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Ten Facts About Pirates

Separating Pirate Truth from Fiction

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The so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” lasted from about 1700 to 1725. During this time, thousands of men (and women) turned to piracy as a way to make a living. It is known as the “Golden Age” because conditions were perfect for pirates to flourish, and many of the individuals we associate with piracy, such as Blackbeard, “Calico Jack” Rackham or “Black Bart” Roberts, were active during this time. Here are ten things you maybe did not know about these ruthless sea bandits!

1. Pirates Rarely Buried Treasure

Illustration by Howard Pyle (circa 1900)

Some pirates buried treasure – most notably Captain William Kidd, who was at the time heading to New York to turn himself in and hopefully clear his name – but most never did. There were reasons for this. First of all, most of the loot gathered after a raid or attack was quickly divided up among the crew, who would rather spend it than bury it. Secondly, much of the “treasure” consisted of perishable goods like fabric, cocoa, food or other things that would quickly become ruined if buried. The persistence of this legend is partly due to the popularity of the classic novel “Treasure Island,” which includes a hunt for buried pirate treasure.

2. Their Careers Didn't Last Long

Frenk E. Schoonover, 1922

Most pirates didn’t last very long. It was a tough line of work: many were killed or injured in battle or in fights amongst themselves, and medical facilities were usually non-existent. Even the most famous pirates, such as Blackbeard or Bartholomew Roberts, only were active in piracy for a couple of years. Roberts, who had a very long and successful career for a pirate, was only active for about three years from 1719 to 1722.

3. They Had Rules and Regulations

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If all you ever did was watch pirate movies, you’d think that being a pirate was easy: no rules other than to attack rich Spanish galleons, drink rum and swing around in the rigging. In reality, most pirate crews had a code which all members were required to acknowledge or sign. These rules included punishments for lying, stealing or fighting on board (fighting on shore was OK). Pirates took these articles very seriously and punishments could be severe.

4. They Didn't Walk the Plank

Painting by Howard Pyle (1911)

Sorry, but this one is another myth. There are a couple tales of pirates walking the plank well after the “Golden Age” ended, but little evidence to suggest that this was a common punishment before then. Not that pirates didn’t have effective punishments, mind you. Pirates who committed an infraction could be marooned on an island, whipped, or even “keel-hauled,” a vicious punishment in which a pirate was tied to a rope and then thrown overboard: he was then dragged down one side of the ship, under the vessel, over the keel and then back up the other side. This doesn’t sound too bad until you remember that ship bottoms were usually covered with barnacles, often resulting in very serious injuries.

5. A Good Pirate Ship had Good Officers

Illustration by Howard Pyle (circa 1900)

A pirate ship was more than a boatload of thieves, killers and rascals. A good ship was a well-run machine, with officers and a clear division of labor. The captain decided where to go and when, and which enemy ships to attack. He also had absolute command during battle. The quartermaster oversaw the ship’s operation and divided up the loot. There were other positions, including boatswain, carpenter, cooper, gunner and navigator. Success as a pirate ship depended on these men carrying out their tasks efficiently and supervising the men under their command.

6. The Pirates Didn't Limit Themselves to the Caribbean

Frank E. Schoonover, 1922

The Caribbean was a great place for pirates: there was little or no law, there were plenty of uninhabited islands for hideouts, and many merchant vessels passed through. But the pirates of the “Golden Age” did not only work there. Many crossed the ocean to stage raids off the west coast of Africa, including the legendary “Black Bart” Roberts. Others sailed as far as the Indian Ocean to work the shipping lanes of southern Asia: it was in the Indian Ocean that Henry “Long Ben” Avery made one of the biggest scores ever: the rich treasure ship Ganj-i-Sawai.

7. There Were Women Pirates

Artist Unknown

It was extremely rare, but women did occasionally strap on a cutlass and pistol and take to the seas. The most famous examples were Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who sailed with “Calico Jack” Rackham in 1719. Bonny and Read dressed as men and reportedly fought just as well (or better than) their male counterparts. When Rackham and his crew were captured, Bonny and Read announced that they were both pregnant and thus avoided being hanged along with the others.

8. Piracy was better than the Alternatives

Painting by Howard Pyle (1905)

Were pirates desperate men who could not find honest work? Not always: many pirates chose the life, and whenever a pirate stopped a merchant ship, it was not uncommon for a handful of merchant crewmen to join the pirates. This was because “honest” work at sea consisted of either merchant or military service, both of which featured abominable conditions. Sailors were underpaid, routinely cheated of their wages, beaten at the slightest provocation and often forced to serve. It should surprise no one that many would willingly choose the more humane and democratic life on board a pirate vessel.

9. They came from all Social Classes

Not all of the Golden Age pirates were uneducated thugs who took up piracy for lack of a better way to make a living. Some of them came from higher social classes as well. William Kidd was a decorated sailor and very wealthy man when he set out in 1696 on a pirate-hunting mission: he turned pirate shortly thereafter. Another example is Major Stede Bonnet, who was a wealthy plantation owner in Barbados before he outfitted a ship and became a pirate in 1717: some say he did it to get away from a nagging wife!

10. Not all Pirates were Criminals

Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Sometimes it depended on your point of view. During wartime, nations would often issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal, which allowed ships to attack enemy ports and vessels. Usually these ships kept the plunder or shared some of it with the government that had issued the letter. These men were called “privateers,” and the most famous examples were Sir Francis Drake and Captain Henry Morgan. These Englishmen never attacked English ships, ports or merchants and were considered great heroes by the common folk of England. The Spanish, however, considered them pirates. 

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