Pirate Facts and Myths

Learn the truth about the most common Pirate facts and Myths!

Many of Pirate myths have come from the way movies and books have portrayed pirates but what is the truth? Find some of our favorite pirates Facts and Myths below!

Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge was a formidable ship because it had forty cannon. However, the problem with cannons was that they were extremely loud, so loud, in fact, that they could easily blow out a pirate’s eardrums. So, most pirates hung balls of wax from their earrings at all times. This way, when they were preparing to fire the canons, they would put the wax in their ears to create makeshift earplugs.

Although they spent much of their life on the seas, they had no intention of their bodies ending up at the bottom of the ocean (Davy Jones Locker). So, they used their earrings as a type of insurance policy which would be used to pay for a proper funeral.  Most pirates wore enough earrings (silver or gold) to pay for a casket and other funeral necessities in case their bodies washed up onshore. Some pirates were known to engrave their homeport into their earrings in hopes that someone would get their body home.

Although pirates have been known to kill everyone on board a ship, they were also known to take hostages. Hostages could be sold for a ransom, making money in the process. The most famous hostage ever held by pirates was (Take the Tour and find out).
Upon being captured, the pirates asked for a ransom of twenty talents which caused the hostage to laugh in their faces claiming he was easily worth fifty. Once the ransom was paid, he had the pirates crucified.

Back in the 1600s, members of the British Navy are credited with coming up with the drink known as grog. In order to avoid drinking water that had been contaminated by harmful microbes, they began mixing rum in their water.
Pirates would later take the recipe for grog and added lemon juice to prevent scurvy and sugar to increase the flavor.

Pirate Crews Were Democracies. Most captains were elected by their crew and could have the position taken from them at any time. Every crew member was also given the same amount of rations with captains only making one to three times more than the lowliest crew member. They voted on where to sail, what to steal, who to maroon, what to do with passengers, how to reward bravery and the list goes on. 

Two women, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, sailed from Nassau, on the pirate ship Revenge, with Ann Bonny holding the position of First Mate.
Both women ended up being captured and jailed. To which famous pirate did Anne say “Sorry to see you there, but if you’d fought like a man, you would not have been hanged like a dog.” (Take the Tour and find out).

You are not likely to find any! One common misconception about pirates is that they buried their treasure. William Kidd is the only pirate ever recorded to have buried their treasure, which he did on Long Island. However, his plan backfired when it was discovered and used as proof of his piracy.
The reason pirates didn’t bury their treasure is that most of the things they stole weren’t gold and jewels. They took things that they needed such as food, water, alcohol, weapons, clothing or other things they were short of. It wasn’t worth much if they buried it and they usually sold what they didn’t need as soon as possible. Do you know to who the pirates of Nassau sold their pirated goods to? (Take the Tour and find out).

There is some evidence that some pirates did use the plank as a form of psychological torture; it wasn’t a widespread practice. The most common death-by-torture among pirates was a practice known as keelhauling, and it was far worse than walking the plank. The victim would be thrown into the water underneath the boat then dragged under the boat to the other side. 

While the white skull and crossbones on a black background (Jolly Roger) may be one of the most well-known pirate flags, there were many variations. Pirate flags depended on their captain. A pirate ship flying a red flag symbolized no quarter, meaning that there would be no mercy given to anyone on board the ship and that everyone would be killed once they had been captured. The flag was referred to as the “Bloody Red,” often leading potentially captured sailors to jump ship before being attacked.

Although most pirates had similar ways of life, each ship had its own specific rules and set of conducts that every person on board was expected to follow without question. These included how loot was to be divided, how daily tasks were handled, and the chain of command.
To break the rules could result in severe punishment and even death. One rule that almost all ships followed was that there was to be no fighting on board. All disputes between crew members had to be settled on the land.

Pirate ships are typically portrayed as being massive seafaring vessels. In reality, they were small and nimble ships that were armed and heavily manned. Because of their small size, they were able to outmaneuver other ships using their speed and size, making them formidable and almost impossible to escape. They would also use their size to hide around narrow channels and shallow seas where the larger Royal Navy ships couldn’t get them.

