What Pirates Were Really Like
Few eras in history capture the imagination like pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, where myth-like men and women ruled the seas from 1650 to 1720.
Countless novels, books, television shows, cartoons and comic books have been made about pirates during this 70-year-period. For good reason: Pirates are cool.
While much of popular culture about them is fictionalized, the truth about pirates, how they lived and their swashbuckling voyages is still fantastic.
Walking the Plank Is a Myth
Walking the plank did exist, but it was not as ubiquitous as modern pirate fantasy would lead us to believe. The term has origins in "A General History of Pyrates," which was written in 1724. However, it was a ladder cast out to sea. The pirates told their Roman captives to "walk home." This would have been over 2,000 years ago.
Mostly, though, this method of execution was popularized in "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1884, where it became a staple of pirate fiction. Stevenson, in turn, took the idea from the "The Pirates Own Book" by Charles Ellms, according to History.com. The artist Howard Pyle popularized it further with a drawing in Harper's Magazine in 1887.
In reality, there are few sources where people on any ship were forced to walk the plank. A mutineer named George Wood confessed that he and other mutineers forced their superiors "to walk on a plank, extended from the ship's side, over the sea, in which they were turned, when at the extreme end." But they weren't pirates, and they weren't on a pirate ship.
It's likely that walking the plank became so popular because it's so dramatic — a poor sap is held at sword point, forced to shimmy down a single plank of wood while he contemplates his possible escape and his fate. In reality, pirates would just throw someone over the side of the ship, shoot or stab them. At least the uncreative ones would. Some pirates did far worse.
Blackbeard Didn't Look Like the Legends Say He Did
Blackbeard, the infamous English pirate who sailed the high seas, commanding hundreds of men and several ships, with fuses in his beard and matches under his hat. He inspired fear in the hearts of his enemies, of which there were many, took 14 wives and murdered any number of men with his flintlock pistol and sword. It sounds like the stuff of fiction, and it probably is.
According to the historian Author Duffus, there is only one primary source stating how Blackbeard looks. "He was a tall, spare man with a beard that wore very long. And that's it," Duffus told the Carolina Journal. Duffus did some diligent research and discovered that Blackbeard was likely the son of James Beard, a landowner and sea captain from Goose Creek, South Carolina.
Blackbeard was "merely a pawn in a much more complicated and intriguing game of politics that involved the proprietary system of government and the economy of colonial North Carolina." However, Blackbeard did have his head cut off during his final battle, a fact which added to his fearsome reputation for 300 years. And he did do some incredible things.
Pirates Were Slave Traders
It's true that people of color from a myriad of places served equally as crewmembers on pirate ships. But they would be at least complicit with their captain's demands to steal slaves from other slave ships and sell them at a pirate-friendly port for profit.
Enslavement was a hugely profitable economic resource, and pirates were, above all else, rogues who put profits first. If there was money to be had in buying and selling people, so be it. Slaves were even used as compensation for those who were injured while on duty.
Pirates Had Workman's Comp
Injured on a pirate ship? You won't be cast off and left for a useless sack. Pirates had their own form of workman's comp, as detailed in "The Buccaneers of America by Alexandre Exquemelin." According to the 1684 book:
- A man who lost one leg would receive 600 pieces of eight or six slaves (a piece of eight was equal to about five shillings, 12 shillings equaled about one pound).
- Someone who lost both legs would receive 1,500 pieces of eight or 15 slaves
- The loss of an eye was worth a compensation of 100 pieces of eight or one slave
These rules weren't universal, but they show that many pirate ships were governed by their own rules, and that pirates did look out for one another.
The Pay Was Probably Better at Sea
One of the main draws of becoming a pirate was that, as dangerous as sailing the black flags at sea was, the average commoner in England hoped to make much more on a pirate ship than in England. The average laborer in London during the late 1600s was making the equivalent of about $160 per year, according to historian Douglas R. Burgess in his book "The Pirates Pact."
