Unpacking the Myths
Pirate Fact vs. Pirate Fiction
In this, the fourth installment of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, your host Jeromy Foberg discusses the many differences between pirates and piracy as they exist in fiction and how they existed.
Before we go any further, let me say that educating people about what pirates really were is one of the driving forces in my life. Hollywood has infected our popular consciousness with the image of Jack Sparrow, and while I don’t want to shout “you’re wrong” at people, if you think Jack Sparrow is in any way a typical pirate, you’re wrong.
I’m not doing this to spoil things for people. I understand that fictional pirates make great fodder for adventure stories and games—and we need those stories and games to make our lives entertaining. Heck, I rely on those games and stories to generate interest for people to want to come aboard the Formidable and listen to me talk. I just want people to understand the difference between fact and fantasy.
While my customers often want to hear the reality of what life was like as a pirate, some fictional stereotypes have made pirates so “kid friendly” that I can’t always bring up what really happened [ 1 ].
Pirates Did Bad Things
As an extreme example, there’s a popular pirate show for small children that has an image floating around with a quote from the show: “A good pirate doesn’t steal from other people.” They keep using that word, but I don’t think it means what they think it means [ 2 ].
The essence of piracy is doing just that: taking things that belong to other people. With that in mind, every day I have to censor the really gruesome stuff, even as I’m trying to educate people on what really happened, all while trying to keep the passengers entertained. Such is life for a modern pirate re-enactor.
To be a little more general, let me make something very clear: pirates did bad things. I can’t say that enough. Some days I can’t say it at all, since some of the paying passengers might be very angry about being told their fictional heroes weren’t very heroic.
While there were some sailors labeled as pirates who did some heroic things, and even a very few pirates who did occasional good things, the facts are clear. Pirates did bad things on a regular basis, no matter what their original reasons for going pirate were.
There were even pirates like Stede Bonnet, who turned to piracy for a unique reason: He was rich enough to buy his own boat and crew, and he desperately wanted to get away from his nagging wife [ 3 ].
Stede would generally kidnap people and hold them for ransom, but instead of treating them poorly, he kept them as well as he might want to be kept, even letting them write letters home. All of this was because he figured people would pay better ransoms if he didn’t damage the merchandise [ 3 ]. He was right.
When news of his methods reached one of the more typical pirates of the day, Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard), decided he would try the same thing. From that point forward, people kidnapped for ransom by Blackbeard had nothing but good things to say about their treatment, and he earned that much more money for himself and his crew.
This illustrates another difference between fact and fiction. They were men who wanted to make money and were willing to do bad things to get it. Again, most of them weren’t fighting for ideals, or out of bloodthirstiness, but simply to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible.
That isn’t to say they weren’t ruthless, violent men who did bad things for money, but that for a typical pirate, money was the driving force of their life. Most pirates weren’t psychopaths. If they could make more money by doing something marginally less bad, they would do so at the drop of a hat.
The Pirate Look
Speaking of hats, let’s talk about how pirates looked and how I look on a typical day at work. I dress as a pirate from around 1700 CE, the very middle of the golden age of piracy, which lasted from around 1650 to around 1750 [ 1 ]. That time period is when most of the pirates whose names are still with us today sailed, and the most pirates were active and profitable.
Much like pirates of that time, my gear is a mix of things I’ve made, things made by my crewmates, and things I’ve purchased from specialty manufacturers. The only difference between then and now is that their suppliers specialized in supplying sailors aboard pirate vessels, whereas mine specialize in outfitting re-enactors.
Looking at gear, let’s start at the bottom, which is the first place where my gear differs from that of a typical pirate. Historical pirates wore shoes made entirely of leather, including the soles. Since that makes the deck of a ship feel like I’m walking on wet marble, I’ve gone for safety over authenticity and gone with high-grip safety soles. The uppers are closer to authentic, down to the buckle on the front.
