Pirate ship sketch

Your Biggest Misconceptions About Pirates

Pirates are extremely popular today. Unless, of course, you live near Somalia, in which case, your Marine Cargo Insurance premiums are probably through the roof. Everything from colouring books to teddy bears includes the use of the Jolly Roger as decoration and images of swashbuckling pirates cavorting on the high seas. Pirate “facts” seem to be everywhere online, but many of these so-called facts are untrue or unfounded and are the products of tall tales and Hollywood movies. The actual “Golden Age” of piracy was a lot different than you may think.

The Language of the Sea

Pirate Language

Pirates did have their very own language, and many of their phrases are still around today. “Learn the ropes” for example; today means “to become familiar with the way something is done.” This term comes directly from seafarers needing to know the complex network of ropes and pulleys controlling a ship’s sails. The ability to tie knots and the knowledge of which sheet to pull when you need to open or close a sail was essential knowledge for any tar.

Ever been to a pub called “Three Sheets to the Wind” yes there are a few of them scattered around the world. Today it means to be inebriated, but the phrase doesn’t come from drunken pirates. The sheet is the rope which controls a sail. If multiple sheets ran loose, the sails would be at wind’s mercy, and the crew could lose control of the ship. So, “Three Sheets to the Wind” now refers to a drunk—an out-of-control person.

Pirates integrated nautical lingo into their everyday language; they also used a mixture of different tongues. Pirating was a multinational and borderless realm of the sea.

LGBT Pirates

Jolly Rodger

Another big misconception is of pirates painted as sexist, womanizing, bedraggled hooligans with a taste for rum and treasure. Ever hear the old saying that sailors have a woman in every port?

Fact, however, is often stranger than fiction. Pirates rejected society it was far too puritanical, and they preferred a more open society, pirates were socially very liberal. They openly welcomed homosexuality and even had a bound arrangement very much like a gay wedding. Matelotage was a civil partnership between two pirate men where each partner willingly slept with each other. The couple shared their property and possessions, had the other as their next of kin, and shared their living space as many couples do today. It just wasn’t always a strictly monogamous relationship.

Sexuality was a spectrum, just like it is today however amongst pirates, they were a lot more tolerant, their relationships were often bisexual. In the mid-1600s the French sent hundreds of prostitutes to Tortuga, in an attempt to counter this practice. The result created more shock and indeed wasn't what they'd expected. The fluid-like sexuality of the pirates saw them welcome the working girls and many engaged in Ménage à trois.

Black Sailors

Black Caesar

Pirates rights and the freedoms they had are a powerful example of how far ahead their social progress was. Piracy constantly challenged the systematic oppression that allowed slavery to be a legal enterprise.

We can’t forget the stark inequalities that blacks faced, holding the lowest positions on mixed race ships and being “shipped off” to slave owners to work and earn them money, pirates, however, lived by a different code. People were judged on their abilities and skills because they didn’t live under the same flag as colonists. Free black men served aboard many pirate ships.

Black Caesar was such a pirate. Black Caesar's tale began in his homeland of Africa, where he was a chief. Conned into coming onboard a slave ship Caesar was subsequently made a slave, but during a violent storm, Caesar escaped in one of the ship's longboats. He fled with a fellow shipmate, someone he called a friend—however, one he would later kill because of their rivalry over the same woman. Black Caesar eventually became a seasoned pirate, capturing and commanding many ships.

Joining up with Blackbeard, Caesar was working alongside him in 1718 when the Queen Anne's Revenge was attacked. Black Caesar nearly evaded being captured, alas, however, in Williamsburg, Virginia his life came to an abrupt halt at the bequest of a hangman’s noose.


Democratic Pirating

Pirates believe it or not weren't anarchists who just wanted to rebel against authority. The truth is, pirates were devotees of democracy. Sects of society may have made them outcasts, but they were soon welcomed into a different social order, that of the pirates. Ships were egalitarian.

Maintaining a good lifestyle while at sea, often for months on end, pirates soon realised the conditions best suited to them came via democratic means. Most commonly the men elected their captain. This process of voting guaranteed that the men liked their leader and reduced dissent amongst the ranks which in turn lessened the chances of mutiny. Quartermasters were also elected officials. Captains did have total control in certain situations, such as battle, but otherwise, the captain had little-unchecked control over the ship.

Female Pirates

Pirate looks like a lady

On the sea, you could freely cross-culturally and historically constructed gender boundaries, and a great many female pirates fought on ships. To first join a crew, women usually had to crossdress. For some, passing as a man was most certainly an integral part of their identity, but for others, it was a gender barrier they'd have to cross if they wanted their dreams of being a sailor to see fruition.

