Parrots, Peg-legs, Plunder – Debunking Pirate Myths

pirate-mapPirates murdered, pillaged, raped, stole, and generally made the lives of others who stood in their way terrible. But despite these facts, books and, more recently, Hollywood have glamorized the “swashbuckler on the high seas.” In the process, a lot of fiction has been attached to the pirate mythos.

For example, the rumor that pirates commonly made people walk the plank simply isn’t true. Save for extremely rare occurrences (only five documented instances in history), this just didn’t happen. For starters, pirates generally weren’t interested in killing if they could help it- they just wanted the loot.  If you went around indiscriminately killing people, then crews wouldn’t surrender easily and you’d always have to fight to take ships, rather than just sometimes.

And second, when forced to make an example of a crew that didn’t just raise the white flag when you approached, it was much easier to simply throw any survivors overboard (often those who refused to join your crew after being beaten), rather than take the time to get out a plank and do some sort of elaborate ceremony.

If you’re wondering how walking the plank became so ingrained in pirate mythos, it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island and J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play Peter Pan that popularized the legend of walking the plank.

With that one covered, here are few more pirate myths that have been warped by fiction.

Pirates didn’t have a thing for parrots, so much as making money off of them.

During the “Golden Age of Piracy,” the 17th century through the early 18th century, pirates sailed throughout the Atlantic Ocean pillaging villages and towns for anything that could make them money. They would often make stops in the Caribbean islands and in Central America, where there were large parrot populations. When their eyes laid on these colorful, noisy birds flying from tree to tree, they saw gold bars. The exotic pet trade was huge in Europe (especially in Paris, according to the book Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots) and the well-to-do paid big bucks for a chance to have the coolest pet on the block. Additionally, there are records indicating that parrots were also used as bribes for government officials.

Robert Louis Stevenson freely admitted he took the idea of parrot on a pirate’s shoulder (as in the one that sat on Long John Silver’s shoulder in Treasure Island) from the book Robinson Crusoe, a book that wasn’t about pirates (but they do make an appearance or two), but rather about a man stranded on a tropical island. So, if you lived in the 17th century and saw a parrot on a pirate’s shoulder, it was most likely not going to be there for long. That bird was just another way for a pirate to earn a few extra bucks. And, of course, parrots poop pretty much any time they want, so having one perched on your shoulder for any length of time probably wasn’t the best idea.

Peg legs weren’t common because amputated legs usually meant a quick death.

Pirates would often get hurt, sometimes quite severely, during battle. At the time (and even in better, non-seafaring conditions), amputations were the most efficient and prevalent way of saving a patient from gangrene and infection. Since real doctors were rarely aboard the ship, they had to call on the next best thing: the cook. Yes, the cook in many cases acted as the ship’s resident surgeon because, frankly, they knew how to handle a knife better than anyone. This led to many deaths due to the unsanitary conditions and the patients bleeding out. After all, cooks knew how to chop, but weren’t generally otherwise well versed in treating bleeding limbs.

While surviving amputated hands was more common, there were pirates that did survive an amputated leg. For those lucky  souls who wanted a “prosthetic,” wood was the most abundant and cheap resource. The whole  ship was made of it.

However, having a peg-leg wasn’t exactly a way to make yourself a valuable crew member aboard a ship being tossed around on the ocean, so even if you survived the amputation and healed up just fine, your career as a pirate was probably over. Needless to say, the myth of a prevalence of peg legged pirates has been very much exaggerated in fiction.

Buried treasure was usually found very quickly and no one needed a map

There have only been three well documented instances throughout pirating history where a pirate admitted to burying “treasure.” In 1573, Sir Francis Drake buried some gold and silver because, after robbing a Spanish mule train, he and his men couldn’t carry it all in one trip. By the time they came back to get rest of their plunder, it had been dug up by the very same people he had stolen it from in the first place.

In the middle of the 17th century, the particular cruel Dutch pirate Roche Braziliano, who himself “roasted Spanish prisoners on wooden spits until they told him where they had hidden their valuables,” was finally captured. While being tortured, he told his captors (the Spanish) where he had hidden his valuables — on the Isla de Pinos, off of Cuba. The Spanish promptly located and took what was owed to them.

Despite the many rumors and myths of Captain William Kidd’s missing treasure, it was actually found on Long Island in 1699… before Captain Kidd even died. The English tracked it down while Kidd rotted in jail and used it as evidence against him. While there are still rumors that his treasure ship is at the bottom of the sea, that is a legend.

So while there probably were instances of pirates temporarily burying treasure that nobody ever found out about, as far as well-documented history goes, all known pirate treasure that has ever been buried has already been found.  In general, pirates liked to spend or trade their loot, not hoard it.

The well-known pirate expression “shiver me timbers” was popularized by Disney. 

Many pirate sayings, like “shiver me timbers,” were actually invented after the golden age of piracy and not by pirates. The earliest use of “shiver me timbers” came from Captain Frederick Marryat’s 1835 book Jacob Faithful (published about hundred years after the golden age of piracy), when a character said mockingly, “I won’t thrash you Tom. Shiver my timbers if I do.”

Years later, “shiver me timbers” became a much more iconic pirate expression thanks to, once again, Treasure Island’s Long John Silver. But we aren’t talking about the 1883 book version. The phrase entered our pop culture lexicon when the actor Robert Newton, who pretty much set the gold-standard from that movie on for how a pirate should look, talk and act, used the saying in the 1950 Disney film Treasure Island. Yes, a Disney movie.

As for all the “arrs,” this was also popularized by Robert Newton, who just so happened to be from the same area of England that the fictional Long John Silver was from – England’s West Country. At least in Newton’s time (born in 1905), using “arr” in regular conversation acted as a confirmation, like “okay” in America or “eh” in Canada. Additionally, since fishing and shipyards were a part of everyday life in West Country, maritime sayings were used often as well. So, while Long John Silver was a fictional character, his speech patterns weren’t wholly so in the movie, though perhaps didn’t reflect those of the golden age of piracy. Given there were pirates that hailed from this region, it’s possible that once this specific vociferation became common in the West Country, that these pirates said “arrr.”

All that being said, many more pirates came from different parts of England and non-English speaking countries, so the way they talked certainly varied. As described by pirate historian Colin Woodard, pirate ships “included large numbers of Scots, Irish, Africans, and French, as well as a smattering of Dutchmen, Swedes, and Danes. Of those of English origin, the largest number were probably from London, then by far the empire’s largest port and city.”

That’s not to mention the evolution of speech over time, sometimes with dramatic shifts. But either way, while it’s theoretically possible that some pirate out there during the golden age of piracy and after said “arrrr,” the direct evidence for it is nonexistent.  Further, even if such a West Country pirate existed and the saying was around then, it certainly wasn’t remotely the norm among the general pirate populace.

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Bonus Facts:

  • As for other well-known pirate myths, yes, they did sometimes wear handkerchiefs and skull caps to protect themselves from the sun, just not as a fashion statement.
  • Eye patches were sometimes worn by pirates, but not because they were necessarily missing eyes. The general consensus among historians, despite the lack of first-hand accounts of the reasoning behind it, is that they were worn to allow them to see better in the darkness below the deck. While eyes adapt pretty quickly going from dark to light, it can take up to 25 minutes for eyes to fully adjust going from light to dark. So with the patch on, when sea folk had to suddenly go below the deck, one eye was already adjusted.
  • Robert Newton was not the first to have Long John Silver use a rolling “arrrr,” just the one to popularize it.  The first known instant of this is in the 1934 version of Treasure Island starring Lionel Barrymore.  Later, in 1940, Jeffrey Farnol used this in his work, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer.
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