Things You Didn’t Know About Pirates (And Their Social Lives)
When you think of the pirate life, you're probably picturing a bunch of burly, jolly men drinking rum and burying treasure, but the Disney version of pirate life was largely a myth. Sure, there was rum (and we'll totally get to that), but being a pirate meant your life was riddled with violence, poverty, danger, and pretty much inevitable early death.
Also in contrast to such pirate myths, they were super ahead of their time. They embraced gay marriage and had female leaders, and even their fashion had a function. (You can't say the same for this athleisure trend.) Here are some pirate myths and what life was really like for real-life pirates.
Pirates Didn't Bury Treasure
Real-life pirates didn't bury their treasure with cartoonish maps. They used their money the same way modern people use much of theirs: to party. Even William Kidd---who claimed he buried the gold, silk, spices, and other riches he looted from the 500-ton American ship The Quedagh Merchant in the Caribbean---had to be kidding. Generations of treasure hunters tried to find his booty, but nothing has been discovered. Pirate life was hard.
Pirates Accepted Gay Marriage
Often, pirates had relationships with other male pirates for protection and companionship. They called it "matelotage," which comes from the French word for "sailor" or "seaman." It's where "mate" (as in "Ahoy, matey!") also comes from. Pirates enmeshed in matelotage shared everything from affection and other sexual partners to possessions. This included inheritance: When one-half of the couple died, the other got his mate's possessions and plunder.
They Didn't Really Walk the Plank or Have a Ton of Sword Fights
The ultimate pirate punishment was walking the plank into a sea of crocodiles, right? Would Disney lead us astray? They would, and they did. Sure, plank walking was a form of psychological torture, but most pirates' favorite way to inflict pain was actually "keelhauling." This involved tying their victims to the boat, tossing them overboard, and dragging them under the ship's keel. It was a little more intense than going for a swim with some scaly buds.
Speaking of things we see in pirate movies that didn't actually happen that often, sword fights also weren't really a thing. Sure, duels happened occasionally, but usually, pirate fights were more brutal, bloody, and involved axes, not swords.
Another torture go-to for pirates was marooning. No, this isn’t when you force someone to listen to Maroon 5, although that's also a perfectly valid form of torture. It's when you isolate a person who violates a ship's rules on a sandbar with only the clothes on their back, some water, and a weapon. The pirate had the choice to either kill themselves or take the gamble that they'd survive and be rescued by another ship, which was as rare as finding someone who actually enjoyed Adam Levine’s 2019 Super Bowl performance.
Pirates Drank Rum for a Reason
Pirates drank a lot of rum, true, but it wasn't just to get drunk. It was actually for hydration. The surrounding water was ridden with microbes and algae, so pirates did as British Navy sailors did before them and mixed a little rum in their water to sanitize it. They also got creative and added a little lemon juice to prevent scurvy and sugar for taste, so basically, pirates survived on daiquiris. There are worse ways to live.
Their Fashion had Function
Unlike most of the trendy jewelry we wear today, there was actually a purpose behind a pirate's earrings. Some wore earrings because they believed that seasickness could be avoided when pressure was applied to the earlobes or that a gold earring could prevent them from drowning, but in most cases, pirates wore earrings as a form of burial insurance. The gold or silver in their earrings was used to make sure fallen pirates got a proper burial. Often, pirates would engrave the name of their home port on the inside of their earrings so they could be buried at home.
As for those eye patches, that accessory was actually worn to enhance night vision. Sure, some pirates had patches to hide their missing eyeballs, but others found that by blocking one eye above board, they could see better when they lifted it before going into the darkness below deck.
Blackbeard Wasn't That Dope
When you think of famous pirates, you're probably thinking of Captain Edward Teach or Thatch, AKA "Blackbeard," who weaved his infamous black beard of dreads with hemp and set it on fire to freak out his enemies. Sure, that's a cool party trick, and he also stole the Queen Anne's Revenge, chopped off the fingers of women who wouldn't give him their diamond rings, and shot one of his lieutenants so "he wouldn’t forget who he was," but Blackbeard died in battle, so how badass of a pirate was he, really?
Some of the most "famous" pirates are only well known because they were captured or killed and their court proceedings were published, making their exploits legendary. In reality, the best pirates didn't get caught (duh), so we don’t know as much about them. In the case of Ching Shih, for example, they simply retired from the pirate's life and starting smuggling opium instead.
Ching Shih Makes Other Pirates Look Lame In Comparison
Former prostitute turned powerful pirate Ching Shih was way scarier than any pirate you've heard of. Though she was famously merciless, the commander of the Red Fleet also brought much-needed order to the sea. If any of her ships captured loot, that ship got 20%, and the rest was put into the fleet's collective fund. She also set firm boundaries when it came to captured prisoners. If a female captive was considered "ugly," she was let go without harm. If a pirate wanted to take a beautiful woman captive, he was ordered to be faithful to and take good care of her.
Shih earned the name "The Terror of South China," as her punishments for anyone who stepped out of line were harsh. If a pirate was unfaithful or committed rape, he was get beheaded, regardless of swimming ability. If someone deserted their post, she’d find them and cut off their ears, since they obviously weren’t listening. If they did it again, they’d be killed. Shih's other hobbies included flogging, quartering, and clapping in irons. If you resisted her, your feet would be nailed down to the ships deck, followed by a beating.
Shih was such a powerful pirate that, unlike Blackbeard and other lamer pirates, she was never captured or killed in battle. The Chinese government and British bounty hunters tried and failed repeatedly, so they offered her a pardon if she'd just stop. She eventually did and led a simpler life of smuggling opium until her death at the age of 69. Nice.
She was far from the only kickass pirate lady. Today, a bored housewife might turn to reality TV, but in 1718, Anne Bonny decided a better option was to have an affair with pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham and join his pirate life. Despite being told that women are bad luck on pirate ships, Bonny was tough and could hold her own, only hiding her gender when pillaging and participating in armed conflict.
Also aboard this ship was Mary Read, who did disguise herself as a man. The duo was ruthless and always ready and willing to do anything on board, but they were captured with the rest of the crew. While the men were hanged, these ladies (who, by this time, had inevitably become pregnant) got to live longer. Read died in prison, but Bonny was released, likely because her father was a well-known lawyer. She got married, had kids, and lived the rest of her life in relative normalcy, save for some presumably amazing bedtime stories.
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