Hello and happy Wednesday, mateys!
Also, happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Though this may seem like a strange topic for St. Patrick’s Day, please bear with me. The other day, while up to my ears in pirate research for my almost-done, in-progress, and starting-to-be-brainstormed pirate novels (yes three!), I began sorting through my very first outlines and drafts.
I’d forgotten just how many things I included in my early brainstorming that turned out to be extremely inaccurate for the time period, ship layouts, and just for pirates in general. My first drafts were painfully cliché-ridden, haha.
Since then, I’ve done hours upon hours of research about pirates; their lifestyles, their styles of speaking, their ships, their weapons, their motives…anything and everything I can find. And along the way, I’ve found what I think are some very interesting tidbits of information – as well as corrections to some common misconceptions about pirates (like the ones I filled my first drafts with…).
Originally, I thought I might talk about the fascinating history of St. Patrick’s Day today. But there are so many other people who do that every year, and truthfully, anything I’d write would end up being little more than facts I gleaned from Google simply for this post.
So instead, I decided to pass along some of the fascinating facts I’ve learned from my pirate research – with the hopes that you find them as interesting as I do!
Now, I’m in no way endorsing pirates or their actions. What they did and the way they ‘made a living was horrible. But nevertheless, when you’re writing stories about something or someone, you look for surprising, compelling facts to use – and the following are some I’ve found about pirates.
(Oh, and after deciding to write this post about pirates, I remembered that St. Patrick was actually captured by Irish pirates when he was just sixteen. Turns out, this topic isn’t as strange for today as I thought!)
“Walk the (Nonexistent) Plank!”
This is one of the most widely-accepted myths about pirates – and the first one I removed from my book, Cabin Girl (lesson learned: research for historical novels is a must). Despite popular pirate media describing, showing, and spreading the idea that pirates really made their victims ‘walk the plank’, there’s no evidence of this ever occurring, and definitely not often.
Though it could have happened occasionally, the most common documented punishments pirates used on their victims included things like floggings or keel-hauling, which was the process of tying a victim’s wrists together with rope and dragging them through the ocean underneath and against the ship, where sharp barnacles, hungry creatures, and lack of oxygen made for a truly torturous – and often deadly – experience. Also, pirates often just threw their victims overboard.
“Why Aye, Captain?”
Though this varied from ship to ship, most pirate captains didn’t rule with iron fists like is commonly believed. In fact, Navy captains held far more power than most pirate captains. Pirate ships were often run by democracy, with crewmen voting on courses of action – from meals, to punishments, to destinations. The only time a pirate captain held absolute control was during a battle.
When a pirate crew tired of a captain, or felt he was doing inadequately, they could simply vote him out of office, and elect a new member to take his place. Depending on whether the former captain cooperated, he would either be demoted into the crew – or, more commonly, be marooned somewhere so he couldn’t find his way back and get revenge.
“Swear by the Codes!”
Just as pirate captains didn’t have complete control over their ships, pirate crews didn’t have complete freedom on them either. Though the formality of the process changed depending on the crew, men joining agreed to a set of codes, or, a ‘code of conduct’. Later on, when knowing how to read and write was more common, the men were forced to sign the document before setting sail, thus sealing their agreement. Early on, they were simply recited the conditions of joining the crew, and verbally gave their submission.
The code of conduct on a ship outlined how the ship was supposed to be run in every possible regard – from meals, to when crewmen should be asleep, to what games and songs were allowed, to how they divided the plunder from conquests. On most pirate ships, gambling, fighting amongst the crew, and stealing were all huge no-no’s, and curfew was to be carefully minded. A pirate’s weapons were to be kept battle-ready, he wasn’t allowed to bring women on board, and if he deserted his station during battle, he faced death.
“Not a Woman!”
On most ships, pirates weren’t allowed to bring women on board with them for many reasons. From a purely practical standpoint, it proved far too distracting for the crew. More commonly, it was the source of many superstitions. Women were believed to bring bad luck to a ship, partly because of the potential for distracted – and therefore inattentive – men.
Many pirates believed that the ‘spirits of the sea’ were angered by men not paying attention to their sailing duties, and that because women were a possible distraction, they would end up drawing terrible storms and sea creatures from the depths. To many pirates, women became synonymous with bad luck on ships. Of course, not all of them felt this way – especially not the women pirates! – but it was a very common superstition.
“What’s the Patch For?”
Piracy was far from a safe ‘occupation’. Neither was sailing in general. Storms, battles, falling from masts, and disease were just some of the things that could seriously injure or maim a pirate, resulting in losses of crucial body parts – like eyes. As is commonly believed, pirates did often wear eyepatches. However, they were not nearly as prevalent as media portrays.
One reason is that many pirates would show off their dead eye or scar to gain respect among the other crewmembers. Covering it up could not only be irritating, but also surrendering a chance to show how ‘tough’ they were.
When they did wear eyepatches, it wasn’t always because of a lost eye. Many wore patches over one eye so that that eye would be adjusted to the dark. When they went below deck, where it was much darker, they could switch the patch to their other eye, and see clearly right away without stumbling – very useful for high-pressure situations like sea battles.
“Not a Red Flag!”
When most people think of pirate flags, they think of the classic ‘Jolly Rogers’; the white skull and crossbones on a rippling black background. Other famous pirates used different designs, such as Blackbeard’s flag, which was a gruesome depiction of a skeleton stabbing a red heart – again on a black background.
However, though black flags were still enough to terrorize pirates’ victims, it was red flags that truly sent fear into their hearts. While a black flag warned victims to surrender, red flags communicated that no mercy would be shown – no matter what. If you were attacked by a pirate ship flying a red flag, survival was near impossible. A commonly-known example was a red flag with an hourglass, reminding victims that their time was almost up.
Yet another part of the typical pirate ‘image’ is an earring or two (or more) – and this one was actually often true. Many pirates wore at least one earring, though their reasons for doing so were varied. Some were superstitious, and believed earrings made of precious metals contained magical healing powers that could cure bad eyesight, prevent seasickness, and/or protect a man from drowning.
Some used earrings to commemorate sailing ‘rites of passage’ or journeys taken. Still others wore them to ensure that if they died, the people who found their bodies could pay to give them a proper funeral (some believed that without a proper funeral, they would never reach the afterlife). And if nothing else, wearing valuable metals on their ears guaranteed that they’d always have a little wealth with them, to pay for supplies if needed.
Supposedly, some pirates even used earrings to dangle plugs of wax from, to quickly insert when firing cannons. From superstitions, to payment, to hearing protection, pirates found plenty of reasons to wear earrings. And of course, it never hurt that others often looked upon valuable earrings – and their wearers – with respect.
Well, those are some of the things I’ve found fascinating while researching pirates! Though it’s difficult to know exactly how they operated and though every pirate was different, there are enough accounts to make educated guesses – and it leaves room for creativity while portraying them in fiction, haha.
Do YOU have any fascinating facts about pirates to add? Did you know the things I pointed out already, or were some of them new to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to chat with me in the comments!
1. More information about my first pirate novel, Cabin Girl, can be found here.