Fictional pirates such as Captain Jack have captured the public’s imagination since the Victorian period. Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island was written in 1881 and became immensely popular while also perpetuating certain myths about pirate culture such as one legged pirates carrying parrots on their shoulders.
J.M. Barrie’s creation of Peter Pan also brought forward the idea of a fancier sort of pirate as seen in Captain Hook. All of these characters are somewhat dashing, yes bad or evil but we think of them as swashbuckling rogues who may be fun to perhaps have a drink with.
The pirates we often think of are from a period that is known as the “Golden Age of Piracy” which runs from 1650 to about 1720. This is a time when piracy was at its peak. Much of this piracy was happening in and around the Maritimes as well as the Caribbean, Bermuda and Africa.
Most likely, your average pirate dressed like your average sailor, though I’m sure some higher ranked seamen and captains may have worn more interesting things. And by interesting, I also mean scary. Most pirates looked to intimidate; fright was one of their best weapons.
One example would be Edward Teach, otherwise known as “Blackbeard”. Captain Blackbeard, like many pirates, had an image to keep up. He wore his immense black beard in ribbons and twists and sometimes twisted it over his ears. His flag (as well as other pirate’s flags) was meant to intimidate. His flag featured a skeleton spearing a heart whilst toasting the devil.
As you can probably guess by now, many pirates weren’t exactly jolly rogues like you may picture them. They genuinely struck fear into the hearts of their targets and would have been considered more frightening than whimsical in their heyday.
The pirate Ned Low is well known for his barbarity and also for having raided our coast. Low captured himself a fleet of small vessels and styled himself “Commodore.” He was well known for showing very little mercy. Most pirates had very low life expectancy rates because most countries carried a death sentence for pirates. Therefore they had no reason to take prisoners, they could not trade them even if they took them.
Low attacked a fishing fleet in Shelburne harbor in 1722. Low raised his Jolly Roger, declared no mercy would be given if any resisted. He then robbed 13 fishing vessels although his crew was very outnumbered. He took the largest boat, an 80 tonne schooner, made her his flag ship and sank the rest of the ships.
Low’s jolly roger was a blood red skeleton on a black background. Many people do not realize that pirates all had different coloured flags with different meanings. All were meant to intimidate.
Although the clothing we often imagine pirates wearing is often fantastical, the very creative, real flags are not shown enough.
Many pirates opted just to use a black flag or a red flag raised as a sign of being a pirate but many pirates had a sort of “brand” to keep up. The most common we see is a skull and cross bones on black or the variation of that (which is used in Pirates of the Caribbean) – a skull with two crossed cutlasses below it.
The flag with the cutlasses belonged to Calico Jack otherwise known as Captain Rackham. He is remembered as the captain who had both women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read on his ship.
Other less famous flags have a variety of insignia from arms holding swords, to demons, to even a man drinking with death. All of these flags were meant create fear and make people surrender.
As frightening as pirates would have been to our 17th and 18th century ancestors, there is something there that has captured our imaginations. Maybe it is the idea of adventure, having one’s own boat and making one’s own course? Maybe it is the idea of making yourself a legend, no matter who you are? Whether you are a man, a woman, poor or rich. One thing is for sure, that is that this community at least is very intrigued with pirates. We’ll get into what the difference between a pirate and a privateer is later though.