Over the centuries a lot of myths around pirates have become popular, making it hard to untangle pirate fact from piratical fiction. Pirate expert Angus Konstam does some pirate myth-busting, stripping away the fiction to reveal just how real pirates operated in the early 18th century.
So, five pirate myths debunked:
1. Buried Treasure: Pirates didn’t bury treasure. Instead their plunder was kept on board the ship, before being divided up among the crew. The notion of buried treasure comes from Treasure Island where it was a useful plot device. Black Sails is based twenty years before the events of Stevenson’s classic novel. So too was a pirate treasure map, where “X” marked the spot. The only pirate known to bury anything was Captain Kidd, but that was outside New York, to prevent his plunder being seized by the city’s governor.
2. Pirate Speak: Today, we all expect pirates to talk in a rich West Country accent. 19th September is even International Talk like a Pirate Day, where people are encouraged to say “Avast me hearties”, or “Arrrr matey”. In fact, real pirates talked in whatever normal accent they happened to have. Some came from London, some from Bristol, some were Scottish, some were French – there was no recognisable pirate tongue. What we see as “pirate speak” all stems from Dorset-born actor Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in Walt Disney’s Treasure Island (1950).
3. Eyepatches and Peg Legs: Anyone dressing up as a pirate today would probably consider putting on an eyepatch, or pretend to have a peg leg or a hook for a hand. Again, this “look” has its roots in fiction – Long John Silver had a wooden leg in Treasure Island, while Captain Hook had a hook for a hand in Peter Pan. This though, at least had some basis in fact, as sailors could lose eyes or limbs in battle, or in a shipboard accident. While a pirate with a peg leg couldn’t climb the rigging, he could at least act as the ship’s cook, hence the one-legged cook Randall in Black Sails (played by Lawrence Joffe)
4. Walking the Plank: Pirates never made their victims walk the plank. That was the invention of J.M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan (1904). Real pirates of the Black Sails era wouldn’t bother. It was much easier to stab or shoot their victim and throw him over the side.
5. Hoist the Jolly Roger!: One of the few aspects of pirate life that hasn’t altered its potency over the centuries is the use of the pirate flag – the “Jolly Roger”. The term comes from the French jolie rouge, a reference to the red flag used by privateers in the 17th century. This developed into the black flag we know today, decorated with motifs designed to intimidate potential victims. Skeletons, skulls and weapons all served as a warning of what might happen if a victim refused to surrender.
This is where Black Sails, the international pirate show shot in our very-own coastal city, Cape Town, comes into its own, giving us a view of early 18th century pirate life which is as gritty as it is realistic.