Dispelling Some Myths: about Pirates
Updated: Jun 2
Asked to imagine or indeed to portray a pirate, most people undoubtedly will have a certain look in mind. Who’s now thinking of Johnny Depp in Disney’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series of movies or, if you are a bit longer in the tooth, perhaps Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver in ‘Treasure Island’? It is fine if you are as these fictional characters epitomise what we all ‘know’ to be the pirate look. But the look was created by the movie-makers who, it seems, were inspired by engravings from 17th and 18th century publications. Add to the mix a little artistic or dramatic license and you have the archetypal pirate. So, how much of what we ‘know’ is actually true and what evidence do we have to rely on?
What follows has been inspired by Tastes Of History’s foray into the world of ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’ (ca. 1650 - ca. 1720) at Pendennis Castle, Falmouth and at Dover Castle. Unsurprisingly, our remit was to recreate recipes from the period for visitors to sample at the ‘Pirates!’ events at both castles. We therefore set about discovering what we could about food of circa 1700 during the reign of Queen Ann . If you are interested, the recipes can be found here. More significantly for the subject in hand, we were reminded of a number of misconceptions surrounding pirates that continue to influence the popular imagination. With that in mind, what follows aims to dispel some of those myths.
International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a parody holiday created in 1995 by two Americans, John Baur and Mark Summers. They proclaimed September 19th each year as the day when everyone in the world should talk like a pirate, greeting friends with ‘Ahoy, maties!’ or ‘Ahoy, me hearties!’ However, the holiday, and its observance, springs from a romanticized view of the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, a view that is the very subject of this ‘Dispelling Some Myths’ piece.
Ask most English speakers to talk like a pirate and they will almost invariably reply with a loud 'Arr!' But this oh so familiar ‘pirate speak’ was actually affected and popularised by English actor Robert Newton (right), now the de facto ‘patron saint’ of Talk Like a Pirate Day. So, despite being an invention there is, strangely, a basis in historical fact for mimicking a West Country accent.
Newton is famous for portraying pirates in several films, most notably Long John Silver in both the 1950 Disney film ‘Treasure Island’ and the 1954 Australian film ‘Long John Silver’, and the title character in the 1952 film ‘Blackbeard the Pirate’. Having been born in Dorset but educated in Cornwall, Newton chose to use his native West Country dialect to give life to his portrayals of Long John Silver and Blackbeard. This may have been a coincidence or maybe Newton was fully aware of his native West Country’s strong maritime heritage  and that many English sailors traditionally came from the port towns of the region. Moreover, when King James I (& VI) outlawed the piratical practices of the Royal Navy in 1609, some crews fled to the Caribbean to continue their nefarious activities. In doing so, of course, they took their Devon, Cornwall and Bristolian accents with them. So, Newton’s characterisations are therefore completely compatible with the historical precedent. Further, his interjection ‘Arr!’ (meaning ‘yes’ in West Country parlance), with its distinctive rolling ‘r’, mirrored the popularity of the films becoming widely remembered and thus is most likely the origin of the archetypal ‘pirate accent’.
Pirate’s dress code
To understand how pirates dressed or how they may have looked, it is worth dissecting the popular image. Most people’s understanding of the pirate dress code is largely informed by movies such as ‘Treasure Island’ and the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise, or the grittier series ‘Black Sails’. Taking the still below as just one example, overall, the look is good. Actress Keira Knightly’ s character is costume is clearly inspired by Chinese fashion contemporary with the 18th century. It serves as a useful reminder that piracy was not restricted to the Caribbean but was a worldwide phenomenon, in this case SE Asia. The rich embroidery of her coat certainly would have attracted the attention of pirates, as would the expensive silk from which presumably her garment is made. The two actors flanking her, however, are of perhaps more interest for the present purpose as their costume represents the piratical look in popular culture.
Both Geoffrey Rush’s and Johnny Depp’s basic costume consists of a baggy linen shirt typical of the period over which was worn a long-fronted waistcoat. Each man’s outer garment is the knee-length, woollen coat, with its distinctive turned-back cuffs and adorned with buttons that were the height of fashion in the 1700s. As pirates this would have been a prudent choice. Should they be caught, those active in piracy risked severe punishment under the laws of the time so it makes perfect sense that pirates would not wish to draw attention to themselves, but rather blend in with the general populace. While fine clothes demonstrated a person’s wealth, sailors wore practical garments suitable for the rigours of a life at sea. In that sense, both actors are costumed in the everyday, unremarkable fashion of the period, albeit appropriate to their status as captains. That is, apart from two notable things.