Yes, they did if you broke the rules. Typically, the victim was dropped off on a deserted island with the clothes on their back, a small portion of water, and a weapon.They were given a weapon to kill themselves if they wanted although it was considered to be a cowardly thing to do. Some pirates that were marooned managed to survive or were saved by other pirate crews, although that was rare.

Pirates were highly organized groups of outlaws that were fair to one another and practiced lawfulness. If a pirate lost a limb, they were compensated. Those who were injured were honored as veterans and were expected to be treated with respect.

Yes they did, even if they weren’t missing an eyeball! By wearing an eye patch most of the time, pirates could keep one eye adjusted to the dark, allowing them to see more clearly below the deck or at night. This came in handy when transitioning from the brightness above deck to the darkness below, especially when raiding or defending their own ship. By lifting their eyepatch, they would be able to see much clearer, even if there was only a little light.

If you had the chance to hear pirates speak from hundreds of years ago, chances are, you wouldn’t understand most of what they’re saying. This is most likely because they’re discussing things you don’t know about or they’re using their own lingo. However, a lot of their phrases are still used today such as “learning the ropes” which means to get comfortable with something or “three sheets to the wind” which means incredibly drunk.

Nassau, New Providence, The Bahamas was known as “The Pirate Republic” during the early 1700’s and was ruled by pirates. There was also Port Royal, Jamaica which was founded in 1518 and was once the largest city in the Caribbean. Corrupt politicians allowed pirates to do just about anything that they wanted. Then there was Tortuga located north of Haiti.

Some pirates were more ruthless than others and slaughtered or tortured entire crews; fighting and violence wasn’t always the best option. Pirates would much rather steal loot without conflict rather than risk losing men, damaging their ship, or getting killed themselves. All in all, violence wasn’t always worth it.

Although pirates developed a brutal reputation, they treated their sailors well. Many captains would offer their crew compensation if they received injuries on board. In fact, pirates are the first community in history to employ a compensation program. The payoff depended on the severity of the injury. Those who lost an eye or a limb received a larger reward. Like modern veterans, pirates who lived through these injuries were regarded as highly courageous and respected. The compensation kept crews together as well, since it boosted morale and offered more benefits than other sailor jobs. 

Although many pirates stemmed from low social classes, that wasn’t the case for all of them. Many high-class citizens, such as William Kidd, became enamored with the pirate life as a financial opportunity. Life at sea meant more freedom and, in most cases, equal pay for all the crew members. Piracy also represented a working class counterculture. Most pirates were former seamen of merchant vessels or indentured servants. Pirates also gained independence and a higher pay in some situations.

There were a variety of accents, including English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French and Dutch. Also, many pirates were of African descent.

The word “pirate” comes from the Latin term, “pirata,” which means sea robber. The Greek word, “peirates,” literally means “one who attacks ships.” During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people used a version of our modern word, “pirate.” They called them pyrates, pyrats, and pirrots instead. The term first appeared in English around 1300. But our common spelling of the word, pirate, didn’t become standardized until the eighteenth century. 

Pirate hunters would often use oared vessels. These low ships could be fast and stealthy enough to sneak up on pirate ships. The English in Jamaica were the first to build galleys of this design. Although these pirate-hunting ships existed, they didn’t become a threat to pirates until the 1720s. The British eventually built hybrid vessels with oars on the lower decks to catch up to pirate ships.

Pirates had their own codes of conduct. These “articles of agreement” varied from ship to ship. At the time, these were called the Custom of the Coast, Charter Party, Chasse-Partie, and Jamaica Discipline. These became the Pirate’s Code. Before embarking on a voyage, every crew member would have to sign something to signify that they honored the code. 

A privateer was basically a pirate with a government license or “Letters of Marque”. They were private individuals commissioned by government officials to carry out military activities against an enemy. Technically, they performed many of the same crimes as pirates; pillaging, taking over villages, and killing opponents; all of their actions were legal. One of the most famous privateers was Sir Francis Drake, who made a fortune by plundering Spanish settlements. What was one countries privateer was the opposing countries pirate.

