepatches?

  • fly a flag, often with a variation of the skull and crossbones?

  • democratically elect their captains and live an egalitarian life onboard their ships?

  • have articles or codes of honourable conduct?

  • all become alcoholics?

  • serve no useful purpose to society?

  • die out?


Did pirates make their victims walk the plank?


Answer: No


There is very little reliable evidence ‘walking the plank’ occurred at all, let alone on a regular basis.

Most seafarers could not swim. Even if they could swim a little, being pushed off a ship far out at sea – either with hands tied or not - ensured there was little chance of rescue or surviving for long. In theory, this made ‘walking the plank’ an effective method of psychological torture. Standing on a narrow plank attached to a rocking ship over the dark deep ocean would have been terrifying for any victim.


According to historian Douglas Botting, one of the only accounts of it occurring comes from an ordinary seaman called George Wood. Wood was on charges of mutiny in 1769 (long after the Golden Age of Piracy) and allegedly told a chaplain at Newgate Prison that he and his other mutineers had forced victims to ‘walk on a plank...over the sea’. But nothing was made of the allegation at the time.


There’s no question that pirates could be vicious and cruel to their victims. Botting claimed ‘walking the plank’ as a method of torture connected to pirates through Major Stede Bonnet. Known as the gentleman pirate, Bonnet comes across as a man not willing to get his hands dirty with directly murdering traitors or irritants. Yet, as Botting readily acknowledged, there is no recorded evidence that Bonnet, or any other pirate, forced anyone to walk the plank. Instead, it is most likely pirates simply fired a pistol or stuck a sword through a victim’s stomach and threw them overboard for the sharks.


Nevertheless, accounts of pirates making victims ‘walk the plank’ appeared first in artwork from the 19th century. An illustration in Charles Ellms’ A Pirates Own (1837) appears to show a seaman falling off a plank. Robert Louis Stevenson picked up the ‘walk the plank’ trope for Treasure Island in 1881. A few years later, Howard Pyle’s famous illustration (pictured here) for an article on pirates was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1887.


‘Walking the plank’ really came into its own in 1904 with J M Barrie’s play, Peter Pan. Now every film adaption includes a scene with Captain Hook forcing either Wendy or Peter to walk the plank as a pivotal narrative point.


While highly cinematic, the practice is most likely fictional.


Did pirates bury their treasure?


Answer: No (with some exceptions)



Cocos Island, off the coast of Costa Rica, is rumoured to be harbouring US$200 million worth of pirated Spanish gold. Yet in 200 years, no-one has ever found it. Frustrated by incessant treasure-hunters, the Costa Rican government has now banned anyone from landing on the island at all.


The myth that pirates buried treasure does have a very scant foundation in reality. But in those stories that are backed by concrete evidence, the treasure was only ever buried for a few days.


The most renowned treasure burier was William Kidd. When faced with transportation to England on piracy charges, he buried the remains of his share of the Quedagh Merchant takings on Gardiner’s Island off the coast of New York. He quickly realised the stupidity of this idea and dug it up a few days later.


In 1832, the accused pirates of the Panda, led by Captain Pedro Gibert, also hid their treasure from a British pirate-hunter by burying it on a West African beach. They too were not inclined to leave it behind and dug it up before eventually ending up in court.


The Cocos Island story dates to 1820 and concerns what is now known as the lost Treasure of Lima. Peru was the centre of the Spanish silver mines that catapulted Spain to world power status 250 years earlier. Gold was certainly found but in much smaller quantities than popular culture leads us to believe.


The 1820s was a time when Spain’s American colonies agitated for independence. When the Spanish Viceroy heard the Argentine General Jose de San Martin planned to invade Lima, he decided to remove all the riches for safe keeping to Mexico. The story goes he entrusted the Treasure of Lima to Captain William Thompson of the British Navy. Unable to resist the temptation, Thompson and his crew of the Mary Dear sailed to Cocos Islands and allegedly buried the treasure there.


The Spanish soon caught up with them. All the crew but Thompson and his first mate Forbes were tried of piracy and executed. In exchange for their lives, Thompson and Forbes agreed to take the Spanish to where the treasure was hidden on the island. Once on the island, the two men disappeared. No-one knows for sure what happened to them or the alleged treasure.


The island had other claims to being the real-life Treasure Island. Spanish pirate Benito Bonito was also alleged to have hidden his treasure there. But no trace of it has ever been found either.


The enduring popularity of the myth that pirates buried their treasure stems directly from Stevenson’s Treasure Island who probably borrowed it from Thompson’s story. Even if pirates were inclined to bury their treasure, no real self-respecting pirate would’ve done so on an island actually called Treasure Island!



