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You think pirates are sexy, but they have scurvy

Art by Ket Gill

Eye patches; peg legs; hooks for hands…what characteristics better illicit the mental image of a tall, muscular, salty-bearded sailor, known historically for pillaging, theft, rape, and murder (but loved and idolized, of course, by everyone’s children)? Pirates!!!

Long hair, scurvy, you name it. A beloved blend of unattractive and off-putting character traits that somehow, when complementing one another, create a likable and attractive sub-archetype that is wildly common in mainstream fiction. However, it’s not often that we read about them in our history books or hear about them on the news. Originating from historical criminals, they’ve unfortunately become more of a fictional phenomenon than something we think of as truth.

Image courtesy of Hector Periquin

There are many fictional characters that come to mind when we hear the word pirate. But how many real pirates do you think of? Maybe you could name a couple, but do you really know what their lives were like?

Maybe you were raised on Pirates of the Caribbean; if so, it’s possible that this shaped the way you view pirates in a general sense.

I took it upon myself to watch the first of this film franchise. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I would like it…but I guess the pirate fanatic mixed with the 12-year-old boy in me just couldn’t resist. There is a 97% chance I will be watching the rest of them in one sitting.

All screenshots of Pirates of the Caribbean courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

Of course, these films are purely fiction–written for the entertainment of 6-to-8-year-old boys. Are there any aspects of these movies that are even remotely true? Actually, yes. Eyepatches, women (*gasp*), Blackbeard, and some ship names were present in the real world during this time period.

I’m focusing predominantly on the first film (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) in this list of random trues and falses (with help from this article by Nicci Martel which includes a more extensive list in case you’d like to learn more).

1. True: child pirates

At the beginning of the movie, a boy is found by the crew of one of our main characters, with a piece of gold around his neck. With a skull on it, it’s pretty easy to guess what type of person it would belong to–so, the boy is a pirate. And, although the storyline is wildly unrealistic, it is extremely plausible for there to have been child pirates during this time period. Children could be born into a life of piracy (like young Will Turner in this film), or–as is the case with real-life boy pirate John King–volunteer themselves into said life. This biography goes in-depth on the life of John King, who was sailing with his mother when their ship was taken over by pirates. The boy (10 years of age at the time) decided to join the pirates via demands and threats–on the boy’s part.

2. True: the greatest style of all time (except for the hats)

Pirates are often depicted wearing wildly eccentric clothing (feathers, frills, hats, etc), and Jack Sparrow is no exception. According to World History Encyclopedia, most pirates dressed normally for seamen of the time period. Although, there were a few pirates (often captains) that would wear “colorful silks or feathered hats” as a show of their achievements. I’m not sure about you, but the fact that some of them did genuinely dress like sea clowns makes me wildly happy. However, pirates did not indeed wear tricorne hats, or what we as a media-consuming society would call “pirate hats.” Excluding Captain Kidd and Stede Bonnet (formerly a privateer and a plantation owner), of course.

3. True: branding

“In the Indian Ocean, pirates were so numerous that those captured were often branded with a letter P on their foreheads using a red-hot iron,” according to another WHE article. This aspect of pirate punishments is present in the film, as British officers identify Jack Sparrow as a pirate when they see a burn in the shape of the letter P. However, this was on his wrist. It may have been a bit distracting for viewers if there had been a stark letter P against his forehead.

4. False: heart of gold

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies depict half of their pirates as (usually supernatural) villains and half of them as good heart-of-gold pirates who commit heinous crimes but are actually really sweet and romantic once you get to know them. In reality, they were not moral. At all. I don’t know about you, but to me, the torturing and murder of innocent captives is not necessarily a huge indicator of a kind soul. Sure, there were pirates in the real world that were meaner than others, but it’s wildly improbable that a violent pirate would simply decide to one day save a drowning Keira Knightley and…let her go?

5. False: walking the plank

To put it simply, it is pretty much agreed upon that walking the plank was not a true punishment used by pirates. Some say that it was invented by Stede Bonnet (the Gentleman Pirate) for entertainment purposes, so of course there is some slight possibility that this pirate practice existed. Although, due to a heavy lack of evidence or solid proof, it’s likely that the idea came up from some other forms of culture and consequence practiced by those who thrived in the Golden Age of Piracy.

6. False: giant pirate ships

Pirates did not sail the high seas with gargantuan boats that towered over those of their enemies. The boats that pirates used in reality were called sloops, and had only one mast. Many of the boats featured in the POTC movies are taller than tall, wider than wide, and more intimidating than anything you’ve seen. And sure, real-life pirate ships were intimidating–but if not for their flag and overdressed captain they’d look just like your average sailboat.

Of course, there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. This list far from covers it all, with five movies and several more incorrect facts about pirates yet to be discussed. But, it’s impossible to list them all. So, alas, we must continue.

Moving on, you’ve probably heard of some of the more famous real pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonny, but do you really think they’re all as one-note as Jack Sparrow? I doubt it. The recent hit show, Our Flag Means Death, on HBO Max explores the lives of real-life pirates Blackbeard/Edward Teach (Taika Waititi) and the Gentleman Pirate/Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), as well as the true story that constituted their friendship (interpreted in the TV show as a romance), and, as far as the plot goes, it is strangely historically accurate. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, just how accurate do the details become?

All screenshots from Our Flag Means Death courtesy of CereProds, Dive, HBO Max

Because this is such an unlikely story, I’ve spent a decent amount of time researching the truth behind it.

Although, of course, the show presents a much more admirable story and (although we have yet to be graced with a second season), most likely, a happier ending than what actually happened, there are still a surprising amount of truths featured in Taika Waititi’s HBO comedy. Of course, Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard were real pirates. And, according to Screenrant, they were indeed partners. The real Stede Bonnet did have a library on his ship, paid his crew a salary, did not take hostages (although he does in the series), and is known to have worn silk robes aboard. It’s practically arguable that aside from the comedy of his character, there isn’t much that separates him from his historical counterpart.

The story of Blackbeard, however, may be a bit different. Although it’s true that Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet had a partnership during their lives of piracy, it’s most likely that Bonnet was not the most willing to go along with Blackbeard’s plans, which mainly benefited Blackbeard himself. Apparently, Blackbeard is said to have “bullied Bonnet into giving him command of the Revenge.”

Maybe not your perfect love story, but we all have to start somewhere, right? I won’t go over the whole true story that inspired this TV show, as it is quite extensive, and, surprisingly, difficult to find. Besides, I think we’d all much rather find out from the second season of the show.

Image courtesy of Jakob Rosen

So, overall, although most depictions of pirates in movies, series, and books are predominantly based in fiction, there are quite a few things they have gotten right. Eye patches? Yep. Although, rather than wearing them to cover a nasty scar or a gaping eye socket, they were worn so that one eye would be accustomed to darkness at all times–this way, when pirates went under the deck, they could flip it up and see instantly. A flag with a skull and crossbones on it? Yes–this flag was known as the “Jolly Roger” (check out this article to learn more about the basics of pirating).

Image courtesy of Ralph (Ravi) Kayden

There are endless things to be said about pirates. Their clothes? Absolutely amazing. Their aliases? Even more so. As a genre of historical figures, they’re fascinating to read about–and, yes, to watch on TV. Overall, there’s lots of information to cover. Although this article barely scratches the surface, perhaps it brought to light a few facts that were unknown–and corrected some misconceptions.

That being said…when asked what I want to be when I grow up, I’ll of course still respond with “a pirate.”

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