Avast Ye! The Greatest Pirate Traditions And Facts

Today, most people think of pirates as the characters from the Pirates of the Caribbean films or Blackbeard with his beard on fire. While these interpretations of the swashbuckling outlaws may not be completely wrong, they barely skim the surface of what it was really like to be a pirate. In reality, pirates were a lot less glorified than they are in popular culture, with them being made out to seem like fantastical characters rather than a type of people that actually existed. So, check out these fascinating facts and traditions about pirates to see what it was really like to sail beneath the Jolly Roger.

Hanging Earwax From Their Earrings Was For Ear Protection

Black Beard
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Almost all pirate ships were armed with numerous cannons, and if they weren’t, chances are they weren’t pirates for very long. That’s why Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge was so formidable because it had a horrifying forty of them.

However, the problem with cannons was that they were extremely loud, so loud, in fact, that they could easily blow out a pirate’s eardrums. So, most pirates hung balls of wax from their earrings at all times. This way, when they were preparing to fire the canons, they would put the wax in their ears to create makeshift earplugs.

Earrings Served A Purpose, Even After You Died

Pirate with flag
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Although they spent much of their life on the seas, they had no intention of their bodies ending up at the bottom of the ocean, also known as Davy Jones Locker. So, they used their earrings as a type of insurance policy which would be used to pay for a proper funeral.

Whether they were silver or gold, most pirates wore enough earrings to pay for a casket and other funeral necessities in case their bodies washed up onshore. Some pirates were known to engrave their homeport into their earrings in hopes that someone would get their body home.

Hostages Were A Popular Form of Currency

GettyImages-929665110
Julius Caesar captured by Cilician pirates, drawing.
Julius Caesar captured by Cilician pirates, drawing.

Although pirates have been known to kill everyone on board of a ship, they were also known to take hostages. This was, they could sell people back for a ransom, making money in the process. One of the most famous hostages ever held by pirates was Julius Caesar in 75 BCE.

Upon being captured, the pirates asked for a ransom of twenty talents which caused Caesar to laugh in their faces claiming he was easily worth fifty. Once the ransom was made, Caesar had the pirates crucified.

Not All Pirates Were Missing An Eye

Man wearing eye patch
The Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Although some pirates definitely were missing eyeballs, not everyone who wore an eye patch was. By wearing an eye patch most of the time, pirates could keep one eye adjusted to the dark, allowing them to see more clearly below the deck or at night.

This came in handy when transitioning from the brightness above deck to the darkness below, especially when raiding or defending their own ship. By lifting their eyepatch, they would be able to see much clearer, even if there was only a little light.

They Made A Drink To Prevent Scurvy

Man with chalice
Rischgitz/Getty Images
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Back in the 1600s, the members of the British Navy are credited with coming up with the drink known as grog. In order to avoid drinking water that had been contaminated with algae and other harmful microbes, they began mixing rum in their water.

By 1731, the British Navy permitted each sailor a ration of a pint of rum per day, which is equivalent to over five shots. Pirates would later take the simple recipe for grog and added lemon juice to prevent scurvy and sugar to increase the flavor.

Pirate Crews Were Small Democracies

Pirates boarding ship
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Even hundreds of years before the establishment of the United States, pirate ships acted as small democracies. Most captains were elected by their crew and could have the position taken from them at any time. Every crew member was also given the same amount of rations with captains only making one to three times more than the lowliest crew member.

However, the captain isn’t the only thing pirates voted on. They voted on where to sail, what to steal, who to maroon, what to do with passengers, how to reward bravery… the list goes on and on. Every man’s word carried the same weight, likely why pirate crews were so efficient.

There Were Female Pirates

The girls and Jack
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

As long as you could pull your weight, your gender didn’t always matter when it came to living a pirate’s life. In 1720, two women, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, sailed on the pirate ship, Revenge, with Ann Bonny holding the position of First Mate. Other women, such as Mary Read, would dress and act like males to protect their identity.

Both women ended up being captured and jailed, with Anne Bonny claiming it was their captain, Calico Jack’s fault, She stated, “Sorry to see you there, but if you’d fought like a man, you would not have been hang’d like a dog.”

Burying Their Treasure Is A Misconception

Captain watching crew dig
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

One common misconception about pirates is that they buried their treasure. William Kidd is the only pirate ever recorded to have buried their treasure, which he did in Long Island. However, his plan backfired when it was discovered and used as proof of his piracy.

The reason pirates didn’t bury their treasure is that most of the things they stole weren’t gold and jewels. They took things that they needed such as food, water, alcohol, weapons, clothing or other things they were short of. It wasn’t worth much if they buried it and they usually sold what they didn’t need as soon as possible.

Walking The Plank Wasn’t All That Common

Keelhauling woodcut
Pinterest
Pinterest

While there is evidence that some pirates did use the plank as a form of psychological torture, it wasn’t a widespread practice. The concept came into popularity thanks to the entertainment industry and the rise of interest in pirates. The most common death-by-torture among pirates was a practice known as keelhauling, and it was far worse than walking the plank.

The victim would be thrown into the water underneath the boat, then dragged under the boat to the other side. A weight was then placed on their legs and they were pulled by the ship until they drowned.

The Jolly Roger Had Different Variations

Jolly Roger flag
Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images
Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

While the white skull and crossbones on a black background may be one of the most well-known pirate iconographies, there were variations of this particular flag. The first mentioning of it as by Charles Johnson in his 1724 book, A General History of Pyrates. However, other pirate flags depended on their captain.

For instance, Black Beard’s featured a skeleton toasting to the devil while spearing a bleeding heart. Other common flags included hourglasses, skeletons, skulls, and even men. There was no right kind of flag.

Fear The “Bloody Red”

Red flag
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Print Collector/Getty Images

The Jolly Roger was the flag used by many pirate ships to warn and strike fear into the heart of their enemies. However, if a pirate ship was flying a red flag, then you really had a reason to worry.

The red flag symbolizes no quarter, meaning that there would be no mercy given to anyone on board the ship and that everyone would be killed once they had been captured. The flag was referred to as the “Bloody Red,” often leading potentially captured sailors to jump ship before being attacked.

Each Ship Had Its Own Rules

Pirate ship and boat
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Print Collector/Getty Images

Although most pirates had similar ways of life, each ship had its own specific rules and set of conducts that every person on board was expected to follow without question. These included how loot was to be divided, how daily tasks were handled, and the chain of command.

To break the rules could result in severe punishment and even death in some cases. One rule that almost all ships followed was that there was to be no fighting on board. All disputes between crew members had to be settled on the land.

Pirate Ships Weren’t Always Massive

Two ships
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

In popular culture, pirate ships are typically portrayed as being massive seafaring vessels that can go up against any ship that gets in their way. While this makes for good entertainment, in reality, they were small and nimble vehicles that were armed and heavily manned.

Because of their small size, they were able to outmaneuver other ships using their speed and size, making them formidable and almost impossible to escape. They would also use their size to hide around narrow channels and funnel ships to ambush them.

Marooning Was A Real Thing

Pirate marooned
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images

Not all myths about pirates are true but the stories that they marooned people who had broken the rules or caused issues on the ship are. Typically, the victim was dropped off on a deserted island with the clothes on their back, a small portion of water, and a weapon.

They were given a weapon to kill themselves if they wanted although it was considered to be a cowardly thing to do. Some pirates that were marooned managed to survive or were saved by other pirate crews, although that was rare.

They Were Organized

Crew of pirates
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Pirates may appear to be bloodthirsty lawbreakers who care only about themselves, but that’s not exactly the case. They were actually highly-organized groups of outlaws that were more civilized than most people think, being fair to one another and practicing lawfulness.

One example is how, if a pirate lost their dominant limb, they were compensated and received more loot than other men. Those who were also injured weren’t dispatched, but honored as veterans and were expected to be treated with respect.

The Myths Behind The Pirate Earring

In a tavern
Roger-Viollet/Getty Images
Roger-Viollet/Getty Images

Besides being used as a place to store wax or enough money to pay for a funeral, there were numerous other superstitions surrounding the infamous pirate earring. The hoop kind, specifically, was said to have supernatural powers.

One tale claims that their gold hoops had the ability to prevent seasickness, while another argued that it could help to cure bad eyesight. Some pirates even believed that their hoops could help keep from drowning, but that was disproven countless times.

They Had A Lot Of Lingo

Pirates talking
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

If you ever had the chance to hear pirates speak from hundreds of years ago, chances are, you wouldn’t understand most of what they’re saying. This is most likely because they’re discussing things you don’t know about or they’re using their own lingo.

However, a lot of their phrases are still used today such as “learning the ropes” which means to get comfortable with something or “three sheets to the wind” which means incredibly drunk.