Did pirates have wooden legs, parrots and say “Arggh me hearties”?


Answer: Yes to the legs and parrots, not so much the talking


Wooden legs

Working as a seafarer was a highly dangerous line of work. Putting aside the high risk of death from disease, storms and shipwrecks; sudden wind changes, fast-moving ropes, the need to climb masts and other unpredictable risks created ideal circumstances for accidents and the loss of limbs.


This risk increased exponentially in battle. Artillery concentrated on a small, man-filled target like a ship and the absence of anywhere to hide combined with the use of grapeshot – a type of cannonball that scattered projectiles everywhere – caused extensive injuries. Even if not hit directly by the projectile, the large splinters ejected from the wood of the ship by the blast created a secondary risk of mutilation.


Gangrene would most likely kill an injury survivor within a few days. Before the invention of antibiotics, the only preventative measure to gangrene was cauterisation and amputation of the limb.


Should the seafarer survive that agony, they still needed to work to eat. When a limb was lost, a prosthetic device such as a hook or wooden leg could be fashioned to ensure continued employment, including as a pirate. So while wooden legs are today attributed to pirate stereotypes, they were certainly not unique to them.


Parrots


Throughout time, sea captains across the world kept pets. Cats were particularly useful onboard ships because they hunted mice and rats so didn’t compromise the food supply. They also provided comfort and entertainment to the crew.


Parrots also have a very long history as pets. Parrots are one of the most intelligent bird species around and some have the ability to mimic human speech making them an entertaining companion. Since they originate from exotic tropical locations, it is quite feasible a voyaging sea captain would capture a parrot as a pet. Should a sea captain turn pirate, then they simply became a pirate captain with a pet parrot.


Pirate language

Historians believe 17th and 18th century pirates spoke the same dialect as other seafarers and land-dwellers of the time. There would have been some unique words and phrases thrown about – as there are among groups of like-minded people today – but there is no evidence of a specific pirate language.

Long John Silver, the antagonist of Treasure Island embodied all three of these stereotypes. His depiction in plays and films has led to the characterisation of all pirates in this way.



Did pirates wear eyepatches?


Answer: Yes if they lost an eye, no for light adjustment


In the old days, eye-patches were a common way to cover the unsightly scar left by a lost eye on land and at sea.


As mentioned above about wooden legs, seafarers were at high risk of death, injury and disability while in battle at sea. Aside from being injured in the eye by hand-to-hand battle, blow back from cannons also took out eyes. Eighteenth century cannons used a course black gunpowder. When lit, most would blast forward towards the target. But sometimes a small portion would blast backward, burning the unwary sailor in the face. Should a lost eye avoid infection, the sailor might wear an eye-patch for aesthetic purposes.


The other school of thought concerns the use of an eyepatch for more immediate light adjustment/night vision. You will know yourself about the inability to see immediately when going indoors after being out in bright sunlight. It can take the average human eye about 25 minutes to fully adapt between bright sunlight and dim light or darkness. The idea of covering one eye with the eyepatch was to ensure the sailor could more immediately see when below deck, either to fight or merely make their way around.


There is scientific confirmation that this practice does work. However, I find it curious that eyepatches seem to have become a uniquely pirate thing. Most seafarers would have a need to adjust to changing light when moving above and below deck. Yet pirates were only a small proportion of seafarers at any given time. So if the use of eyepatches was common for this purpose, surely there would be far more evidence of it in maritime history.


To date, the evidence weighs entirely in favour of pirates and seafarers using eyepatches to cover lost eyes rather than light adjustment. Sailors were usually paid compensation for injuries during their service. However, as with the loss of a limb, they still needed to work to eat. Perhaps if legitimate employment was not be forthcoming, piracy offered the disabled some opportunity otherwise not available to them.



Did pirates have a skull and crossbones flag?


Answer: Yes


How the skull and crossbones became associated with pirates dates as far back as Ancient Egypt. The sarcophagus of Tutankhamun depicted the pharaoh with his arms crossed holding a flail and a crook. This symbol of death inspired the black background with white skull and crossbones. It was first widely introduced to seafaring through the ancient order of knights known as the Knights Templar. Active in the Mediterranean Sea in the 13th century, the knights used the symbol on the flags of their naval ships.


The skull and crossbones’ connection to pirates came through the pirate port of Sidon (in modern Lebanon). In an ironic connection to copyright piracy, local pirates converted the Knights’ flag to red before eventually commandeering the white on black version for themselves.


