The History Of Pirates: Fascinating Things You Should Know

treasure map, sword, compass and other items that represents the history of pirates

When most people think of the history of pirates, they think of swashbuckling adventures, peg legs, and eye patches. However, there's so much more to the story!

Pirates are everywhere. We see them in movies, on TV, and in video games.

We even see them walking down our streets on Halloween.

Yet what's the real story behind these grizzled, bearded, hook-handed rogues and scallywags?

The History of Pirates: Buccaneer Beginnings

Before we delve into the history of pirates, it's important first to understand what pirates are.

Okay, hold on to your hat, folks:

pirate is any person who robs another ship.

That's right: A pirate is pretty much just a gang member possessing rather impressive maritime skills.

They've been around since ancient times.

Then again, calling them simple gang members is a bit of an understatement.

Piracy grew into organized crime -- or a mafia on water.

These criminals would steal items and sell them to different shops and enterprises at lower black market prices.

They also conducted quite a few kidnappings, routinely ransoming wealthy nobility for gold and other valuable currency.

Early Beginnings

One example of early piracy took place in 800 BC.

Wealthy Phoenician merchants who hailed from what's now known as Lebanon needed to move their goods.

However, as they transported valuable cargo across the Mediterranean, sailing near the Adriatic, they frequently encountered Aegean Sea pirates.

These pirates would proceed to follow the merchants and graciously relieve them of their "excess weight."

Pirates of the first century were a formidable menace for merchants sailing the Mediterranean, too.

The most famous pirates of this era were the Tyrrhenians and Illyrians, whose people were often stereotyped pirate races.

They also sailed with Roman and Greek pirates who hung around Cilicia.

The Illyrianians were true romantics, who often enjoyed long strolls on the beach -- often while hauling goods they'd stolen in raids on Roman ships in the Adriatic sea.

Did you know?

Pirates once managed to capture and ransom a young Gaius Octavius Thurinus.

Thurinus, who's better known as Julius Caesar, would go on to become a Roman Emperor.

Of course, that didn't end well for the pirates, as young Julius returned to pay them back with interest, returning to kill his previous captors.

By 67 BC the Roman Senate said "enough is enough" and decided to take action.

They sent the legendary Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (known as Pompey) to deal with the problem.

This guy was one of the greatest military minds of his time.

Pompey devised a strategy in which he divided the Mediterranean into sections, and swiftly defeated thousands of pirates.

Many more pirates surrendered to his forces, which also seized hundreds of pirate ships.

The Golden Age of Piracy

The history of pirates during the middle ages marks what's considered the "Golden Age of Piracy."

This period took place between the 1650s to about the 1730s.

During this time, large organized pirate fleets regularly terrorized trading routes of the Caribbean, Red Sea, West Africa, and India.

Also during this period, a rise in publications romanticizing pirates also occurred.

These publications made many average citizens idolize the pirate way of life.

This pirate marketing was especially influential on poor young children.

These kids dreamed of escaping crushing poverty to sail the seven seas in search of riches and adventure.

Pirates of this era were no joke.

In fact:

On several occasions, pirates were able to bring sea commerce to a grinding halt successfully.

They managed to shut down numerous essential trade routes.

Pirate or Privateer: Murky Waters

One fact most people don't know when it comes to the history of pirates is that pirates were sometimes employed by governments.

That's right. Privateers were regularly licensed by a government to attack enemy townships or ships during times of war.

Think of them as "black flag ops."

One of the most famous privateers of his day was Sir Henry Morgan.

Morgan was granted a royal license from England to attack Spanish interests between 1660 and 1680.

Life on privateer, merchant, and Naval ships was not very pleasant for sailors.

The men were often underpaid or even cheated out of their wages completely.

Officers were often harsh and strict, and the ships were generally filthy and unsafe.

Plus, many men served against their will. The Navy put together "press gangs" who roamed the streets looking for able-bodied men for naval conscription.

Many times, men would wake up after getting beaten unconscious to find themselves kidnapped on board a Navy ship.

However, once the privateer commissions started drying up, a lot of violent, unemployed privateers and former Navy soldiers in need of work became pirates.

Going Rogue

Ex-privateers and ex-Navy soldiers enjoyed many advantages as pirates.

Compared to the unfair treatment they received at the hands of merchants and the military, life as a pirate was downright democratic.

For one thing:

Pirates were smart about making sure that every man (and in rare cases, lady) got their fair share of the loot.

While punishments onboard a pirate ship could still be severe, they were usually handed out fairly and in many cases with just cause.

Pirate captains understood that an unhappy crew leads to mutiny. Therefore, they made for some of the most fairminded employers of that time.

Maybe "Black Bart" Roberts said it best:

"In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto."

