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Pirate myths: true and false May 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, back on board (so to speak) to continue our pirate week theme. (If you’ve missed any of the previous posts on this theme, check out “A piratical post” to test your knowledge about pirates; “Ben Picks Ten: Pirates” for some fun facts; “The ones who got away” for some thrilling true stories; and “Food fit for a pirate” for some piratical recipes.) Today, I’d like to talk about some of the most common myths about pirates. As you’ll see, some of them are true, and then again, some of the most famous are false.

Let’s start with the ones that are false:

Walking the plank. Despite its popularity in novels and movies, there is only one historical case of someone being made to walk the plank. It seems like an easy way of disposing of mutineers and prisoners, but marooning (or simple murder) was the more usual route.

Buried treasure. As our friend Ben noted the other day, the only recorded instance of buried treasure was Captain Kidd’s burying his treasure on, of all places, Long Island! (New Yorkers take note: This treasure has not been found.) Again, the concept of buried treasure seized the imaginations of novelists and filmmakers, but in real life, most pirates were busy spending their spoils rather than thinking of ways to hide them.

Treasure maps. If you don’t have any buried treasure, you don’t need a treasure map. With much of the ocean and the continents and islands uncharted in pirate times, maps were considered treasures in and of themselves. Many a pirate captain treasured his precious maps, counting on them to lead him and his crew safely home after a marauding venture. But as for leading to treasure, pirates counted on rumors of treasure-laden ships picked up on shore, on chance encounters with merchant ships, and on well-known coastal towns that were ripe for raiding for their plunder, not on treasure maps.

Moving on to the ones that are true:

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. As Silence Dogood pointed out in her piratical recipe post, rum was considered essential for a pirate’s welfare. Not only was it consumed daily aboard ship, if a pirate was marooned on a deserted island for some infraction, he was left with a pint of rum (and a cutlass or pistol).  

The Jolly Roger. It’s true that pirates flew the skull and crossbones or some variant. The first to do so was believed to have been Long Ben, aka Henry Avery, whose flag showed a fashionable skull wearing a bandanna and a hoop earring. Successful pirate captains typically created their own flags based on the Jolly Roger theme, so ships would recognize them and be suitably terrified when they saw, for example, Blackbeard’s or Black Bart’s (aka the Great Pirate Roberts’) flags on the horizon. Why was it called the Jolly Roger, anyway? Why, because of that cheerful grin the skull is sporting! It is not true, however, that all pirate flags were black: Red flags were also extremely popular.

Hooks, pegs, and patches. Pirating was not an easy life, and the combination of frequent attacks by blade, gunfire, and cannon coupled with extremely primitive doctoring meant that many pirates lost limbs (and eyes). Eye patches not only covered empty eye sockets, they added ferociousness to a pirate’s already savage demeanor. Hooks and peg legs were convenient ways to replace missing limbs. Even one of America’s Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, was fitted with a peg leg when he lost a leg as a result of a carriage accident. If Morris, who could afford anything, was given no better than this, it’s no wonder pirates stumped around on their wooden pegs. 

Bandannas and hoop earrings. Yes, it’s true that pirates wore both of these. Bandannas not only kept long, stringy hair out of your face (remember those sea winds!) and sweat off your brow—they could be lifesaving in a hostile encounter, when being able to see during the chaos could easily mean the difference between life and death. Hoop earrings, usually of silver or gold, served the same purpose (believe it or not!): In pirate times, piercing your ears with precious metals was thought to improve your eyesight.



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