Being a pirate is more than just donning an eye patch and saying “Aaaaarrrgh!” It’s about stepping into the tall, bucket-top boots of history. It’s about dismissing myth, and knowing the facts about some of the most fascinating criminals of the sea! So grab a mug of mead and a heaping bowl of salmagundi and let’s talk pirates!
Let’s start by dressing the part. Most pirates’ clothing was stolen from their prey. Captains picked the nicest and most fashionable garments so everyone would know, “Hey, look at me, I’m the Captain!” There are reports that captains fearing capture would rush below deck and change into something less fancy so they could blend into their crew and receive an easier punishment.
How about an earring? There are a host of reasons and theories regarding pirates wearing earrings. Some believe an earring marked the first time the sailor crossed the equator, or sailed the vicious waters around Cape Horn. Others claim that sailors believed precious metals pierced through their earlobes actually improved their eyesight. There is another theory that the gold and silver was to pay for their funerals. With their names and home ports engraved within the hoop, if they washed up on shore, their bodies could be sent home. And yet another reason for an earring is to hang waxed earplugs from in case you were a gunner and too close to those exploding cannons! Me…I just think they made those seafaring bad boys a bit more rakish.
There is some debate regarding eye patches. Yes, there’s evidence of pirates losing arms, legs, and eyes. But some believe that eye patches were worn so pirates could keep one eye adjusted to seeing in the dark found below deck. Black Beard had a wooden leg, but it wasn’t due to a 10lb. cannon ball removing his limb. It was due to diabetes. If a pirate lost a leg in battle, most times they never survived the injury, and it certainly ended their career. It is true that Captain James Hook did have an iron hook that replaced his missing hand, however. Here I thought that was only Peter Pan fiction!
Speaking of fiction… there is little evidence of anyone ‘walking the plank.’ If pirates want you tossed into the water, over the rail ye went! Of course, there were more gruesome forms of punishment. Flogging, marooning, keelhauling, and hanging…by various parts of your body…from the highest yardarm!
Also, there’s no record of a pirate having a parrot as a pet. Cats were common aboard ship to keep the mice and rat population at bay, (FYI…white cats were considered bad luck.) but parrots were seen more for the money they would bring than for a colorful shoulder accessory.
Not all pirates were cutthroats. In fact, they were fairly civilized. Rules were strictly followed regarding fighting amongst the crew, gambling onboard, compensation should you be wounded or killed. Everyone received a fair share according to rank and decisions were made by democratic vote. Stealing from a crewmember was a major no no.
There were ‘gentlemen’ pirates who were well known for treating their crews and captives well. Stede Bonnet was one of these gentlemen pirates. He was a wealthy plantation owner when he decided to buy his own ship and take to the sea. It’s rumored that a nagging wife was his motivation to become a pirate, or a mid-life crisis! Black Bart Roberts gave his musicians Sundays off.
Being a pirate was a decent way to make a living. In fact, a lot of sailors signed on to pirate crews because the Navy’s pay checks just didn’t go very far in the 1600’s. Long Ben Avery wasn’t a pirate for very long, but made the richest haul and retired less than a year after he started. And speaking of richest treasures, it is said, Oliver Levasseur had treasure estimated into the billions. When he was captured and brought to be hung, he pulled a necklace from his neck and threw it into the crowd. It contained a cryptogram of 17 lines. He shouted “Find my treasure, the one who may understand it!” Treasure hunters are still trying to ‘understand’ it.
Some pirates were brutal, vicious barbarians, however. Black Beard used to stick lit lengths of rope under the brim of his hat so smoke would circle his head and his prey would believe he was possessed. Francis l’Olonnais cut out a prisoners heart and ate it in order to get the other prisoners to cooperate. His crew deserted soon after. There’s pirate crazy…then there’s pirate ‘l’Olonnais’ crazy!
And of course, I can’t possibly write about pirates without mentioning those incredible, bad-ass, ‘tough-as-hardtack’ women who fought as pirates throughout the golden age and beyond.
Anne Bonney, Mary Read, Grace O’Malley, Rachel Wall (the only female pirate from New England—and the last pirate hung in Boston Common.), and my personal favorite, Ching Shih. Ching Shih was the most powerful of all pirate queens. After being pulled from a life of prostitution to marry, and her husband’s subsequent death a short three years later, Ching Shih became one of the most feared female pirates of her time. She terrorized the Chinese coast and amassed a huge fleet of more than a fifteen hundred ships and captained more than 70,000 men. She was very fond of beheadings, and deserters who just wouldn’t listen to reason…they saved their heads, but lost their ears!
I wonder what happened to all those earrings?
Lisa A. Olech is an author and lover of all things pirate. A Jolly Roger flies off the flagpole of her New England home. The first book in her Captain’s of the Scarlet Night series called Within A Captain’s Hold is due to release November 24, 2015 and is available now for preorder!
Captain Jaxon Steele is a tall, sun-bronzed, fierce-fighting Pirate King. He and the notorious crew of the Scarlet Night are both feared and respected for their ruthless reputation. The Captain’s only love is the open sea and the ship he calls home. When it comes to women, he has three rules: never sleep with another’s wife, don’t take virgins into bed, and most importantly, never bring a woman aboard—that brings the worst luck of all.
Annalise Gatherone has to leave London—tonight! Usually her only concern is the color of her latest gown, but now she’s choosing between life and death. Desperate to escape the clutches of an evil Duke, she stows away aboard the Scarlet Night, hoping she’s bound for Port St. Maria. Winning Captain Jaxon’s affections, she just might sneak by unharmed. But when her plans are altered in ways she never imagined, she must batten down the hatches for a journey into unknown waters…