Loosely translated:

"In honest work, the food is bad, the wages are low, and the work is hard. In piracy, there is plenty of loot, it's fun and easy, and we are free and powerful. Who, when presented with this choice, would not choose piracy? The worst that can happen is you can be hanged. No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto."

Aaaarrrrgggghhhh! The End of an Era

Much like during the days of the Roman Empire, the "Golden Age of Piracy" met its demise at the hands of government superpowers who had enough of their shenanigans.

By the end, most piracy moved west toward the Americas following the wealthy merchants and slave traders looking to exploit the riches of "the New World."

The last great hurrah for piracy took place in the Caribbean during the early 1700s, where pirates even had control a few towns for a time.

Towns like Port Royal and Nassau thrived under the pirate rule, as they would often bring stolen goods to sell at discounted prices.

Several factors fueled the height of piracy during these times:

  • The three major European superpowers: France, England, and Spain were at constant war with each other
  • There was virtually no real "law enforcement" in the Caribbean
  • Many unprotected merchant ships were practically loaded down with treasures from the Americas
  • Many disgruntled ex-privateers, Navy soldiers, and merchant sailors willingly joined up with pirates
  • Navy crews generally had lower morale than pirate crews, which made it harder to win battles

The Caribbean was more like the Wild West of the ocean, with pirates enjoying almost absolute control over the seas.

Of course, they still had to worry about government forces, but many were worried more about other pirates.

Shiver Me Timbers! The Party's Over

During the history of pirates, the end of the "Golden Age" was pretty anti-climatic.

Around the year 1717 or so, England sent a former privateer named Woodes Rogers, in command of a large fleet of Royal ships, to the Caribbean.

His mission was to end the pirate threat once and for all.

Under Rogers' crusade, pirates had to make some tough decisions.

Many pirates accepted offers of royal pardons to go legit. Some like, Benjamin Horngold, were able to leave the pirate life.

However, others like Blackbeard and Charles Vane, soon went back to their pirating ways.

But by 1725 or so, piracy in the Americas was just a shell of its former glory.

Modern Pirates

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reports piracy as “the act of boarding any vessel with intent to commit theft or any other crime, and with an intent or capacity to use force in furtherance of that act."

In recent years, piracy on the high seas has made somewhat of a comeback.

According to a few estimates, pirate attacks have increased an incredible 75 percent in the last decade alone.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) reports that there were 489 reports of piracy against ships in 2010, which was 20 percent more than in 2009.

The hot spots for piracy today are in the Indian Ocean, East Africa, and the far east, including The South China Sea.

But there's also evidence that piracy is becoming a significant problem again in both South America and the Caribbean.

Get this:

Piracy isn't exclusively a warm climate crime; it even takes place in places like the Serbian and Romanian stretches of the international Danube River.

The IMO estimates that piracy produces worldwide losses between 13 and 16 billion U.S. dollars every year.

Somali pirates are perhaps some of the most well-known of modern times.

They made worldwide headlines in recent years by brutally hijacking ships off the Somali coast.

As a result of these attacks, the U.S. started a multi-national patrol effort to stop these attacks.

The pirates would use small crafts to get close to their targets and threaten them with automatic weapons and even rocket launchers.

These pirates also use other modern technology such as night vision goggles and GPS devices.

They favor using speed boats, sometimes equipped with Russian-made 82mm mortars that can target ships as far as three miles away.

The targets of modern pirates can include cargo ships of all sizes, private yachts, and even cruise ships.

The History of Pirates: Hollywood vs. Real Life Pirates

As with just about everything, Hollywood exaggerates, embellishes, and flat out makes stuff up when it comes to pirates. However, they do manage to get a few details right from time to time.

The most famous Hollywood take on pirates has to be "The Pirates of the Caribbean" series starring Johnny Depp's character, a lovable, awkward, charismatic cur named Captain Jack Sparrow. Here are just a few concepts the films got right and wrong when it comes to the history of pirates during the "Golden Age."

Peter Twist is an expert on the 18th-century history and served as the historical and technical adviser for the "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" movie.

He notes quite a few interesting differences between the real history of pirates of that age and the ones depicted in the movie.

Hooks and Peg Legs

pirate wearing an eye patch and has a pet parrot on his shoulder

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Every Halloween pirate costume either features a hook, an eye patch, a peg leg, or all three. However, the real history of pirates doesn't have much mention of a lot of one-eyed sailors with missing limbs.

"There aren't any hooks or peg legs in Pirates of the Caribbean," says Twist, "but usually Hollywood can't resist them."

It's kind of weird how the idea of fantastically mustached pirate captains with hook hands and an obsession with androgynous flying elf teens seems normal by today's standards.