Under those shoes I wear long stockings that go up past the knee, held up by a pair of leather garters with shiny gold buckles. Of course, the reason I wear them isn’t to look good; without the garters holding them up, cotton or wool stockings with no elastic slip down every few steps, and you don’t want to be constantly adjusting your stockings.
While historic pirates had to deal with those slippery leather soles, they certainly didn’t gad about in long boots that extended to or above the knee, or boots with those flaps that look so cool, yet catch on so much stuff when a sailor is working. While some pirates did own those tall “bucket boots,” they used them exclusively for cold-weather sailing.
Over the garters and stockings, I wear one of two types of pants. First, fly-front or drop-front breeches that go below the knee and button in place. I usually wear drop-front in town because it accentuates my manliness less. As I noted above, kid friendly. The fly-fronts are a lot like button-fly jeans today, only with fancier buttons to accentuate what lies beneath.
The other type of pants, because those two styles of breeches really are one, is petticoat breeches. They flare out from underneath the knees and wind up looking a bit like petticoats. When you walk around, they look totally cool and awesome, although that’s not why pirates wore them. Instead, they were additional covering you could put on over regular breeches, either for warmth or to keep your good breeches clean.
Above the breeches I wear a collared, deep V-neck shirt with a single button at the neck, with a neckerchief. Neckerchiefs were one of the identifying marks of a sailor, and while pirates were criminals, they were also very much sailors. In my re-enacting unit we use the colors of the kerchiefs to denote rank, something which may or may not have been done on any given pirate vessel.
Over the shirt I wear a waistcoat. Trivia note—for those who assumed that word is pronounced “waist coat,” that’s not the case here; think “west kit.” At any rate, this is a vest that goes on over the shirt and was pretty much mandatory when going out on shore leave or dressing up for an occasion. Going without a waistcoat was considered ungentlemanly, and, as we said before, pirates one and all shared the goal of improving their station in life by taking property from other people.
Of course, even here, pirates and sailors stood out from land-bound gentlemen. Sailor’s waistcoats went to the waist to avoid getting in the way while they worked, where a “proper” gentleman’s waistcoat would extend halfway down the thigh. I’ve got one of those, and I’ll swap it out in cold weather conditions, because when it’s 10 degrees below normal winter weather, my thighs get cold.
Speaking of colder weather, pirates would often add one more thing to their ensemble: a short coat. While the long, billowing coats in movies look cool, much like waistcoats, they catch on things when they extend too far below the waist. In blustery weather, they do that even more.
Of course, Hollywood does get one thing right about pirate waistcoats and jackets: ostentation. Pirates would have buttons on sleeves and down the front, as well as many pockets sewn on; some of them more or less fake pockets, added just for show. Yes, ladies, the pirates of yesteryear may be partially at fault for all those fake pockets you have to put up with. I’ve had to put up with them too, and I feel for you.
The popular hat of movie pirates is the tricorne, but there are a few problems with that. The tricorne hat wasn’t called a tricorne, nor did it gain in popularity until the middle of the Napoleonic wars, nearly 100 years after the golden age of piracy [ 1 ]. What pirates wore instead was what they referred to as a “cocked hat.” They called it that because to get a proper pirate hat you take a basic simple round hat with a simple round brim and “cock up” the front sides so the front comes to a point and cock up the back. That keeps the wind from blowing the hat off your head; instead, the wind blows around it.
A quick digression into a true story about Blackbeard. He’d recently captured a ship with so much money that none of his crew would ever need to work again. His crew threw their hats in the air in celebration, at which point a gust of wind blew all the hats overboard. Blackbeard, not to be discouraged by such a minor thing as haberdashery, continued his pirate cruise, and he and his crew came across another vessel. The captain of the new vessel surrendered upon seeing Blackbeard’s flag.
As we’ve talked about, while he had a reputation for being brutal in a fight, he simultaneously had a reputation for being relatively kind to captives. When the pirates came aboard, the captain said, “Take what you will from our vessel, but please don’t kill us.” Blackbeard replied, “Don’t worry, we’re only here for your hats.” They proceeded to steal nothing else except the hats of the captain and crew. That captain legally had to report that encounter, including what was stolen [ 4 ].
