Pirates have been a staple of pop culture for the past few hundred years, a romantic notion fixated on a whimsical life of pillaging, plundering and seeking buried treasure. But how much of reality got lost in those stories? Would we have really wanted a pirate's life?
While we typically think of the 18th-century pirate, the act of attacking and stealing from ships at sea has been around since long before that. In fact, one of the most high-profile incidents of piracy occurred when pirates kidnapped the Roman emperor-to-be, Julius Caesar, for ransom. Caesar was returned after the money was paid, but he then sent ships to track down and bring the pirates to justice.
But the real "Golden Age of Piracy" lasted from the late 1600s to early 1700s and took place along the Eastern Seaboard and the Caribbean. Merchant ships were a plenty, moving goods and people across oceans, allowing for pirates to board and plunder.
Life at sea was no day at the beach. According to David Moore, the curator of nautical archaeology at the North Carolina Martime Museum, "Life at sea was hard and dangerous, and interspersed with life-threatening storms or battles."
OK, bad news: Pirates didn't really bury their treasure. According to Marcus Rediker, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies and writes about 1700s maritime living, pirates didn't expect to live long enough to return for buried treasure. They usually blew their spoils on women and booze at "notorious pirate hang-outs in Port Royal and Tortuga," according to Cori Convertito, assistant curator of education at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida.
The terrifying result of a dangerous and difficult profession with a short life expectancy, many pirates really did have peg legs. According to Rediker, injury was far too common for 18th-century pirates. He explained that storms could often shift or dislodge heavy casks on board the ship, equipment could fall and injuries from cannonball shrapnel were devastating.
Also, shit was brutal. Like, really brutal. According to one particularly famous account, a pirate tied two prisoners to opposing trees, cut the heart out of one and fed it to the other, all in pursuit of the location of their village.
Another terrible thing about pirates? They didn't just let you walk off the plank and be done with it, eventually drowning in peace in the ocean as they sailed off. No, according to Convertitio, pirates loved to tie victims to the boat, toss them into the water and drag them under the ship, affectionately calling it "keel hauling."
Oh and did we mention, if you got caught before you died at sea, you were generally hung. In 1722, after the notorious "Black Bart" Roberts was killed and his crew captured, pirates were being captured and killed in massive numbers in America and Africa. While many pirates went to their hangings defiantly, they nevertheless led short, poverty-ridden and violent lives.
And as for the romanticism of living a free life at sea, many pirates were actually privateers who worked for England or the Netherlands, sailors who mutinied against the bad food, poor wages and intense discipline by their higher ups, according to Rediker. "Real pirates were rough and rugged working people who put their lives on the line in hopes of having a different way of life and getting money in ways they could not expect to get in normal British or American society," Rediker said.