Footwear Firstly, both Captains Barbossa and Sparrow wear what are colloquially known as ‘bucket top’ boots. If unfolded and the tops pulled up, these boots are essentially copies of thigh high riding boots first worn with buff coats by gentlemen and soldiers during the mid-Tudor period. By the reign of Queen Elizabeth I low heels had been added to these tough leather boots to facilitate riding. During the reign of her successor, James I and VI, boots replaced shoes as the most popular footwear among the upper classes who often wore them indoors, with or without spurs. By the 1620s the flared bucket-shaped top and higher wooden heels had become fashionable. Boots of this type are stereotypically associated with the Royalist and Parliamentarian officers and cavalrymen of the English Civil War (see right). It is this style of boot that is often seen in the movies associated with pirates and highwaymen. Onboard ship, however, they are not the most practical footwear. Sailors, and thus pirates, preferred to wear woollen stockings and sturdy leather shoes, the latter to protect the feet. In some cases a man might go barefoot to ensure grip on a wet deck, but this was not the norm.
Headwear Secondly, flamboyant feathered hats like that worn by Barbossa, or indeed the ever-popular 18th century tricorn hat sported by Sparrow, were generally not worn while at sea. Sailing ships require the wind to power them and such winds were more likely to blow a man's big floppy hat overboard. No sailor would waste time turning a ship about to look for a hat in the large expanse of the ocean no matter how expensive it might have been. Much more popular were woollen or felt hats to keep the head warm.
On a related note, helpfully neither actor’s hat sports the ‘skull and crossed bones’ motif so ubiquitous on the so-called ‘pirate hats' available to buy (right). Historically, the wearing or carrying of items decorated with a skull and crossed bones is yet another nonsense. One should remember that pirates were criminals who faced extreme punishments if caught. None would want to mark themselves out in a crowd or draw unwanted attention so, as previously mentioned, they simply wore the clothes that were fashionable at the time.
In a similar vein, most of the pirate flags that the author is aware of do not feature the skull and crossed bones motif. The famous 'Jolly Roger', named after the pirates' nemesis Woodes Rogers, the governor of the Bahamas, was not as popular as one might think. Different captains and crews adopted designs to distinguish themselves from other pirates. Most flags, or ‘colours’ as they were called, did feature skeletons, skulls, weapons or other symbols intended to strike fear into their victims. Even the hourglass held in the Devil’s hand on Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach’s colours (above right) was intended to symbolise how little time one had left to live if you resisted. Yet even these iconic pirate symbols were not flown on a ship all the time. Rather, the colours were hoisted only at the last moment to surprise and terrify the crew of a prize ship. Pirates knew that if the flag was scary enough, then hopefully a merchant ship's crew would surrender without a fight and sthu avoid injury or death on both sides.
Dress like a pirate Returning to what pirates actually wore, as has been stated, they dressed in the clothing popular in society at the time. However, life at sea was tough, so sailor’s clothes had to be practical and hard-wearing. A felt hat with a brim would have been good protection against the sun’s glare, but remember the problem of the wind. Alternatively, close-fitting knitted woollen hats to keep the head worn would have been preferable. In fact, a study of the friezes surrounding the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London reveals most of the crew are not wearing any headgear. The officers are shown with bicorn hats, and a few men wearing short top hats, or possibly straw boaters (British Tars, 2017) . For the sake of accuracy, if one wishes to recreate the pirate look, avoid the ubiquitous movie bandanna as these appear to be another modern trope. Instead use the material to create a linen ‘stock’ which would not look out of place around the neck for warmth and to protect the sailor from the sun.
Slops Undergarments consisted of a linen shirt, a pair of linen drawers, and woollen stockings. Over this base layer would be worn canvas slops. The term ‘slops’ is a 16th century word for wide, baggy trousers with a knee band. They were popular with seamen because they were easy to move in. The knee bands would be left unfastened until by the early 17th century they were cut off giving birth to the seaman’s trousers (right). These were called slops until 1628 when The Admiralty introduced the ‘slop’ system for dressing sailors. This comprised a suit of canvas doublet and breeches, woollen Monmouth caps, cotton waistcoats and drawers, stockings, linen shirts, and leather shoes. As fashions changed the cotton waistcoat and canvas doublet were replaced with warm, hard-wearing woollen versions cut in the style of the day.
