The Quick 10: 10 Pirate Myths and Surprises

iStock/AndrewLinscott
iStock/AndrewLinscott

I was in Chicago for Lollapalooza two weekends ago "“ Armchair Fieldtrip coming soon "“ and, being the nerd that I am, would have been excited about making time to visit the Field Museum no matter what. But when we approached the museum and saw this, I was really excited:

There's an exhibit there right now about pirates "“ specifically, how the slave ship Whydah ("wih-duh" or "wee-duh" but not "Y-duh") became a pirate ship, how it ended up at the bottom of the ocean, and what happened to all of the men on board. It was really fascinating, and it's not just at the Field Museum "“ it's been traveling the country, so maybe you've seen it. Now, I know that the movie version of pirates is not the real way pirates acted and operated, but I was pretty surprised by some of the things I learned nonetheless. Hopefully you will be too!

1. Pirate flags weren't always just white skull and crossbones on a field of black. There were many different versions and the symbols on them represented different things. A plain black flag represented the death of a crew member, an hourglass represented the swift passage of time, and a wounded heart indicated danger. The flag to the left is attributed to Blackbeard.
2. We might think of pirates as grizzled old men, but in reality, most of them were probably in their '20s (with exceptions, of course). Lots of them were guys who had been merchant and navy sailors who couldn't make a living based on that salary, and the life of a pirate actually offered more freedom and democracy as well. Some of them started out on the seas pillaging other ships legally - at least, legally according to their countries. Many pirates were first privateers, men employed by their governments to attack enemy merchant ships.

3. Pirate treasure is one of the most enduring myths and intriguing legends in history. But in reality, only one treasure trove has ever been found: The Whydah's. Pirates split up the treasure amongst themselves (very fairly, most of the time) and each pirate spent it pretty quickly. Which makes sense - it's not like they could invest it in their 401(k)s. But when the Whydah sank, it took booty from more than 50 looted ships down with it. The loot was worth more than 20,000 pounds sterling. Photo from the Field Museum.

4. Pirates typically did not make members of the crew walk the plank after a disagreement, or leave them abandoned on a desert island like what happened to Captain Jack and Elizabeth Swann ("But why is the rum gone?"). The whole crew would take a vote - I told you, Democratic! - and the majority ruled. That's how captains were overthrown - not bloody battles to the death.

5. Pirates received workman's comp! Injured pirates received money for injuries received in the line of duty. The worse the injury, the more money the pirate could expect. For example, on the Whydah, "If any Man should lose a Limb, or become a Cripple, he is to have 800 Dollars out of ye Common Stock, & for lesser hurts, Proportionally."

6. In a time when people still owned slaves and treated them like livestock (or worse), pirates were surprisingly unprejudiced. They didn't care where members of the crew came from or what they looked like, as long as they could earn their keep around the ship. They welcomed freed and runaway slaves "“ in fact, Blackbeard's crew was about 60% black. Women, however, were not allowed to be pirates. But in those days, it wasn't that hard for a woman to dress up in men's clothes and pass as male if she really wanted to. There were at least two famous female pirates and probably a lot more that we don't know about because their true identities were never discovered.

7. Remember how I said there were exceptions to the "Pirates were probably in their '20s" rule? There's one very notable exception - John King, who was about nine years old when he joined the crew of the Whydah. He was a passenger on the sloop Bonetta when it was captured by the Whydah crew and demanded to join them. They said no, and his mother said no, so he threatened to kill himself. They relented, little John became a pirate, and he sank with the Whydah less than a year later. A small shoe, stocking, and leg bone were recovered from the ship's wreckage that seem to back the story of the young pirate. Photo from the Field Museum.

8. Pirates didn't often attack other ships by sinking them and slaughtering the crew. Usually just firing a warning shot and flying the Jolly Roger was enough to scare a ship into submission; once they had surrendered, the pirate quartermaster would ask the merchant ship's crew what they thought of their captain. If he was a cruel captain, the pirates would beat him and maybe even execute him. But if the crew reported that the captain was just, then the pirates would usually give the captain and his crew one of the lesser pirate ships and send them on their way. I guess that would be pretty good incentive to be good to your crew "“ you never knew when a pirate attack would happen, putting you on immediate trial!

9. Despite their general fairness and surprising democratic ways, sometimes pirates did force men to join their crew against their will. But not just any random man "“ the ship needed skilled people like doctors and carpenters. When pirates would capture ships that contained some of these skilled workers, they would force them to sign the pirate articles or die. But hey, the pirate articles weren't so bad "“ they guaranteed each member an equal share of whatever goods they, um, "collected"; equal voting rights; and the chance to be elected officer.

10. It wasn't all pillaging and plundering. Sometimes being a pirate was really boring. So to amuse themselves, they drank, of course, but they also sometimes gambled (some ships forbade it, though), sang, danced, and put on plays. Once, some of the crew members of the Whydah were putting on a play about a pirate trial, and had just gotten to the point where one of the pirates was being sentenced to death for his crimes. A group of drunken crew members stumbled in, and, not realizing that it was fake, started fighting to defend their shipmate. They threw grenades, broke one man's leg, killed an audience member and cut off the playwright's arm before they realized it was just a play. Whoops.

So, there you have it! I suddenly have the urge ("Pirate Fever," my sister-in-law would call it) to watch a certain series of Johnny Depp movies"¦ Arrr!!

Have a Q10 request? I'm on Twitter and I'm all ears! Err... all keys. Something.

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Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.
Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.

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