Pirate culture has attracted people from all over the world and has been romanticized in novels like Treasure Island. Everyone seems intrigued by pirates, even though they have often been classified as wicked men and women throughout history. Truth is, there’s a lot we don’t know about those badass sailors that crossed seas under the black flag, annoying empires for centuries. Some served their countries for many years but found that whenever they were unsolicited, they were paid lousy wages or were out of work entirely. Others were pirate hunters, who were later seduced by the sea and ended up becoming ones themselves.
You may know many famous pirates like Blackbeard, heard legends about his feats against the English crown, but you may not be familiar with what these pirates did in their day to day lives, or that some pirates weren’t considered criminals at all. Most recently, we have gotten a glimpse of their secretive lives in the Starz TV series Black Sails, which is pretty awesome by the way. The show is set 40 years before the accounts of the novel Treasure Island and features many iconic fictional characters as well as other historic pirate captains we still know today.
Most tales we know from piracy come from the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th Century and have inspired stories like Pirates of the Caribbean. However, these rebel sailors have been around since the creation of the first important merchant ports all over the world, and famous pirates in history range from the Americas to India and Asia. Pirates still exist today, with most of the pirate activity occurring in the Indian Ocean, East Africa, and the far East.
15. The Bahamas Were A Pirate’s Haven In The 18th Century
Nassau is the largest city in the Bahamas, located on New Providence Island and the most important center for commercial trade in the region. It’s also home to approximately 70% of all people in the Bahamas. During the early 1700s, Nassau had no governor and it was declared a safe place for pirates. It was estimated that more than 1000 pirates lived in Nassau at the time, which heavily outnumbered the few hundred locals. The city was proclaimed a pirate republic as they named themselves governors of it. The city was also popularly called Charles Town.
Many famous pirates considered Nassau as their base at a certain point in time, including the infamous Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Anne Bonny, Benjamin Hornigold, and Calico Jack Rackham. In 1718, the pirate rule in Nassau ended as British royals sought to regain control over the city. A captain by the name of Woodes Rogers reestablished commerce in Charles Town. By the late eighteenth century, Nassau experienced a huge economic boom.
14. One Of The Most Famous Pirates Was Blackbeard
Edward Teach, famously known by the name Blackbeard, was one of the most feared and famous pirates in the West Indies. He first came into piracy when he joined the crew of Captain Benjamin Hornigold in New Providence Island. After Captain Hornigold retired his black flag, Teach continued as captain of his own crew. They eventually captured a French merchant ship and called it Queen Anne’s Revenge, equipping her with 40 guns. He was already one of the most renown pirates in the world. Blackbeard personalized his own image in order to frighten his enemies, it is said that he even tied lit fuses beneath his pirate hat.
Much of Blackbeard’s command as fearsome captain has been exaggerated, however, and romanticized in various novels. Although he was famous for his alleged unmerciful attitude, it is untrue that he made people walk the plank, and there are no accounts of him harming or murdering any of his captives.
13. The Skull And Crossbones Symbol Is Called A Jolly Roger
It is the symbol all merchant ships feared when sailing across the seas. During the Golden Age of Piracy, the last thing anyone wanted to witness was a boat raising the Jolly Roger. The name was given to the flag by the English, and if you saw it on a ship, it probably meant that there was going to be an imminent attack and boarding. It was first mentioned as the Jolly Roger in the book A General History of Pyrates, in 1724 by Charles Johnson. There, he recalls how two pirates had named their flag that way, but that it was already a common nickname for it among the rebels. However, the origin of the name is unclear, as it had also been used to describe young carefree men in the eighteenth century.
The generic Jolly Roger that most people are familiar with is the Skull and Crossbones symbol with a black background. Pirates used many variations of the Jolly Roger as each captain wanted their own unique symbol that identified him and his crew.
12. The Most Successful Pirate In The Golden Age Of Piracy Was Bartholomew Roberts
Later known as Black Heart, Bartholomew Roberts is considered to be one of the most successful pirates ever to have lived. Among the competition between pirates about who plundered most ships and captured more treasures, there is possibly nobody that beats Captain Roberts. It is rumored that he plundered more than 400 ships.
It’s also said that he was one of the bravest and boldest of pirates, his fearlessness won him many victories where the odds were certainly not in his favor. Many surrendered at the mere sight of his ship, and he is believed to have attacked warships that most pirates would avoid. Bartholomew Roberts is described as a tall attractive man with very extravagant taste, who loved expensive clothes and jewelry. Roberts’ pirate career spans from 1719 to 1722. His plundering was reported anywhere from Brazil, to the West Indies, and even West Africa. He died in battle as he would have wanted, wearing as always his finest clothes during the engagement, and buried at sea by his crew.
