When I was a little kid, my father, who was a sailor himself for a period in his life, used to tell me bedtime stories about the adventures of pirates.
In very short while, I became fascinated with the likes of Barbarossa, Long John Silver, Blackbeard. I wanted to go pirate treasure hunting whenever we went near water. I generally daydreamed about life on the open seas, with a saber at my belt, an eye patch and salty air in my greasy hair.
To say I had an obsession would be a big understatement.
However, even though I though I knew everything there is to know about pirates, it turned out that there were a lot of other things that I had missed.
Join me in finding out about some truly marvelous and weird stuff about the life of buccaneers.
1. White skull and crossbones on black background, aka the Jolly Roger is actually the universal flag for pirates.
This is the most famous flag of pirates, but actually there are many more versions of the main pirate insignia.
2. The the first mention of the Jolly Roger was in a book titled A General History of the Pyrates, by Charles Johnson, published first in 1724.
The book contained biographies of famous pirates from the period. It also spoke of the many versions of pirate flags. For example, on Blackbeard’s flag there was a skeleton toasting the devil while spearing a bloody heart. Heartwarming, ain’t it!
3. Blackbeard was considered to be the most notorious pirate in the world in his time. As you might imagine, his nickname came from his thick black beard.
Blackbeard used his fame more than violence in his later days. He found it easier and more convenient to intimidate someone into submission, then to actually get into a fight.
4. Blackbeard used to set himself on fire!
Among many other clever tricks and scams, Blackbeard was also known to weave hemp into his beard and hair, which he would light on fire during raids, knowing that would attribute his already terrifying presence.
5. The pirates were not an all-boys exclusive club!
Women were also found among the rank of pirates too! Some of the most famous were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Although at first they had to pretend to be men to get in.
6. Anne Bonny and Mary Read were once captured and jailed, but they managed to escape.
They were sentenced to be hanged with the rest of the crew. But they claimed to be pregnant, which under law at that time, brought them postponement of the carrying out of the sentence.
Bonny visited in prison her Captain and presumed lover, Calico Jack, where she famously said: ‘sorry to see you there, but if you’d fought like a man, you would not have been hang’d like a dog.’ Shortly after that she disappeared, never to be seen again.
7. The British Navy had strange methods for water purification.
They used to give each sailor a pint of rum every day, which they were to mix with the drinking water. This was done in order to prevent the sailors from drinking dirty water?!
8. Pirates used to drink what ever they could get their hands on.
In the Caribbean, rum was made from sugar cane and it seemed to be available in never-ending quantities. Pirates mixed it with water and called it grog. They quickly learned that if they adding lemon juice it would prevent them from getting scurvy.
9. One of the most common misconceptions was that many pirates were missing an eye, because they wore eye-patches.
This was in fact done for practical reasons. When a pirate was going below deck he often had to wait for his eyesight to adjust to darkness. But covering one eye, which could be uncovered and adjusted in a second when going below, saved a lot of valuable time, probably for finding that rum stash quicker.
10. Pirates were known to be very practical with their accessorizing.
For example, a gold or silver earring was to be used to cover the funeral expenses, if the pirate died ashore. Additionally, some of them had their port of origin engraved on the inside of the earring, thus providing the possibility for their bodies to be returned for a burial at home.
11. What ordinary sailors feared more than the Jolly Roger was the Bloody Red.
The red flag hoisted on the main mast was used to signal that no quarter would be given to the captured ship, which meant that all onboard the ship would be killed.
12. Although it is the most romantic aspect of it, pirate life rarely included burying of treasure on a deserted island.
Pirates usually stole whatever goods the attacked ships had on board. Sometime that was cotton, cloth, lumber and sugar. Of course food, water, alcohol and weapons were not left untouched either.
13. There is at least one instance where the buried treasure proved to be very costly.
The Scottish pirate, William Kidd, had buried part of his treasure on a deserted tropical island. He did not manage to secure that secret, so someone dug up the treasure, reported it to authorities, who used it as damning evidence proving the pirate career of Kidd.
14. In a certain way, pirates were more emancipated that one could imagine.
It is believed that as early as the 1600’s they have been practicing a form of same-sex marriage. Two male pirates could join in “matelotage” which was sort of an agreement to share goods and wealth, and provided survivor’s benefits if one partner died.
15. There is a legend that pirates once captured Julius Caesar.
They demanded a ransom of only 20 talents (approx. $0.5 million today), to which Caesar laughed. Schooling them in how they did not know who they had captured, he remarked that they should ask for at least 50 talents instead. While in captivity, Caesar spent his time writing poems and speeches, but also joined in with playing various games with the pirates.
16. Although the pirates and Caesar were generally friendly to each other, sometimes Caesar would call them savages and barbarians, mostly when they didn’t get his poems.
Caesar’s friends eventually paid the ransom, but Caesar later returned with a whole fleet. He got back his 50 talents, captured the pirates and had them crucified.
17. Apart from the practicality, the pirates’ earrings carried with them lot of superstitions too.
There were pirates that believed the earrings prevented seasickness. Others believed wearing them fixed poor eyesight. A lot of them also believed that a good pair of gold earrings would prevent them drowning if they went overboard.
18. It is a flawed misconception that all pirate ships had a Jolly Roger flag hoisted.
As with generally all ships, pirates had many different flags on board, used on different occasions. Some pirates had their special flags made and would normally fly false colors or no colors until they had their prey within firing range.
19. Another movie-made myth about Pirates is that they made people walk the plank.
This was not true – they usually just killed people straight away. They would only torture their victims if they had to extract information concerning the loot.
One of the most widely used torture methods was stranding victims on a deserted island. Sometimes pirates also used to beat their captives with a leather whip.
20. Every pirate ship operated in accordance with their own rules.
The rules applied to all on board, and they most commonly described who had which duties, privileges, how the bounty was supposed to be divided, etc.
21. There are many legacies of the romantic period of pirates in today’s popular culture.
One of them is the International Talk Like A Pirate Day – which falls on September 19th. Spend all day ignoring grammar, nobody should mind. Off with them noggins if they be doin’ dat, dirty wenches!