Swash-Buckling Facts About Pirates

April 10, 2017 | Miles Brucker

Swash-Buckling Facts About Pirates

Often portrayed in popular culture in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, plays such as Pirates of Penzance, and books such as Treasure Island, pirates have captured our imaginations for years.

Here are a few things you might not have known about these water bandits.

Pirates Facts

1. So Literal

The English word “pirate” is derived from the Latin term “pirata” which means sailor or sea robber and from the Greek word “peirates” which literally means “one who attacks ships.”

Pirates factsFlickr, Tom Francis

2. The Bird is the Word

The spelling of the word wasn’t standardized until the eighteenth centuries and “pirrot,” “pyrate,” and “pyrat,” were commonly used until then. Maybe “parrots” got confused and thought they were pirates as well.

Pirates factsPirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Walt Disney Pictures

3. Early Adopters

The earliest documented instance of piracy was in the 14th century BC, when the Sea Peoples, a group of ocean raiders, attacked the ships of the Aegean and Mediterranean civilizations. It’s always nice to be the first to market.

Pirates factsFlickr, Gwydion M Williams

4. Honor Amongst Thieves

The ancient Greeks regarded piracy as a viable profession and considered it an entirely honorable way of making a living with literary works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey making many references to the abduction of women and children to be sold into slavery. Yup. Perfectly honorable.

Booing Me FactsWikimedia Commons, Pete unseth

5. God Loves Pirates?

The rulers of Minoan Crete were the first to raise a navy specifically for the purpose of battling piracy. He managed to clear the surrounding waters of piracy for a time, until his navy was destroyed by a tsunami around 1400 B.C. and piracy resumed.

Pirates factsFlickr, Nathan Hughes Hamilton

6. Change the Channel

Pirates would often prowl narrow sea channels that funneled shipping into predictable routes. Examples included the waters of Gibraltar, the Strait of Malacca, Madagascar, the Gulf of Aden, and the English Channel.

Pirates factsWikimedia Commons

7. A Man of Many Talents

Julius Caesar was once kidnapped and briefly held by Cicilian pirates and held prisoner. When the pirates asked for a ransom of 20 talents ($600,000 in today money), he scoffed at them and demanded they ask for 50 talents.

Pirates factsWikimedia Commons

8. A Man of his Word

Whilst incarcerated by pirates, Caesar treated them like his subordinates and somehow managed to gain their respect. However, he told them that when he was released, he would return, hunt them down, and crucify them. Upon his release, Caesar made good on his promise, raised a private navy, and killed all the pirates, who hadn’t taken him seriously and didn’t even bother to leave the island where Caesar had been held. Caesar got his 50 talents back.

Julius Caesar FactsPicryl

9. They Got Around

The most widely known and far-reaching pirates in medieval Europe were the Vikings, seaborne warriors from Scandinavia who raided and looted between the 8th and 12th centuries. The raided the coasts, rivers, and inland cities of all Western Europe as far as Seville, and also the coasts of North Africa, Italy, and all the coasts of the Baltic Sea. They were feared marauders. How times change.

Vikings on a sandy battlefield dune.Getty Images

10. Crime and Punishment

In 1241, an English pirate named William Maurice was the first person known to have been hanged, drawn, and quartered, indicating the severity with which then-King Henry III viewed the crime of piracy. Pretty severe, if you’re wondering.

Pirates factsWikipedia

11. Pirates of the Mediterranean

Although the Atlantic and Caribbean pirates were heavily romanticized, Mediterranean pirates equaled or outnumbered them at any given point in history. And yet they never got a Disney ride of their own. Now THAT’S piracy.

Pirates factsWikipedia

12. Size Matters

Pirate galleys were small, nimble, lightly armed, but heavily manned in order to overwhelm the often minimal crews of merchant ships. Because of their agility, pirate craft were generally very difficult to hunt down. As they say, it’s not the size of the ship, but the motion of the tiny craft filled with bloodthirsty seamen.

Pirates factsFlickr, Mary Harrsch

13. Row Row Row Your Boat

Using oared vessels to hunt pirates was common practice in both the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and the British even built hybrid sailing vessels with oar parts on the lower decks for the specific purpose of pirate hunting.