Many stories of female pirates have reflected the tale of Mary Lacy. She left her home in Portsmouth at the tender age of 19 dressed as a young man and adopted the name of William Chandler. Mary had a close and intimate relationship with a young woman living aboard her ship. Finally, Mary returned home and told her family about her adventures. Later a family friend informed the world that William Chandler was a woman, Mary continued to work at sea, and it is believed she only abandoned the seafaring life because of its physical demands.

Women's lives, externally defined by a male-dominated society, and the fables that came from their experiences warned against any attempt to go against the grain. Mary’s story ended with apparently a happy marriage to a hard worker named Mr. Slade. However, this ending is most likely a fabrication more to line the pockets of publishers rather than impart any historical facts.

Workers’ Compensation

Pirate Laugh

All pirates benefitted from an organised workers’ compensation scheme. Payouts would depend on the severity of a pirate's injuries. Payouts for losing a leg, for instance, was worth more than losing a finger. Pirates similarly pioneered workers’ insurance.

They also embraced disabilities—dressing up as a pirate often includes a wooden leg or a hook for a hand. Their pirate machismo encouraged everyone to keep working even with debilitating physical disabilities. Similar to today's war veterans pirates were elevated above having problems and instead were seen as courageous and heroic.

Pirates lived in a codependent society. Therefore, losing a limb did not necessarily lessen your status.

Becoming A Pirate

pirate jobs

A career at sea can be unruly and is a dangerous occupation even in this day and age; it was even more so in the age of sail. There were four ways to live life at sea: You could become a merchant, join the navy and become a part of a naval crew, sign up as a pirate, or a privateer. Privateers were given licenses from the government to raid and pillage enemy ships, making them legal pirates or the seafaring equivalent of mercenaries. Merchants trading and selling goods, and naval forces were, of course, part of the military. Everyone at sea made severe sacrifices and combined with deplorable conditions created a dissatisfied workforce.

Many hold the notion that pirates were mere criminals, however, the truth is that many just turned from legally sanctioned work to pirating. Pirating was a more lucrative and democratic career. Booty was distributed evenly among the crew, and the living and working conditions for pirates were significantly better than their merchant and navy counterparts.

Sailors weren't just deserting their ships to become pirates; many merchant sailors gained the opportunity when the vessel they were on was boarded and subsequently captured by pirates. Pirate captains had a tradition of asking merchant sailors if they’d like to join their ranks.

The Pirate Code


The Hollywood film Pirates of the Caribbean has a scene in it whereby one of the characters invokes the right of parley. While parley is a real term, it is not the one used by pirates. Pirates did live by a code a set of ethics if you like. These rules were born from a collective and diverse culture influenced by an egalitarian life at sea. The basics included equal distribution of wealth, democratic group decisions, honesty, and loyalty.

The other side of their code was all about revenge. It mainly involved vengeance against those people that dominated others through violent means.


Pirate Rum

We all know that pirates partied hard. Boozing was such an essential part of the pirate life that getting drunk was the norm and peer pressure leveraged all the pirates to partake. For some, the promise of unrestricted drinking was more enticing than the booty they might get.

Alcohol was the adhesive bond between pirates, and anyone who wouldn’t drink was frowned upon and observed with suspicion. Alcohol was often considered a remedy for many ailments, from food poisoning to scurvy and was commonly used for medicinal purposes. Rum was an essential commodity in the Caribbean, and when a pirate ship looted a merchant ship carrying a cargo of stiff drinks, it was near impossible for the captain to persuade his crew not to get plastered right there and then.


Pirate recruitment

It was a dangerous and unpredictable life, but it always had more than its fair share of volunteers signing up. However, desertions and death were frequent, and ships constantly needed new crew members. As with any jobs, recruitment meant showing potential members the glamour of the situation. Those modern pirates had to dress sharply and present a clean external appearance. When captains couldn’t obtain enough volunteers, the use of force could be employed to crew a ship if necessary.

Pirating saw better numbers of people seeking work after 1713 when privateers turned to pirating. While European nations were fighting at sea, Buccaneers were able to work and earn a significant income on privateer's ships. In 1708 the English allowed them to keep everything they stole. A mere five years later, the Treaty of Utrecht brought relative peace to the ocean, and thousands of privateers lost their jobs. Instead of returning to the land many joined pirate crews where they could put their skills to use.

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