Sashes Returning to the still from 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End', both Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp are pictured wearing long cloth sashes or cummerbunds around their waists. Although commonly seen in recreations, sashes were probably not worn by sailors as they risk getting caught in the machinery of sailing. It is possible that the inspiration for the popularity of these cummerbunds in art and on film may have come from 19th century artists who thought the clothing worn by contemporary Spanish peasants looked ‘piratical’. The ‘look’ would, in turn, influence early moviemakers who dressed their actors with bright red or yellow sashes; these colours chosen because they showed up better than others on the primitive Technicolor film system. Nevertheless, there is a historical precedent for waist sashes in the armies of the 17th century. In the English Civil War (1642 - 1651), officers wore coloured sashes - tawny orange or pale blue for Parliamentarian, crimson red for Royalists - to try and distinguish themselves from their opponents. For pirates of that era, the wearing of brightly coloured sashes may have been thought the height of sophistication and martial prowess. Moreover, sashes may have helpful in protecting clothing from any sharp edges on the back of the belt, or possibly as a support to the lumber region of the back. Usefully, pistols, knives or cudgels can be tucked in the sash, and its folds can be used to store a money pouch or something similar. So, although the evidence is questionable there is a practical reason for wearing a sash or cummerbund, albeit probably not with a long trailing end.
Earrings Pirates are often depicted wearing earrings but even this was probably not true. The portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh (right), a privateer ('pirate') during Queen Elizabeth I's reign, clearly shows him sporting a large pearl earring. While this was the vogue for wealthy men in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, by the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ fashions had changed and earring wearing was no longer popular. In the 1890s, however, earrings began appearing in works by later Victorian artists depicting pirates.
While on the subject, it is often claimed that sailors wore gold earrings to pay for their burial. The idea seems to be that if the man is shipwrecked or lost at sea, then should his body wash ashore whoever finds it can take the earring (or other jewellery) and give the lost soul a decent Christian burial. There are, however, a two problems with this notion:
• Firstly, there is an assumption that the body will be found. It is most likely that the corpse will sink below the waves and be eaten by sea creatures (Lewis, 2014). All that is likely to be left on the ocean floor are the bones and inorganic objects such as a gold earring.
• Secondly, corpses left in water for extended periods become exceptionally bloated. Allied to the body’s decomposition, it is highly unlikely that the finder is going to be overly encouraged to search a bloated, rotten corpse for treasure. Moreover, if they do have the stomach for it, what is to say that they do not just take the deceased’s gold and leave the corpse where they found it. Some people are just thieves, a bit like pirates.
Eyepatches, hooks and wooden legs
Like earrings, in many representations of pirates, eyepatches make a frequent appearance, as do wooden legs and hooks for hands. Indeed, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ Long John Silver famously had a wooden leg, while Captain Hook in JM Barrie’s story ‘Peter Pan’ had a hook replacing his crocodile eaten hand. The key thing to note, however, is that these are fictional stories. So, did pirates really go about their business wearing eyepatches or sporting hooks or peg legs?
It is not improbable. Take the case of a British national hero, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. On July 12th, 1794, while Captain of HMS Agamemnon, Nelson partially lost the sight in one eye in operations to capture the island of Corsica during Britain’s then war with France. Significantly, however, no portrait of Nelson shows him sporting an eyepatch. Three years later, now promoted to Rear Admiral, Nelson led an amphibious landing to capture the Spanish port city of Santa Cruz dé Tenerife in the Canary Islands. As he stepped ashore, Nelson was hit in the right arm by a musket ball which fractured his humerus in multiple places. He was rowed back to HMS Theseus where the ship’s surgeon, Thomas Eshelby, amputated most of his ruined arm. Despite this, within half an hour Nelson had returned to issuing orders to his captains. Before his death at the Battle of Trafalgar (October 21st, 1805), the one-armed, partially sighted Nelson fought in the Battle of the Nile (August 1st, 1798), the Neopolitan Campaign (1799), the Siege of Malta (1800), the Battle of Copenhagen (April 2nd, 1801), and the Trafalgar Campaign (1803-1805). Despite his disabilities, Nelson clearly pursued an active naval career, but would this be the same for ordinary seamen or pirates?