11. Pirates Thought Earrings Improved Their Eyesight
It is no surprise that most pirate captains liked to dress well, wearing expensive jewelry to show off the worth of the amount of treasure they had plundered. It is a misconception, however, that they wore earrings as a fashion statement. Pirates like to commemorate special achievements with earrings. Young pirates were awarded hoops when they first crossed the Equator or the treacherous waters of Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America.
Earrings were also a part of the superstitious aspect of a pirate’s life. Many believed that earrings could improve eyesight and even cure blindness. They were also worn as a protective charm against drowning in dangerous waters. This was all fake, of course, although gold and silver rings could help afford a pirate’s funeral if he were to die, many would engrave their home port inside their earrings so people would know where to take the body.
10. There Were Many Women Pirates
In the 17th and 18th centuries, most women sought to marry into a rich family and live their lives comfortably by the countryside with their husbands. This was not the case when it came to women pirates. There were many notable women feared throughout the seas, and they totally rocked. While some crews thought to have women on board was unlucky, some welcomed ladies into their ranks. There have also been a few cases of women leading these bands of swashbucklers.
Among the most notable female pirates were Cheng I Sao, Mary Read, and the infamous Anne Bonny. The last one had special notoriety thanks to her relationship with Captain Calico Jack Rackham. She was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Irish lawyer and was told as a kid to dress up as a boy in order to work as her dad’s law clerk. A lot is said about Anne Bonny’s character, she is said to have had a courageous temper with a short fuse, known to beat up men who tried to force themselves on her.
9. They Wore Eye Patches To Adjust Their Vision
Although there are no certain sources that confirm this theory, it is believed that most pirates that wore eye patches didn’t do so because they were actually missing an eye, but because it helped them see better and adjust their vision above and below deck. Studies have found that eyesight can take up to 25 minutes to adjust from bright light to darkness since it requires the regeneration of photopigments. Since pirates had to fight in ships, most of them would have to adjust their vision quickly below decks in order to see those they were attacking that were inside the ship. The eye patch would have been a useful tool in those situations.
As I stated before, there is no evidence that supports this theory, but it is the most likely one. This technique has also been used by aircraft pilots for the same purpose. It could also have been worn by pirates in order to further instill fear on their enemies.
8. Every Pirate Ship Had Its Own Set Of Rules
It is a tradition that every pirate crew is led by its captain and quartermaster. When it comes to addressing the captain, the quartermaster is usually the person that speaks on the crew’s behalf. Every pirate ship is like a small society since they are not governed by any country, they govern themselves with their own set of rules. These articles came to be known as the pirate code, and although they varied from one captain to another, most followed the same guidelines in regards to discipline, provisions, and shares of any treasure they found. The quartermaster would also see through any disputes between crewmates upon arriving to shore, usually settling it with a duel of pistol and sword.
Examples of pirate codes can be found in Charles Johnson’s A General History of Pyrates, including Bartholomew Roberts’ articles. Parts of Captain Henry Morgan’s Article can be found in the book The Buccaneers of America, by Alexandre Exquemelin.
7. Not All Pirates Were Thugs
Contrary to popular belief, people from all social classes became pirates. Most pirates during colonial times came about when their country wasn’t fighting others and found themselves unemployed or with lousy wages that couldn’t cover their expenses, so they turned to piracy instead. Wealthy society has also been known to get involved with pirates. William Kidd, also known simply as Captain Kidd, was a young Scottish man who grew up in a very wealthy family, He started off his sailing career as a pirate hunter, but his extreme actions towards his crew and other ships got him classified as a pirate as well.
Kidd decided to sail away with his crew instead of facing English punishment. In 1698, as he spotted an Indian ship, Kidd decided to raise the French colors and take the vessel. It was his greatest prize yet, a 400-ton merchant ship by the name of Quedagh Merchant filled with gold, satin, and silver.
6. Pirates Rarely Buried Their Treasure
It is widely believed that pirates buried their treasure, and yeah, it makes sense since these are wanted criminals we’re talking about, and all the treasure they plunder would be confiscated once they got caught. By burying it, they can return to it later, using treasure maps to remind them where it’s hidden. In reality, one of the only famous pirates that buried his treasure was Captain William Kidd, who wanted to use the treasure in order to bargain to avoid death once he was captured. It didn’t work, however, since Kidd was eventually hanged as a pirate.