Pirate ships, on the other hand, offered more reasonable salaries. Those who had no sailing experience and no real skills were paid the least. In the case of the pirate Henry Morgan's fleet, regular crewmembers received one-eighth the pay of the captain, as detailed in "The Buccaneers of America."
Doctors received an extra 200 pieces of eight, and carpenters received an extra 100 pieces of eight. The shares were divided evenly among the regular crew, with the captain and quartermaster getting a larger cut. But no one got paid if they couldn't find a ship to plunder.
Pirates Didn't Mutiny
Mutiny is a word reserved for ships with law and order. Military ships have a mutinous crew, which would overthrow or even murder an especially incompetent captain.
Pirate ships, while governed by some core rules, were mostly self-governed anarchy. Pirates voted on their captain pretty much whenever they wanted, and sometimes that could be often. There is one account of a ship changing captains 13 times within a few months.
When the captain was deposed, he went back to being a member of the crew.
The British Navy Gave Pirates Their Experience
Pirates were the scourge of the Crown during the reign of Elizabeth I, yet it was the Royal Navy that trained most of them in their seafaring ways. And they did it by force.
The Royal Navy was the world's largest nautical fleet and required a huge number of men to sail its ships and fire the cannons. But for obvious reasons, not everyone wanted to risk their life at sea for the government.
One way that Britain would get more men on its ships' decks was by impressment, or press-ganging. Men would be hauled away by press gangs, who would quite literally kidnap men from their homes or drag them from taverns and conscript them to the Royal Navy. There they would stay for as long as needed.
If they returned home, they now knew how to handle themselves at sea and possibly in naval warfare. And they had a newfound hatred for the Crown.
Pirates Sometimes Drowned Murderers With the Corpse They Made
Since many pirates were former members of the English navy, it's logical to conclude that they adopted some of the navy's punishments.
One such example is the consequence of murder aboard a pirate ship. Should a pirate murder another pirate, the murderer was tied to weights, then tied to the corpse, and thrown overboard. This was an execution method employed by the navy.
Keelhauling, wherein a man is tied to a rope and dragged below the keel of a moving ship, was a form of execution by the Dutch navy. There's no real evidence it existed among pirates.
Pirate Hunters Sometimes Turned into Pirates
The pirate Henry Every started out as a privateer— which was basically a pirate with a license (called a letter of marque) giving them free rein to plunder ships of an enemy country. During the golden age, the English and Spanish enlisted privateers to plunder one another's ships. Sometimes this included shooting down other pirates, especially if they were pirates native to the warring country.
While serving as the first mate aboard the Charles II during a privateering voyage for the Spanish, Every led a bloodless mutiny with the rest of the crew and overthrew their captain. The dispute began because there were no prospects. The crew failed to find any English vessels to plunder, and the crew had not received pay for eight months. They were practically begging the former captain to turn to piracy before everyone figured mutiny was necessary.
Similarly, Captain William Kidd was employed by British authorities to hunt pirates, but then decided to become a pirate captain instead.
They Had a Code of Conduct
Each captain drew up a code of conduct for his ship, or possibly even each voyage, wherein certain ground rules were laid. This included payment, as previously mentioned, but also certain rules. And there were consequences.
According to "A General History of the Pyrates," the quartermaster would hand out lashings to crew members who would not follow his command. This is precisely what happened in the Royal Navy, where men could be whipped up to 12 times with a cat o' nine tails up until 1806.
The captain, in turn, invoked the power to beat or even shoot anyone whom he felt deserved it, although a good pirate captain would do so sparingly, lest he risk low morale and mutiny.
Men swore an oath to these articles, and did so, funnily enough, by placing their hand on a Bible. But sometimes they used other items. The English pirate captain John Phillips had his men swear on a hatchet instead of the holy book.
Marooning as a Punishment Was Real
In "Pirates of the Caribbean," Captain Jack Sparrow was twice marooned on an island and given a pistol.
Phillips' articles included a rule which declared that any man who tried to "run away or keep secret from the company" would be marooned and left with one bottle of gunpowder, one bottle of water, a pistol and a single shot.