However, in the real history of pirates, such unfortunates were lucky to remain on board as cooks. That is if they didn't die from infection first.

"People with missing limbs wouldn't have been much use in combat," Twist explains.

Okay, so peg legs and hook hands are mostly fiction, but what about eye patches?

Well according to the Wall Street Journal and Mythbusters, most people assume that pirates wore eye patches to cover a missing eye or one injured in battle.

For one thing, a missing or injured eye would most likely become infected and kill a person on board a ship during those times.

One theory suggests that they used eye patches to help condition their eyes to better fight in the dark.

You see (pun intended):

It takes the average human eye roughly 25 minutes to fully adapt from sunlight to be able to see in complete darkness.

If a pirate was fighting on deck in the sunlight then had to continue that fight below decks, where it's usually very dark, it would take longer for their eyes to adjust.

Keep in mind:

That is perhaps the most plausible theory, but according to Mythbusters, there's no recorded information on whether or not a lot of pirates wore eye patches.

Honor among Thieves

pirate captain admitting he lied

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Many pirate films often depict a so-called "pirate code" that follows strangely strict rules and protocols.

This is actually one aspect of pirate life that many studios reflect reasonably accurately.

Unlike life on Navy ships and private merchant ships, pirate ships elected their captains and could replace them at any time the crew saw fit.

They were, for the most part, almost entirely democratic.

The real history of pirates also had some very modern workplace concepts not found in many occupations during the time.

There were systems in place for health care, injury compensation, and profit sharing.

As for punishments, pirates did not play around when it came to safety and order.

For example:

Pirate holds often contained gun powder, which of course is explosive. One of the most common punishments for a crew member caught smoking in the hold without a cover on their pipe was about 40 lashes.

For planning to desert the ship, a pirate could face perhaps the most brutal punishment of all, finding himself marooned on a small deserted island with one flask of water, a bottle of rum, one gun, and one bullet.

That's if the crew and captain are feeling kind. Sometimes they left them with nothing.

According to Twist:

"The captain and crew were more or less equal to one another. The code, which would vary from ship to ship, would cover everything from dividing up the treasure, sort of like today's profit-sharing schemes, to general standards of behaviour. Some ships were quite puritanical: No gambling, no drinking, etc, etc."

The Skull and Crossbones Flag

pirate flag with a skull and two swords

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Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of piracy is the pirate flag. We're all familiar with the ominous black flag featuring a skull and crossbones.

"Pirate flags in general were either red or black," says Twist, "and they play a significant role in Dead Man's Chest."

So that means that Hollywood's gotten this detail wrong, right?

As it turns out:

In the real history of pirates, they actually did fly the skull and crossbones, although there were many variations, not just one.

"The death's head or skeletons or the devil were very common images on flags," says Twist. "Basically anything that would let intended victims know that something bad would happen to them if they resisted."

When they were not flying the Jolly Roger, pirates had "no bones" about flying the Union Jack or Spanish and French flags, to trick their prey into letting their guard down.

Buried Treasure

Everyone's familiar with the term and concept of buried treasure. Hollywood would have us believe that pirates were like squirrels who couldn't wait to put some dirt over every piece of gold they stole.

As it turns out:

captain of the pirates in denial

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The real history of pirates says that "X marks the spot" misses the mark. Although, according to Twist, there was at least one real-life example of a famous pirate burying treasure.

"The real-life Captain Kidd famously buried treasure when he knew he was going to be tried as a pirate," says Twist.

"But basically pirates would spend their money as they got it by going into the nearest port and drinking it all away. Typical pirates weren't usually lucky enough to get their hands on much gold or silver either. They'd take any ship that they happened to come across and it might be carrying some less glamorous cargo, like food supplies for example, so they'd just take what they could."

That's right folks, just as most people live paycheck to paycheck, pirates lived robbery to robbery.

Sadly, most never quite managed to steal enough for that nice beachfront property in Florida.

Walking the Plank

One of the most common scenes we see in pirate movies and shows is someone walking the plank.

This tired trope involves an unfortunate captive forced to walk a plank of wood into the ocean (usually with a hungry shark awaiting them).

female pirate saying some things do not make any sense in the written history of pirates

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This method of execution is probably more entertaining to watch than what pirates were more likely to do in real life, which was to grab their captives and "heave-ho," unceremoniously tossing them overboard.

Or, if they had a mood for something more "entertaining," they often came up with much more graphic forms of execution, which would probably be unsuitable for most PG-13 movies.

pirate captain making funny hand gestures

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"Often pirates would consult with the crews of the ships they captured and if the captain had a reputation for being brutal, they'd come up with some truly nasty punishment for him," Twist explains.

