The Real Pirates of the Caribbean: What the Movies Got Wrong

David Cordingly/Photo by Shirley Cordingly
David Cordingly/Photo by Shirley Cordingly

David Cordingly was for twelve years on the staff of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, where he was curator of paintings and then head of exhibitions. He is a graduate of Oxford, and the renowned author of the definitive book on pirates, Under the Black Flag, as well as Seafaring Women and Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander. His latest book, Pirate Hunter of the Caribbean, is on sale May 17, 2011. Here, Cordingly stops by Signature as we near the premiere of the latest Rob Marshall-directed, Johnny Depp-starring film in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" saga to set the story of sea rovers straight.

In the years between 1715 and 1725, there was an explosion of piracy in the Caribbean that was comparable in some ways with the recent outbreak of piracy in the seas off Somalia. So many ships were attacked that the authorities were forced to take drastic measures: Warships were dispatched to capture the pirates and the ringleaders were tried and hanged and their bodies prominently displayed on gallows at the entrance to seaports.

The majority of the eighteenth-century pirates were working-class sailors: naval deserters, redundant merchant seamen, and former privateers. They were not the heroic, romantic characters portrayed in the movies by Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks Sr., nor were they the affable rogues of the type depicted by Robert Newton in "Treasure Island"; nor did they have the zany charm of Johnny Depp's Captain Sparrow. They were hard men notorious for their foul language, heavy drinking, and casual violence.

Pirate ships in the movies also bear little resemblance to the vessels actually used by the real pirates. Hollywood pirate ships are usually large three-masted galleons, presumably because these provide plenty of deck space for cameras, crews, and lively action sequences. The real pirates operating in the Caribbean preferred fast, single-masted vessels of the type then known as sloops. Their speed and their shallow draft enabled them to evade naval ships by outpacing them and hiding out in shallow creeks.

Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island in 1883, most pirate stories, whether novels or films, have centered around a treasure map and buried treasure. Although Captain Kidd is known to have buried some of his treasure on Gardiners Island off New York, this was unusual because the usual practice of pirates was to head for the nearest port and spend their loot on women, gambling, and drink. Walking the plank is another myth associated with pirates. This probably owes its origin to Peter Pan but it became an essential sequence in every pirate film from the 1930s onward. The real pirates either let their victims go once they had ransacked their ships, or they marooned them on the nearest island.

Not everything traditionally associated with pirates proves to be untrue. The black flag with the skull and crossbones (or variations involving crossed cutlasses or a whole skeleton) came into common use among the pirates of the Caribbean around 1700. The flag's message was "surrender or die" and, when accompanied by a cannon shot, grenades, and a deck swarming with pirates waving cutlasses, it invariably achieved its purpose.

And what about wooden legs and parrots? There is plenty of evidence to show that some pirates had wooden legs to replace limbs lost in battle or shipboard accidents. Parrots were frequently collected by sailors and by pirates. They made colourful souvenirs to take home from tropical regions and if they failed to impress wives and girlfriends they could always be sold for a good price in the bird markets.