Ditto for any crew member who stole anything from the ship or company, which was valued at a single piece of eight, although that breaking that rule included the possibility of being shot.
The Pirates Flew Many Different Flags
Pirates flew all sorts of variations of white skulls on black backgrounds. The first account of a Jolly Roger came from the pirate captain Emanuel Wynn, who flew a flag designed with a skull and crossbones and hourglass beneath it.
There were other flags, too. Captain Edward England flew the simple skull and crossbones, which is now the standard Jolly Roger of modern times. Pirate Christopher Condent flew a flag with three skulls and crossbones. Other variations included full skeletons and a devil holding an hourglass in one hand and a spear in the other, along with a bleeding red heart.
The black flag was designed to inspire fright, but also signal that the pirates were willing to give quarter. The hourglass symbolized that it was time to choose to surrender or fight.
You Didn't Want to See the Red Flag
If the victim vessel would not surrender, the Jolly Roger would go down, and a red flag would go up.
Some sources say the black flag would be dipped in red paint, or possibly there was another flag dipped in red waiting to be flown for these instances.
Either way, you didn't want to see a crimson flag flying your way, because now the pirates had to attack, and that meant killing each and every person on the vessel.
Pirates Generally Did Not Want to Fight
Only the dumbest man with the biggest death wish signed up to be a pirate just so he could get killed at sea. A pirate's captain and his crew wanted to set sail, steal stuff, and then return to land to sell it all. Fighting got in the way of the pirate's dream.
These black and red flags were a way to get what they wanted, with minimal effort. And since pirates generally targeted merchant ships, it was common for pirates to get their plunder without much resistance. And sometimes a ship required a warning shot from a cannon to make them reconsider the fight.
But if the pirates flew the red flag, the pirates had to throw down. Their reputations depended on it, and their reputation was vital in getting battle-free booty.
They Added to Their Ranks with Each Capture
Captured vessels not only was a source for riches, but also for more crew.
When a ship was captured, pirates were known to offer the captured men a place in their company. How men responded to the offer would vary, of course, but those who hated their captain or had one lash too many were more likely to sail under the black flag.
Those who rejected the offer were either captured and later released, or possibly allowed to return to their vessel, provided the pirates didn't want it for themselves or feel like burning it down.
Speed Was the Name of the Game
Generally, a pirate ship had to be fast above all else. These ships needed to be able to spot prey on the horizon, fly at full mast and catch up to another vessel. Generally, pirate captains traded up in ship quality as they engaged on more and more successful voyages.
A starting ship could be anything a pirate captain could get their hands on at first, and sometimes, that could be a damn fine ship. Henry Every, for instance, began with the Charles II, a warship, but you could bet that the original captain owned or, more likely, had that ship financed by someone with more money.
Conversely, Blackbeard did not start with Queen Anne's Revenge and instead had to capture it at sea. Speaking of the Queen Anne's Revenge ...
The Queen Anne's Revenge Has Been Found
Blackbeard ran the Queen Anne's Revenge aground during the summer of 1717 in what is now Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. It was an absolutely huge ship, roughly 200 tons, and by the time Blackbeard had outfitted her, it had up to 40 cannons.
The shipwreck was discovered in 1996, but excavation and recovery took about two decades. Since then, over 250,000 items from the wreck have been discovered, including two dozen hand grenades, flecks of gold, a 3,000-pound anchor and a 2,000-pound cannon — you could imagine how hard moving those things around must have been!
The remains can be seen at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.
Blackbeard Ransomed Men for Medicine...Because of Syphilis?
In 1718, Blackbeard blocked the port of Charleston, North Carolina, for days. This was about six months before his bloody death, and he commanded a group of several ships and about 400 men. While in the harbor of Charleston, he took eight or nine ships and several hostages, including a Charleston man of high society.
He then held these hostages for ransom, demanding several hundred dollars' worth of medical equipment. If the governor of North Carolina would not meet his demands, Blackbeard threatened to kill all of the prisoners, mail their heads to the governor and set fire to the harbor. The governor relented and gave in to his demands.
