• Weird History

14 Of The Dumbest Things Pop Culture Has Us Believe About Pirates

List RulesVote up the most believable tropes only a bilge-sucking landlubber would make up .

"AAARRRRRHHHH, watch out for my peg leg, matey, and keep your hands off my parrot, or I'll make you walk the plank, AAARRRRRHHHH!" Pirate tropes pop up all over pop culture, from billion-dollar movie franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean to TV shows and video games. But the most familiar pirate archetypes aren't exactly historically accurate. And, if you think about it, many pirate tropes are downright idiotic. Why would real pirates make maps that led directly to their treasure? Or constantly fly the skull and crossbones, announcing to every ship that they're criminals?

The historical inaccuracies in Pirates of the Caribbean could fill an entire list. No, pirates weren't constantly in mutiny against their captains or running from ghost ships. But a lot of pirate tropes make for exciting plots - historically accurate pirate movies would have to feature guys named Moses Butterworth (an actual 18th-century pirate) who visited their wives on the weekend and peacefully voted for their pirate captains. 

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  • 1

    Pirate Crews Were Prone To Mutiny

    Photo: Treasure Island / RKO Radio Pictures

    The Trope: Pirate crews turned on their captain frequently, calling for a mutiny to overthrow the captain. 

    Why Is It Inaccurate? Crews didn't have to mutiny - they could simply elect a new captain. That's right, pirates voted for their captains. Pirates actually ran their ships with pseudo-constitutions that guaranteed rights for the crewmen. These rules also governed how pirates handled disputes.

    Unlike naval ships, where captains claimed total control over their crews, pirates tried to avoid autocratic rule. Pirate captains could command the crew during battle, but at other times, the quartermaster governed the ship. Instead of placing all power in the captain's hands, this structure created a divided system of power. Pirates also wrote down how to divide any booty, with the captain typically receiving twice the share of a crewman - a far cry from the trope of a dictator captain who seizes all the plunder for himself. 

    Notable Offenders: Most of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies feature at least one mutiny. Also, Treasure Island and Roman Polanski's Pirates. 

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  • 2

    Pirates Made A Living By Raiding Coastal Towns

    Photo: Treasure Island / RKO Radio Pictures

    The Trope: Pirates appear outside a town sitting on the coast. Soon they swarm over the sides of their ships, pouring into the streets to kidnap women and steal goods. Then they sail away to sea - until their next attack.  

    Why Is It Inaccurate? Pirates were frequent visitors to coastal towns, but often because they had wives in town. Turns out most coastal towns welcomed pirates who visited between sailings. On top of that, pirates specialized in raiding ships, not towns. Ships carried the spices, gold, and riches that pirates seized.

    Take, for example, Captain Thomas Tew, who seized several ships without a fight and captured a huge amount of wealth. Or Henry Every, who seized a single ship in the Red Sea and captured the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars worth of goods in two hours without losing a single man. Why raid coastal towns when poorly defended ships were much easier prey?

    Notable Offenders: In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack Sparrow makes plans to "raid, pillage, and plunder" his guts out.

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    Pirates Could Be Only One Of Two Things: A Charismatic Roguish Scoundrel Or A Marauding Brute

    Photo: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl / Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

    The Trope: In movies, pirates typically fit into two categories: They're either charismatic scoundrels with a quick wit or dullard brutes who simply destroy everything. 

    Why Is It Inaccurate? Sure, some pirates were probably charismatic, and others were brutes, but most pirates were simply ordinary people. Many became pirates to pay their bills or escape forced naval service. Notorious pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd made headlines in the papers, but the average pirate was just a guy trying to make a living.

    Notable Offenders: The Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride and Will Turner from the Pirates of the Caribbean represent charismatic pirates, while pretty much every "bad guy" pirate in a movie acts like a marauding brute. 

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  • 4

    Pirate Ships Only Flew The Skull And Crossbones

    Photo: Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End / Buena Vista Pictures

    The Trope: The skull and crossbones flew from the mast of every pirate ship, where it struck terror into the hearts of all.

    Why Is It Inaccurate? Pirates did fly the skull and crossbones, but they also had multiple other pirate flags. One common pirate flag was the simple black flag, sometimes used to mark ships that carried plague victims. Pirates used the black flag to mark themselves as a "death ship." The red flag, also known as the "no quarter" flag, meant the pirates would show no mercy once they captured a ship.  

    And most of the time, pirates didn't fly one of their pirate flags at all - they preferred to fly the Union Jack or another friendly flag to trick ships into thinking they weren't pirates. 

    Notable Offenders: The Pirates of the Caribbean movies feature a lot of skull and crossbones flags. Sports teams named after pirates are also fond of the Jolly Roger.

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