With that last addition, the hat, you have the appearance of a pirate—that of a working sailor who had to think both about his appearance on shore leave and his duties aboard ship.
There are a few common accessories, which any given pirate might or might not have carried. They include timepieces, although given the technology of the time they were notoriously inaccurate. I personally carry a marlin spike to undo knots. Similarly, some pirates would carry knives—not specifically as weapons, but as working tools.
I’ve got a pouch to carry items, because the only pockets on my outfit are those fake ones I mentioned earlier. Rich pirates would often carry their wealth in jewelry, both because it was portable and because it let them show off how successful they were.
One specific item of jewelry that wasn’t common was rings. They get caught on the lines you’re trying to haul, and you wind up losing your ring and breaking your fingers. Instead, a married pirate might wear his ring on a necklace. I say might, because many sailors wouldn’t wear their wedding rings at all for those safety reasons.
Something which isn’t quite an accessory, but I still get asked about a lot, are pets. Specifically, people ask me, “Where’s your parrot?” to which I reply, “If you carry a parrot on your shoulder, it will poop down your back and ruin your clothes.” The reason pirates and sailors came to be associated with parrots is that with their bright colors and the ability to speak and learn other tricks, parrots could be sold for surprising amounts of money in a European pirate’s home port. The same goes for monkeys, only less with the talking and more with the tricks.
Any similar unusual animal might be picked up by pirates for similar reasons. Remember, pirates were criminals, but they were also entrepreneurs, on the lookout for any way to make some extra coin. While Hollywood might exaggerate the length of time a pirate would own a particular pet, they haven’t made up the fact that pirates had exotic pets. As for more mundane working animals, cats were kept aboard to (keep) away rats, mice, and other pests that ruined cargos. Dogs, on the other hand, were more likely to be mascots if they were on board at all.
‘Arr’ You Kidding Me?
Moving into personal grooming, many superstitious pirates (and many pirates and sailors alike were superstitious) believed any type of grooming was the bailiwick of the goddess of beauty. Given that they spent their life on the sea, and sea gods and goddesses are one and all very, very jealous, woe betide the pirate who gave worship to the goddess of beauty.
Since those woes often got spread around to the whole ship, forgoing grooming for the length of a voyage was a common occurrence. The Hollywood image of pirates being unshaven and ungroomed is fairly historically accurate. This is one place where re-enactors don’t follow in the footsteps of their source material. I like showers and razors, thank you very much.
When I’m aboard ship, one of the biggest things I teach about is how pirates talked. This is, flat out, one of the most egregious ways media has demolished the image of pirates.
Pirates do pepper their speech with words, phrases, and sounds that sound foreign to someone not familiar with ships or piracy. However, the common myth, propagated by popular media, is that every pirate says “Arrr.” This can be laid at the feet of Robert Lewis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, creator of the pirate, Captain Long John Silver, who was from the West Country down near Wales [ 5 ].
When Disney decided to make Treasure Island into a movie, they cast Robert Newton, an actor from that same West Country. (Born in Dorset, England, which is considered part of the “West Country”) When he read the book and script, Newton decided to use the West Country accent, since Silver was from there. “Arrr” appears less than 10 (actually 11) times in Treasure Island, but it does appear as part of the West Country accent.
When he was hired to play Blackbeard in a biopic, Newton decided to use the West Country accent again, this time because… reasons. (From the time Newton started speaking in Blackbeard until the end of that scene was just over 3 minutes. In those three minutes, he managed to say “Arr” or exaggerate a name with “Arr” 10 times.) This time he used “Arrr” more than 10 times. Next, Newton was cast in the sequel to Treasure Island, and again the “Arrr” count climbed (to 32). Finally, an Australian film company decided to do a series on the life of Long John Silver, and they couldn’t very well get anyone but Robert Newton to play him.
During this series, the “Arrr” count jumped into triple digits. By this point, Robert Newton had become the iconic movie pirate of the day, and other actors began to copy his portrayal to look and, more importantly, sound like “real pirates.” This meant they copied his West Country accent, right down to the “Arrr.”