But why medical equipment? Patrick Pringle, author of "Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy" writes that Blackbeard and his men had not been in any recent fights, they could have plundered medicine from the captured ships, and there were no suggestions of a disease outbreak.
"Probably the answer is that they wanted mercurial preparations for the treatment of syphilis," he muses. "Brothel casualties were usually higher than battle casualties among the pirates."
Some Hauls Were Insanely Profitable
Finding wealth under the black flag was no tall tale. Sure, it was difficult, but during the Golden Age, treasurers were constantly shipped along the Red Sea.
One pirate captain, Thomas Tew, from Rhode Island, hit the jackpot when he and his crew plundered a trading vessel near Madagascar, which enriched his men upward of £3,000 ($3,760) each. During that same Red Sea voyage, he found another ship, again filled with jewels and riches.
If Tew had called it quits, he could have died a rich man. But he kept sailing and died during a battle where he fought alongside Every, and never lived to see the spoils from that fight, which Every won.
Pirates Flourished in America
Pirates flourished in colonial America for a window of time during the Golden Age, due to trade restrictions imposed by the English, which were designed to hurt the Dutch.
But the restricted trade hurt port towns and colonies. So governors opened their purse and turned a blind eye to the pirates, who brought in all sorts of prohibited or heavily taxed goods.
In short, pirates moved money into the colonies, while England effectively kept goods away from the docks.
Pirates Loved North Carolina and Rhode Island
One of the reasons pirates frequented the ports of North Carolina was because the governor, Charles Eden, was corrupt. The town of Bath in particular was a pirate haven, particularly for Blackbeard, who could buy and trade with relative impunity.
In the north, Rhode Island was the most welcoming coastal colony. Its governor, Samuel Cranston, welcomed the Jolly Roger. It's no surprise. During times of restricted trade, Thomas Tew had reportedly brought in £100,000 pounds ($125,352) worth of goods to Rhode Island and was considered a hometown hero.
But as the 1600s wore on, those trade restrictions were relaxed, and the import/export trade flourished, legally. Pirates were no longer welcome in most towns. Although some governors still welcomed them with open pockets.
The Case for (and Against) Peg Legs and Hooks
As we've seen from the pirate articles, losing a limb was indeed a danger of pirate life. If the onboard surgeon could somehow cut off a damaged leg, and the pirate somehow survived, it is not entirely out of the question that a pirate could buy a prosthetic when they arrived onshore.
The history of prosthetics dates back over 2,000 years ago, to the Capua Leg, an artificial leg made from a piece of wood covered in bronze. In the 1500s, the use of peg legs is documented, but only if the knee was intact.
Using a hook for a lost hand is also not out of the question. One of the most famous hand prosthetics in history is the iron hand of a German knight, which had fingers that could be flexed in order to grab his shield.
Solid metal hands were used in the 16th and 17th centuries, and later (although it's not clear how much later), a single metal hook was used. It does seem possible that a pirate could have a peg leg or a metal hook, if they didn't die from infection before they reached the shore.
But there is little actual evidence that this was common among pirates.
Pirates Looked Strange
The typical pirate look is a creation of 19th-century artist Howard Pyle, who drew pirates for children's books and adorned them with bandanas, red sashes, jewelry and other inspirations from Gypsy dress.
Pirates didn't look like that in reality. Although they did look a bit rough around the edges, if not weird. Their skin was rough and leathered from months at sea, and they walked with a rolling, perhaps stumbling gait due to sealegs (which would further be exacerbated by trips to the tavern).
They didn't yet have tattoos, and their manner of dress is up for debate. Pirate historian Gail Selinger told Atlas Obscura that some pirates dressed ostentatiously, flouting social norms and dress laws regulating what commoners could wear in England and Europe. She says they wore earrings and bracelets as a way of keeping their wealth at hand, where it couldn't be stolen. And necklaces were made out of coins, for the same reason.
However, maritime historian Angus Konstam, in the same article, disputes that pirates wore earrings at all.
Pirates Talked Pretty Normal
Arrr, me mateys, pirate talk is all a load of B.S. While it's difficult to say how pirates talked, they likely sounded like they did before they sailed out to sea, depending on their nationality and local dialect.