If your intention is to terrify your opponent into surrendering without a fight, then which is more frightening: an eyepatch covering a wound, or the visible scars surrounding a gapping eye socket? Arguably the latter but regardless, the loss of an eye can affect depth perception which is rather necessary for a crewman to safely function aboard ship. Likewise, anyone disabled from the loss of a hand or leg would be far less useful crewing a ship. Essentially, it was much better for all concerned to compensate or pension off the injured man. Indeed, from the pirates' own Articles, such as those of Henry Morgan, we know the levels of compensation paid to injured crewmen:
• Loss of a right arm - six hundred pieces of eight, or six slaves.
• Loss of a left arm - five hundred pieces of eight, or five slaves.
• Loss of a right leg - five hundred pieces of eight, or five slaves.
• Loss of the left leg - four hundred pieces of eight, or four slaves.
• Loss of an eye - one hundred pieces of eight, or one slave.
• Loss of a finger of the hand - the same reward as for the eye.
So, where did the idea for eyepatches and prosthetic limbs come from? To our modern sensibilities it is a rather a disturbing tale involving the sailors residing at the Royal Naval Hospital Greenwich in London, a retirement and nursing home for former members of the Royal Navy. Known as the Greenwich Pensioners, these men were the naval equivalent of the Army’s Chelsea Pensioners and like their contemporaries in Chelsea, the residents were bound by militarised rules and regulations, and wore a uniform of tricorne hats and frock coats, albeit in blue (see right).
During the 18th and 19th centuries it was fashionable for the well-to-do to visit hospitals such as the one at Greenwich or the more infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital (popularly known as Bedlam). a psychiatric hospital for those unfortunate enough to be pronounced insane. Visits by friends and relatives should come as no surprise, but hospitals also opened their doors to public and casual visitors with no connection to the residents. Today the idea of displaying injury or madness as a form of public exhibition is considered the most scandalous feature of such hospitals, especially Bedlam. Yet, the hospital administrators actively encouraged ‘people of note and quallitie’, namely the educated, wealthy and well-bred, to visit. At the time there existed a rather elitist and idealised model of charity and moral benevolence. This relied on the spectacle of the grievously wounded (or in Bedlam’s case, the insane) to excite compassion in the viewer to fuel fund-raising and to elicit donations, benefactions and legacies. Thus, visitors to the Royal Naval Hospital may well have seen men grievously wounded in battle wearing early forms of prosthetic limbs, such as carved wooden legs, or eyepatches to conceal severe facial injuries all of which were, in reality, intended to preserve the sailors’ dignity. It should not be surprising, therefore, that these images were translated into the works of fiction by authors such as Stevenson, Barrie and others.
In many of the early pirate films the weapon of choice seemed to be the long-bladed rapier perfect for dramatic, swashbuckling duels . Such weapons may have been the military fashion of the Elizabethan privateer, but by the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ they were superseded by the more practical cutlass. The two 18th century examples shown above were relatively short-bladed, single-edged weapons ideal for use in hand-to-hand fighting onboard ship. Wielding a longer sword on a crowded deck or in the close confines below deck, or near rigging risked it becoming easily snagged. A man so disarmed would be in grave danger.
Treasure, plunder and booty
In almost all stories and films pirate treasure is depicted as gold and silver, whether coins or tableware, or gemstones and jewellery. While pirates may have hoped to capture glittering prizes of gold and jewels, they were more likely to steal goods like sugar and spices. Similarly, there were also lucrative business opportunities selling expensive cloth such as silk, and items of clothing in general. Such plunder could be sold to make money or swopped for other goods. Few people would have questioned where such things came from if they could be bought at a good price.
• Sugar from the Caribbean had a very high value and could easily be sold to merchants for a profit.
• Spices from the East were popular in Europe and America as both food and medicine so they too were prized by pirates.
• Tobacco was one of the common goods shipped from America to be sold in Europe making it an attractive target for pirates.
The image of Robert Newton’s Long John Silver shown above includes the ever-present parrot (in movies at least). While parrots caught in the tropics may well have been a colourful and saleable ‘treasure’ - there was a trade in exotic pets throughout the age of piracy - they are no accounts of them being kept as pets. As for a pirate carrying one on his shoulder, it is worth remembering that birds are no respecters of fashion so just think of the guano spattered down the back of one’s frock coat.