Now, as I’ve mentioned now and again, I spend a good amount of time in Boston, where the accent does interesting things with the letter R, dropping its sound from words where it belongs and adding it to words where it doesn’t make an appearance, “pahk the cah, I’ve got an idear” is a good example of that Bostonian accent I hear regularly. When I don’t have time to explain all the previous paragraph, and Bostonians shout “Arrr!” at me, I’ll shout back “You’re getting it wrong, you should be saying ‘Aaaa.’”
Even the folks at the Talk Like A Pirate Day website are in on this myth. While they have the Robert Newton history I just told you about on their page, they still perpetuate the myth of pirates saying “Arrr.”
Going beyond the “Arrr,” let’s talk about how real pirates talked. Like any skilled trade, they had jargon they used for their work, which often sounded mysterious to outsiders. Belay, for example, means to make a line “fast” or secured. In everyday speech, it can be used to indicate “stop that.” Things ahead of you are ahead of you because that’s what’s at the front of the ship, the head.
On a sailing ship, where the wind is generally coming from behind, you don’t want to urinate off the back of the ship, or even the side, because, as the song says, “you don’t piss into the wind.” Also, the rushing water would wash off any feces from the front of the ship, where it might not do so off the back. So, we get the term for “in front of” and “nautical bathroom” from the same place. That’s right—you poop in the head and not on the poop deck. Pooping on the poop deck would wind up with your business dropping straight down the side of the captain’s cabin and getting on his windows. (The Poop deck is so named due to an English bastardization: in Italy, the highest deck is reserved for the most important people. The name associated with the most important person is “La Popa” or The Pope. The English thought Popa meant poop.)
The direction toward the front of the ship is called “fore,” and toward the rear of the ship is called “aft.” To help you remember for the next time you want to talk jargon like a pirate, just remember that these directions are related to the words “before” and “after.”
The foremost part of the ship is the bow (where the head is, you’ll remember), and the aftmost part is called the stern. The right side of the boat is the starboard, the left is called port, which used to be called larboard. The reason it was changed is simple; shouted commands need to be clear, and port sounds far less like starboard. Of course, this change didn’t happen until the early 1800s, so a proper pirate from the golden age would be using starboard and larboard, confusion be damned.
So now you have the jargon. Belay the “Arrr” and get to using that nautical slang and you’ll sound like a pirate in no time.
Tools of the Trade
We’ve talked about morals and clothing and language; it’s time to talk about the essential tools of piracy, starting with that which makes threats have bite—the weapons [ 1 ].
Swords were expensive items. A typical sailor would need to save three years pay (wages) to pay for a single sword. Beyond that, there were rules about who could wear a sword. If you weren’t royal, gentry, or an officer, wearing a sword could get you thrown in jail for suspicion of piracy.
Beyond the basic cost, it takes years to master swordplay. While successful pirates could afford swords, there was no way for them to buy the skills of a lifetime. Finally, swords aboard ship are cumbersome if they’re too long, which most of them are.
- Long Knives and Axes
Instead of swords, most pirates carried long knives and axes. Both were considered tools, so neither would get a pirate a second glance if they walked down the street carrying one. They were also faster and shorter, better for use in the close quarters combat aboard ship.
They were used as tools as well. When you needed to level the deck, you could use the long edge of the axe to plane down any plank edges that heaved up. If the mast snapped, which could happen if it was hit by a cannonball, it could drag the ship down by the ropes still attached to it. Axes make for handy tools for cutting both the ropes and, potentially, the mast. Once the mast was gone, sailors would need to chop down a tree to replace it. Axes would work; swords less so.
Daggers worked as tools as well, although they weren’t just knives—they usually had a two-edged blade instead of one. Most sailors would carry a trade knife, a single edged blade that could be used in a fight. They carried those knives in sheaths that covered not only the blade, but also a big part of the hilt.
