see it clearly

Facts About Pirates

Long before the enormous success of the Pirates of the Caribbean Disney movies, the adventurous lives of seamen who lived outside of the law, taking what they wanted along the way, captured the imagination of civilized folks. Pirates were the original outlaws to be romanticized and immortalized by ordinary people unable to resist the lure of the fantastic stories and legends of men and women who lived by their own rules.

Facts About Pirates

The Pirate Flag

The pirate flag is one of the most iconic symbols of the pirating lifestyle. Although the skull and cross bones against a black background may look like a fictional Hollywood invention, it most certainly is not.

Sailing ships used flags for identification purposes. Pirate ships were no different, and the flags were used as an intimidation to strike fear in the hearts of other sailors who happened to be unfortunate enough to run into one. Pirate flag colors were either red or black, symbolizing death and bloodshed. Red flags by far were the most dreaded sight to see on the horizon because a red flag meant no mercy would be shown.

In addition to threatening colors, pirate captains started to add other graphic symbols of death in order to further intimidate their victims and also distinguish themselves from other pirates. You can view what authentic pirate flags looked like and which pirate captain they belonged to by visiting Pirate Fashions. Common symbols seen on pirate flags include:

  • Skulls
  • Crossbones
  • Skeletons
  • Cutlass
  • Swords
  • Hourglass
  • Spears
  • Skulls with bandannas and earrings
  • Strong arm wielding a dagger or cutlass

A common name referring to pirate flags is the Jolly Roger. It is believed this name came about from the French term "Jolie Rouge," meaning "pretty red" and the English slang "Old Roger," a nickname for the Devil.

The Golden Age of Piracy

According to Colin Woodard, author of "The Republic of Pirates," the great pirate heroes and villains of fiction who have captivated readers and moviegoers alike have been fashioned after a small group of pirates who terrorized the Caribbean Sea, operating from the Bahamas during what has become known as the Golden Age of Piracy.

The Golden Age of Piracy took place between the years of 1690 and 1730. Some of the notorious pirates of this era included:

  • Blackbeard
  • Bartholomew Roberts
  • Calico Jack Rackham
  • Samuel Bellamy
  • Stede Bonnet
  • Olivier La Buse
  • Anne Bonny
  • Mary Read

Other areas heavily affected during the Golden Age of Piracy included the east coast of North America and the west coast of Africa. Pirates not only raided ships for gold and treasures, they took anything and everything of value including food, weapons, clothing, alcohol, spices, etc. The ship itself was often the main target.

Pirate Stereotypes - Myth or Fact?

Fictional pirate novels such as Treasure Island and Hollywood movies such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series are full of stereo typical pirate novelties such as parrots, peg legs, eye patches, ear rings, hooks for hands and buried treasure. Are these concepts accurate or are they fictional creations?

It could be a little bit of both. While no one can say for sure which pirate captain, if any of them, kept a parrot as a pet, exotic animals were often part of the cargo on ships. Exotic pets commanded high prices in Europe and parrots were extremely desirable because of their beautiful colors and the fact that they could be trained to talk. It is entirely possible some pirates kept parrots as pets.

Wooden legs, hooks and eye patches could certainly have come about from men losing body parts in fierce battle. However, most pirates probably managed to get through life without losing a hand, a leg or an eye and probably very rarely would someone lose all three.

There are several theories behind why pirates may have worn ear rings, besides the fact they may have simply liked the way they looked. Some believe ear rings were worn as a form of acupuncture to help with eyesight and seasickness. Others believe the gold in the ear rings could be used to pay for burial expenses, whether the body of the pirate washed ashore or the body was transported back home. This theory seems less plausible, as most sailors who died while out at sea would be given an ocean burial and the chances of a body washing ashore before being devoured by the multitude of ocean scavengers are highly unlikely.

Of all the previously mentioned stereotypes, buried treasure is the least likely to have any roots in truth. Most pirates were unruly, criminal types that would not be worried with saving for the future, nor would they want to possibly lose the hard-earned loot that they risked life and limb to acquire. Whatever fortune was recovered would be quickly divided up and spent in the nearest port city on liquor, women or whatever else was needed. Many of the things pirates took from ships were perishable or fragile and burying them would've been out of the question.

True Pirate Facts

While it can be hard to discern myth from fact when it comes to the subject of pirates, there are solid pirate facts no one will dispute:

  • Pirate ships flew pirate flags
  • Pirates were fond of nicknames, i.e. Calico Jack and Blackbeard
  • Pirate crews followed a code of conduct
  • Female pirates existed
  • The punishment for a convicted pirate was death by hanging

Piracy Still Exists Today

As long as ships carry cargo across the oceans, there will always be pirates who survive off the goods they steal from others. Some of the most dangerous areas for modern-day ships are off the coast of Somalia, the South China Sea, the Java Sea and in Brazilian ports. Piracy may not have the romanticism it acquired during the Golden Age of Piracy, however the danger to ships and their crews remains the same.