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Pirate Myths and their Origins

Author: Ed Foxe

Black Tooth McPhee stepped from the jolly boat, the shallow salt water seeped into his left boot through the holes, the wooden stump of his right leg sank slowly into the sand. With his one good eye he surveyed the line of trees about twenty yards away while his parrot, Peggy, who was perched upon his shoulder pecked at the cord which held the patch over his other eye. With the hook on his hand McPhee pushed Peggy away, so she took instead to biting his earring.

"Aaargh," he said after a quick glance over his shoulder at his galleon moored in the harbour, "this be a fine place for the buryin' of me treasures."
....
 

            Black Tooth McPhee perhaps sums up everything which as children we thought we knew about pirates, and which we now realise we don't. But why did we think all pirate crews had an old sea cook with a wooden leg, a captain with a parrot and at least one hook and two eye-patches elsewhere in the crew? We might dismiss tales of buried treasure and comedy "mummerset" accents out of hand now that we're grown ups, but should we?

 
Parrots and other pets.

            One of the most enduring parts of the popular image of a pirate is a green parrot sitting on the shoulder squawking lines like "pieces of eight" and "pretty polly", and although fiction has planted this idea on us it does have a reasonable grounding in fact. The most important source for our fictional pirates having parrots is of course Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, where we are introduced to Captain Flint, Long John Silver's companion. The impact which Stevenson's creations have had on our conception of pirates is well illustrated, and further enhanced, by the characters of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, and subsequent books.

            Though less popular amongst children now Ransome's tales of school holidays in the lake district of the 1930s were children's favourites for decades. That Uncle Jim has a parrot and a cannon only confirm the children's suspicions that he is a retired pirate. The link with Treasure Island is further shown when the Blacketts and Walkers give Uncle Jim the nickname "Captain Flint", but the parallels do not stop there. Stevenson's Captain Flint shrieks "pieces of eight" to keep himself amused, but Ransome's Polly says little more than "pretty polly", and is told that he can't be a proper pirate's parrot unless he can say "pieces of eight", which he does at the end of the book. In Treasure Island Long John Silver offers his parrot to young Jim Hawkins, fearing that a prison would be no place for a wild bird, and in Swallows and Amazons Uncle Jim gives Polly to Able Seaman Titty saying it would be much better for a parrot to be around young people than with a retired pirate like himself.

            So much then for the fictional roots, but how many pirates actually had parrots? Exotic pets were certainly popular amongst sailors, if for no other reason than the high price they could command in the European markets, and parrots were especially popular, perhaps because they could be taught to talk. Several probate inventories of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries list parrots or parrot cages amongst the possessions of seamen, but most importantly perhaps is the description of parrots to be found in William Dampier's journal of his circumnavigation in which he describes the parrots of Campeachy Bay as "yellow and red, very coarsely mixed; and they would prate [talk] very prettily…" Most of the men with whom Dampier was associating at the time included a parrot or two in their possessions, as well as parrot cages.

 
Wooden Legs, Hooks and Eye Patches

            From the early pages of Treasure Island we are warned to beware the man with one leg, and in Peter Pan the children are terrorised by a pirate with only one hand. Since that time the pirates of popular culture have often been depicted as one legged, one eyed, or missing a hand (the film Cutthroat Island for example features characters missing each of those appendages), and the clunk of a wooden leg on a deck is a sound indelibly associated with pirates.

            Such injuries were not limited to pirates in reality, buccaneers were no more likely to lose a leg in battle than any other seaman of the time, but due to the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M. Barrie we tend to forget that such primitive prosthetics as a wooden leg or hook might be found on any law abiding citizen as well. Wooden legs are perhaps the most interesting of these prosthetics, for their origin in myth is more obscure than their true history. Contrary to popular belief Long John Silver did not have a wooden leg, he hobbled along on one leg and a crutch, the idea of a false leg perhaps came from that other great fictional seafarer Captain Ahab of Melville's Moby Dick. However, the use of wooden legs by historical pirates is well documented. The sixteenth century French buccaneer Francois le Clerc was nicknamed "Jambe de Bois" because of his wooden leg, and the life of Captain England in Captain Johnson's General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most Notorious Pirates contains the following passage.