The popular "Arrrs" and "shiver me timbers" was an invention of Disney's "Treasure Island," released in 1950, wherein Robert Newton played Long John Silver. He did such a good job that we're still imitating his performance today.
But to be clear, there's no real way of knowing how pirates spoke. Although there is one interesting fact: According to National Geographic, Newton based Silver's speech on the dialect of West Country in southwestern England, where the fictional Silver hailed from. There, people actually did use "arr" as an affirmation, and maritime speech was common.
They Also Had Pet Birds
Long John Silver kept a pet parrot, which likely popularized the notion that pirates kept colorful birds for company. Whether or not Robert Louis Stevenson knew some pirates kept parrots or not is unknown, but he did get this detail correct. Depending on where they sailed, some pirates did indeed keep parrots and other pets aboard their ship.
Pirates who frequented the Caribbean islands, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean would have the opportunity to own exotic pets, including monkeys, which could both serve as a companion during long voyages and fetch a high price once the pirates reached home shores.
There Were Black Pirates
One of the more conflicting pieces of pirate history — and there are many conflicting pieces — is the prevalence, or lack thereof, of black men aboard pirate ships.
Some historians say that black men, fleeing colonial slavery, could find refuge on pirate ships where they were treated equally. One historian, Kenneth Kinkor, claims that one-third of all pirates during the Golden Age of piracy were black. Kinkor says some pirates targeted slave ships and plantations, freeing them and letting them join their crew.
There are certainly accounts of freed black slaves serving as high-ranking officers, like quartermaster, among pirate ships. But not all of them were so lucky.
Black Pirates May or May Not Have Flourished Under the Jolly Roger
Another historian, W. Jeffery Bolster, said that there were black pirates who attained high ranks — like Captain Kidd's quartermaster — but also that many black pirates were given the worst jobs on board.
It's impossible to know the truth, but it seems reasonable that some pirate captains could see former slaves as fiercely loyal crewmembers. What is certain, though, is that pirates engaged in the slave trade.
Women Weren't Welcome
It's not really true that pirates welcomed any person on board their ship. Some pirates viewed a woman on the ship as bad luck, and nearly all pirate crews banned women from their crews. The pirate Bartholemew Roberts, aka Black Bart, had an article that ruled: "No boy or women allowed among us."
This was a typical kind of rule among Western pirates, although Eastern pirates, particularly those setting sail from China, didn't care about their crewmate's sex. There are accounts of some awesome women pirates, including one who was more powerful than any man could hope to be.
But There Were Women Pirates
While women pirates were unwelcome, that didn't stop some from getting on board anyway. Two famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, are the stuff of legends.
Anne, an Irish woman, married a sailor, who made his career turning in pirates to the local authorities in the Bahamas. Anne, in turn, spent her days hanging at the bars, until she met John Rackam, otherwise known as Calico Jack, a pirate famous for his fancy calico clothing.
Anne ditched the sailor for Jack and joined his crew, where, according to the Smithsonian, she did not hide the fact that she was a woman. But when it was time to fight, she wore the clothes of a man and participated in battle with the rest of the crew. Sometime later, Mary came aboard Calico Jack's ship.
The English-born Mary lived as a male for her entire life. Her mother dressed her as a boy when she was young in order to receive inheritance money. She was so good at looking the part that she joined the British military. Later, she became a sailor on a Dutch ship, which was captured by Calico Jack.
And They Were Ruthless
Mary, seeing an opportunity, joined Calico Jack's crew and remained hidden as a man. She and Anne became friends, and together, they became the ship's fiercest fighters.
Anne had developed a bloody reputation on deck, where she is said to have stabbed a sailor to death after he insulted her (and being the captain's madame, this apparently went unpunished, even if Calico Jack's articles forbade it). Mary was known for her constant swearing and tough-as-nails attitude. Both women led at least one raid and captured a schooner.
