In today’s Hollywood-ruled entertainment culture – shanghaied recently by a certain pirate blockbuster, which shall go unnamed – pirates are of more interest than ever before. We have an image of romantic, dashing pirate men and of the beautiful pirate woman with her cutlass and low neckline, all on a fantastical pirate ship. Our idea of pirates is almost inseparable with the mythos behind them. Who were they really, though, and just how much similarity do real pirates bear to the moviegoers’ image of them?
What does the name Pirate imply?
The name pirate was used to refer to more than just the buccaneers of the high seas and the real pirates of the Caribbean. Strictly, the name pirate was used to refer to those independent pirates who used their pirate ships to attack merchant vessels and steal their goods, which they would then bring into port to sell. These very real pirates were little more than criminals, highwaymen of the seas, and truly deserved the name pirate.
Privateers, on the other hand, still engaged in piracy – but did so “legally,” under the flag of a specific nation, and only against that nation’s enemies. One such pirate was Robert Morris, an American privateer from the early years of the country. Many privateers were wealthy – Morris’ pirating profits made him the first millionaire in American history.
Famous Pirate Ships
An important part of pirate lore is, of course, the pirate ship, with its Jolly Roger and cannons ready to take down any innocent passerby. Among the most famous of all pirate ships was the one captained by the pirate captain Edward Teach – better known today as Blackbeard. His ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was the terror of honest merchantmen near his haunt near the island of St. Vincent until his death at the hands of Lieutenant Maynard of the British army.
The Infamous Pirate Woman
Although Hollywood portrayals of piracy and pirates nearly always contain at least one good-looking pirate woman, real life was rather different. Piracy was almost exclusively a man’s world, and was not at all the romantic life portrayed in film. There were, however, a few notable exceptions to this rule. One extremely powerful pirate woman was the infamous Cheng I Sao of the Red Flag Fleet, in China and Malaysia in the early nineteenth century. With the death of her husband, Cheng commanded over 1500 pirate ships until her death in 1844. Other famous pirate women were Mary Read and Ann Bonny.