Variations of the skull and crossbones re-emerged in the 18th century Caribbean. Pirates operated in a similar way to privateers and used identifiable flags to lure their victims. However, since they eschewed any religious or nationalistic affiliation, it made sense they would design and make their own flag to signal their victory. They drew inspiration for their flags from the ancient symbols of death: skulls, skeletons, weapons, blood and the colour black.


Once a pirate captain had obtained a level of notoriety, many abandoned the use of legitimate flags entirely. They banked on the fear the mere sight of their flag evoked in other seafarers.

The first recorded use of a variation of it came from Richard Hawkins, who was captured by pirates in 1724 and saw a blag flag that showed a skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear that he said the sailors called ‘Jolly Roger’. This was the first use of the nickname for the skull and crossbones, although there are other theories about how the Jolly Roger name arose.


Even after Caribbean piracy declined, the skull and crossbones still represents danger, appearing on poison bottles from around 1850.


Did pirates run their ships democratically?


Answer: Yes, under certain circumstances


It is not a given that all pirate ships ran as democracies. However, when pirates are placed within the context of their time, it did occur. Up until the late 19th century, the vast majority of land-dwellers and seafarers had little choice in when, where and who they worked for. In comparison, pirates often voted for their captain – who could be anyone from the most competent to the scariest among them – and mutually agreed on potential plundering locations. They would also receive an equitably distributed share of the proceeds.


So yes, it is the case that many pirate crews had more of a say in their lives as a pirate than they did as legitimate seafarers.

But there are some caveats to this statement.


In the first instance, many pirate captains ruled their ships with an authoritarian hand. In one example, Spanish pirate Benito de Soto forced the Portuguese within the mutinied crew to remain and work onboard his ship, Defensor de Pedro. He decided where they would go and strategically used violence to keep the crew under tight control.


Secondly, the ‘pirate democracy’ principle is often most associated with pirates in the Caribbean. Yet a significant proportion of these crews were indentured unwillingly into piracy. Around 60% of the crew of the notorious Caribbean pirate Bart Roberts were acquitted of piracy charges for this reason. This percentage tracked among all Caribbean piracy trials.


Thirdly, large scale piracy operations, such as those led by Roberto Cofresi, Grace O’Malley and Ching Shih required a strong strategic leader able to unite disparate groups of people around a common goal. There was little room for what we know as democracy now but certainly evidence of the use of benevolence and reward for loyal supporters.


In recent times, democracy among pirates has been more prevalent than in their home states. Somali pirates peacefully negotiated agreements with rival clans, equitably distributed ransom payments to participants according to the level of risk involved in their work; and compensated the families of those lost at sea. At the present time, the Somalis are still struggling to manage democracy on land.


Did pirates have a Code (of Conduct)?


Answer: Yes

A documented Pirate Code onboard instituted order and conduct over the pirate crew. This was particularly important when mutineers turned pirate. Smart leaders knew that a crew that mutinied against another captain could do it against them. So they devised ‘Articles’ for the mutineers to sign that rewarded discipline, loyalty and trustworthiness with food, and far more importantly, drink. These also set expectations for new crew members joining the ship.


Articles differed among every ship. Some pirates’ Articles were remarkably progressive for their time. They included a social security system that allocated a portion of all plunder proceeds as compensation for wounded or maimed crewmembers.


Articles in Caribbean piracy were known to pass through pirate groups. It is believed that the source of most pirates’ articles from 1716-26 was either Captain Benjamin Hornigold, or George Lowther and Edward Low. The movement of crewmembers from these Captains’ ships distributed their style of social organisation to other pirates of the Caribbean.


Bartholomew Roberts is particularly well known for his Articles. They covered now-familiar themes of democracy. Every man was guaranteed a ‘vote in affairs of the moment’, and ‘equal title’ to fresh provisions and, far more importantly, ‘strong liquors’. He was one of two Caribbean pirates who expressly forbade the presence of women or boys onboard his ship. The other pirate captain, John Phillips, went even further: he outlawed ‘meddling’ with any woman without her consent in his Articles.


Were all pirates alcoholics?


Answer: A lot of them were but so were lots of people!


Drinking excessively was a common pastime for most European seafarers and land-dwellers up until the early 19th century. It went hand-in-hand with gambling, singing, carousing, brawling and general revelry.

Rum features prominently in the second-hand stories of Caribbean piracy. It was readily available because it is distilled from sugarcane and sugar drove Caribbean island trade. Most captains used it to cement alliances and friendships with other captains. This extended to pirate captains too although with far more coercion. In one case, when Captain Graves refused a bowl of punch offered by the pirate Edward Low, Low cocked his pistol in his other hand and told him: ‘either take the one or the other.’