When their ship was outgunned and attacked by pirate hunters in October 1720, Calico Jack surrendered, but Mary and Anne kept fighting. Mary is said to go below deck, where most of the crew was cowering, and ordered them to come up on deck and "fight like men." When that didn't work, she fired her pistols at the crew, killing one and wounding others.
Eventually, the battle was lost, and they were captured and brought to court. They were both sentenced to death, but both also received stays of execution because they were both pregnant.
Mary died in prison less than a year after being captured. Anne's fate is completely lost to history. The only thing we know is that she was not executed, or at least there are no records of the occurrence.
One Woman Commanded Thousands of Pirates
The most successful and powerful woman pirate in history is Ching Shih. Born as Shi Xiang Gu, little is known about her early life. She is said to have worked as a prostitute in a floating brothel and was captured by pirates. While in captivity, she caught the eye of Cheng I, the most successful male pirate in history, who commanded the Red Flag Fleet.
The Red Flag Fleet was an astonishing force that is difficult to comprehend even in the mind's eye. The fleet is estimated to have been made up of 1,200 ships and anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 crew.
When Cheng I married Shih in 1801, somehow she convinced him that she would be wholly equal in all of his dealings and business practices, giving her 50 percent control over his pirate army. It was a completely unusual move, but for whatever reason, Cheng I consented.
When he died six years after the two tied the knot, Shih took total control of the Red Flag Fleet (there is a bit more to this story, and it involves Ching Shih needing to marry her late husband's adopted adult son/lover, which she did).
An Entire Government Capitulated to the Pirate Queen
Shih commanded a fleet with a set of articles that included execution for any man who raped a woman.
With her crew of thousands, Shih controlled the South China Sea for three years, until she was given an amnesty deal by the Chinese government. The deal was a good one. Fewer than 400 of her vast crew were punished, and only 126 were executed.
She lived out her later years as the owner of a gambling house and lived to be 68 or 69 years old.
The Most Successful Western Pirate Stole Millions of Dollars Worth of Goods
Henry Every, the privateer who mutinied his captain and turned to piracy, is perhaps the most successful pirate in history when it comes to plundering.
Every, who changed the name of the Charles II to the Fancy, turned his warship to the Indian Ocean. Armed with a ship of at least 40 guns, he spotted a massive merchant vessel accompanied by a battle-ready escort ship, making their way along a trade route from modern-day Yemen to India.
By this time, in 1695, Every commanded several ships, including one captained by Thomas Tew. The resulting battle would disembowel Tew, but Every and his men succeeded in defeating both ships.
The merchant vessel, an Indian ship called the Ganj-i-Sawai, was absolutely loaded with treasure worth tens of millions in modern-day money. Every and the majority of his 150 crew simply vanished, presumably into retirement with their riches.
Those aboard the Ganj-i-Sawai were not so lucky. The pirates gave no quarter and brutally murdered the men, and the women on board were raped and killed, some jumping to their deaths at sea rather than face the wrath of Every's bloodthirsty crew.
Many Pirates Had Families
The image of a pirate being a man without a home or family is an incorrect one.
While these men risked their lives at sea, many of them had families and homes that they returned to when the voyage was done (and if they made it home at all).
Some historians say that wives played an active role in piracy at home and helped fence the pirated goods.
The Sea Killed the World's Wealthiest Pirates
Samuel Bellamy was perhaps the world's noblest pirate and quite a successful one. He was said to have captured and plundered more than 50 ships. He dressed well, too, preferring to wear silk socks, a velvet coat and silver shoe buckles.
He was nicknamed Black Sam because he would not wear the pompous white wig popular in England during his time (he lived from 1689 until 1717), and instead wore his black hair long and unencumbered.
During his voyage, Bellamy spotted a 100-foot long, three-mast slave ship, the Whydah, making its way through the Caribbean. The Whydah had just sold all of its 312 African slaves to the slave markets of Jamaica, and was flush with riches — ivory, gold, indigo and all other kinds of prizes. The Whydah crew surrendered without a fight.
