The Truth About Pirates

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Podcast Transcript

Ahoy ye mates! It be International Talk Like a Pirate Day. 

So I be thinking tis time to talk about the pirate life and how much of the legends of the pirates be true. Did they bury their gold? Did they fly the Jolly Roger? 

Did their dogs have scurvy? …and did they really talk like this? 

So join me as I cast me pod on tis episode of Arrrverything Arrrverywhere.

At this point, many of you might be asking, “Gary, are you a pirate? Because you really speak fluent pirate!”

Well, I’m not a pirate. However, I did take three years of pirate in college and I did do a pirate immersion on the island of Tortuga. Moreover, when I was younger I listened to pirate radio and I pirated software, so I think that makes me pretty much an expert.

So what is the deal with pirates? There is a whole collection of things that we associate with pirates. Treasure, parrots, hooks, eye patches, skull and crossbones, and of course a very unique way of talking. 

Piracy goes back as far as humanity transporting things by ship. As soon as people began sending things by ship, there were other people on ships who wanted to take their stuff. 

The first historical references in history date back to the 14th century BC when Assyrian pirates were documented in the Mediterranean. 

Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates.

Piracy wasn’t unique to the Mediterranean. There were pirates in East Asia on the coasts of China and Japan, as well as plenty of piracy in Southeast Asia and around South Asia. 

The first military action conduction by the United States outside of North America was attacking Barbary pirates which attacked ships based in North Africa. 

However, for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to focus the rest of the episode on what is known as the Golden Age of Piracy which took place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in the Atlantic Ocean. 

All of the stereotypical things we associate with pirates came from this period. 

While piracy was all over, it was the Caribbean that was the hotbed of piracy during its golden age. There were several reasons for this. 

For starters, this is where the money was. The Caribbean was where the vast majority of European foreign trade was happening. There were scads of wealth flowing through the region, not to mention all of the Spanish silver and gold coming through the Caribbean from South American.

Second, there were actual pirate ports in the Caribbean from which they could operate freely. Ports like Port Royal in Jamaica, Totogua in what is today Haiti, and New Providence in the Bahamas.

The origin of piracy in the region can be pointed at the various European governments, especially England. They allowed ships called privateers to operate on the high seas whose mission was to attack Spanish merchant ships. The crown would take a cut and the crew of the ship would get the majority of whatever they acquired. 

It was a short step from this to just attacking everything and keeping all of the money. 

Most pirates were former sailors on merchant ships or in the navy. There were also a fair number of freed or escaped slaves who worked as crew as well. 

In one case where we have data, the pirate ship Bartholomew Roberts was captured and there were 75 black crew members on board out of 263.

Despite their portrayals in movies, pirate ships were actually democracies. They were not run by tyrannical captains. In fact, they couldn’t be. There was no law that you could hold over the heads of the sailors to enforce discipline. 

There actually was a pirate code. It was a type of constitution under which the ship was run under. Each member of the crew had to sign their name, or leave a mark if they were illiterate, in the book. This wasn’t just an agreement to honor the code, but also a form of commitment. If they were caught by the authorities and their name was in the book, they could be hanged. 

Many pirates asked to be forced to sign so they would have an alibi if they were caught.

The code set out rules that the ship would be run under and punishments for crew members who violated the rules. It also set terms for the election of officers of the ship.

More importantly, it established strict rules for the division of loot and booty. Everyone received an equal share except for the  Captain and Quartermaster who receive two shares: the master, boatswain, and gunner,  who received one share and a half shares, and other officers who got one and quarter. 

That being said, the life of a pirate wasn’t great. These were almost exclusively people from the fringes of society who couldn’t find anything else. Conditions were horrible on the ship, the food was awful, and there was disease around every corner. 

That was all on top of the threat of constant death if they got caught.

When attacking a ship, pirates would usually use deception, flying false flags until they could get close. Then they would fly their pirate flag in the hopes that the ship would surrender. 

There wasn’t a single pirate flag, but many of them did have some theme of a skull, bones, or a skeleton. There are only 2 surviving 18th-century pirate flags in the world. I got to see one of them at the Maritime Museum in the Aland Islands, Finland.

The entire strategy of pirates was not to fight. As romantic as the idea of swashbuckling pirates swinging from ropes seems, that was what they were trying to avoid. Occasionally, pirates would do horrific things to people on ships precisely because they wanted to spread fear. 

If people told stories of pirates, that was great for the pirates because it decreased the likelihood that anyone would fight back. 

Likewise, they always tried to fight when they had a numerical advantage. 

One thing that is completely fictitious about pirates is the concept of buried treasure and treasure maps. The pirate code and the distribution of loot basically prevented anything like this from ever happening. 

This trope comes directly from the Robert Louis Stevenson book, Treasure Island. There has never been a buried pirate treasure found anywhere. 

What about peg legs, hooks, and eye patches? 

This has a modicum of truth. Amputation was a common way of treating wounds back then. It was either eliminate the limb or risk infection which could kill. It is entirely possible that pirates would have had more limbs removed and eyes lost than most people. 

Finally, let’s address the big question: did pirates talk like pirates? If real pirates appeared today, would they fit in well on Talk Like a Pirate Day?

The reason why we think pirates talk like pirates can be traced entirely to a single person: Robert Newton. 

Robert Newton was a British actor from the ’40s and ’50s who started in the 1950 Walt Disney film Treasure Island, playing the role of Long John Silver.

Newton grew up in Dorset, England, and went to university in Cornwall. He basically took a West Country English accent and turned it up to 11 and added his own pirate-y stuff to it to make it his own.  

He reprised the role in the 1954 movie Long John Silver and then in a TV series by the same name.

His performance was so iconic that he pretty much set the bar for what being a pirate was.

The area of England that Newton got the accent from was well represented amongst seafarers and there might have been some pirates that talked sort of like that, but in reality, they would have had a wide variety of accents.

International Talk Like Pirate Day was established in 1995, by John (Ol’ Chumbucket) Baur and Mark  (Cap’n Slappy) Summers.

It was just intended as a joke and didn’t get very far until 2002 when it was adopted by newspaper columnist Dave Berry. 

Robert Newton has been dubbed the patron saint of International Talk Like Pirate Day. 

In response to the day, December 5 was dubbed International Ninja Day, to honor ninjas which are the mortal enemies of pirates. 

Since then International Talk Like Pirate Day has grown into…. a thing. Big enough to do a podcast episode on it I guess.