Here there be Pirates!

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The latest &uot;Pirates of the Caribbean&uot; movie shattered records on its opening day last weekend pulling in more than $55 million. The History Channel is running a new special, &uot;The Real Pirates of the Caribbean.&uot; And don’t be surprised if, come Halloween, plenty of trick-or-treaters turn out in headscarves and sashes, wielding plastic cutlasses and fake parrots on their shoulders.

Shiver me timbers, maties!

It seems America is once more in love with all things piratical.

&uot;The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates&uot; arrived this spring, offering a plethora of perceptions and misconceptions about pirates throughout history.

Readers will learn everything from how captains communicated with their flags (more complex than the simple skull and crossbones we envision, it seems), to the types of weaponry and the ways pirate crews battled boredom during those long, dull months between attacks (carving hard cheese and conducting mock trials are a couple).

Intriguing answers, myths

The book answers some intriguing questions along the way. Why did pirates wear bandanas on their heads? (In addition to warding off the intense sun, they believed wearing them would prevent seasickness.) How does the term &uot;letting the cat out of the bag&uot; derive from seafarers? (The dreaded cat-o’-nine-tails was kept in a bag on the ship awaiting the next flogging.)

It also addresses many pirate myths.

Contrary to popular belief, a pirate who lost a hand in battle rarely replaced it with a hook (too unwieldy). Few kept monkeys or parrots as pets (though they did sell them in port to make extra money).

There are no records indicating pirates made anyone walk the plank. More pirates died from diseases like scurvy, typhus, yellow fever and dysentery than from battle wounds and sailing accidents, and more were wounded on board ship by flying debris than from enemy weapons. As for those movie scenes where a pirate is shown swimming toward an enemy ship with a knife clenched in his mouth, as it turns out, most pirates and sailors couldn’t swim.

If a pirate was fortunate enough to own a pair of boots, he only put them on before going into battle (they were a handy place to hide weapons); otherwise, barefoot was the safest way to navigate one’s way about ship.

According to the authors, pirates did wear earrings – at least one – as a sign they were as good as the noblemen they imitated. The jewelry also served as a sort of life insurance policy.

If a pirate was killed in action or died from disease or an accident, there would be enough value in his earring(s) to pay for a proper burial.

And yes, pirates loved wine, women and song - with the most popular crewmembers on ship those who could play a tune or sing a sea chanty.

‘The golden age’

According to authors Gail Selinger and W. Thomas Smith Jr., most of our ideas about pirates come from the so-called &uot;Golden Age of Piracy,&uot; the period from 1692 to 1725, when the likes of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd sailed the seas.

The famous and infamous seafaring rogues from that relatively brief span of time became the stuff of legend by the 19th century, with Robert Louis Stevenson bringing pirate adventures to vivid life with his novel, &uot;Treasure Island&uot; in 1883. In the early 20th century, J.M. Barry brought us the villainous Captain Hook.

Once moving pictures came along, audiences were entranced with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara as colorful and brave marauders of the seas.

Were these men and women whose exploits have reached mythic proportions really heroes, or were they villains?

Heroes and villains

Real-life pirates certainly haven’t always lived up to the romantic notions novelists and screenwriters have created for us.

Piracy itself goes back many centuries.

There were Viking pirates, male and female, who colonized many of the lands they invaded, and early Greek and Roman pirates (the Greek pirates were so feared, city-states used them to collect taxes).

As the authors note, piracy began &uot;the moment men lashed reeds together for boats to travel and trade along the waterways of the known world. Thieves and murderers have always been with us, as they always will be.&uot;

Piracy often started as a dispute over territory and sometimes, a dislike for one’s neighbors (some things never change), and escalated into a desire for great treasure – someone else’s. For many, the thirst for adventure, freedom and the possibility of wealth as a pirate was a welcome escape from a difficult life on the streets or in the navy, where floggings were routine and the job was thankless.

In the case of privateers, these captains were actually sanctioned by their government to seize foreign ships and their plunder in order to increase the nation’s coffers. Queen Elizabeth I was thrilled with the successes of men like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Grenville, who were hailed as national heroes and amply rewarded for their efforts for queen and country.

A fascinating historical footnote is the meeting of Elizabeth with Grace O’Malley. O’Malley, part of a proud Irish seagoing warrior family, was a legitimate merchant trader, a clan leader and a crafty pirate. When her family was imprisoned and their lands and herds confiscated, O’Malley petitioned the queen for her help and even traveled to England in hopes of an audience, in spite of the knowledge she could be arrested for piracy.

The two women went on to meet in private. Elizabeth ultimately granted the remarkable O’Malley all her requests.

A colorful cast

The book spotlights many such colorful characters, including Captain Morgan, Captain Kidd (who may have been a wronged privateer), Bartholomew Roberts, famed female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read and others, both well known and lesser known. It also features numerous photos and drawings that illustrate a pirate's life and, sometimes, death.

The book does not hesitate to point out the brutality practiced by some of these larger-than-life figures.

In the 21st century, modern-day pirates raid oil tankers, cargo ships and even cruise ships. As the authors point out, these individuals are viewed as thieves and murderers, just as their counterparts some three hundred years ago were viewed by those preyed upon. What will the future hold for our image of pirates?

I found this book fascinating and certainly enlightening. I didn't realize how many phrases, from &#8220cat's got your tongue” to &#8220going off half-cocked” could be traced to sailors and pirates. And it was interesting to read of the real Port Royal, featured in the fictional &#8220Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.

It's also interesting, in a time when females were largely viewed as men's physical and intellectual inferiors, to see how women like Bonny and Read used their wits, cunning and strength to survive in a man's world.

To learn more about the fascinating world of pirates through the centuries, pick up a copy of &uot;The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates.&uot; The book, which retails for $18.95, is available at major bookstores, online at and directly from the publishers at