We all know that pirates were loveable rogues with pet parrots, a thirst for adventure, and a penchant for cheeky colloquialisms like “Ahoy, me hearties,” right? Well, not quite.
What we think we know about these sea dogs comes mostly from literature and Hollywood - the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, most recently. And anyone looking to the movies for historical accuracy will be sorely disappointed.
Films often take creative license to deviate from historical fact, and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are no exception. Let’s be real, they’re family films, and the real-life antics of pirates is far, far from PG certificate family fare.
Pirates were (and still are) violent, desperate thieves who terrorised the high seas. So why is the jolly swashbuckler character still pervasive in popular imagination? Well, the widespread romanticising of pirates can be traced back to the popularity of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which spawned a genre of pirate novels, which were later made into pirate movies, which in turn gave rise to comic books and Halloween costumes. The genre was all but dead when Disney adapted one of their theme park rides into a movie, breathing new life into it. The film was a runaway success and spawned a multi-billion dollar franchise.
Five films later, with a sixth in development, and Pirates of the Caribbean has become probably the most famous depiction of pirates in popular culture. So ready yer sea legs, because here’s our rundown of what they got right, and where they took a few liberties. Savvy?
25 Pirates Did Love Rum
"Welcome to the Caribbean, love," says Jack in the first film, proffering a bottle of rum to Keira Knightley, and it’s true, pirates frequently drank rum. Long-haul pirates, back in the day, didn’t just drink rum for fun, either, according to Forbes.
In the 18th century, ships usually stored three types of liquid sustenance: water, beer, and rum. First, they’d drink the water, because it was the first to turn rancid. Then they drank the beer, which had a longer shelf life. Once that was all tapped out, they’d move on to the rum. There was method to the madness, though it didn’t necessarily make for the most efficient crew.
24 Blackbeard Was A Real Pirate
The main villain in the franchise’s fourth instalment, On Stranger Tides, was Edward Teach Blackbeard, who was, in fact, an infamous pirate in the real world too.
Although Blackbeard was killed during the battle of Ocracoke Inlet in 1718, and the film is set in 1750, both in fiction and fact, Blackbeard had a fearsome reputation. This pirate, according to a British account written a half-dozen years after his death, “frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there [for] a long time.”
Reports from the time cited a large man “fierce and wild” eyes, who kept a brace of three pistols on a holster across his chest, a tall fur cap on his head, and lighted matches in his beard.
23 Women Did Sail The High Seas
Over the course of the first three films, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) goes from damsel in distress to Pirate Lord, and On Stranger Tides introduces Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a pirate every bit Jack Sparrow’s equal.
Although the real-life pirating world was dominated by men - in the 18th century, it’s hard to think of anything that wasn’t - there are some notable exceptions in the history books.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read were the most famous, and the pair played a leading role in a spree of raids against small fishing boats and trading sloops in the summer and fall of 1720, but they actually had quite a few female contemporaries. According to History, many of them disguised themselves as men, but it seems that was more to protect themselves than for any other reason.
22 The Clothing Was Accurate (Sort Of)
Although Captain Jack Sparrow’s getup is mostly the product of Johnny Depp’s flamboyant imagination, the films certainly got aspects of pirate garb correct. For example, real-life pirates and sailors did wear earrings, though not just to look dashing.
Back in the 17th and 18th centuries it was generally believed that piercing the ears with silver and gold improved one's eyesight. As for their clothes, pirates wore whatever they could get their hands on, so it would have been a mismatched combination of garments.
21 Queen Anne's Revenge Was A Real Ship
This ship appeared in Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and started out in the real world as a merchant sailing vessel launched from England in 1710. A year after the ship's launch, it was captured by the French and was used as a slave ship.
It was in 1717, near the island of Martinique, that the ship was captured and used as a vessel by pirates, as it is in the movie. Then in 1718, the notorious (and real) Blackbeard captured the ship and transformed it into one of the most formidable pirate ships ever, carrying 40 cannons and enough room for plenty of men and loot. It sank in 1718, and many believe that Blackbeard scuttled it on purpose.
20 Some Of Those Nautical Manoeuvres Were Spot On
There’s one famous scene in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie when the Interceptor, in a last ditch-attempt to shake the pursuing Black Pearl, drops anchor to make a sudden turn. This is a real manoeuvre called clubhauling, and it was only ever used in life or death situations because you would have to cut the anchor loose and abandon it as a result.
Losing one of your ship's anchors is not something a captain would willingly do unless he had a good reason to do so.
19 The Pirate Lingo Was Accurate (Some Of It, At Least)
Pirates probably had particular ways of speaking, but their language and accent likely bore little resemblance to what we associate with pirate language today. For that, we have to thank British actor Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in the 1950s. He defined the pirate accent and popularised many of the sayings we associate with pirates today, like “Arrrr" and "Mateys" and such.
