The Truth About Pirates

Arrgh me hearties–pirates don’t actually speak this way. Pirates elected their captains. Come read about that and other misconceptions regarding pirates!



Pirates been around for hundreds of years- and this guide hopes to help explain and eliminate some of the misconceptions surrounding them. The following paper is rather long and has been taken from a paper I wrote in my English 102 class and heavily edited to be way more interesting. To discover the who the pirates were, we must first define pirates and distinguish/separate them from privateers.

There are many different types of sea robbers, not all of them considered pirates. Some of these were privateers and corsairs. Privateers were a form of ‘legal’ pirates, who pledged to only attack ships of foreign nations (Land 171). For instance, Sir Francis Drake was an English privateer, who promised the English government he would only attack Spanish ships (Cordingly 28). They would receive letters of Marque and Reprisal, making them allies in the eyes of their country and pirates in the eyes of the opposition (Land 172). While some considered privateers to be pirates, others considered them to be patriots and an important part of a country’s fleet. That means that some do not consider Sir Francis Drake a pirate, but rather a privateer.

Patrick Auerbach writes that “provided no valuable diplomatic or trading relations were damaged, privateers pretty much did whatever they pleased- and got away with it.” (Auerbach 4). He claims that privateers were not an important aspect to capitalist or economic growth and considers them to be a form of ‘legal’ piracy (Auerbach 4). Corsairs were a less traditional sort of pirate ship and were much less common than privateers or pirates and much less well-known. They attacked ships on the basis of religion, Christians looting Muslim ships and vice versa (Cordingly XVII).

When it comes to dealing with pirates and their true nature, there are many misconceptions, usually inspired by works like Treasure Island and the Pirate of the Caribbean movies. (Land 169) David Cordingly writes that “The effect of Treasure Island on our perception of pirates cannot be overestimated.” Chris Land agrees, dedicating a whole section to writing about the effects movies and books had on the modern perception of pirates and their lives. One example of that influence is the idea of buried treasure. In Treasure Island buried treasure makes its first big appearance, crafting modern perceptions of pirates and what they did with their loot. (Cordingly 7).

There are very few incidents of pirates ever burying treasure- one being when Sir Francis Drake buried a large amount of gold and silver underground because he was discovered and did not have time to transport his bounty. David Cordingly states that Sir Francis Drake retrieved all of the treasure the next day, while Peter Leeson claims that most of the treasure was immediately unburied and stolen by the Spanish. (Cordingly 182). That was one of the only examples of buried treasure, yet the legends persist to this day.

Parrots, however, do have some historical basis. They often were stolen and traded as exotic pets, and some were kept on board with the pirates. They were somewhat uncommon, yet still existed. Monkeys and cats were also some of the pets pirates brought with them along on their adventures.

Walking the plank was not a staple among Golden Age pirates. There was one recorded instance of someone being forced to ‘walk the plank’ but that was after the Golden Age. Usually, pirates would simply throw the captives overboard.

Pirate codes were a large part of life aboard a pirate ship, serving as the laws every crewmate needed to follow (Fowler 1). A few real codes were found, the most complete of them being the code of Captain Bartholomew Roberts. His code contained rules prohibiting bringing women and boys on board, abandoning position in battle, and stealing from one another. It delegated money to those who had been injured in battle and required that all drinking be done “on the open deck” after 8 PM. (Leeson 1072)

Blackbeard is likely the most famous of real-world pirates, his real name being Edward Thatch or Teach (Woodard 195). Legends surrounding Blackbeard are mostly untrue… it is doubtful he shot his first mate (That’s breaking the pirate code! He would be killed for that!) Some witness accounts claim that lit fuses in his beard caused smoke to rise off him, making him look like the devil. I doubt this was true, it is unlikely that a man would keep lit fuses in his beard in a windy sea environment on a flammable wooden boat.

Often, pirates are thought of as violent, reckless criminals that were unlike the upright sailors of the time. In fact, pirates were mostly made up of sailors who joined a pirate ship voluntarily after their vessel was taken over. (Leeson 1026). Being forced to join a pirate ship was also relatively uncommon, and usually only came into play if one of the crewmates were very good surgeons, navigators, or carpenters.

This was because of the terrible conditions aboard merchant vessels or the Royal Navy, where wages and rations were cut and the captain had absolute power. This was different from the pirate ship, where the captain was actually elected by the crew in a democratic vote. They even had a system of checks and balances to make sure the captain didn’t get out of hand, with the Captain only ever having absolute power “when chasing or being chased.” (Fowler 1).

Overall, pirates deeply affected boating and merchant shipping in the Golden Age, and their lives of crime and adventure were deeply romanticized. Due to works like Treasure Island, the usual idea of a pirate is incorrect and riddled with holes.  In short, Golden Age pirates challenged imperialism, promoted democracy, affected sea travel, forced changes in trade routes, but their true legacy will always be at least partially left a mystery.

Works Cited

Fowler, Russell T. “Justice Under the Black Flag.” Tennessee Bar Association. 1 May

  1. Academic Search Complete. Web.

Land, Chris T. “Flying the Black Flag: Revolt, Revolution and the Social Organization of Piracy

in the ‘Golden Age’ Management and Organizational History. May 2007. EBSCO. Web.

Leeson, Peter T. “An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization.” Cite Seer. 13

Aug. 2007. JSTOR. Web.

Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates. Boston: Mariner, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.


Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the

Pirates. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006. Print.

Auerbach, Patrick. Pirates: The True and Surprising Story of the Pirates of the Carribean.  Print.


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