Pirate Battles

Another Hollywood myth about pirates is that they were always spoiling for a fight.

When we think of pirate battles, we often picture two ships firing cannons at each other until one ship pulls up side by side with the other ship to board it. As stimulating as these scenes are to the imagination, the real history of pirates suggests that's now how it was done.

I think the single biggest inaccuracy in Hollywood pirate movies," says Twist, "is that pirates were always spoiling for a fight. Pirates were essentially just after the money, so the last thing they wanted to do was actually fight with another ship and risk damage to their own ship or being injured or killed."

Could you imagine a pirate movie where the pirate ship pulled alongside its target and fired a warning shot hoping to scare them into surrender?

"And that's what usually happened," Twist says. "People knew that if they resisted they'd be killed. The Pirates of the Caribbean films and Captain Jack are much more realistic in that respect. Like most real-life pirates, Captain Jack enjoys his rum and has an eye on the main chance, but he's not going to fight unless he really has to."

Score one for Captain Jack!

puzzled pirate captain

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This method of execution is probably more entertaining to watch than what pirates were more likely to do in real life, which was to grab their captives and "heave-ho," unceremoniously tossing them overboard.

Or, if they had a mood for something more "entertaining," they often came up with much more graphic forms of execution, which would probably be unsuitable for most PG-13 movies.

Pirate Ships

While Hollywood loves to portray pirates as sailing around in massive ships with numerous gigantic cannons, this isn't entirely true. In the real history of pirates, most pirate ships were more likely much smaller.

A smaller, faster ship could more easily sneak up on larger vessels.

Keep in mind that pirates didn't like to fight if they didn't need to fight.

Plus, pirates were not picky about what kind of ships they sailed in.

It was sort like Grand Theft Auto on the high seas. They would steal a ship then keep it if it met their needs, or trade it.

However, they would usually fit their new ships with at least six cannons, if not more so long as they didn't slow them down.

Pirates would also change the rigging so the ship could sail faster, and they converted cargo holds into living quarters.

The fact that anything could have been a pirate ship also made it harder for their victims to identify them before it was too late.

Parrots on the Shoulder

pirate in cartoons illustrated with parrots on his shoulders

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According to Twist, pirates did have a fondness for onboard pets.

"Pets were popular on ships but it had to be something that wouldn't need too much care or food," Twist says.

"Barbossa's monkey and the parrot who talks for the mute in The Curse of the Black Pearl would live on table scraps, so are probably quite typical."

However, a parrot on the shoulder would be very messy, and during lean times it's more likely to end up as a substitute for chicken in the cooking pot.

The more common and unwanted creatures aboard pirate ships were rats, fleas, and poisonous spiders.


Throughout the history of pirates, the biggest and baddest pirate of them all was the pirate 

Blackbeard, whose real name may have been Edward Teach (there's a long debate about this), was arguably the smartest and fiercest pirate to ever live.

According to legend, he used theatrics such as lighting small fires under his hat or within his beard to create a smoky, demonic-like presence when entering battle.

pirate captain holding up his sword and pointed it to his enemies

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Blackbeard began his career as a privateer during the Queen Anne's War after he found himself near the Bahamian island of New Providence.

During his reign of terror, he showed himself to be a skilled tactician who became sort of the evil Batman of the high seas. He often used his reputation and theatrics to strike fear into the hearts of his victims.

Female Pirates

While they were rare, there were, in fact, a few women in the history of pirates. Some of the most famous female pirates include Mary Read, Grace O'Malley, Ching Shih, and Anne Bonney.

Anne Bonney is depicted brilliantly in the show Black Sails as a fierce sword fighter with a fearsome presence.

a female fighting the soldiers

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The real story behind this legendary pirate could be its own show. Anne Bonny was born in 1697 as the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer named William Cormac.

As a teenager, she fell in love and ran off and married a small-time pirate named James Bonny. She eventually left her husband and ran away with the infamous pirate captain Calico Jack Rackham.

From there, Bonny's reputation as a fierce fighter and pirate would become the stuff of legends.

Another mighty female pirate who should have her own show is Ching Shih. She was a legendary figure who started as a Chinese prostitute, then went on to become a powerful pirate queen.

Shih began her pirating career in 1801, when the pirate Zheng Yi, who then commanded the Red Flag Fleet, romantically courted and married Shih in true pirate fashion.

He ordered his men to raid her brothel and kidnap her.  From there, she and Yi ran the Red Flag Fleet until his death in 1807, after which she took charge.

So mighty was this pirate that she even managed to negotiate amnesty with the Chinese government while keeping most of her riches and power.

We hope you've enjoyed reading about the history of pirates! May ye and ye hearties enjoy calm waters and peaceful days.

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