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April 14, 2005

Books, Journals & More – A Closer Look: Pirate myths and legends

From “Treasure Island’s” menacing Long John Silver to Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling “Captain Blood” to Johnny Depp’s twisted charm in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” pirates always have intrigued us. But the novels and the movies don’t always live up to the real legends, according to author Marcus Rediker. Here is the history behind some of the popular myths:

Pirates buried their treasure.

They didn’t bury their loot; they spent it. According to Rediker, “They didn’t believe in deferred gratification of any kind.” When pirates landed in a port city with their pockets full of gold and silver, they spent it all before returning to sea. “If they took money back to the ship, people would start gambling and fighting. Pirates didn’t want conflict on board their ships. Secondly, they wanted as good a life as they could have for as long as they could live,” Rediker said. Pirates anticipated a short life span and lived accordingly, he added.

When pirates had money in a port city, often they would visit a tavern and buy casks of rum and brandy, which they would set up along the streets. They would invite the town’s people to come and drink. “There were scenes in some of these port towns where the pirates would have these drunken parties,” Rediker said. And if the pirates had money left over, they often would buy the freedom of an indentured servant who, of course, would need to turn pirate.


A pirate execution meant walking the plank.

There may have been planks on 18th-century vessels, but the pirates didn’t use them as a means of torture or death. “That’s a Hollywood invention,” Rediker said. But that’s not to say that pirates didn’t kill or torture people.

In general, pirates preferred not to fight, according to Rediker, especially when getting ready to overtake another ship. “That’s why they ran up the Jolly Roger flag — they wanted people to surrender. The violence they used was frequently waged against ships that resisted them. And if you resisted a pirate ship and lost, they might beat you, they might hang you. There was no telling,” he explained.

Frequently when pirates overtook a ship, they didn’t plunder immediately, according to Rediker. “They assembled everybody on deck, including the captain, and asked the crew, ‘How does your captain treat you?’” If the sailors gave a bad report, the pirates would tie the captain to the mast — most likely the same place where the sailors had been whipped — and lash him in retribution. The turncoat sailors, of course, became pirates.

But if the sailors deemed their captain a decent man, “the pirates would frequently not punish him and would not plunder his ship,” Rediker said.


Pirates were dashing, romantic, upper-class gentlemen.

Not true. They were poor sailors who were rugged and wise to the seafaring life, according to Rediker. “But there are aspects of the popular myth that were right: They really were rebels and outlaws.”

They also were multi-cultural. The pirate ship hosted motley crews, according to Rediker. “There are huge numbers of pirates who are of African descent. The seafaring labor market was always multi racial: look at Magellan’s and Columbus’s voyages — all multi-ethnic and multi-national crews.”

One Hollywood stereotype is true, Rediker said: The pirate limping around on a peg leg or leering out of only one eye.

“A life at sea was a tremendously dangerous line of work, where a sailor could easily lose an eye or a hand or a leg. Maimed sailors were very common as beggars in every port city,” he said.

—Mary Ann Thomas

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