Pirates factsWikipedia

14. Garbage Boat

Chinese pirates used junks, a ship with a robust sail layout. Junks that were armed with carronades and other weapons for naval or piratical uses were called war junks. The ship probably did not appreciate being called junk.

Pirates factsWikipedia

15. The Couple That Raids Together

Chinese pirates were a huge problem, with Ching Shih and her husband Zheng Yi commanding tens of thousands of men, enough to combat the Qing Navy.

Ching Shih factsCaptain of Destiny(2015), TVB

16. Holy Pirate War!

In the 15th and 16th centuries, there were Muslim pirates known as Barbary corsairs who had a Christian counterpart in the Knights of Saint John. The two sides were described as a “mirror image of maritime predation, two businesslike fleets of plunderers set against each other.”

Pirates factsWikipedia

17. Libertalia or Bust!

In the late 17th century, rumors abounded of a pirate utopia known as Libertalia, an anarchist colony in Madagascar founded by pirates under the leadership of the possibly fictional Captain James Mission. According to legend, Libertalia lasted for about 25 years and its precise location is not known. Unless you play Uncharted IV, which is an awesome game.

Pirates factsWikipedia

18. By the Pirates, For the Pirates

Many pirate communities operated as limited democracies, instituting a system of checks and balances similar to the one used by the present-day United States.

Orlando Bloom facts Pirates of the Caribbean: At World

19. Ladies of the Golden Age.

Mary Read and Anne Bonny were two of the most famed female pirates of all time; they’re the only two women known to have been convicted of piracy at the height of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Anne Bonny factsBlack Sails (2014–2017), Starz!

20. Jamaican Me Piratey

Spanish anti-pirate ships forced Caribbean buccaneers to move from Hispaniola to Tortuga and the limited resources there forced even more piracy, which was further augmented after the English captured Jamaica from the Spanish and freely granted letters of marque to buccaneers, essentially creating a pirate town.

Pirates factsPirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Walt Disney Pictures

21. Expansion Pack

Caribbean pirates expanded beyond the Caribbean when an earthquake in 1692 destroyed Port Royal and reduced the attractiveness of the Caribbean as it eliminated the pirates’ chief market for fenced plunder and, at the same time, merchants and governors from largely ignored English colonies such as Bermuda, New York, and Rhode Island funded pirate voyages in the hopes of raising more gold for their provinces.

Pirates Of The Caribbean Movies factsPirates of the Caribbean: At World

22. Follow the Money

With the Caribbean dwindling, many pirates started targeting Spain’s Pacific coast colonies as well as the Indian Ocean, which served as passage for high-value luxury goods like silk and calico and the added benefit of not being patrolled by a powerful navy. Really, they were just asking to be robbed.

Pirates factsWikipedia

23. Origin Story

A number of famous pirates came out of this era, including Thomas Tew, Henry Every, Robert Culliford, and William Kidd (who’s identification as a pirate is subject to much controversy).

Pirates factsWikipedia

24. Kidding Around

William Kidd, or as he was known, Captain Kidd, was requested by an American governor to attack his fellow pirates, but was himself declared a wanted pirate, an accusation that was confirmed when he took an Indian ship hired by Armenian merchants, which just happened to be captained by an Englishman who held passes promising him protection of the French crown. Though he had been commissioned to take French ships, it didn’t hold up in court and he was summarily executed. He clearly needed a better lawyer.

Pirates FactsWikipedia

25. Boredom is the Mother of Bad Behavior

Between 1713 and 1714, a number of peace treaties were signed, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession and left thousands of trained, bored sailors with an itch for seafaring and a need for money. So… blame the Spanish.

Pirates factsWikipedia

26. Founding Fathers

In 1715, pirates launched a major raid on Spanish divers recovering gold from a sunken treasure galleon near Florida. The leaders of the pirate force were Henry Jennings, Charles Vane, Samuel Bellamy, and Edward England, four names that would soon be enshrined in infamy. Upon return to Jamaica, they found that the Governor would not allow them safe harbor so, instead, they founded a new pirate base at Nassau, which would become a home base for many pirates and their recruits…

Blackbeard factsBlack Sails (2014–2017), Starz!

27. Shoo!

…that is until Woodes Rogers, a former privateer, became the Governor of the Bahamas, and drove out all the pirates. Sort of the way St. Patrick drove out all the snakes. Except Rogers did it with cannons.