There Was A Pirate Stronghold

People in a tavern
Imagno/Getty Images
Imagno/Getty Images

Port Royal, Jamaica was founded in 1518 and was once the largest city in the Caribbean. It had a well-protected harbor, corrupt politicians and citizens, and pirates could do just about anything that they wanted. Supposedly, every one of four buildings in the town was a drinking establishment or offered more lewd services.

Port Royal was a turbulent city where pirates could satiate their desires while simultaneously blowing all of their hard-stolen cash. According to one historian, “Wine and women drained their wealth to such a degree that, in a little time, some of them became reduced to beggary.”

They Didn’t Love Violence

Pirates Fighting
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

There’s no doubt that pirates sure knew how to torture, kill, and strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. Pirates are known for slaughtering entire crews or torturing people endlessly for information, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily enjoyed it. While some were more ruthless than others, fighting and violence wasn’t always the best option.

A crew of pirates would much rather steal loot from others without conflict rather than risk losing men, damaging their ship, or getting killed themselves. Also, the fighting made them larger targets for law enforcement, adding to their risk of being caught. All in all, violence wasn’t always worth it.

They Practiced Same-Sex Marriage

Two pirates
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Being surrounded by other men, especially in the close confines of a ship, it’s no surprise that some of the pirates had intimate relationships. In some cases, two men would marry in a practice known as matelotage, a French word that may have a connection to the pirate greeting, “Ahoy mate.”

When two men would join in matelotage, they would essentially be married, share their plunder, and receive death benefits if one should die before the other. They would also oftentimes live together, trade rings, and share partners.

Pirates Had Great Workers’ Compensations

Anne Bonny and Mary Read are portrayed on an engraving by B Cole.
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Although pirates developed a brutal reputation, they treated their sailors well. Many captains would offer their crew compensation if they received injuries on board. In fact, pirates are the first community in history to employ a compensation program.

The payoff depended on the severity of the injury. Those who lost an eye or a limb received a larger reward of gold. Like modern veterans, pirates who lived through these injuries were regarded as highly courageous. The compensation kept crews together as well, since it boosted morale and offered more benefits than other sailor jobs.

They Weren’t All Thugs

One pirate points guns down at another pirate
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Although many pirates stemmed from low social classes, that wasn’t the case for all of them. Many high-class citizens, such as William Kidd, became enamored with the pirate life as a financial opportunity. Life at sea meant more freedom and, in most cases, equal pay for all the crew members.

Piracy also represented a working class counterculture. Most pirates were former seamen of merchant vessels or indentured servants. Not only did they escape death through piracy, but they also gained independence and a higher pay in some situations.

There Wasn’t One Pirate Accent

Illustration of John Bart and his son roped to the mast
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

The pop culture “pirate accent” came from Robert Newton’s performance in the movie Treasure Island. However, his accent is not historically accurate. In the Golden Age of Piracy, pirates would speak in a variety of accents, including Irish, Scottish, Greek, and Dutch.

Historian Colin Woodard told National Geographic that we have little evidence indicating how pirates spoke. Most surviving accounts came from educated, high-class former pirates who didn’t speak like the rest of them did. Woodard explained that Newton created the “arr” and “shiver me timbers” stereotypes.

They Didn’t Use The Word “Pirate”

This painting depicts a pirate ship chasing a merchant ship
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The word “pirate” comes from the Latin term, “pirata,” which means sea robber. The Greek word, “peirates,” literally means “one who attacks ships.” During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people used a version of our modern word, “pirate.” They called them pyrates, pyrats, and pirrots instead.

The term first appeared in English around 1300. But our common spelling of the word, pirate, didn’t become standardized until the eighteenth century. Before the Golden Age of Piracy, pirates earned the label throughout the Middle Ages, namely through Slavic invasions.

They Had To Watch Out For Oars

Illustration of Roman soldiers on a boat by John Leech
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The Print Collector/Getty Images

While hunting pirates, many people would use oared vessels. These low ships could be fast and stealthy enough to sneak up on pirate ships. The English in Jamaica were the first to build galleys of this design.

Although these pirate-hunting ships existed, they didn’t become a threat to pirates until the 1720s. Then, pirates had to watch out for these specific oared vessels, especially in the Caribbean. The British eventually built hybrid vessels with oars on the lower decks to catch up to pirate ships.