The act of burying treasure has also been popularized in fiction novels like Treasure Island. There are also famous accounts of buried treasures that still haven’t been found, like the infamous Treasure de Lima, which is said to be worth 160 million euros. After being hired to transport it from Peru to Mexico, the treasure was stolen by Captain William Thompson.
5. Walking The Plank Wasn’t The Most Common Punishment
Pirates were feared throughout the seas because of their unmerciful attitude and the punishments they brought upon all who crossed them. It is true that some pirates resorted to making their captives walk the plank, but it was mostly on special occasions, usually when they captured a notorious person they truly disliked. They would tie their captive’s hands and feet so they wouldn’t be able to swim and made them walk a wooden plank, much for the pleasure of the ship’s crew. Few accounts of pirates using this method of punishment have been reported, but we can’t know for certain how common is was.
Instead of walking the plank, one of the most popular pirate punishments was “keelhauling”, and it consisted of tying a rope around and under the hull of the ship. The captive would be later hauled under the ship and back up to the surface until he drowned or died of his wounds.
4. They Sailed All Over The World
Most of us know the pirates of the Caribbean seas that confronted English and Spanish rule in their colonies, but pirate activity has been around forever and spread all over the world. There have been tales of famous pirates in every sea. In the early 1500s on the Mediterranean Sea, the infamous Barbarossa Brothers became very wealthy by capturing European vessels. They sailed all the way from the North Africa’s Barbary Coast. The pope eventually formed a special fleet just to destroy them.
Sir Francis Drake, another famous sailor, was a privateer hired by the Queen of England in 1577 to destroy Spanish ships. He became the first captain to ever circumnavigate the globe. The Chinese also had famous pirates, including Madame Cheng in the early 1800s. Her husband formed the largest confederation of pirates in history before Madame Cheng took over the business. She further expanded the fleet, which included more than 1,800 ships and 70,000 men.
3. Many Regular People Found Piracy As The Better Alternative
During most of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, many regular men were struggling in their day to day lives trying to support their families while suffering bad wages from their jobs. Most of them had been trained how to sail, especially the British sailors that had once been a part of the Royal Navy. The bad management of the European colonies convinced many of its citizens to find joining a pirate crew as the better alternative. This gave way to what is known today as the Golden Age of Piracy. At that point in time, there was also an increase of valuable cargoes shipped to Europe, and a decrease of official marine vessels, making it the perfect time to strike.
At the time of the Golden Age of Piracy, many notable pirates rose to fame, but by the early 1700s, people were starting to grow tired of their plundering. Nations all over the world took drastic measures against them, and by 1720 piracy started to decline at a rapid pace.
2. Not All Of Them Were Criminals
Most pirate crews governed themselves, had their own set of rules and answered to nobody else but their captain, but there were others that were specifically hired by nations to carry out different missions. These were known as privateers. They were usually hired by a state to capture merchant ships of opposing nations, and the privateers would not be charged with acts of piracy by attacking those vessels.
The Barbary Corsairs are an example of famous privateers, they were hired by the Ottoman Empire. The Dunkirkers were also famous merchant raiders who served the Spanish monarchy. Between 1616 and 1624, the Dunkirk privateers had captured 1499 ships and sunk 336. Another famous privateer was Sir Francis Drake, dubbed “My Pirate” by Queen Elizabeth II. During colonial times, privateers formed a large portion of a nation’s marine military force. There was also the infamous Jean Bart representing the French corsairs, hired to attack English and Dutch ships.
1. Pirates Have Been Around Forever, They Still Exist Today
People have fallen in love with pirate tales, mostly the ones from the Golden Age of Piracy and famously romanticized in novels like Treasure Island, but pirates have been around for a long time. Accounts of piracy have been reported since 14th Century BC, when the Sea People, a community of ocean raiders, attacked civilizations in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions. Places like the Gulf of Aden, Madagascar, and the strait of Malacca, have always been popular places for piracy since the terrain facilitates that kind of activity.
Most recently, in the 2000s, pirates have been seen armed with automatic weapons, attacking and boarding ships, taking advantage of the small crews we use today aboard trading vessels. Nations from all over the world still face this type of pirate problems and have trouble bringing them to justice. Some ships have been equipped with pressure hoses to avoid getting boarded by them, but often result ineffective.