Some sailors avoided the risk of dropping their knives and marlin spikes [ 6 ] by attaching a lanyard to both. Those lanyards would be long enough to allow the sailor to reach all the way around themselves without removing the lanyard.
- The Classic Cutlass
The style of sword you see in pirate movies is often called a cutlass. Much like “tricorne,” the word “cutlass” wasn’t used until almost 100 years later. Instead, swords were called “hangers,” since they would hang at the pirate’s side.
Cavalry swords were occasionally used by former officers or those who had taken the sword from one. While a scimitar, a thick curved weapon from the Middle East, was used by Thomas Tew [ 2 ] on his flag, and so became an iconic pirate weapon in some locales, they weren’t used by pirates all that often. Tew used it not because his men carried scimitars, but because it looked cool, scary, and distinctive. That leads us beyond to ships and the flags pirates fly.
- What’s in a Flag?
The most recognizable pirate flag is the Jolly Roger, a skull-and-crossbones in white on a black field. In the early 1600s most pirates flew simple black flags. Emanuel Wynne [ 7 ], a Dutch pirate, decided to add some intimidation factor to his.
Death’s heads, popular iconography in European cemeteries to indicate “dead people here,” seemed a natural fit to Wynne. He not only added the Death’s Head but also included an hourglass to indicate that his victim’s time was short and they should surrender soon. Soon pirates were all adding iconography to their flags not only to intimidate their targets, but to distinguish themselves one from another.
Possibly the most famous of these black flags is that of John “Calico Jack” Rackham [ 8 ]. His flag, bearing a skull with cracks on both sides and crossed, hanger-style swords beneath it, is possibly one of the most recognizable variations on the Jolly Roger theme, as it’s been used repeatedly in the popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
The Jolly Roger name, in fact, comes from the common nickname pirates used for the devil—they literally called their flag “the devil.” There were variations on this theme, like myths associated with John Quelch’s supposed flag “Old Roger,” which bears a man with an hourglass shaped cup in one hand and a spear through a heart in the other [ 9 ]. Blackbeard’s flag was based on this, except his replaced the man with a skeleton with devil’s horns and made the hourglass much more hourglass-like (and included drops of blood coming from the heart).
- Vessels—Size Didn’t Matter
A popular fiction is that piracy required a big ship. On the contrary, some pirates worked from dories, small rowboats just big enough to step a mast from. Even those in larger vessels rarely sailed in ships larger than 100 feet. Pirates valued speed and maneuverability far more than bulk or even firepower.
One exception to this was Black Sam Bellamy. His Widow (actually spelled Whydah) measured over 120 feet on deck, and she had a crew of over 100 aboard her. While he did make the largest single haul of any pirate in the golden age, he was an exception rather than the rule.
Names of Legend
We’ve talked a lot about specific pirates, those whose exploits, for one reason or another, are remembered to this day. Many of them have appeared in popular media, like Blackbeard in Pirates of the Caribbean, who was portrayed accurately as a ruthless man out for his own personal profit and power.
Stede Bonnet is fairly well represented in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag alongside Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Anne Bonny. Another excellent game about the golden age of piracy is Sid Meier’s Pirates. It allows you to create a pirate character who can then meet and fight or ally with real pirates from history, each portrayed reasonably well for a video game [ 10 ].
The game also includes a robust goods trading system. Many pirates carried legitimate trade goods if the profit looked high enough. Just remember, most pirates were looking for money, not blood. That “black market” trade, which existed in the real world, helped the American colonies’ economies in the era right before the American Revolution. The pirates stole goods which couldn’t be legally or reasonably transported to the colonies, then sold them to stateside merchants who would sell them to colonists at deep discounts.
The television show Black Sails has the pirate captain Charles Vane, against whom the pirate Calico Jack successfully mutinied to become a pirate captain [ 11 ]. One thing Black Sails does well is the democratic aspect of piracy. Pirates voted to decide who their captain would be, and just about anything else except for decisions made during battle.
Crossbones, starring John Malkovich as Blackbeard, deals with navigation tools beyond what pirates had available, which opens the discussion of what they did have available [ 12 ].