The Pirate Code Was Real

Political poster of a Spanish pirate from 1898
Getty Images
Getty Images

The pirates had their own codes of conduct. These “articles of agreement” varied from ship to ship, but most codes governed several views. At the time, these were called the Custom of the Coast, Charter Party, Chasse-Partie, and Jamaica Discipline. In retrospect, all of these became the Pirate’s Code.

Before embarking on their journey, every crew member would have to sign something to signify that they honored the code. This could be a sword, Bible, ax, or cannon. Many would sign articles and follow them under threat of torture or death.

Pirates Weren’t Too Different Than Privateers

Illustrations of English privateers and Sir Francis Drake from 1934
The Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Getty Images

A privateer was basically a pirate with papers. They were private individuals commissioned by government officials to carry out military activities. Technically, they performed many of the same crimes as pirates–pillaging, taking over villages, and killing opponents–but all of their actions were legal.

One of the most famous privateers was admiral Francis Drake, who made a fortune by plundering Spanish settlements. Privateering was a shady business, but because it paid more than military service, many navy men left their stations to go privateering. Sounds a lot like piracy, doesn’t it?

There’s A Reason Why Pirates Stole Their Ships

Painting of privateer ships by Charles Robinson, 1819
Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

Many pirates stole their ships because they couldn’t afford to buy one. Most pirates hijacked smaller ships, since large vessels couldn’t be stolen without detection. Once they had a ship, they focused on invading ships with lots of cargo and wealth.

After pirates stole a ship, they quickly converted it into a pirate vessel. They would fly their own flags and reinforce the decks to hold heavier cannons. Although many pop culture pirate ships resemble galleons, few historical pirates sailed those. Most of them sailed shorter, faster galleys.

Pirate Crews Were Far Larger Than Other Crews

Welsh-born privateer Henry Morgan makes an assault on the Venezuelan settlement of Gibraltar with his crew of buccaneers, 1669.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although pirates often sailed in small ships, they managed to shelter up to 80 people per boat. In contrast, most English vessels only held thirty men on a larger ship. On top of that, pirates rarely sailed on naval ships; the famous Calico Jack Rackham commanded a fishing boat modified with a few guns.

Although pirates could recruit up to 80 sailors, most vessels carried around 15 to 25 men. Pirate Sam Bellamy once commanded a crew of 90 men, and Jack Rackham worked with 100 sailors throughout most of his career.

They Rarely Collected Gold And Silver

Illustration of Privateer Captain Henry Morgan by J. Nicholls
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pirates rarely ever stole jewels, gold, or silver (although they didn’t pass up the opportunity if it arose). Most pirate “booty” consisted of ship materials: candles, frying pans, soap, and wood. Often, pirates would invade fishing ships to steal their food. If their vessel fell into disrepair, the pirates may have stolen the entire ship!

Much of pirates’ wealth came from the slave trade. They often raided slave ships to imprison and sell the slaves later. From merchant ships, pirates would steal sugar, spices, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, and animal skins to sell to other merchants.

Captains Didn’t Pilot The Ship

Painting of the pirate William Kidd is in Harper's Magazine
API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

On pirate ships, captains didn’t actually steer the ship. The captains served as battle leaders to direct raids. As such, it was crucial that the captain was talented in sword and pistol fighting. Another sailor would be in charge of steering the ships.

Pirate ships didn’t often have first mates, but they did have quartermasters. The quartermaster was the captain’s right hand who took charge when the captain left. On some vessels, sailing masters from other ships were forced to join the crew and placed in charge of piloting.

They Didn’t Write Treasure Maps

Painting displays men running toward treasure on a beach
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Historically, pirates didn’t draw their own treasure maps. These sailors preferred to spend their loot quickly, before another pirate crew tried to steal it from there. Over the years, many people have claimed to find pirate maps, although these claims have never been backed by scholars.

Like many pirate myths, the concept of treasure maps became popularized after Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island. This hasn’t stopped rumors of pirate treasures from circulating, though. One of the most popular is the “Treasure of Lima,” said to contain $200 million worth of booty.

Some Pirates Scared The Navy

In this painting, a pirate ship attacks a Spanish galleon
Nawrocki/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Nawrocki/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Throughout history, certain pirate gangs grew to terrify military men. One of the most famous crews was called the Flying Gang. The group formed in 1714, and by 1718, the Royal Navy was afraid to encounter them at all. The Flying Gang had stolen Navy ships from the Americas and it led three times as many men as the Navy.

