Piracy dates back almost 3,500 years to the ancient world of the Mediterranean, and pirates are still with us today. Influenced by books such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, the practice has a fairly standardized set of stereotypes. But, as we’ll see, pirates actually came in all shapes and sizes and from all over the world.
1. The first pirates
The very first records of piracy date back to the 14th century BC during the Bronze Age. A mysterious group called the Sea Peoples attacked shipping, some of it belonging to the ancient Egyptians, in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. The practice wasn’t viewed in quite the same way back then; in fact, the Greeks of antiquity are said to have regarded piracy as a respectable pursuit.
2. The Jolly Roger was not always the classic skull and crossbones
The name for a pirate’s flag, the Jolly Roger, seems to date back to the early 18th century. Richard Hawkins, captured by pirates in 1724, described the flag as being black with a depiction of a human skeleton thrusting a spear into a heart. In fact, pirates used a variety of designs incorporating crossed bones or cutlasses, skeletons and hearts.
3. Blackbeard used to set his head on fire
Notorious pirate Edward Teach, much better known under his alias of Blackbeard, was one of the most fearsome buccaneers terrorizing the waters around the Caribbean in the early 1700s. He’s said to have terrified his victims by sticking slow-burning fuses under his pirate’s headgear, making it look as if his head was alight.
4. Pirates didn’t wear earrings just to look cool
In modern times, wearing earrings is simply a fashion statement, but pirates didn’t habitually sport them because they wanted to look good. Inexplicably, pirates believed that wearing an earring could make your eyesight better or cure seasickness. Another superstition was that a man wearing an earring wouldn’t drown. Obviously, that last one could easily be disproved.
5. Pirates had gay partnerships 400 years ago
Many countries around the world have formally recognized gay partnerships in recent years. But if you think that’s only a modern phenomenon, think again. Male pirates, especially on long voyages, would partner up and there was even a specific term for this kind of union – matelotage.
6. International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a thing
Yes, there really is an International Talk Like a Pirate Day. It’s held each year on September 19 and people are invited to say “arrr!” as often as they can. Michigan State officially acknowledges the day, it’s a holiday for Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster adherents, and you can select “Pirate” as a language option on Google and Facebook.
7. Julius Caesar was captured by pirates
It was 75 BC when the Roman Julius Caesar was seized by pirates while sailing in the Mediterranean. The pirates had no idea who they’d taken and requested a payment of 20 talents for his release. Caesar is said to have thought this hilarious and offered them 50. After he was freed, he captured his pirate kidnappers and had them crucified.
8. There were transgender pirates
It seems that pirates were surprisingly relaxed about sexual politics, and this casual attitude extended to transgendered people. One such was Englishwoman Mary (or Mark) Read, a pirate in the so-called Golden Age of Piracy in the early part of the 18th century. Read had dressed and acted as a man for most of her life as a footman and soldier and then a pirate. Though she was captured and sentenced to hang in 1721, she escaped the noose as she was pregnant. However, her luck didn’t last: she later died in jail.
9. Walking the plank was rare
Making a prisoner walk the plank, presumably resulting in death by drowning, was not at all common and occurs mostly in fiction. However, pirates were not averse to cruel and unusual punishment, and keelhauling was sometimes inflicted on miscreants. This barbaric practice involved dragging a man under a ship from one side to the other with ropes and could easily result in death by serious injury or drowning.
10. Blackbeard’s sunken ship was discovered in 1996
One of history’s best known pirates, Blackbeard, sailed on a ship called the Queen Anne’s Revenge. The vessel was grounded and abandoned near the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1718. It remained there until its discovery in 1996. Archaeologists have recovered no less than 250,000 artifacts from the sunken frigate, including 31 cannons.
11. Barbary pirates enslaved more than a million Europeans
The Barbary pirates operated in the Mediterranean and further afield from the shores of North Africa, called the Barbary Coast by Europeans. They were especially active from the 16th century, taking ships and also enslaving crews and passengers. It’s been estimated that they took more than a million Europeans as slaves. The worst fate for these unfortunates was to become a rower on one of the oar-powered galleys where they could be held in chains for years.
12. Pirates rarely buried their treasure
Only one pirate, Captain Kidd, is truly known to have buried treasure, somewhere on Long Island, New York. In fact like many other tales about pirates, ideas of buried treasure and treasure maps were given currency in 1883 by Robert Louis Stevenson’s seafaring yarn Treasure Island. Actually, after long sea voyages, pirates were a lot more likely to spend their money on wine, women and song.
13. Why pirates wore eye patches
No doubt there were some who had lost an eye in battle, but most pirates with eye patches actually still had both eyes. In fact, wearing an eye patch means that one of your eyes is always accustomed to darkness. That way, pirates that needed to duck down below decks during a fight would instantly be able to see clearly in the gloom, giving them a distinct advantage.
14. There was once a pirate republic
A pirate republic once existed in modern-day Zaporizhia in southeastern Ukraine. Known as Zaporozhian Sich, the pirate population was made up of penniless aristocrats, escaped galley slaves and Ukrainian serfs who’d absconded from their bonded labor. Hard facts about this perhaps semi-mythological land are elusive, but it’s said that the pirates of Zaporozhian Sich preyed on the wealthy towns of the Black Sea.
15. Pirates abducted an entire Irish village
In 1631, a ferocious band of Barbary pirates led by a Dutchman, Murad Reis the Younger, fell upon the Irish village of Baltimore. Accounts differ, but as many as 237 people were abducted, almost the entire population of the village. The unfortunate villagers were taken to North Africa where they were enslaved.
16. Captain Kidd’s body was publically displayed in London for three years
Infamous pirate Captain William Kidd was apprehended and tried for murder in London in 1701. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death and was duly hanged at Execution Dock. His body was then bound in chains and iron bars and suspended from a gibbet for the edification of London’s populace. Gruesomely, Kidd’s rotting cadaver was left there for three years.
17. A pirate was the first man to be hanged, drawn and quartered
When it came to devising grotesquely elaborate punishments for pirates, England seems to have been a world leader. In 1241 a pirate called William Maurice was the first to suffer the punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered. The process involved hanging (but not fatally), disemboweling and then beheading. Finally, the body was chopped into four parts.
18. A Chinese woman commanded up to 40,000 pirates
Certainly, most pirates were men, but some women were known to brandish the cutlass. The most successful of all female pirates, perhaps of all pirates, was surely the Chinese Ching Shih who commanded a pirate band with up to 40,000 members and 300 vessels in the early 19th century. Ching Shih plundered far and wide along the Chinese coastline until accepting a government amnesty. She invested her ill-gotten gains in a gambling den and died peacefully in 1844.
19. What about the Vikings?
We don’t perhaps think of the Vikings as pirates but that seems strange – not least since their modus operandi was to sail the seas in search of booty. The Vikings oppressed populations along Western Europe’s shores in medieval times and also attacked settlements on the North African, Baltic and Black Sea coasts. Which definitely sounds like piracy.
20. Piracy is still with us
Piracy is not something that has been consigned to history. Recently, we’ve had the outbreak of Somalian piracy, although that seems to have declined steeply since 2013. But now we still have rampant piracy in the Straits of Malacca, off Singapore. Up until October, there were no less than 60 piracy incidents in 2017 in this area.