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Ten Unexpected Truths About How Pirates Really Lived

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Historians now limit the Golden Age of Piracy to a little less than a hundred years. But the violent activities on the high seas between the 1650s and 1730s were notorious and noteworthy no matter the length of their run. For decades, lawless pirates plundered merchant ships up and down America’s eastern seaboard. Naval vessels chased, usually in vain, as these rapscallions hid out on islands in the Bahamas.

Tales of untold hidden riches spread like wildfire. Even today, claims of long-buried treasure leave amateur hunters dreaming of a gold-filled payday. In the modern era, memorable movie characters like Captain Jack Sparrow keep that Golden Age culture alive for future generations. As such, the crazy tales of pirate life and lore have been made romantic and adventurous.

But what was life really like out on those ships? How did 17th century pirates actually go about their work? Below, these ten facts about some of the not-so-romantic realities of pirate life are sure to shock and surprise!

Related: Top 10 Misconceptions About Historical Clothing And Fashion

10 They Were Often Coerced to Work on the Ships

The Dark History of Shanghaiing

There were always men searching for lucrative work during the pirate era’s Golden Age. There were plenty of immoral captains needing extra bodies on their ships, too. To fill the gap, many crew members were unethically “Shanghaied” into working at sea. When there was a shortage of men available to work in port cities, pirate captains ordered their charges to go looking for forced labor.

Following orders, pirates would drug unsuspecting drunk men in saloons. Sometimes, they would outright attack them and knock them out. By the time these “Shanghaied” victims regained consciousness, they were on board the ship. Even worse, the ship was miles out to sea.

As these poor men nursed their raging headaches, they slowly became aware of what happened. But with no recourse on board and no land for miles, they did what the captains hoped they would do: They worked! This violent coercion wasn’t an ideal way to produce loyal employees, of course. But to pirate captains, this didn’t much matter. They got what they needed in more men to do labor on board, and that was that.

The truly crazy thing is that Shanghaiing wasn’t exclusive to pirate ships. For centuries, legal merchant vessels and trade ships employed the same practice in port cities worldwide. Whaling and fishing vessels in the 19th century were notorious for the practice, which they called “blackbirding,” across the South Pacific and in the nation now known as Papua New Guinea. Even naval vessels employed the practice at times. Mercifully, it was finally outlawed worldwide in the early 20th century.[1]

9 But Once on Board, They Practiced Democracy

Hierarchy, Governance and Democracy on a Pirate Ship

Ancient Greek political leaders might take issue with piracy as a business. The buccaneers’ job was cruel and violent. And certainly, piracy was a gig without much intellectual debate. But there’s no question swashbuckling sailors moved Athenian democracy ahead in their own (non-philosophical) way.

On board their ships, pirates all had a vote about what to do and where to sail. Each sailor was given a fair and equal distribution of loot after plundering. No matter their role on board, each man had at least some say in the ship’s affairs. That they could make their voice heard by superiors was unique for the time. Modern historians believe there was a very good reason for that: Many pirates were escaped slaves or otherwise impoverished people.

Thus, they were used to being held down unfairly in their prior societies. Sick of having the rules of life used against them, pirates were keen to even the playing field on board. Ship captains still had the most authority, of course. And at times, they could be downright brutal in how they wielded it. But underlings had voting powers on board, and a simple majority could remove the captain from his perch after a major disagreement.

So captains had to be willing to compromise to keep things running smoothly (and democratically!) on board. For sailors sick of being mistreated on land, piracy proved an equitable way to improve their lives.[2]

8 They Were Also Early Adopters of… Same-Sex Marriage?!

Pirates are gay and the best one was a woman // Historical Profiles [CC]

Leave it to those progressive-thinking pirates to pioneer same-sex civil unions. No, really! For pirates, ship-bound life meant lots of men living together in close quarters for long periods of time. With no women around, it’s only natural that the men would bond in unique ways. In fact, mutual personal attraction between pirates was so common that it actually has a name. Historians call the historic male-centric practice “matelotage.”

But it wasn’t necessarily a sexual or romantic endeavor for many swashbucklers. In fact, there were real financial reasons to take part. Two pirate partners would often exchange gold rings and commit to sharing each others’ possessions equally. During lean times, pairing off like this brought something of a mutual safety blanket. When one member of this civil union died, the other would then inherit all of his property. The “widowed” pirate would often dole out money to bury his close compatriot with honor, as well.

To be sure, in some cases, there were romantic aspects to these connections. In fact, one horrified French governor was so disgusted by the prevalence of matelotage in the 17th century that he took action. The politician shipped off two thousand prostitutes to the pirate haven of Tortuga. Evidently, he must have felt prostitution was less immoral than same-sex marriage.[3]

7 ‘Arrr’ Those Big Gold Earrings Really Necessary?