But the Pirates franchise did include some terminology that was in use at the time, such as calling non-seafaring folk “landlubbers,” 'swabbing" the deck, and drinking “grog”(rum mixed with water). Whether a real-life pirate ever said, “Shiver me timbers” is unclear. We really hope it was a thing, however.
18 Pirates Really Did Fly The Jolly Roger
The black flag with the skull and crossbones (or variations involving crossed cutlasses or a whole skeleton) came into common use among the pirates of the Caribbean around 1700. The flag’s message was “surrender or die” and, when accompanied by a cannon shot, grenades, and a deck swarming with pirates waving cutlasses, it invariably achieved its purpose.
When they weren't flying the Skull and Crossbones, pirates weren't averse to flying the Union Jack or French or Spanish flags to suggest friendly intentions as they approached their prey, which is exactly the kind of sneaky behaviour we'd expect from these swashbucklers.
17 There Was Honour Among Thieves
Captain Jack inspires a surprising amount of loyalty from his crew, considering his antics, and it’s true to say that even among real-world pirates, there was a certain amount of honour among thieves.
According to history resource ThoughtCo., almost every pirate ship had a set of articles that all new pirates had to agree to. It clearly set out how the loot would be divided, who had to do what and what was expected of everyone. One example: pirates were often punished for fighting on board, which was strictly forbidden. Instead, pirates who had a grudge could fight all they wanted on land.
16 Pirates Did Wear Eyepatches (But Not For The Reasons You Think)
It's a pretty common misconception that pirates' eye patches were worn to conceal an empty eye socket. What they were actually for is much more interesting.
Pirates would often have to move between dark and light settings rather quickly, such as below and above the deck of a ship. By keeping a patch over one eye, it meant that they had a head start on at least one eye adjusting to the dark, a process that normally takes several minutes. The technique was so effective that keeping one eye closed is still a technique used in the military today for night survival.
15 Pirates Did Keep Pets On Board
Ever since Long John Silver clomped around on a wooden leg with a parrot on his shoulder, the literary and pop-culture conception of pirates has involved this colourful bird. But the parrot stereotype almost certainly has its roots in reality, according to Colin Woodard, author of The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down.
Pets were popular on ships but it had to be something that wouldn't need too much care or food. Monkeys were not uncommon - Captain Barbossa, in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, has one. But a parrot was more sensible because they don’t eat much, compared to a dog or a monkey, and what they do eat, things like seeds, fruits, nuts, can be easily stored on board.
14 14. The Flying Dutchman Really Did Exist
This ghost ship featured in the movies was inspired by the legend of the real ship of the same name. The story behind the Flying Dutchman begins in 1641, when Hendrik van der Decken and his crew were returning to Holland from the Far East when they, like all trade ships, had to risk the dangerous passage around The Cape of Good Hope.
Legend has it that, as van der Decken and his crew attempted to round the Cape, a storm began. The crew begged their captain not to sail into the storm. What happened next became 17th-century nautical folklore.
According to myth, van der Decken swore an oath to the Devil that he would round the Cape even if it took him until Doomsday (the day that the world will come to an end). This foolish act brought a terrible curse down upon the captain, his crew and his ship. From that moment forth they were forced to roam the mighty seas for all eternity as a ghost ship.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, sailors reported seeing the ghost ship roaming the seas around the cape.
13 Pirates Avoided Fighting Whenever Possible
There’s a popular misconception that pirates were always spoiling for a fight, but pirates were essentially just after the money. 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.
The Pirates of the Caribbean films and Captain Jack are quite realistic in that respect. Like most real-life pirates, Captain Jack really doesn’t want to fight unless he really has to, which is one of the reasons he spends so much time running away.
12 Made Up: Pirates Didn't Sail Ships That Big
Pirate ships in the movies bear little resemblance to the vessels actually used by the real deal. The Black Pearl, for example, is a large three-masted galleon, but the real pirates operating in the Caribbean preferred fast, single-masted vessels of the type then known as sloops.
Their speed and their shallow draft enabled them to evade naval ships by outpacing them and hiding out in shallow creeks, according to The Independent.
11 Made Up: Walking The Plank
Walking the Plank - as Elizabeth and Jack do in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - was probably not as common a form of punishment among real-life pirates as it is in Hollywood. This trope probably owes its origin to Peter Pan but it became an essential sequence in every pirate film from the 1930s onward.
On the whole, pirates probably preferred the swifter and simpler method of the "heave to,” which was simply tossing their unfortunate victims overboard, according to History. Or, of course, they came up with things much grislier than walking the plank.
