Mental Floss

10 Misconceptions About Pirates

Alvin Ward
Famed pirates Anne Bonny, John 'Calico Jack' Rackam, and Mary Read
Famed pirates Anne Bonny, John 'Calico Jack' Rackam, and Mary Read / Print Collector/GettyImages
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There are plenty of misconceptions about pirates—starting with what a pirate does, exactly. We'll bust a few of these myths in the list below, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on Youtube.

1. Misconception: Pirates started becoming a problem only in the 17th and 18th centuries.

There were thousands of problematic pirates between 1650 and 1720 CE, but pirates have been around for a lot longer than that. In fact, there's evidence that pirates were a huge problem for mariners in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas during the 14th century BCE. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all had to be wary of pirates coming into their ports and disrupting their trade. You know, like pirates do.

2. Misconception: Pirates said "arrrr" a lot. 

Experts believe that 17th-century pirates talked just like any other sailor would, so they probably did not have their own accents. It was the 1950 Disney movie Treasure Island that invented and popularized pirate-speak with interjections like "arrrr" and expressions like "shiver me timbers."

3. Misconception: Pirates buried treasure. 

The belief that pirates buried their treasure persisted thanks to works of popular fiction. Most pirates would not have dared abandon their booty, no matter how well hidden it was. One pirate who did was William Kidd. Authorities in the 17th century found some of his treasure buried on Long Island, New York, and used it as evidence to convict Kidd of theft. People still look for more of Kidd's buried treasure to this day, but the majority of pirates would have held on to their riches.

4. Misconception: Pirates were old-fashioned and barbaric.

As viewed from a 21st-century vantage point, some pirate crews seem pretty progressive for their time. Some pirates likely had same-sex marriages, known as matelotages. According to Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, these arrangements "link[ed] a buccaneer and another male—most often a youth—in a relationship with clearly homosexual characteristics." Sometimes those in matelotages shared each other's property and were each other's heirs. Many pirate crews included freed and escaped enslaved people, too. It's estimated that 60 percent of Blackbeard's crew was Black.

5. Misconception: Pirates were old men.

The majority of pirates in the golden age of piracy were probably in their 20s, and this is because many people turned to it after trying their luck as merchants or sailors, which were jobs for young men. Men in their 20s were also less likely to have attachments at home, so they were more willing to become pirates. One study estimated that only 4 percent of pirates between 1716 and 1726 were married.

6. Misconception: Pirate ships were huge.

Well-known pirates like Blackbeard got their reputations because they had large, intimidating ships. But many vessels were fairly small, and there were advantages to that. Smaller ships were faster and it was easier for them to approach shallow waters to do all their pirating business.

7. Misconception: A lot of pirates wore eye patches.

The evidence for pirates wearing eye patches is sketchy at best, and if they did, it probably wasn't because they were missing eyes. Consider this: When you go from a bright area to a completely dark one, it can take your eyes almost 30 minutes to adjust, so pirates might have chosen to keep one of their eyes adjusted to the dark at all times. That way, when they went from the sunlit decks of the ship to the dark areas below, they'd be able to use the eye that was normally covered by the patch to see immediately.

8. Misconception: Pirate ships were chaotic.

Many pirates were successful because they laid down the law and kept their ships in order. Pirate codes were not uncommon: Some banned the crew from gambling and smoking and some had limitations on drinking. Being a pirate was a lot less fun than you'd imagine.

9. Misconception: Pirates told people to "walk the plank."

First of all, it wouldn't have been the decision of one person—the captain, for instance. Many crews were surprisingly democratic and would vote on the fate of a traitor. And having prisoners walk the plank was rare, but that doesn't mean the crew were all nice guys. If they had a prisoner they needed information from, torturing the person wasn't out of the question.

10. Misconception: Pirates no longer exist.

Modern pirates have been known to hijack ships and hold them or their crews for ransom (as seen in the 2013 movie Captain Phillips, which is based on a true event). Piracy is a huge problem because pirates travel around by boat and commit crimes in marine areas belonging to many countries, meaning the offenses often need to be prosecuted on an international level.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.

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