The Flying Gang included some of the most famous pirates in history, including Blackbeard, Mary Read, Anne Bonny, Stede Bonnet, and Calico Jack Rackham. They were the very group that inspired Jack Sparrow and his gang from the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Davy Jones Was The Sailors’ Devil

Pirate battle is depicted in an 1800 engraving
Roger-Viollet/Getty Images
Roger-Viollet/Getty Images

Have you ever wondered who Davy Jones was? According to accounts, “Davy Jones” was the name for the sailors’ devil. “Davy Jones’ Locker” was an idiom for the bottom of the ocean. It became a euphemism for drowning from shipwrecks.

It’s unclear where the name came from, but the earliest references to Davy Jones’ Locker date back to the early 1700s. An early description of Davy Jones in Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle describes Jones as having three rows of teeth, horns, a tail, and blue smoke coming from their nostrils.

Pirates Could Steal, But Not From Each Other

An artist depicts Captain Kidd and his crew burying treasure
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

To make their living, pirates stole from other ships. But according to most pirate codes, stealing from fellow crewmen was severely punished. In some cases, pirates who stole from their fellow sailors were marooned on an island and left to die.

A similar punishment was placed on sailors who deserted the ship. Some articles, such as those set down by George Lowther, let the captain and quartermaster decide which punishment was fitting. In any case, pirates took betrayal very seriously in their moral codes.

It Was Important To Intimidate

Illustration of Captain Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Jolly Roger flag often appeared on pirate ships to intimidate other sailors. Through intimidation, pirates could get other crews to surrender supplies without having to fight. One of the most notorious pirates to use intimidation tactics was Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.

According to accounts, Blackbeard didn’t raise the Jolly Roger flag. He flew his own flag featuring a skeleton with horns who threw a spear into a heart. On top of that, Blackbeard would weave hemp into his beard and light it, so that his beard appeared to be flaming when he encountered his enemies.

Early Pirates Were Seen As Honorable

This painting depicts a soldier battling the pirate, Blackbeard
J. L. G. Ferris/Getty Images
J. L. G. Ferris/Getty Images

The earliest documents of pirates come from Sea Peoples in the Mediterranean in the 14th century BC. Back then, the ancient Greeks viewed piracy as an honorable profession. Pirating was widespread, and even Homer makes several references to it in the Iliad and Odyssey.

During this period, pirates often engaged in kidnapping and human trafficking. Sea Peoples would often take women and children from villages they plundered and sell them on the slave trade. By the end of Classical Antiquity, piracy was no longer viewed as honorable.

They Drank Alcohol More Than Water

Woodblock print depicts Algerian pirates on a ship
Stefano Bianchetti/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The stereotype of pirates drinking all the time was spot-on. Because drinking water quickly went stagnant on ships, most pirates resorted to alcohol and grog. These drinks would last much longer on board. However, this was less a matter of personal preference and more that pirates drank whatever they could.

In the Caribbean, rum became a staple of the local economy. Pirates often bought rum distilled from sugar, as it was easier to ship. For Captains, providing alcohol boosted their crew’s morale, which lead to a better environment. On ships with harsh discipline, however, many sailors didn’t bother remaining sober.

They Took Prisoners Strategically

Art depicts sailor Paul Peinen being kept captive by two pirates
Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Why did pirate ships contain jail sails? Because they took prisoners for many reasons. Most often, imprisoning sailors served as an intimidation strategy. Pirates would incite fear in their enemies by keeping them as captives for a time before stealing their belongings and releasing them.

In different situations, pirates would take prisoners to show their enemies that they could surrender. Certain prisoners could be released for ransom. In other cases, pirates would keep prisoners and coerce them into joining the crew. Carpenters, surgeons, and navigators were often recruited to pirate ships.

The Pirate Life Didn’t Last Long

Artwork displays pirate Mrs. Ching fighting an Admiral
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

For most pirates, their life at sea didn’t last long. Many pirates were injured or killed on their voyage. Although crews often had surgeons on board, their supplies and technology didn’t help many people recover. Bartholomew Roberts, who had one of the longest and most lucrative pirate careers, only sailed for three years.

Ching Shih, a Chinese pirate, ran one of the longest and most successful careers. At one point, she commanded 1,800 ships and over 80,000 men. And her piracy only lasted three years; the Chinese government offered her amnesty, and she was one of the few pirates to retire.