Friday, August 31, 2012


Since this weekend is the Portland Pirate Festival, (which, oddly enough, isn't in Portland, but in St Helens), and Talk Like A Pirate Day is coming up on 19 September, today I'm going to tackle some pirate mythbeliefs. 

Because, you know, pirates

So here's some big ones: 

1) Pirates talked... piratey-like.

2) Pirates buried their treasure.

3) They had awesome black flags with skulls and stuff.

I don't remember where I found this map, or it's name, but it amuses me. 

Pirates talked... piratey-like

I want you to look at a map of the world. Look at it hard. You'll noticed that there's nowhere labeled Piratelandia, or Piratistan. 

That's because pirates were from all over the place, and as such, everyone had their own native accent. If there was any "special language" to pirates, it would be using a lot of nautical speech -- the same speech that sailors in the navy would be using as well. 

Where did we get the idea of "pirate talk"? There's really two people to blame for that. 

One is Robert Louis Stevenson for his novel Treasure Island. He needed a way to make gruff-sounding menacing pirates sound like they used foul language... in a children's book. So he found archaic nautical terms like "shiver my timbers" and made up lyrics to songs like "Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest." In reality all nautical people used Shanties (rhythmic chants) to do complex things like hoist rigging because everyone had to do their actions in tandem. [*] However, the lyrics to most real shanties were not something that one could print in a children's book.

The other person who gets the blame is an actor named Robert Newton. He played two very prominent pirate roles, and gave his pirate character a grossly exaggerated Cornish accent. [**] The accent he used became the gold standard of pirate-talk.

The Darian Chest. It's Scottish.  

Pirates buried their treasure

Being a pirate wasn't a "lifestyle choice" for most people. The most common thing they demanded from other ships was actually things like food, medicine, soap, and the like. Unless they had Letters of Marque and were pirating ships of particular countries for their own country, they weren't exactly getting outside funding. When they did get actual hard currency, it was used to pay their sailors.

In reality, most pirates had been press-ganged into forced labor. Not by the pirates, but by the British Navy. The piracy offered them a way out what was basically slavery, and to get enough money after they'd been kidnapped to return to their homes. The British were so bad about kidnapping American sailors to serve in the British Navy that it that it caused a war between the US and England in 1812.

So if you'd been kidnapped from home, chained to a ship so you couldn't escape, and then offered a chance to work for a wage and return home, what would you do? 

You wouldn't take the money you'd earned and bury it. 

They had awesome black flags with skulls and stuff

A lot of pirate flags were pretty awesome. But they weren't always black. Early in the Golden Age of Piracy, most pirate flags were red. [***] Over time black became the more popular pirate flag, but the designs were pretty variable. 

The flag above is the flag of Calico Jack Rackham. It's probably the most famous pirate flag now, thanks to Pirates of the Caribbean using it.  Yes, Pirates of the Caribbean got something historically accurate. There was a Captain Jack with that flag. 

But as far as pirate flags go, Calico Jack's was actually pretty tame:

Edward Low's:

Walter Kennedy's / Jean Dulaien's (2 guys, same flag):

And my favorite, the flag of Christopher Moody: