The Truth About Famous Pirates and Buccaneers


Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, may be the most famous pirate story. But the most important real-life account of pirate life is probably a 1724 book called A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson. The tome depicts in gruesome detail the lives and exploits of the most famous pirates of that time. Much of it reads as a first-hand account by someone who sailed with the pirates, and many experts believe Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, which was published in 1719. What is not in doubt is the book's commercial success at the time and the influence it had on generations of writers and filmmakers who adopted elements of his stories in creating the familiar pirate image.

So what part of the movie pirate is true and what is merely Hollywood fiction? What about, for example, the common practice of forcing victims to "walk the plank"? "Not true," said Cori Convertito, The Assistant Curator of Education at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida, which puts on a piracy exhibit called, Reefs, Wrecks and Rascals. “The pirates' favorite form of punishment was to tie their victims to the boat with a length of rope, toss them overboard, and drag them under the ship, a practice known as "keel hauling."

Sadly, buried treasures, and the ubiquitous treasure maps, are also largely a myth. "Pirates took their loot to notorious pirate hang-outs in Port Royal and Tortuga," said Convertito. "Pirates didn't bury their money. They blew it as soon they could on women and booze."

Eye Patches, Peg Legs, and Parrots

On the other hand, pirate flags, commonly referred to as the Jolly Roger, were indeed present during the Golden Age. And victims were often marooned on small islands by pirates. Eye patches and peg legs were also undoubtedly worn by pirates, and some kept parrots as pets. Some pirates even wore earrings, not as a fashion statement, but because they believed they prevented sea sickness by applying pressure on the earlobes.

In the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, prisoners facing execution can invoke a special code, which stipulates that the pirate cannot kill him or her without first consulting the pirate captain. Indeed pirates did follow codes. These varied from ship to ship, often laying out how plundered loot should be divided or what punishment should be meted out for bad behavior. But Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp's hero, probably wouldn't have lasted very long among real pirates. In the movie, he will do anything possible to avoid a fight, something real-life pirates rarely did. The endless sword duels, a big part of all pirate movies, probably happened on occasion. But real-life encounters were often far more bloody and brutal, with men hacking at each other with axes and cutlasses. In one legendary account, a notorious pirate, trying to find out where a village had hidden its gold, tied two villagers to trees, facing each other, and then cut out one person's heart and fed it to the other.

As Captain Charles Johnson wrote in his book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates: “In the commonwealth of pirates, he who goes the greatest length or wickedness is looked upon with a kind of envy amongst them, as a person of a more extraordinary gallantry, and is thereby entitled to be distinguished by some post, and if such a one has but courage, he must certainly be a great man.