"Makra did what he could to soften this beast, and plied him with warm punch; notwithstanding which they were in a tumult whether they should make an end of him, or no, when an accident happened which turned to the favour of the poor captain: a fellow with a terrible pair of whiskers, and a wooden leg, being stuck round with pistols, like the man in the almanac with darts, comes swearing and vapouring upon the quarter-deck, and asks, in a damning manner, which was Captain Makra."
 

Buried Treasure

            When Jim Hawkins found the map to Captain Flint's buried treasure among Billy Bones' possessions in Treasure Island the concept of buried pirate's gold entered popular culture for ever. Buried treasure is probably the most common and enduring theme for books and films about pirates since Robert Louis Stevenson put pen to paper and drew the first map of Treasure Island in 1881. In Swallows and Amazons more parallels with Treasure Island emerge when Roger and Titty go hunting for treasure on Cormorant Island, this time the heavy sea chest which burglars have hidden after stealing it from Uncle Jim's houseboat. In Peter Duck, the sequel to Swallows and Amazons the Walkers, Blacketts and Uncle Jim search for buried pirate treasure in the Caribbean.

            Films too have played their part in continuing the myth of buried treasure. Several versions of Treasure Island have been made of course, including the 1950 version starring Robert Newton and the 1990 version starring Charlton Heston. Cutthroat Island starring Geena Davis and Matthew Modine is a tale of a race to find buried treasure in an uncharted island and recover it before the villain of the piece, Dog Adams (played by Frank Langella). Most recently Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean concerns a treasure hidden in caves on yet another uncharted island.

            Historically however the practice of burying treasure was not a common one, and for sensible reasons. Unless there is a very good reason for keeping treasure hidden it is a waste , not only of time but also of the treasure itself, to bury it. Very few pirates ever amassed such a fortune that it needed to be buried when it could be far better employed in the taverns and brothels of the Caribbean or America. In addition it should be remembered that most pirate booty did not consist of gold and silver bars, but saleable goods such as silks and other fabrics, tobacco, spices, and slaves. The cargoes which the pirates stole were generally of little value until they could be taken into a port and sold. Occasionally pirates and privateers might capture a large quantity of gold or silver, but such successes were rare.

            Only two real instances of buried treasure stand out as worthy of mention today. In 1573 the greatest of all the Elizabethan sea rovers, Francis Drake carried out a legendary attack on the mule trains carrying silver from the Spanish mines of South America across the Isthmus of Panama to the Caribbean from where it would be transported to Europe. The mule trains were carrying somewhere in the region of 170,000lbs of silver between them, and of course Drake's men could not hope to carry such a weight back to their ships. They loaded as much as they could, buried the rest and set out for the coast to rejoin their vessels, which had unfortunately been forced out to sea by the arrival of powerful Spanish ships. Drake and his men buried the rest of their treasure and made a raft on which they put to sea to rejoin their ships. The same night the English ships returned to the shore and recovered the buried treasure.

            In 1700 William Kidd, not nearly so successful as Drake had been, sailed into New York. Kidd knew he was a wanted man and was fully expecting to be arrested, but was sailing to New York to visit his friend and supporter Governor Bellomont, with whose help he hoped to get away with his piracy. Kidd was not a clever man but he was sensible enough to know that if he needed to negotiate with Bellomont then his treasure would be a valuable bargaining counter. It was therefore important that his treasure did not fall into Bellomont's hands if he was arrested, so he made efforts to hide his loot on the islands at the mouth of New York harbour. When Kidd met Bellomont he gave him a detailed list of the treasure he had brought with him and told him where some of it was buried, but at their second meeting Kidd was arrested and eventually sent for trial in England. Bellomont recovered the treasure which Kidd had told him about, but this proved to be worth only £14,000, not £40,000 as Kidd had told him, and even this was only a fraction of the £400,000 which Kidd was widely rumoured to have captured, so Bellomont set about trying to find the rest of Kidd's loot. Long Island and Gardiner's Island were scoured but no more treasure was found. In England Kidd refused to reveal the whereabouts of any more of the treasure and when he was hanged in May 1701 all hope of finding it was lost. In the time since Kidd's execution treasure hunters have continued to search the islands for Kidd's lost treasure, but to no avail. It is of course possible that one or more of Kidd's friends, such as the Gardiners of Gardiner's Island knew the location of the treasure and quietly recovered it themselves. Equally possible is that there is no more buried treasure to be found: it would have been in Kidd's interest to exaggerate the amount of treasure available to Bellomont so if he promised £40,000 perhaps there was only ever £14,000.

            As much, if not more, attention has been paid by the treasure hunters to the tiny Oak Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, where in 1795 a young boy discovered what looked like a pit which had been filled in and over which hung an old block and tackle. The following day the boy came back full of expectations of buried treasure and armed with a shovel, but discovered nothing more than a pit too deep for him to fully excavate. For more than two hundred years others have tried to reach the bottom of the so called "money pit" of Oak Island, and though they have discovered that the shaft is an amazing feat of engineering not a single coin or gold bar has been recovered. There are theories a-plenty about the origin of the money pit; some suggest that the remains of Kidd's loot lies at the bottom, or that the treasure from a mid-seventeenth century Spanish shipwreck, recovered by the English in the 1680s was the reason for the elaborate burial. Less sensible speculations include theories that the money pit was dug by aliens or that the treasure of the Knights Templar (possibly including the Holy Grail itself) is to be found there.

            Archaeological evidence indicates that the pit was begun in the late seventeenth century at the earliest and the early eighteenth century at the latest, which supports ideas of Kidd's treasure or buried Spanish gold, but completely destroys any speculation concerning Knights Templar. The enormity of the project suggests work lasted several months at least, probably several years, which makes it unfeasible that it might be Kidd's treasure. We are left then with fewer and fewer possibilities, and must ask ourselves why anyone would undertake an engineering project lasting such a long time to bury some sort of treasure which might easily be hidden in a hole dug in a day. The truth about the Oak Island money pit is that there is no real evidence to show that anything at all is buried at the bottom, let alone pirate treasure, and indeed some serious investigators doubt the existence of the shaft at all. We will probably never know who dug the pit or why, the only certain thing about Oak Island is that credulous treasure seekers will continue to bankrupt themselves trying to find an treasure hoard which probably isn't there.
 
 
Walking the Plank

            The origins of walking the plank are lost in the mists of time, but it is fair to say that for the last century or so at least it has been as popular pirate motif as buried treasure. By 1930 when Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons it was firmly enough established as the favourite pirate method of execution that the Blacketts and younger Walkers thought it was the logical conclusion to their capture of Uncle Jim's houseboat. In almost every film from Cutthroat Island to Carry On Jack somebody has been made to edge their way along a narrow plank before falling into the deep below them.

            In actual fact, while pirates seem to have used almost every other torture under the sun, walking the plank does not feature in any account from the early eighteenth century at all. Pirates sometimes employed a torture known as "sweating", when they were made to run round and round the mast of the pirate ships until they could run no more and collapsed. More cruel perhaps were the pirate crew who in 1718 tied one of their prisoners to their main-mast and threw glass bottles at him, before putting him out of his agony by using him for target practice. Victims of the pirates who refused to reveal the whereabouts of their possessions or treasure if they had any could expect to be tortured until they told the pirates of its whereabouts. Placing lighted tapers between a victim's fingers was a torture used by a number of pirates including the sixteenth century Stephen Heynes and the eighteenth century Edward Low, Heynes in fact was so cruel that on one occasion his crew of battle-hardened cutthroats begged him to stop torturing his victims as they themselves could stand to watch no more. Women were not exempt from pirate cruelty either, for when Avery captured the Gang I Sawai his men repeatedly raped all the women on board, even the elderly. In the Caribbean, Spanish ladies might be stripped naked (even more humiliating then than it would be now) and tortured, or threatened with torture until they gave up their jewellery, one lady was forced to stand in a barrel of gunpowder with lighted match held near her face until she revealed the hiding place of her treasure.