Bizarre Reasons Pirates Do Things – Why the hoop earrings??

Earrings are a lasting part of the stereotypical pirate get-up. Along with a bandana, an eye patch, a peg leg, and a parrot, the world thinks of gold earrings when piracy comes to mind. In the Golden Age of Piracy, they actually served a purpose. In some cases, the earrings had sentimental meaning in the practice of matelotage mentioned above. But more often, they were worn to commemorate milestones in a crewman’s career.

Some young sailors got them after their first Equator crossing. Others earned theirs after rounding the nasty waters of South America’s Cape Horn. Mostly, the earrings were ideal for encouraging seamen’s superstitions. Some pirates believed the earrings could improve bad eyesight. Some felt the precious metal possessed mystical healing properties. Others said pierced ears helped guard against seasickness. Still, others believed men who wore gold couldn’t be drowned.

Today, of course, we know all that is false. But the superstitions proved persistent. Practical applications for the gold hoops eventually came into favor, too. For one, the earrings were valuable. When a pirate died, the earrings could be used to pay for the man’s funeral. Some men even engraved their earrings with the names of their home port in case their remains could be shipped back to the family. The earrings’ value would then cover the high cost of sending their bodies home.

There was one more use for the earrings, too: earplugs. Pirates often waged war in very close quarters with their ships’ cannons. Fatigued from the loud explosions going off constantly around them, the buccaneers would dangle wads of wax from their earrings. The wax proved perfect for cutting down the volume of the loud booms going off in their ears. And so, a truly ingenious invention came forth on the high seas![4]

6 Pirate Ships Had Their Own Departments of Human Resources!

What Life Was Like For a Pirate on a Ship…

It’s crazy to think about it now, but pirate work (sort of) had a severance package. And we’re not talking about some grisly method of torture! On many ships in the 1700s, buccaneers agreed to mete out sums of gold to pirates who were severely injured on the job. If the injured man in question was unable to pursue piracy any further, his fellow sailors would pony up a lump sum of gold to send him into retirement.

This informal workers’ compensation wasn’t universal, but it happened quite often. In fact, several accounts recorded the exact amount of the massive sums set out for injured swashbucklers. In Alexandre Exquemelin’s 1678 memoir about sailing the high seas, the former pirate claimed a man who lost an arm was granted 600 pieces of gold. That’s more than $100,000 in modern-day money.

There was a very good reason for paying injured pirates like this. Piracy was dangerous and violent, of course. Without full compensation, the risk-reward ratio was uneven for most of these sailors. But a potential payday encouraged buccaneers to take the chances necessary to make piracy profitable. Motivated by financial safety for a lifetime, pirates consented to incredible risks for their captains.

It may not be the safety net we know today, but it worked. Pirates’ version of workers’ compensation-turned-Social Security proved very effective through the Golden Age.[5]

5 Live by the Code, Die by the Code

The Unwritten Pirate Laws of the High Seas…

A pirate’s entire job was to steal. They boarded merchant ships and stole as they pleased. They swiped loot whenever they encountered other sailors. The boldest buccaneers entered bustling ports and held up seaside storehouses. Navies worldwide tried, often in vain, to tamp down on these audacious thefts. But there was one group pirates could never steal from—other pirates.

It was common knowledge among swashbucklers to live and let live within their industry. A code of honor prevailed for decades. In it, men were ordered not to swipe goods from their pirate peers. Some captains made sure the code was explicitly written down.

“If [a pirate] defrauds the company to the value of even one dollar in plate, jewels, or money, they shall be marooned,” read a very specific code posted on the pirate ship Royal Fortune. “If any man rob another, he shall have his nose and ears slit, and be put ashore where he shall be sure to encounter hardships.”

Ships followed other codes, too. Some captains forbade women from boarding for any reason whatsoever. Just trying to sneak a woman on board was sometimes punishable by death. Fights weren’t allowed on deck, either. Keen on keeping tempers cool on board, captains decreed their charges could only settle disputes once on land.

The sum of these codes was clear: The pirate ship needed to function as smoothly as possible. Stealing, women, and other disputes could only mess things up. By having the most serious rules spelled out in these codes, captains earned the right to dish out severe punishment to transgressors.[6]

4 When They Violated the Code, They Paid With Their Lives

Brutal Pirate Punishments & Torture Methods That Would Make You Scream ‘Arrrgh’…

These on-board codes were mostly followed. Men joined up to make money and wreak havoc, and most were content to focus on that. But inevitably, journeys were still full of disputes and disagreements. So when it came time for punishment, many pirate captains got creative. And no, we’re not talking about having men walk the plank. That didn’t happen much during the Golden Age of Piracy.