Bellamy mounted an additional 22 guns to the ship's original 18, making it a 40-gun warship. Sadly, Bellamy would never get to see the fruits of his labor, or enjoy the wealth that he had stolen. Just two months after stealing the Whydah, a midnight nor'easter off of Cape Cod sunk the ship and killed nearly everyone on board, including Bellamy.
The Youngest Pirate Was 11 Years Old
Several months before taking the Whydah, Bellamy had captured another ship, the Bonetta, which had passengers on board.
One of these passengers was John King, a boy of 10 or 11 years of age. While Bellamy's crew ransacked the Bonetta, King demanded to join the pirates, threatening to kill himself and his mother if the pirates wouldn't let him join their crew. Bellamy probably found this amusing, and he let the boy join his crew.
We only know of John King because archaeologists were able to link a silk stocking, a fibula and a shoe from the wreck of the Whydah to the Bonetta's manifest. It's all that's left of poor John King.
Pirates Had Strongholds Around the World
While Pirates found friends in places like North Carolina and Rhode Island, those areas still were operating under English law, and the governors had dealings with pirates in secret. Those ports weren't made for pirates.
But other places were. Port Royal in Jamaica is perhaps the best example of a pirate town, dating back to the mid-1600s when the Jamaican government offered pirates safe haven if they protected their boats from the Spanish.
As History.com describes it: "Contemporary accounts describe a seamy harbor overrun with gambling, prostitution and drink, where hard-living mariners often squandered thousands of Spanish reals in a single night."
Other areas that welcomed pirates with open arms were St. Mary's Islands near India; Tortuga, Haiti; Clew Bay in the Republic of Ireland; and New Providence in the Bahamas.
One Pirate Became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica
Henry Morgan was a Welsh privateer (and pirate, some would argue) who received a letter of marquee from England to attack Spanish vessels in the Caribbean. But he took it a bit too far and raided the Spanish colony of Panama City, murdering hundreds of Spanish troops. A Spanish army captain, rather than let his city be held by Morgan and his men, burned the city to the ground.
The biggest problem, though, was that Morgan attacked the city after England and Spain had signed the Treaty of Madrid. So there was a bit of an international incident, and Charles II ordered Morgan's arrest.
However, Charles II ended up taking a liking to Morgan, and rather than you know, punish him, he knighted him and declared him Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.
Morgan spent the last of his days wealthy and drunk. He died at the age of 53. Pirates were not allowed to attend his funeral without fear of being arrested.
A Pirate Sued a Biographer for Slander
Much of what we know about some of the world's most famous pirates is difficult to prove. Oftentimes, there are no firsthand accounts of what actually transpired. A regular pirate was probably illiterate (as was most of the English-speaking world at that time) and wrote no books about his life at sea.
One of the most widely used resources, "A General History of Pyrates," blends truth with fiction, and was written under a pseudonym. Much of what we know about some famous pirates, like Mary Read, comes from sources that have questionable reliability. Such is the trouble that many historians have when trying to find out the truth about pirates.
And then there's "History of the Buccaneers of America," written by Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin in 1678. Exquemelin was a doctor who served with Henry Morgan. It's one of the most important books that we have, but funny enough, Morgan sued Exquemelin for damages because, in his book, Exquemelin claimed that Morgan had committed atrocities like using monks and nuns as human shields.
The courts ruled in Morgan's favor.
Pirates Didn't Bury Their Gold
Burying gold and treasure maps is an entirely fictionalized creation of Robert Louis Stevenson, who was inspired by rumors that Captain Wiliam Kidd hid his loot around the world.
For a moment, though, people thought the tales of pirates hiding treasure were true. In 2015, treasure hunters thought they found a nine-pound silver bar near the coasts of Madagascar and believed it may be from Captain Kidd's ship, the Adventure Galley. The Adventure Galley was said to have broken down and become unusable after a time, and so Kidd sunk the ship near Madagascar.
Unfortunately, it was too good to be true. The "silver bar" was a nine-pound block of lead used in constructing a Sainte-Marie port.
But even though we know it's a myth, we're still holding out hope that someone will discover a chest of buried treasure, buried beneath two crossing palm trees, someday.