            However, despite all these cruelties, and many many more it is not until1829 that the historian is able to identify an actual occurrence of plank walking. The Times newspaper of the 23rd of July of that year carried a story of the attack of the Dutch ship Vhan Fredericka by pirates in the sea near Cuba. After firing a gun at the Vhan Fredericka the pirates boarded her and began to search her for gold. The crew refused to reveal where the gold was hidden so the pirates tied their arms together, blindfolded them and tied cannon balls to their feet before making them walk the plank. A passenger who gave the pirates the information they wanted was spared and put ashore. Though this incident may have inspired the writers of fiction and film it lies a century after the Golden Age of piracy.

 
Earrings

            The excellent late nineteenth century paintings by artists such as Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth show many pirates sporting gold rings in their ears, and one question frequently asked is why pirates wore earrings. A number of theories are put forward, all seemingly backed up by evidence which the theorists claim is irrefutable. Earrings were perhaps worn in case a man was lost overboard, then whoever found his washed up body could use the gold to pay for a decent funeral, or perhaps if a pirate was killed at sea his earring would be taken by the ship's cooper in payment for making a barrel in which to transport home his body for burial. Possibly pirates knew that the ear can be an acupuncture point, both for improved eye sight and to relieve sea-sickness. On the other hand maybe earrings were worn as a symbol of having achieved some great feat, such as a circumnavigation of the globe, or a crossing of the Equator. If pirates did indeed wear earrings at all the simplest and perhaps most likely explanation is that earrings were a fashion statement, just as they were before the Golden Age of piracy and just as they have been since.

            I say "if" pirates wore earrings because there is very little evidence to suggest that they were ever as popular as romantic nineteenth century artists would have us believe. At the turn of the eighteenth century earrings were not as fashionable amongst men as they had been fifty or a hundred years previously, neither on land or at sea, so there is no real reason why pirates should have worn earrings. Amongst the wills of seamen of the period we often read of gold rings, gold or silver buttons and buckles, but not of earrings. Further, one eminent pirate scholar, after much searching was able to find one single solitary example of a pirate possessing an earring, and that was listed not amongst his apparel but amongst his possessions with a large amount of other jewellery, suggesting that it was not worn. Earrings appear to be so rare that one seamen on an English warship slightly later than the Golden Age of piracy was genuinely asked by his captain whether he was a woman or not, because he was wearing an earring.

 
Galleons

            Although large galleons and men-of-war are the normal types of pirate ships shown in the movies they are not often referred to in the works of fiction that have shaped our ideas about pirates. The Hispaniola in which Jim Hawkins and his companions sail to Treasure Island is a two masted schooner, as is the Avenger in Byron's The Corsair. In Peter Pan Captain Hook sails in a two masted big, and in Peter Duck the Swallows and the Amazons are chased by the Viper another schooner. Although larger ships occasionally feature in works of fiction, such as The Pirate by Walter Scott for example, it is for other more practical reasons that larger ships are more common in films. One of the principal problems with featuring smaller vessels in films is the limited deck space on which to put cameras, lights, sound equipment, director, special effects team and all the other members of the film crew, even without the actors trying to perform their scene. If larger vessels are more practical for the movies they are also of course more spectacular. In a book we can be easily impressed by a well written description of a schooner with fresh painted blocks and pulleys, keen graceful lines, taut manilla rigging, served and parcelled shrouds and sails of clean white canvas, in a film such details would not be seen, so size becomes more important to awe the viewer.