10 Made Up: Herschel telescopes Weren't Invented Until 1774
There’s a moment in Dead Men Tell No Tales when George Swift finds Carina Smyth working with his telescope and says, "No woman has ever handled my Herschel.” William Herschel, the designer of the Herschel telescope, was thirteen years of age at the time in which the film is set, and he did not design the telescope until 1774, twenty-three years after the events of the film.
9 Made Up: Port Royal Was Actually Destroyed By An Earthquake
The Pirates franchise depicts Port Royal as a prosperous, bustling town and the main British port in the Caribbean in the early 18th century. But in real-world history, two thirds of Port Royal were destroyed by an earthquake in 1692. Some attempts were made to rebuild the city but these met with mixed success and numerous disasters. The town was largely abandoned in favour of the nearby Kingston which does not appear in the films.
8 Made Up: Navy Sailors In Uniform
The first Pirates of the Caribbean film is set during the reign of George I of England, who died in 1727. However, all the Royal Navy officers and sailors are uniformed in the film.
Historically, Royal Navy officers and sailors had no established uniforms at that time. Uniform regulations for naval officers were first issued by Admiral George Anson in 1748.
7 Made Up: A Crew That Small Sailing Such A Big Ship
Sailing a three-masted merchant vessel in this period required a considerable crew of around 30 to 40 at a bare minimum. Remember, only half of them are on watch at any given time. But a ship with cannons? It takes a crew of about eight to manage each gun of the size we’re seeing in the movies, plus a powder-man to run powder and a shot-boy to bring shot from the lockers. So that’s 10 more per gun.
Warships of the size and scale of the Flying Dutchman, or the Dying Gull in Dead Men Tell No Tales, or the three-decker Endeavor in At World’s End, would easily have carried crews of 300 to 500 in the regular navy.
6 Made Up: Saint Martin Was Never Ruled By The British
In Dead Men Tell No Tales, Saint Martin was an island affiliated with the British Empire which maintained a base there under the command of Lieutenant John Scarfield. Henry Turner made his way there after he escaped the destruction of the Monarch, and Jack Sparrow's boat, the Dying Gull, was also beached there.
Historically, however, Saint Martin was never controlled by the British. It was a colony of France and Holland since the mid-17th century, while the film is set in the mid-18th century, specifically in 1751.
5 Made Up: Merchant Vessels Never Flew The Union Jack
In The Curse of the Black Pearl, several British merchant ships in the film fly the Union Jack. But in real-world history, the use of the Union Jack at sea was limited to military vessels. In 1674 all British merchant vessels were specifically ordered to fly Saint George's Cross or the red flag with Saint George's Cross in the upper left canton, a flag which eventually evolved into the Red Ensign.
On Stranger Tides, the Union Jack was also used on the HMS Providence with a Saint Patrick's Cross, the symbol of Ireland, embedded on it. That version of the flag wasn't designed before the beginning of the 19th century, at least fifty years after the events of the movie.
4 Made Up: Davy Jones Was Not A Pirate With Tentacles
In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Davy Jones is a character with tentacles for a face, played by Bill Nighy. In nautical history, Davy Jones' was sailor slang for the evil spirits that lurked in the sea.
The phrase "Davy Jones' Locker" was an idiom for the bottom of the sea, and the entering point of the afterlife for the sailors and pirates. In folklore, ”Davy Jones" is often represented to be the devil, saint, or god of the seas.
3 Made Up: Singapore Wasn't Established Until 1819
In At World’s End, Singapore is depicted as a bustling port town and the headquarters of Sao Feng, the Pirate Lord of the South China Sea. Although the island flourished as a trading post for vessels such as Chinese junks, Arab dhows, Portuguese battleships, and Buginese schooners, it wasn’t officially founded, by Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles on behalf of the East India Trading Company, until 1819, years after the film was set.
2 Made Up: Ships Didn't Sail That Fast
The movies show numerous scenes of larger ships overtaking similar sized ships. While some of this can be chalked up to the fantasy elements of the film, in reality, ships would pursue each other for days because the differences in speed were only one or two knots among similar-sized vessels.
The ships in the films are large, multi-deck warships that would be lucky if they could muster 10 or 12 knots under full sail. Schooners, brigs, and frigates were smaller vessels with relatively more sail area, and were designed for speed, but these aren’t the ships so beloved of Hollywood pirates.
1 Made Up: Pirates Did Not Regularly Bury Treasure
Pirate lore is rife with tales of hidden treasure and maps where “X” marks the spot, but there are only a few reliable accounts of buccaneers actually burying their loot.
The real-life Captain Kidd famously buried treasure when he knew he was going to be tried as a pirate, but pirates were more likely to squander their spoils on women, rum and gambling as soon as they returned to port, according to History.
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. Like many other pirate myths, the concept of buried plunder was popularized by author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island, which involves a hunt for a cache of gold hidden by a salty ship captain.
References: www.history.com; www.wired.com; https://slate.com; www.thoughtco.com