When we think of pirates, many of us think of phrases like “walk the plank” or books and movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, and Treasure Island. Hardly ever do we think of the real people and circumstances that gave rise to such stories. This leaves us wondering just who these fanciful pirates were in reality. The answer may surprise you.
In order to understand what pirates mean to us today, we must first examine various portrayals of pirates and what they mean to the modern person.
The first type of pirate is the lovable rogue. This can be seen in movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean series where the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow serves as a humorously dishonest ruffian who plays by his own rules, but is still an honorable compatriot for the movie’s hero and heroine. For many, this is the most iconic and memorable view of pirates not because of its accuracy, but because it appeals to today’s sense of harmless fun and adventure that is a far cry from the dreary boardrooms and boring meetings that many of us face on a daily basis. In our culture, the very idea of a pirate conjures up visions of a person that plays by their own rules and is not bound to the powers that be. This is an incredibly attractive proposition for modern audiences, especially when this character is combined with exotic locations and exciting situations.
The next type of portrayal is the villainous pirate. This character is both dastardly and devious, though not necessarily brutal. Usually, these are the characters that serve as a foil against which a hero must strive. These pirates will not hesitate to use cunning to get what they want, and are seen in a variety of sources like Peter Pan and Treasure Island. In both stories, the villains use tricks to trip up the heroes until the heroes themselves use deception as a means to outwit the evil pirates. For today’s audience, the villainous pirate is little more than a plot device to take the viewer to exotic locales and interesting situations. In this way, pirates serve as a means of escapism that is fun for the family, not frightening or brutal in the least.
The next type of common pirate portrayal is the romantic rogue, which commonly adorns the covers of harlequin novels. These are the tall, strapping, muscular pirates that whisk women away and expose them to the world of love and adventure that they were missing in their otherwise mundane lives. Again, the common theme here is clearly escapism from the drudgery of real life that we all face, like doing the laundry and going to work.
While these various portrayals of pirates in their own way are interesting and worthy of an afternoon’s diversion, the real life stories of pirates far exceed any drama on the silver screen or hidden away in the pages of fiction.
For example, compared to the romance novel’s tall, handsome pirate, real pirates were often in their early to mid-20s. So far so good. However, they were usually malnourished due to the terrible nature of their diets, which made for a number of pirates with missing teeth. Additionally, though estimates vary, their average height was considered to be about 5 foot, 5 inches. Rarely did these rangy young men come from the upper echelons of society. Instead, they were usually ex-sailors that had either fallen into a thuggish lifestyle of hard living or they were captured by pirates and forced to help man the ship. In short, pirates were the inner city gangsters of their day.
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As mentioned previously, we commonly think of pirates forcing people to “walk the plank.” However, they rarely indulged in such ceremonious ways of killing someone. Instead, if an example had to be made, pirates simply made it in the most brutally effective way possible. Perhaps the best example of this was written by a Miss Lucretia Parker, who was briefly captured in 1825. She described the event in a letter to her brother George, who lived in New York:
“Having first divested them of every article of clothing but their shirt and trousers… they fell on the unfortunate crew… with the ferocity of cannibals!… In vain did poor Capt. S. attempt to touch their feelings and to move them to pity by representing to them the situation of his innocent family-that he had a wife and three small children at home… but alas, the poor man entreated in vain! His appeal was to monsters possessing hearts callous to the feelings of humanity! Having received a heavy blow from one with an axe, he snapped the cords with which he was bound, and attempted to escape by flight, but was met by another of the ruffians, who plunged a knife or dirk to his heart! I stood near to him… and was covered with his blood.”
Luckily, Miss Parker was saved when a British warship appeared on the horizon and the pirates fled. However, the story illustrates a brutality of piracy that is never shown to modern audiences.
It is also interesting to note that life onboard ships during the age of piracy was far from glamorous. It was crowded, dirty and yes, many times monotonous. The food and scenery rarely changed, and the work was very difficult. For example, one of the jobs that pirates had to perform was scraping barnacles off of the boat when the pirate ship was in a safe harbor. Another common job was keeping the decks clean by rubbing the wooden decks down with a heavy abrasive stone.
In the end, while it may be fun to escape into the world of adventure and excitement that pirates represent to us, it is important to remember that in many ways conditions today are vastly preferable to those commonly endured on pirate ships of the past.
If you have an interest in stories like this one, check out my previous posts, or come visit us at the Houston Maritime Museum and see a wide variety of ships, including those used by pirates, on display.
Also be sure to check out the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now open!