Anne Bonny factsWikipedia

28. How Jolly

smal The origin of the name is lost in time, but one theory is that it stemmed from the name of the red flags used during naval warfare to signal “no mercy,” which were called Joli Rouge (“pretty red”) by the French and that non-French speaking pirates simply butchered the name.

Pirates factsFlickr, Olivier Bruchez

29. The Devil You Say

An alternate theory is that the name originated from a pirate named John Quelch, who had been flying a flag called the “Old Roger” off the coast of Brazil. “Old Roger” was the nickname for the devil. John was the first person to be tried for piracy outside England under Admiralty Law and thus without a jury. He was subsequently hanged.

Pirates factsWikipedia

30. Pirates Unite!

Before the skull and crossbones design was standardized, pirates flew all sorts of flags of their own design, most of which involved symbols of death and various colors. Pirate historians claim that most pirates who were active between 1716 and 1726 were part of two large interconnected groups sharing many similarities. This accounts for the rapid adoption of the skull and crossbones flag amongst many men operating across thousands of miles of ocean.

Pirates factsFlickr, Susanne Nilsson

31. Fire Face

Blackbeard (real name Edward Teach) was one of the most feared pirates of all. Before boarding a ship, he would weave hemp through his beard and light it on fire to intimidate his enemies. Yeah. That’ll do it.

Blackbeard factsBlack Sails (2014–2017), Starz!

32. Blackbeard: Graphic Designer

Blackbeard flew a flag of his own design, which featured a skeleton with horns against a black background. The skeleton held an hourglass in one hand and carried a spear pointing to a heart dripping with blood. And you thought the flaming beard was scary.

Blackbeard factsWikipedia

33. Blast from the Past

In 1996, Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was found off the coast of North Carolina. Thirty-one cannons and 250,000 artifacts have been recovered. One such artifact was a urethral syringe, which was used to treat syphilis with mercury. Ouch. Plot twist: mercury does not, in fact, cure syphilis.

Pirates factsWikipedia

34. Die Bart Die

Another famed Caribbean Pirate was Bartholomew Roberts, the pirate with the most captures who was famous for hanging the governor of Martinique from the yardarm of his ship. He was seen by many as a hero and his death (after being shot in the face with a cannon) was widely considered to mark the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Pirates factsWikipedia

35. Yo-Ho-Ho…

There were quite a few female pirates as well, including Mary Read, Anne Bonny, Grace O’Malley, and Ching Shih. When it came to gender equality, pirates were way ahead of the game.

Anne Bonny factsWikimedia Commons

36. …and a Bottle of Rum

The pirate’s drink of choice was grog, a mixture of rum, water, lemon juice, and sugar. Sounds like the recipe for a fantastic weekend.

Pirates factsPirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Walt Disney Pictures

37. iPatch

Pirates actually did have eye patches. One of the reasons given was that pirates wore patches to keep one eye adjusted to night vision for seeing below deck. Also, because they just look cool.

Pirates factsWikimedia Commons

38. A Swift Death

Although walking the plank was common in contemporary pirate lore, most pirates just killed people straight away because they weren’t James Bond villains who gave their enemies a chance to live.

Pirates factsPirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Walt Disney Pictures

39. Take All Prisoners

Pirates tended not to kill many people aboard the ships they captured. If the ship surrendered, they usually killed no one, because if it became known that pirates took no prisoners, victims would fight to the last breath, making victory more difficult and costly. Pirates were nothing if not pragmatic.

Orlando Bloom factsWikipedia

40. I Keelhaul You!

If pirates wanted to torture their foes, they would drag them from a rope behind the ship (a practice known as keelhauling), strand them on a desert island, or lash them with a whip.

Pirates factsPirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), Walt Disney Pictures

41. X Marks the Spot

Pirates didn’t always bury their treasure... They often needed money to spend their loot on grog, women, and whatever else it was that pirates liked.

Pirates factsWikimedia Commons

42. Nice Booty

Also, pirate treasure wasn’t always just gold and silver. Most of it was food, lumber, cloth, and animal hides. Y’know, practical stuff.

Pirates factsWikimedia Commons

43. Taking Medicine

In fact, the most highly-prized plunder was medicine. A doctor’s chest would be worth around $470,000 in today’s value.