While the plank may be a lasting stereotype from their era, captains didn’t use it. Instead, keelhauling was the method of the day. In the most extreme cases, captains would tie a rope around an incorrigible pirate. The men would weigh the offender down with anchors, chains, or cannonballs. Then, he was thrown overboard. The problematic pirate was quickly dragged under the keel of the boat.

Of course, the survival rate of this punishment was nearly non-existent. Most men died from drowning as their weighted bodies bobbed underneath the waves. Others died of blunt force injuries sustained upon smacking the boat’s wooden bottom. However they passed, their punishment served as a warning to the rest on board: shape up, or else.[7]

3 Why So Superstitious, Matey?!

Superstitions & the Supernatural on the Seas | Time With Tempest

Pirates were a remarkably superstitious bunch. It makes sense, really. Their whole lives were at the mercy of then-unpredictable phenomena like weather patterns and ocean currents. The violent gigs also brought incredible physical risk. So these adventurous men sought out good luck in whatever way they could. That list of luck charms is long and distinguished.

For one, many Golden Age pirates wore feathers in their hats. They thought a feather taken from a wren slaughtered on New Year’s Day would ensure a ship’s safe passage for the full year. When in port, pirates would rush to get their hair and nails trimmed. If they didn’t, on-board haircuts out on the ocean risked angering the sea god Neptune.

Even boarding the ship had to be done with great care. Men had to board with their right foot first. If they led with the left, it was thought to curse the voyage. And once the ship sailed out of port, the only way to look was dead ahead. Turning one’s eyes back to the land was supposedly an especially bad omen for the voyage. Once out to sea, the look for good luck continued.

Seeing a shark following the ship was bad. It meant a crew member was going to die during the journey. However, seeing a dolphin swimming alongside was good. Dolphins were thought to bring good tidings to a trip. In the air, the albatross was the most notable omen. The seabirds were said to carry the souls of sailors long dead. Seeing one was a good sign, as pirates felt those departed souls were watching over with care. But don’t kill the bird! Killing an albatross was considered a terrible act destined to cause tragedy on the trip.

Of course, we know today that all these customs were merely superstitions. But in a career with little control over a wide variety of dangerous events, luck was highly sought after all the same.[8]

2 What Those Eyepatches Were (Supposedly) Really For

Why did Pirates Wear Eye Patches?

Along with the gold hoop earring, eyepatches were a renowned part of pirate life. But their purpose has been misunderstood in history. Sure, some pirates undoubtedly lost their eyes in violent battles with naval vessels and merchant ships. But eyepatches were remarkably common during the era’s Golden Age. How many eyes were really getting poked out in fights?

As it turns out, many of the pirates who wore eyepatches did so on top of completely functional eyeballs. Rather than for safety, these men rocked the patches in order to adjust to changes in light. Today, historians believe pirates covered one eye in order to transition between ship decks.

Going from the sunlight of the top deck to the darkness down below, and vice versa, was tough. It took time for men’s eyes to adjust to the massive changes in brightness. During battles, pirates simply didn’t have time to wait out the visual adjustment. So experts now theorize that they covered one eye with a patch in order to quickly adjust to the dark holds down below deck.

It’s an interesting theory and one that has some truth in modern-day optometry. But it makes us wonder whether these same patches affected pirates’ depth perception. After all, it can’t be easy to fire off cannonballs at precise holds on rival ships with one eye covered.[9]

1 The Meaning of All Those Special Flags

Hoist the Colors: History of the Pirate Flag

Everybody knows about the Jolly Roger. The famous black flag adorned with a white skull and crossbones is notorious. It is quintessential vintage pirate fare, and it lives on today. Back during the Golden Age, pirate ships really did fly that flag. It was a near-universal symbol to indicate their presence.

Merchant ships would see it and know violent thieves were en route to peruse and plunder. But it was far from the only cloth sign that ran up the pirate pole. The most infamous pirate flag, other than the Jolly Roger, was a bloody red creation billowing brightly in the air. When it rose, the message was clear: The pirates were out for blood. Flying red meant they weren’t looking for their victims to merely surrender.

Merchant sailors who saw the red wave knew a violent death was imminent. Other flags went further with more subtle meanings. Most were black, and many had skulls of some form on them. But not all looked like that. Some flags were colorful. Others mimicked naval designs to engage in further deception.

As the early 18th century wore on, pirates got more intricate with their flag designs. Famous buccaneers of the era opted for a custom look. Stede Bonnet, Edward Low, Phillip Lyne, and many more all created their own unique flag designs.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen