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.

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