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Grim Life Cursed Real Pirates of Caribbean

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 11, 2003
 
Pirates have been figures of fascination and fear for centuries. The most famous buccaneers have been shrouded in legend and folklore for so long that it's almost impossible to distinguish between myth and reality.

Hollywood movies—filled with buried treasures, eye patches, and the Jolly Roger—depict pirate life as a swashbuckling adventure.


In the latest flick, Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which sails into theaters today, the pirate hero, played by Johnny Depp, is a lovable rogue.

But what was life really like for an early 18th-century pirate? The answer: pretty grim. It was a world of staggering violence and poverty, constant danger, and almost inevitable death.

The life of a pirate was never as glorious and exciting as depicted in the movies, said David Moore, curator of nautical archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. "Life at sea was hard and dangerous, and interspersed with life-threatening storms or battles. There was no air conditioning, ice for cocktails, or clean sheets aboard the typical pirate ship."

While the period from the late 1600s to the early 1700s is usually referred to as the "Golden Age of Piracy," the practice existed long before Blackbeard and other famous pirates struck terror in the hearts of merchant seamen along the Eastern Seaboard and Caribbean. And it exists today, primarily in the South China Sea and along the African coast.

Valuable Loot

One of the earliest and most high profile incidents of piracy occurred when a band of pirates captured Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor-to-be, in the Greek islands. Instead of throwing him overboard, as they did with most victims, the pirates held Caesar for ransom for 38 days.

When the money finally arrived, Caesar was let go. When he returned to port, Caesar immediately fitted a squadron of ships and set sail in pursuit of the pirates. The criminals were quickly caught and brought back to the mainland, where they were hanged.

It's no coincidence that piracy came to flourish in the Caribbean and along America's Eastern Seaboard during piracy's heyday. Traffic was busy and merchant ships were easy pickings.

Although pirates would search the ship's cabins for gold and silver, the main loot consisted of cargo such as grain, molasses, and kegs of rum. Sometimes pirates stole the ships as well as the cargo.

Neither Long John Silver nor Captain Hook actually existed, but the era produced many other infamous pirates, including William Kidd, Charles Vane, Sam Bellamy, and two female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

The worst and perhaps cruelest pirate of them all was Captain Edward Teach or Thatch, better known as "Blackbeard." Born in Britain before 1690, he first served on a British privateer based in Jamaica. Privateers were privately owned, armed ships hired by the British government to attack and plunder French and Spanish ships during the war.

After the war, Blackbeard simply continued the job. He soon became captain of one of the ships he had stolen, Queen Anne's Revenge, and set up base in North Carolina, then a British colony, from where he preyed on ships traveling the American coast.

Tales of his cruelty are legendary. Women who didn't relinquish their diamond rings simply had their fingers hacked off. Blackbeard even shot one of his lieutenants so that "he wouldn't forget who he was."

Still, the local townspeople tolerated Blackbeard because they liked to buy the goods he stole, which were cheaper than imported English goods. The colony's ruling officials turned a blind eye to Blackbeard's violent business.

It wasn't until Alexander Spotswood, governor of neighboring Virginia, sent one of his navy commanders to kill Blackbeard that his reign finally came to an end in 1718.

True or False

The most famous pirates may not have been the most successful. "The reason many of them became famous was because they were captured and tried before an Admiralty court," said Moore. "Many of these court proceedings were published, and these pirates' exploits became legendary. But it's the ones who did not get caught who were the most successful in my book."

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, may be the most famous pirate story. But the most important real-life account of pirate life is probably a 1724 book called A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson.

The tome depicts in gruesome detail the lives and exploits of the most famous pirates of that time. Much of it reads as a first-hand account by someone who sailed with the pirates, and many experts believe Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, which was published in 1719.

What is not in doubt is the book's commercial success at the time and the influence it had on generations of writers and filmmakers who adopted elements of his stories in creating the familiar pirate image.

So what part of the movie pirate is true and what is merely Hollywood fiction? What about, for example, the common practice of forcing victims to "walk the plank"?

"Not true," said Cori Convertito, assistant curator of education at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida, which is putting on a piracy exhibit this October called "Reefs, Wrecks and Rascals." (The pirates' favorite form of punishment was to tie their victims to the boat with a length of rope, toss them overboard, and drag them under the ship, a practice known as "keel hauling.")

Sadly, buried treasures—and the ubiquitous treasure maps—are also largely a myth. "Pirates took their loot to notorious pirate hang-outs in Port Royal and Tortuga," said Convertito. "Pirates didn't bury their money. They blew it as soon they could on women and booze."

Eye Patches, Peg Legs, and Parrots

On the other hand, pirate flags, commonly referred to as the Jolly Roger, were indeed present during the Golden Age. And victims were often marooned on small islands by pirates. Eye patches and peg legs were also undoubtedly worn by pirates, and some kept parrots as pets.

Some pirates even wore earrings, not as a fashion statement, but because they believed they prevented sea sickness by applying pressure on the earlobes.

In the new movie Pirates of the Caribbean, prisoners facing execution can invoke a special code, which stipulates that the pirate cannot kill him or her without first consulting the pirate captain.

Indeed pirates did follow codes. These varied from ship to ship, often laying out how plundered loot should be divided or what punishment should be meted out for bad behavior.

But Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp's hero, probably wouldn't have lasted very long among real pirates. In the movie, he will do anything possible to avoid a fight, something real-life pirates rarely did.

The endless sword duels, a big part of all pirate movies, probably happened on occasion. But real-life encounters were often far more bloody and brutal, with men hacking at each other with axes and cutlasses.

In one legendary account, a notorious pirate, trying to find out where a village had hidden its gold, tied two villagers to trees, facing each other, and then cut out one person's heart and fed it to the other.

As Captain Johnson wrote in his book:

In the commonwealth of pirates, he who goes the greatest length or wickedness is looked upon with a kind of envy amongst them, as a person of a more extraordinary gallantry, and is thereby entitled to be distinguished by some post, and if such a one has but courage, he must certainly be a great man.
 

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