Pirate Corner: Modern Myths and Counter-Myths
I examine some of the curious misapprehensions surrounding Golden Age piracy.
Content note: murder by drowning.
The popular image of the Golden Age of Piracy is a mélange of elements drawn from across and outside the relevant period (even if we count seventeenth century buccaneers as “Golden Age” alongside their early eighteenth century successors), and from later novels, plays, and films. It will come as no surprise that many elements of it are inauthentic, or at best unattested: but interestingly, for a number of these, modern counter-myths have arisen – attempts to explain or dismiss a particular pirate stereotype, which are themselves built on the very flimsiest of foundations, but have become the kind of thing that “everybody knows”.
Many a cartoon pirate comes equipped with at least one gleaming gold hoop earring (his obligatory tricorn hat hammering home the fact that he does belong in the Golden Age). There is no particular need to explain away a fashion choice, but the counter-myth exists for these: Georgian era sailors, law-abiding or otherwise, we are told, wore a given amount of gold in their ears so that, in the event of drowning, it would not be separated from their bodies as a purse might, and could be used to pay for their funeral when they washed up on shore.
Not only is there no source for this, there is in fact no evidence that (male) eighteenth century pirates habitually did wear earrings at all. The earliest mention of earrings as pirate wear is in a late, fictional source: Henry Wise’s 1864 novel Captain Brand of the Centipede. Furthermore, Wise’s novel is not set in the Golden Age, but in 1805 – and the pirates with gold in their ears are specifically identified as coming from African and Asian cultures in which earrings were normal wear for men at the time. In European culture, they had not been since well before the buccaneering era. (Of course, the sea dogs of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries will have worn earrings – as portraits of some attest – but so did men on land in that period.)
The pirate eye-patch is now such a cliché that it has, like the earring, attracted its own curious counter-myth. It is asserted that pirates wore them not because they had actually lost an eye, but in order to preserve night vision in one eye for going below decks on captive ships, reducing the risk of ambush.
This does seem to have an historical basis, but it has nothing to do with piracy or the eighteenth century. In fact, it is inspired by the practice of Cold War era air crews, some of whom would cover one eye in case the other was blinded by the flash of a nuclear blast.
A 2007 episode of Mythbusters “tested” the night vision hypothesis: however, the programme took an extremely narrow remit – all that they tested was whether using an eye patch in this way would, in fact, preserve usable night vision in the covered eye. Having proved that it would, they declared the counter-myth proven true: but they ignored a number of other factors, namely: whether the loss of peripheral vision and depth perception would be worth the gain, especially in a battle situation; the total lack of positive evidence that eighteenth century pirates did this; and, indeed, the lack of evidence that any pirate of the era actually wore an eye-patch. (It’s highly likely that some would have done, of course. Their profession was dangerous, and loss of an eye was sufficiently common to have a specified level of compensation set for it in some sets of pirate articles. But positive proof is lacking.)
The Jolly Roger
The black flag, with its skull-and-crossbones or similar design, was real. Depictions in which it is used by Barbary corsairs, or anybody before about 1690, may not be authentic; nor are some of the specific versions attributed to individual captains; but it existed. What’s less certain is that it was regularly used together with the red “no quarter” flag, which seems to be more strongly associated with the earlier buccaneers.
What is almost certainly a modern fabrication is the claim that the name “Jolly Roger” originally applied to the red flag and was later transferred to the black. The etymology given is jolie rouge or “pretty red” – a name which would chime well with the dark irony of typical pirate humour. But not only is there no evidence that the red flag was ever called “jolie rouge” or “Jolly Roger”: the original form of the name appears to have been “Old Roger”, a by-name for the Devil (who appears on some iterations of the black flag). It took some years for Old Roger to become “Jolly”, and there’s no reason to think he was ever “jolie”.
This is perhaps less well known than the other examples on this list: but the idea does enjoy some currency (going back to B. R. Burg’s Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, 1984) that a form of same-sex marriage existed among eighteenth century pirates.
It’s certainly true that pirates mostly rejoiced in flouting the official morals of the society from which they had fled. It’s also true that the most successful of the Golden Age captains, Bartholomew Roberts, was almost certainly gay (although Roberts himself was also probably the most moralistic pirate of his age, teetotal, strictly opposed to gambling, and a devout Christian). And while some have been eager to point out that the institution in question – matelotage, a semi-formalised life-partnership between two men – was not officially supposed to be romantic or sexual, in practice it is highly likely to have been used in many cases by men who were also sexual partners.
The only problem is that this was a practice associated with the all-male society of the original boucaniers, the independent huntsmen who settled the more remote parts of the French Caribbean in the early to mid seventeenth century, and from whom the word “buccaneer” was later derived. How long it survived, and whether it spread beyond the French frontier community, is impossible to determine on the available evidence: but if it had not already died out by the time Tortuga was pacified in 1684, there is certainly no reason to suppose that it lasted beyond then.
Walking the plank
Pirates have been drowning their victims, and jocularly bidding them walk to “freedom” over the side of the ship, since ancient times. This is not in dispute – but the defining detail of the conventional Hollywood depiction, in which the captive must walk to his or her doom along a projecting plank nailed to the deck, is unattested. Possibly the earliest mention, as for earrings, is in Wise’s Captain Brand (see above). Certainly Wise seems to have regarded it as a notion unlikely to be familiar to his readers, whereas by the time Robert Louis Stevenson began Treasure Island in 1881, it seems to have been part of pirate lore. It was not long after Treasure Island appeared that Charles Cronea, the last surviving member of Jean Lafitte’s crew – he had sailed with Lafitte as a ten-year-old cabin boy in 1815 – felt obliged to deny in a newspaper interview that his old captain had ever inflicted this fate on anyone.
West Country accents
“Aaaaarrrrgghhh!” is the stereotypical cry of the pirate, delivered in a distinctive West Country burr.
In fact, a plurality of English pirates of the Golden Age appear to have been Londoners. West Countrymen were indeed represented disproportionately relative to the population of England, but probably not relative to the sea-going populace: the South-Western counties have a lot of coastline and a long tradition of seamanship.
A number of factors are in play here. One is the conflation of the buccaneers and Golden Age pirates with Elizabethan and Jacobean sea dogs, many of whose most famous captains were indeed from the South-West. Another is the dominance of Bristol-born Edward “Blackbeard” Teach over popular imaginings of eighteenth century pirates. But modern fictional depictions probably played a greater role.
When Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, he made Long John Silver a Bristol native like Blackbeard; and in the twentieth century, Dorset-born actor Robert Newton defined the “pirate accent”, playing Silver in hugely exaggerated South-Western tones in Disney’s Treasure Island (1950), and going on to portray Blackbeard in 1952, and Silver again in a 1954 sequel and 1956 TV series. Every West Country pirate since has stood in the shadow less of real pirates than of Robert Newton.