You probably weren’t thinking that Pirates of the Caribbean was a documentary. But somehow we’ve all absorbed the stereotype of a pirate as a swashbuckling adventurer with a certain accent, a few loose teeth, and a treasure map in his pocket. Let’s take a look at some of the most pervasive pirate tropes—and separate myth from fact.
There’s an accent we famously think of as the way pirates talk. This doesn’t come from any specific historical source, but pop culture historians tend to trace it to Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 Treasure Island. Newton grew up in Cornwall, England, and played up the local accent for his pirate character.
Pirates weren’t hoarding gold and jewels like dragons in Middle Earth. They stole stuff to pay their crew, replenish their supplies, and ultimately to sell, because piracy was a business venture. The booty they seized was often along the lines of spices, textiles, or wine—not exactly the kind of things that keep well underground.
The myth of buried pirate treasure likely comes from a story about Captain Kidd, when he knew he was in trouble with the British government. He reportedly traded with a man on an island near New York (handing over some fancy fabric and three enslaved people, among other things) and then asked the man to bury some gold and other goods for him. Kidd had a whole plan that involved getting the governor to bring him back to the island, but in the end Kidd was arrested and the man turned over the goods.
Piracy’s Golden Age
Pirates as we (think we) know them only operated in a fairly short time period, from the mid-1600’s until 1730 or so. This is when various European countries were engaging in trade across the Atlantic, and were also intermittently all at war with each other. At the time, privateers were authorized by a nation to attack ships from that nation’s enemies, and would carry a “letter of marque” that was essentially their license to pillage. The concept of piracy existed long before and after this era, of course. People have been attacking each other on boats for probably as long as people have had boats. And there are still pirates today, famously including those off the coast of Somalia.
Walk The Plank
In the movies, pirates have been known to make a captive walk out on a plank that hangs over the edge of the ship like a diving board. There’s no record of this occurring on a real-life ship. A popular 1724 book, A General History of the Pyrates, claimed that ancient pirates would throw a ship’s ladder over the side and tell captives they were free to leave, if they wanted to make a swim for it. That idea evolved into the “plank” in fiction.
Pirates Weren’t All White
While most pirates were dudes from Europe, there were plenty of folks on pirate ships who didn’t fit the demographic. We know of at least a dozen women who sailed in the “golden age” of piracy. And historians have estimated that as many as one-third of pirate crew members of the time were Black.
Did you subscribe to our newsletter?
It’s free! Click here to subscribe!