Moving on to books, The Guardship follows a British admiral as he deals with pirates off the coast of the Carolinas, and it gets a fair amount of the details right. The Republic of Pirates by Woodard, Under the Black Flag by Cordingly, and Pirates: Predators of the Seas by Keene are all good non-fiction books dealing with pirates [ 13 ].
For younger readers, there is a series about the young adventures of Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jack Sparrow, which handles piracy at least as well as the movies. On the other end of the spectrum there are series like Vampirates. Enough said on that, although this much must be said—I enjoy the success of any pirate movie, book, or show, since that success eventually feeds back to me business and opportunities to teach.
In the end, that’s the end goal of all piracy, whether the real historic thing or the modern re-enactment; making a living doing something awesome or awful, depending on whether people are getting hurt. That may be the most pernicious myth of all, that pirates were psycho killers of the high seas. While they certainly cultivated that image and had to be able to fight to win if the merchants they attacked fought back, in the end their decisions were mainly fueled by money.
Be sure to sail by next time when we describe a single typical day in the life of a tall ship sailor. From waking in the morning to bundling into a hammock at night, we’ll cover it all. Be sure to join us as we go through a sailor’s day!
- “While staged, and that pose with a spyglass is a tad cliché, at least this looks somewhat accurate. If you can’t tell, I’m saying this with dripping sarcasm.” Source: https://stock.adobe.com/images/captain-of-a-pirate-ship-looks-at-the-sea/158253853?asset_id=158253853
- “For all that we’ll pan the ridiculous, and Jack Sparrow’s “Effects,” there is something to be said of the ornate weaponry of the period.“ Source: https://stock.adobe.com/images/historic-pistols/224981507?asset_id=224981507
Jeromy Foberg has staffed conventions as a historian and panelist for the better part of a decade. His work in historical reenactment and experimental archaeology is voluminous, leading historical walking tours and serving as a tall ship sailor. In addition to his series, Jeromy’s worked with SFS as a model, performer, and a writer for The Living Multiverse. Having spent the past few years “living the dream”, he’s rarely settled down in one place to recount his accumulated lore … until now.
- Foberg, Jeremy. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. Interview by Savan Gupta, 10 Sept. 2016.
- Gannaway, Bobs. Captain Jake and the Never Land Pirates. Disney Television Animation, 14 Feb. 2011.
- Crawford, Amy. “The Gentleman Pirate.” Smithsonian Magazine, 31 July 2007, smithsonianmag.com/history/the-gentleman-pirate-159418520/
- De Graaf, Jack. “The Pirate Who Raided a Ship for Their Hats.” The Fact Site, 13 May 2019, thefactsite.com/pirate-hat-raid/
- Gonzalez, Nora. “The Eternal Legacy of Treasure Island”. Encyclopedia Britannica, britannica.com/story/the-eternal-legacy-of-treasure-island
- “Other Pirate Close Ranged.” The Way of the Pirates, www.thewayofthepirates.com/pirate-weapons/pirate-close-ranged.
- “Emanuel Wynn.” The Way of the Pirates, http://www.thewayofthepirates.com/famous-pirates/emanuel-wynn
- “Famous Pirate: Calico Rackham Jack.” The Way of the Pirates, http://www.thewayofthepirates.com/famous-pirates/calico-rackham-jack
- “Picture of the Flag of Pirate John Quelch. The Way of the Pirates, http://www.thewayofthepirates.com/picture/picture-of-flag-of-pirate-john-quelch/
- Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. San Francisco, CA , Ubisoft, 2013.
- Levine, Robert, and Jonathan E. Steinberg. Black Sails. Starz!, 25 Jan. 2014.
- Cross, Neil. Crossbones. National Broadcasting Company, 30 May 2014.
- Fictum, David. “Recommend Books on Pirate History.” Colonies, Ships, and Pirates, CSP Historical, 29 June 2015, csphistorical.com/2015/06/28/recommend-books-on-pirate-history/