The acquisition of alcohol during a raid was a double-edged sword for many a pirate captain. Some allowed free access to it. The more sensible among them recognised the ‘dangerous enemy’ of drink. Captain Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most prolific Caribbean raiders, was fortunate to capture several vessels with cargos of liquor. As a result, most of his crew were continually drunk and by extension, very unruly and quite useless in a fight. A handful of sober crew even managed to escape Roberts because of it. In his final showdown with Captain Ogle, his drunken crew were easily captured after Roberts met his end.


Unfortunately, there are not a huge amount of pirate-penned sources at the best of times. One of them, the memoir of Nicholas Fernandez, a captured pirate from the Defensor de Pedro in 1828, blamed his participation in vicious depredations and rapes on his addiction to alcohol. He then used alcohol to erase the memory of the ‘melancholy scenes of destruction’ he wrought on the ship raids he participated in.


By the early 19th century, improvements in sanitation, living conditions and food onboard sailing ships, combined with a growing temperance movement out of the US and England, to limit the carrying of alcohol onboard ships.


Unfortunately, even today, seafarers are over-represented in those afflicted by alcoholism.


Were pirates useful to society?


Answer: Yes


Pirates were always in it for personal gain and they undoubtedly caused great hardship and trauma for their victims. Sometimes they wrapped their piratical acts in a veil of justification – protests against oppression, illegal fishing, poverty, unemployment – but this did not mean they were raiding or hijacking ships for the benefit of the broader society.


However, throughout history, there is clear evidence that piracy itself DID provide long-term benefits to other members of society in unexpected ways. Some of these were purely economic. Others contributed to the establishment or consolidation of a nation’s sovereignty and identity. The fight against pirates has also helped consolidate peace treaties, alliances and international relationships.

In late 17th century Jamaica, pirates selling their plunder in Port Royal helped fund the establishment of the sugar industry. Pirate plunder also subsidised the trading post of Tortuga, off the island of Hispaniola. This proved so successful Tortuga became a notorious pirate haven for several years. The fledgling colonial economies of Martinique, Antigua, Barbados and the Bahamas all benefitted from the proceeds of pirate plunder. Today, the Caribbean’s connection to piracy provides a drawcard for its most significant industry: tourism.


In 19th century Southeast Asia, sea-raiders and pirates helped the Vietnamese maintain their sovereignty as an independent nation by fighting off the incursions of Chinese forces. Some sea-raiders from the islands of Japan grew so successful they created their own feudal nations that eventually united to become the Japan we know today. Would-be European colonists so feared the raiding of the ferocious Iranun from the southern islands of the Philippines that it protected the region’s tea and slave markets from colonialism.


Most recently, the rise of Somali piracy (2007-12) forced navies as diverse as the US, Iran, India and members of the EU to establish communications and protocols on how to work together in the fight against it.


Are pirates still around?


Answer: Yes.


Hotspots have come and gone over the years but pirates have never gone away.


In the 1970s, pirates in the Gulf of Thailand preyed on Vietnamese refugees fleeing communism by boat. Their viciousness rivalled the worst atrocities of the most brutal dictators. Like the majority of pirates, most were never caught.


In the 1980s and 1990s, pirates attacked ships in the Malacca Strait separating Indonesia from Malaysia and Singapore. These attacks were usually opportunistic robberies at unprotected anchorages. The Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s caused piracy to escalate. It still simmers there today.


In the 2000s, pirates from the failed state of Somalia began hijacking and ransoming foreign merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden. Their demise only came about due to coordinated naval patrols, the placement of armed guards on ships and a concerted effort to secure peace on land. The navies still patrol the region.


In the 2010s, Bangladeshi pirates in the Bay of Bengal attacked and robbed fishermen, kidnapping them for ransom and occasionally killing them. Pirates bribed police to leave them alone. Until it can stem corruption, the Bangladeshi government is powerless to stop them.


At the end of the decade, the failure of Venezuela’s economy and Hugo Chavez’s disastrous effort to nationalise the fishing industry caused piracy to re-emerge in the Caribbean Sea. Former fishers themselves, the pirates rob and kidnap other fishers, holding them for ransom. Venezuela remains in political crisis.


As all this was going on, pirates also roamed the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. In 2020, 623 seafarers were kidnapped by pirates there. Today, the Gulf of Guinea has the dubious recognition of being the world’s piracy hotspot.


But there is good news. Efforts by navies, coastguards, and ship-owners to protect against pirates have reduced the attractiveness of the profession in certain regions. In 2021, collaborative efforts between Nigeria and American and European navies helped Gulf of Guinea piracy drop to its lowest rate since 1994.


Unfortunately, it only takes the collapse of a coastal government or state for potential pirates to emerge.




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