Pirates stole their ships simply because they couldn’t afford to buy one. Most pirates hijacked smaller ships, since large vessels couldn’t be stolen without detection. After stealing a ship, they quickly converted it into a pirate vessel. They would fly their own flags and reinforce the decks to hold heavier cannons. Except for the large ships of Blackbeard (Queen Anne’s Revenge)  and Samuel(Black Sam) Bellamy (The Whydah Galley)  most of them sailed shorter, faster ships.

Although pirates often sailed in small ships, they managed to carry up to 80 people per boat. In contrast, most English merchant vessels only held thirty men on a larger ship. Although pirates could recruit up to 80 sailors, most vessels carried around 15 to 25 men. Samuel(Black Sam) Bellamy once commanded a crew of 90 men, and Jack Rackham worked with 100 sailors throughout most of his career.

Most pirate “booty” consisted of ship materials; candles, frying pans, soap, wood and alcohol. Often, pirates would invade fishing ships to steal their food. If their vessel fell into disrepair, the pirates may have stolen the entire ship! Much of pirate’s wealth came from the slave trade. They often raided slave ships to imprison and sell the slaves later. From merchant ships, pirates would steal sugar, spices, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, and animal skins to sell to other merchants.

The captains served as battle leaders to direct raids. As such, it was crucial that the captain was talented in sword and pistol fighting. Another sailor would be in charge of steering the ships. Pirate ships didn’t often have first mates, but they did have quartermasters. The quartermaster was the captain’s right hand who took charge when the captain left. 

Historically, pirates didn’t draw treasure maps. Pirates preferred to spend their loot quickly, before another pirate crew tried to steal it from them. Over the years, many people have claimed to find pirate maps, although these claims have never been backed by scholars.

Certain pirate gangs from Nassau grew to terrify the Royal Navy. One of the most famous crews was called the Flying Gang. The group formed in 1714, and by 1718, the Royal Navy was afraid to encounter them at all. The Flying Gang had stolen Navy ships and led three times as many men as the Navy. The Flying Gang included some of the most famous pirates in history, including Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, Mary Read, Anne Bonny, Stede Bonnet, and Calico Jack Rackham.

“Davy Jones” was the name for the sailors’ devil. “Davy Jones’ Locker” was an idiom for the bottom of the ocean. It became a euphemism for drowning from shipwrecks. It’s unclear where the name came from, but the earliest references to Davy Jones’ Locker date back to the early 1700s. 

According to most pirate codes, stealing from fellow crewmen was severely punished. In some cases, pirates who stole from their fellow sailors were marooned on an island and left to die. However, pirates often stole from other pirate ships! Charles Vane stole Charles Yeat’s ship to escape from the Royal Navy in Nassau harbor.

The pirate flags often appeared on pirate ships to intimidate other sailors. Through intimidation, pirates could get other crews to surrender without having to fight. One of the most notorious pirates to use intimidation tactics was Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. Blackbeard would weave hemp into his beard and light it, so that his beard appeared to be flaming when he encountered his enemies.

Because drinking water quickly went stagnant on ships, most pirates resorted to alcohol and grog. These drinks would last much longer on board. In the Caribbean, rum became a staple of the local economy. Pirates often bought rum distilled from sugar, as it was easier to ship. For Captains, providing alcohol boosted their crew’s morale, which lead to a better environment. On ships with harsh discipline, however, many sailors didn’t bother remaining sober.

Why did pirate ships contain jail cells? Because they  took prisoners for many reasons. Most often, imprisoning sailors served as an intimidation strategy. Pirates would incite fear in their enemies by keeping them as captives for a time before stealing their belongings and releasing them.
In different situations, pirates would take prisoners to show their enemies that they could surrender. Certain prisoners could be released for ransom. In other cases, pirates would keep prisoners and coerce them into joining the crew. Carpenters, surgeons, and navigators were often recruited to pirate ships.

For most pirates, their life at sea didn’t last long. Many pirates were injured or killed on their voyage. Although crews often had surgeons on board, their supplies and technology didn’t help many people recover. Bartholomew Roberts, who had one of the longest and most lucrative pirate careers, only sailed for three years.
Ching Shih, a Chinese pirate, ran one of the longest and most successful careers. At one point, she commanded 1,800 ships and over 80,000 men. And her piracy only lasted three years; the Chinese government offered her amnesty, and she was one of the few pirates to retire.

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