            Historically pirates seem to have preferred small sloops and schooners for their speed, manoeuvrability and shallow draught which enabled them to sail up rivers and over shoals. Lightly armed, but heavily manned these ships would be enough to overcome all but the most heavily armed merchantmen, and would be fast enough to flee from naval warships. However, there were some pirates who did sail in larger ships. Avery's Fancy was a privateer ship of 30 guns, probably of frigate design, and Bartholomew Roberts' last ship carried 40 guns and was large enough to give battle to HMS Swallow for a couple of hours. The most famous large pirate ship is probably Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge, described by Charles Johnson as a "great ship" and "man of war". The Queen Anne's Revenge had originally been a French slave ship until captured by Blackbeard, who fitted her out with 40 guns and terrorised the American coast with her before deliberately running her aground off North Carolina.

 
West Country Accents

            If popular belief is correct then all pirates spoke with a West Country accent, their sentences filled with "aaargh"s and "oi be a pyrit"s. Did some magical change take place when a seaman in the merchant or Royal Navy changed his ways and became a pirate, did the simple Londoner or North Country lad suddenly come from Devon or Dorset instead? Of course not, and the common, and sometimes comical accent given to pirates in the movies is no more accurate than any other would be. The fact is that accents varied as much in the Golden Age of Piracy as they do now, and since a pirate crew might be made up of men from all over the world the range of accents would be widely varied. There were of course pirates from the English West Country (the South West peninsula of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, and Somerset), including Henry Avery, Blackbeard and at least three of Low's crew. It is because of two of these, one real, one fictional, and their portrayal by a Dorset man in the movies that the notion of "pirate speak" came about.

            Robert Newton, one of the most popular actors of the mid-twentieth century, was born in Dorset in the West Country, but travelled to Hollywood to make films, including two in the early 1950s which have coloured our perception of pirates ever since. In Treasure Island (1950) and Blackbeard the Pirate (1952) Newton played Long John Silver and Edward Teach (Blackbeard) respectively, and since both men supposedly came from Bristol, Newton used his natural West Country accent for both parts. Both films were, and indeed still are, popular and the larger-than-life Newton has become forever after associated with pirates.

 
Pirate Nicknames

            Some of our favourite pirates from popular culture have nicknames which sum up for us their physical or personal characteristics, "Yellowbeard" for example, or the "Dread Pirate Roberts" or "Dog Adams" from popular films. Treasure Island gave us "Long John Silver" and "Black Dog";  "Captain Hook" surely cannot be a real name, but must have been adopted by that man after he lost his hand to a crocodile, and Peter Duck tells us of the pirate "Black Jake".

            Pirates of history too had nicknames or titles, the most famous of which must of course be "Blackbeard", the nickname of Edward Teach. "Black" Bart Roberts was perhaps so called for his callousness, while "Long Ben" Avery and "Calico" Jack Rackham are more descriptive physically. French buccaneers particularly seem to have been fond of giving nicknames to their leaders who had been wounded, such as "Jambe de Bois" (who had a wooden leg) and "Borgne-Fesse" ("half buttock", who had received an injury to his backside).
 
Further Reading
Fiction

Coral Island. R.M. Ballantyne

Masterman Ready. Captain Marryat

Peter Duck. Arthur Ransome

Peter Pan and Wendy. J.M.Barrie

Swallows and Amazons. Arthur Ransome

The Corsair. Byron

The Pirate. Sir Walter Scott

Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Non-Fiction

A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. Captain Charles Johnson

Brethren of the Coast. Peter Kemp and Christopher Lloyd

Dampier's Journal. William Dampier

Pirates. David Mitchell

Pirates 1660-1730. Angus Konstam

Sailors, English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775. Peter Earle

Under the Black Flag/Life Among the Pirates. David Cordingly

 

 


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