The fictional pirates of today's books and movies don't have much to do with the real-life buccaneers who sailed the seas centuries ago! Here are some of the most famous pirates of fiction, with their historical accuracy thrown in for good measure.
Long John Silver
Where he appears: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and subsequently countless books, movies, TV shows, video games, etc. Robert Newton played him several times in the 1950's: his language and dialect are responsible for the "pirate speak" so popular today ("Arrrr, matey!")
Description: Long John Silver was a charming rogue. Young Jim Hawkins and his friends set out to find a great treasure: they hire a ship and crew, including the one-legged Silver. Silver is at first a loyal ally, but soon his treachery is discovered as he attempts to steal the ship and the treasure. Silver is one of the great all-time literary characters and arguably the best-known fictional pirate ever.
Accuracy: Long John Silver is surprisingly accurate. Like many pirates, he had lost a limb in battle somewhere: this would have entitled him to extra loot under most pirate articles. Also like many crippled pirates, he became a ship's cook. His treachery and ability to switch sides back and forth mark him as a true pirate. He was quartermaster under the notorious Captain Flint: it was said that Silver was the only man Flint feared. This is accurate as well, as the quartermaster was the second-most important post on a pirate ship and an important check on the captain's power.
Captain Jack Sparrow
Where he appears: The Pirates of the Caribbean movies and all sorts of other Disney commercial tie-ins: video games, toys, books, etc.
Description: Captain Jack Sparrow, as played by actor Johnny Depp, is a lovable rogue who can switch sides in a heartbeat but always seems to wind up on the side of the good guys. Sparrow is charming and slick and can talk himself into and out of trouble quite easily. He has a deep attachment to piracy and to being captain of a pirate ship.
Accuracy: Captain Jack Sparrow is not very historically accurate. He is said to be a leading member of the Brethren Court, a confederation of pirates. While there was a loose organization in the late seventeenth century called the Brethren of the Coast, its members were buccaneers and privateers, not pirates. Pirates rarely worked together and even robbed one another at times. Captain Jack's preference for weapons such as pistols and sabers is accurate. His ability to use his wits instead of brute force was a hallmark of some, but not many pirates: Howell Davis and Bartholomew Roberts are two examples. Other aspects of his character, such as turning undead as part of an Aztec curse, are of course nonsense (but fun and make for a good movie).
Where he appears: Captain Hook is the main antagonist of Peter Pan. He made his first appearance in J.M. Barrie's 1904 play "Peter Pan, or, the boy who wouldn't grow up." He has appeared in just about everything related to Peter Pan since: movies, books, cartoons, video games, etc.
Description: Hook is a handsome pirate who dresses in fancy clothes. He has in hook in place of one hand since losing the hand to Peter in a sword fight. Peter fed the hand to a hungry crocodile, which now follows Hook around hoping to eat the rest of him. Lord of the pirate village in Neverland, Hook is clever, wicked and cruel.
Accuracy: Hook is not terribly accurate, and in fact has spread certain myths about pirates. He is constantly looking to make Peter, the lost boys or any other enemy "walk the plank." This myth is now commonly associated with pirates largely because of Hook's popularity, although very few pirate crews ever forced someone to walk the plank. Hooks for hands are also now a popular part of pirate Halloween costumes, although there are no famous historical pirates who ever wore one.
Dread Pirate Roberts
Where he appears: Dread Pirate Roberts is a character in the 1973 novel The Princess Bride and the 1987 movie of the same name.
Description: Roberts is a very fearsome pirate who terrorizes the seas. It is revealed, however, that Roberts (who wears a mask) is not one but several men who have handed the name down to a series of successors. Each "Dread Pirate Roberts" retires when wealthy after training his replacement. Westley, the hero of the book and movie, was Dread Pirate Roberts for a while before leaving to seek Princess Buttercup, his true love.
Accuracy: Very little. There is no record of pirates franchising their name or doing anything for "true love," unless their true love of gold and plunder counts. Just about the only thing historically accurate is the name, a nod to Bartholomew Roberts, the greatest pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy. Still, the book and movie are a lot of fun!