While parrots were not pets as portrayed in the movies, they may have onboard as trading cargo and, given that they are colourful, intelligent birds, crews may have been glad to have them around for a little entertainment on long, dull voyages. As for other animals being onboard ship, livestock would have been kept as a source of fresh food, some ships may have kept cats for rodent control and at least one crew is recorded as having a pet dog. The story goes that, having finished careening their ship  on an island, the crew left the ship's dog on the beach. The animal was spotted running up and down the sand and even though it took several hours for the crew to turn the ship about, they did return to rescue the dog.
Pirates buried their treasure and made maps to lead them back to the right spot. Burying treasure was so rare, in fact we are only aware of one instance where treasure may have been buried, that it is simply safer to say it did not happen. As with so much pirate related knowledge, treasure maps were a literary invention in stories like Robert Louis Stevenson's ‘Treasure Island’.
Several treasure maps with strange drawings have been found that are said to have been made by the Scottish-born pirate Captain William Kidd. Treasure hunters have tried to use them to find the location of Kidd's plunder. One theory is that Kidd's treasure is buried in the 'Money Pit', a mysterious hole on Oak Island which is situated off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. Some people have spent a very long time and millions of pounds exploring the Oak Island 'Money Pit' but no treasure has yet been found. If it was ever buried there, Kidd probably recovered it during his lifetime.
Walking the plank
Forcing a victim to 'walk the plank' and plunge overboard into shark infested waters is yet another dramatic invention. It is claimed that the pirate Bartholomew ‘Black Bart’ Roberts once made someone walk the plank in the Caribbean, but it’s probably not true and planks were most likely never used. Why would pirates bother with such an elaborate means of finishing off their victims when it would be far easier to shoot, stab or hang people to get rid of them. That said, there may be a grain of truth in the notion that when pirates threw a victim into the sea they called out: ’You’re free to walk home!’
The Black Spot
With piratical black humour in mind, the Black Spot was another fiction invented by Robert Louis Stevenson for his novel ‘Treasure Island’. In the book, pirates are presented with a ‘black spot’ to officially pronounce a verdict of guilt or judgment. It supposedly consisted of a circular piece of paper or card, with one side blackened while the other side bears a message, that was placed in the hand of the accused. It was a source of much fear because it meant the pirate was to be deposed as leader, by force if necessary - or else killed outright. But, as with ‘walking the plank’, why go to such theatrical lengths when one could just deliver swift, summary justice.
Despite piracy being a criminal and oft times heinous act, pirates still capture people's imagination. The movies have made them glamourous rogues free to sail the seven seas, pursue their lives and unafraid of flouting the society's rules. Having read this far, we hope that some of the popular myths about pirates (especially those of Disney's Caribbean) have been dispelled and a slightly more accurate, historical account left in their place.
British Tars 1740-1790, (2017), ‘Canvas hats’, www.britishtars.com, Available online (accessed September 10th, 2022).
Lewis, T., (2014), ‘What Happens to a Dead Body in the Ocean?’, LiveScience.com, Available online (accessed September 10th, 2022).
1. If you have seen the film ‘The Favourite’ starring Oliva Coleman and Rachel Weisz, then that is the period we are talking about.
2. The West Country has had a strong maritime heritage for many centuries. Fishing was the main industry (and smuggling a major unofficial one) that was served by several major ports. As a result, a West Country dialect in general, and Cornish dialect in particular, may have been a major influence on generalised British nautical speech.
3. The Battle of Trafalgar took place on October 21st, 1805. At that time there is some evidence that sailors may have worn a brimmed straw boater known as a ‘tarpaulin’ hat. Although made of straw, tarpaulin hats were coated in a weatherproof seal of black tar, pitch, or paint. It is often asserted that this is where the nickname ‘Jack Tar’ for sailors derives. and Undeniably sailors were referred to as ‘tars’, but tar is ubiquitous on sailing ships and need not come from hats alone. There are numerous advertisements for runaways that refer to sailors with clothing covered in tar. Was this intentionally applied for waterproofing, or was it just the result of working on a ship? (British Tars, 2017)
4. Actors in these movies were trained by, and the fight sequences choreographed by, fencing masters familiar with modern sport fencing using a foil or an épée. Applying the techniques and style of sport fencing to fight sequences with rapiers or long, thin-bladed swords made sense.
5. Seaweed and barnacles grew rapidly on the keels of ships greatly reducing their speed and manoeuvrability. Worse, worms bored tiny holes through the ship’s timbers that, if left unchecked, could eventually sink the vessel. Pirate crews solved these problems by regular ‘careening’, which beaching the ship to clean and repair the hull.