Ching Shih factsThe Pirates (2014), Lotte Entertainment

44. Rules and Regulations

Each pirate ship had its own code of conduct that covered details such as how loot would be divided, who did what chores, and general expectations. One of the most common rules was “no fighting onboard.” If two pirates had a disagreement, they had to wait until they were on land before going at it. Besides, it’s difficult to “step outside” when you’re on a boat.

Anne Bonny factsBlack Sails (2014–2017), Starz!

45. Loot Bag

Splitting up the loot was fairly egalitarian with most of the crew receiving an equal share with the Captain and commanding officers receiving slightly more as per their agreement. On average, a pirate could expect the equivalent of a year’s wages from each captured ship. Crews of successful pirates would often receive a share valued at $1.17 million at least once in their careers.

Pirates facts Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man

46. Big Prize

One of the larger amounts taken from a single ship was that by Captain Thomas Tew from an Indian merchantman in 1692 with each ordinary seaman on his ship receiving a share worth £3,000 ($3.5 million today) and Tew himself receiving 2.5 times that.

Pirates factsWikipedia

47. No Money, Mo Problems

By contrast, an ordinary seamen in the Royal Navy received 19s per month ($580). Not surprisingly, over 42,000 seamen deserted.

Pirates factsPirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Walt Disney Pictures

48. A Royal Feast

As a way to prevent desertion and increase morale, the Royal Navy changed the rules so that plunder from captured ships went to the captors rather than the Crown. This led to some massive financial windfalls, the biggest of which was the capture of the Spanish frigate Hermione, which resulted in each individual seaman netting £485 ($1.4 million today) with the two responsible captains receiving £65,000 each ($188 million today). Essentially, the Royal Navy legitimized piracy.

Pirates factsWikipedia

49. Pirate love

Pirate mythology paints buccaneers and womanizing, bearded hooligans with a taste for rum. In truth, pirates welcomed homosexuality and even had their own form of gay marriage. Matelotage was a civil partnership between two male pirates. Matelotage partners openly had sex with each other, shared their property, and lived together.

Ching Shih factsThe Pirates (2014), Lotte Entertainment

50. Well, Not All Love Is Welcome Aboard

Pirate code decreed that any man found “seducing one of the latter sex and carrying her to sea in disguise, he shall suffer death.” Desertion was also punishable by death.

Pirates factsWikipedia

51. Same Idea, Bigger Guns

Piracy remains a huge problem in the 21st century, with modern-day pirates armed with rockets and machine guns using small motorboats to attack and board cargo ships.

Pirates factsWikipedia

52. I Am the Captain Now

Somalian pirates are amongst the most notorious of the modern-day pirates, prowling the waters in the Gulf of Aden. Many Somalis were forced into piracy when illegal fishing by foreign vessels and the offshore dumping of toxic waste by international conglomerates heavily depleted the fishstock in Somali waters.

Pirates factsPicryl

53. That’s what Insurance is for

Estimates are that modern-day piracy has resulted in worldwide losses of US$16 billion per year.

Pirates factsWikipedia

Sources: 1 2 3 4

More from Factinate

Featured Article

My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.

Dark Family Secrets

Dark Family Secrets Exposed

Nothing stays hidden forever—and these dark family secrets are proof that when the truth comes out, it can range from devastating to utterly chilling.
April 8, 2020 Samantha Henman

Featured Article

Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.

Madame de Pompadour Facts

Entrancing Facts About Madame de Pompadour, France's Most Powerful Mistress

Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
December 7, 2018 Kyle Climans

More from Factinate

Featured Article

I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.

These People Got Genius Revenges

When someone really pushes our buttons, we'd like to think that we'd hold our head high and turn the other cheek, but revenge is so, so sweet.
April 22, 2020 Scott Mazza

Featured Article

Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.

Catherine of Aragon Facts

Tragic Facts About Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s First Wife

Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but very few people know her even darker history.
June 7, 2018 Christine Tran

Dear reader,

Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to contribute@factinate.com. Thanks for your time!

Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at contribute@factinate.com. Thanks for your help!

Warmest regards,

The Factinate team

Want to learn something new every day?

Join thousands of others and start your morning with our Fact Of The Day newsletter.

Thank you!

Error, please try again.