“Why are pirates called pirates? ‘Cause they aaaaarrrrr!”
No they don’t. They never did neither!
I’m into a lot of weird and wonderful things and one of those things is pirates. I like pirates so much that I have a skull and crossbones keyring I’ve owned for perhaps over a decade. I’ve even written a story about them. Yes, pirates are my thing.
However, I’m a realist when it comes to pirates. I respect the dangerous, tyrannical, and rebellious folk they were (and indeed still are). I’m irritated by the stereotype that has come about since the Errol Flynn movies of the mid-20th century because that’s what everybody genuinely believes pirates of the early 1700’s were.
I’m here to lay some stereotypes to rest. This has been done before on other blogs I’ve read, but if people weren’t blogging about similar things to what others have done then nobody would be blogging at all!
- Peg legs and hooks–You only need to apply some common sense here. Let’s imagine a swashbuckler gets gangrene or loses a leg in battle. Do you really think they had the medical provisions on board to cauterise the wound and then strap a bit of wood in the leg’s place? Or a hook where the hand used to be because there’d just happen to be a hook conveniently lying around? It’s utter nonsense when you think about it. Most times, the unfortunate soul would bleed out and die (in the case of gangrene, the cook would use a kitchen knife to hack their extremity off if they didn’t have a barber surgeon aboard to do it), but, if they did somehow survive, what use would they have been on a vessel with a missing limb? The 1700’s weren’t like today where prosthetics better than actual limbs exist. Imagine somebody with a peg leg on a vessel during a heavy storm. It simply isn’t feasible, whether Robert Louis Stevenson thought so or not.
- Walk the plank, ye scurvy dog–Contrary to popular belief, this was a practice very rarely used in piracy. Apparently, Stede Bonnet, about the most useless pirate that ever sailed the seas, used the punishment according to the ever-trusty Wikipedia; however, I’ve found no other reference to the fact. Other than the psychological side of things, walking the plank makes little sense, not when there were so many other forms of punishment and torture available. Marooning for example, or how about a good keel hauling? Walking the plank is, once again, something popularised by fiction writers.
- Aaaaarrrrr!–There’s only one man who makes us think pirates made this noise: the aforementioned Errol Flynn. I believe it was in the movie Captain Blood (I’ve never seen it so I can only go off what I’ve heard—and I call myself a pirate fan) where Flynn played a West Country pirate and every so many words would blurt out ‘aaaaarrrrr’. The stereotype was born and everybody jumped on it. The fact that not all pirates came from the West Country is apparently immaterial!
- The skull and crossbones–I would like to point out that the skull and crossbones DID exist and WAS used, but not by all pirates. More than likely just the one. Most pirates used either a simple black or red flag with no markings. When they did use designs on their flag there were many varied ensigns. Blackbeard, for example, had a skeleton holding an hourglass in one hand and a spear in the other that they were using to stab a love heart. Look it up if you don’t believe me. Some designs were weirder still. However, the skull and crossbones was not the go-to ensign we’ve all been led to believe it was.
- Accordion music–I will make this one as succinct as I can: the accordion was first made sometime in the 1820’s. That effectively kills the stereotype of pirates and accordion music. I’m interested to know where it’s even come from. Sure, they sang and played instruments to keep up morale, but the accordion was never used.
- Buried treasure–This, for me, is the stupidest fable of the lot. Why would a pirate want to bury his treasure? So it would accrue interest? Because they thought money trees would grow? What pirates did with their money was thus: spend it! Most pirates were lucky to last a couple of years in the game before they met a grizzly end, so they’d use whatever riches they had to let their hair down and have a damned good time. If treasure was ever buried then it was likely that they’d return to get it only days later. Although, the story of Captain William Kidd amuses me. After capture, he allegedly told his captors where he’d buried his treasure to barter his release. So they went and found his treasure and then hanged him anyway. D’oiiiii!
- Polly want a cracker?–The parrot on the shoulder. Imagine a pirate who’s constantly fighting to exist having the time to train a wild bird to perch on his shoulder and talk. The Caribbean was filled with the vibrantly coloured birds; however, the likelihood is that if a pirate happened across a submissive parrot he’d kill it and eat it!
As we can see, our fanciful ideas of how pirates got about their day are built on a foundation of quicksand. I’m sorry if I’ve ruined your day. Never fear; some rumours are true. Like the eyepatch, for example. Pirates were forever going outdoors to indoors, so to combat the problem of being unable to see when going from blazing sunlight to the darkness below decks, they often used an eyepatch or a bandana to keep one eye accustomed to the darkness. It wasn’t just a fashion accessory.
Pirates were deadly and dangerous men who lived a bloody and uncertain life. They were renegades and rebels who refused to be bound by the oppressive powers of the time and instead chose to live as free men. Yes, they were nasty characters who bullied innocents, but how did that make them any different from the military?
They’re mooted by popular culture to be fun characters; perhaps a bit dim-witted and daft. Scratch the surface and you, like I have, might realise they were nothing like what Disney tells us they were.
While I have a breath in my body I’ll always attempt to educate the ignorant where pirates are concerned. Despite that, the stereotype will live on and on. Perhaps I should give up and go with the flow; just swig me rum, walk the plank, bury me treasure, pillage, plunder, and aaaaarrrrr!
Do you have any questions or comments? Perhaps a nugget of info I’ve missed or something you think I’m wrong about? Comment below and I’ll get back to you in timely fashion.
If you’re interested in learning more about pirates then might I suggest a look at Rob Ossian’ Pirate’s Cove? Full of useful information and entertaining to boot.
Article edited on 26th August 2018