Ahoy, me hearties
Some people know all about calculus. Whatever that is. Or tennis. Or the collected works of JK Rowling in exhausting and exhaustive detail. My nephew knows every play LeBron James ever made.
Me, I know about pirates.
Not your fancy schmancy tentacle-faced walking-skeleton adventure-park-ride kind of pirates. But proper pirates, whether they be in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean or the Irish Sea. Or in our imaginations.
What do you think of, when you think about pirates? Walking the plank. Pieces of eight. Dead men's chest. Arrgh, me hearties. Something like that?
The problem is, a lot of what we think we know about pirates is made up - by novelists. It started a couple of centuries ago, when Daniel Defoe (also author of Robinson Crusoe) wrote A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. It was about pirates around the Caribbean islands and the American coast, and was presented as non-fiction. He made it all sound so convincing. But a whole lot of it was just very good story telling.
Then along came Robert Louis Stevenson, who not only gave us the greatest ever pirate story, Treasure Island, but also made us believe we know how pirates talk and dress and behave. But, again, he made it up. Beautifully. And those stories, those myths, have been told over and over again in movies, in books and in games.
So what were pirates really like?
First, there have always been pirates and there still are pirates. The first documented pirates were in the Mediterranean Sea, bothering the ancient Phoenicians and Greeks - and there have been pirates in the area ever since. For hundreds of years, there were great fleets of pirate ships in the China seas and the northern waters off Scotland and Ireland. In comparison, the heyday of piracy in the Caribbean was only over a couple of hundred years, though it was spectacular while it lasted, with ships preying on the Spanish, French and English traders shuttling between Europe and the New World.
Second, many of the pirates in fiction are based on real people whose crimes were well-known during their lifetimes. One of the most famous was Blackbeard, an Englishman who used to scare the living daylights out of everyone - even his crew. He tried very hard to scare people, even putting fuses (you know those strings you use to light a cannon?) into his hair and setting them alight so it looked like he was on fire. Freaky.
Because unlike all those explosions you see in the movies, pirates didn't try to blow up or sink the ships they attacked. They tried to take them with a minimum of bloodshed and damage, so they could sell the ships, the cargo and any people in the nearest port. So Blackbeard and others tried to scare people into surrendering without a fight.
Another way they tred to frighten people was with their pirate flags. Again, unlike the movies, there wasn't one pirate flag - every captain had his own flag (the one on the right is Blackbeard's flag). If the pirates had decided they wanted to take the ship but no prisoners, they ran up a plain blood red flag - the jolie rouge or Jolly Roger.
The flag that Hollywood thinks is the Jolly Roger was the flag of Calico Jack who is now most famous for having two women pirates in his crew: Mary Read and Anne Bonney.
Do you remember, in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, all those jokes about the Pirate Rules? "More like guidelines." Well, there really were pirate rules on many ships, and they made sure that crew members shared the booty and even got an extra share if they were injured in an attack.
Don't get the idea, though, that pirates were good guys. Many of them weren't evil, I guess. Just poor and desperate and sick of being whipped in the Navy ships or by slave owners on the plantations. But most of them did pretty horrific things - and also they smelled really bad.
In the Mediterranean, lots of pirates were actually in the pay of different governments and even the Church. Muslim and Catholic pirates battled each other all over the Mediterranean for centuries (this is where my Swashbuckler pirate books are set).
Further west, England's Queen Elizabeth had pirates on her side - Jack Hawkins and Francis Drake were both given permission to wreak havoc against Spanish ships on the high seas - so long as they brought some treasure home for the Queen.
But Elizabeth, too, had pirate trouble - in Ireland, where the infamous pirate queen Grace O'Malley (or Gráinne Ní Mháille) ruled the coast from her impenetrable castle: Rockfleet Tower. Amazingly, Queen Elizabeth and Grace O'Malley met in 1593 at Greenwich Palace to negotiate over prisoners and the Irish rebellions. (Oh, how I wish I'd been there, hiding under the table.)
There were women pirates and legal pirates and Muslim pirates and priestly pirates and almost universally smelly pirates. So even though we now know that a lot of those pirate tales are made-up, the truth is - as can often be the case - stranger than fiction.
PS There is a WHOLE lot more stuff about real pirates, weapons, ships and history on my Swashbuckler website, if you want to know more. Or you can ask me anything. About pirates, anyway. Not about calculus. Or you could explain what calculus is. In very small words.