Pirates: Six Facts That Might Surprise You

Pirates were a unique brand of criminal.

Pirates were a unique brand of criminal. Photo from Pixabay.

Pirates really had pet parrots

They were not only souvenirs, but a source of revenue. Parrots were popular pets and pirates got good prices for them at the bird markets of 18th century London. Pirates even offered them as presents to officials to bribe them.

One pirate said the best birds came from the Bay of Campeche near Veracruz, Mexico. The red and yellow parrots there were the largest and prettiest, and they were good mimics. Most pirates took one or two aboard.

Months of sailing without any opportunity to forage for food made the parrots dependent on sailors for food and probably made them tame.


The pet trade did more to facilitate the pirate-parrot association than a natural fondness for the birds. Photo from Pixabay.

Long John Silver was based on a real person

Robert Lewis Stevenson based one of the most famous fictional pirates of history on his friend, Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, whose most popular work was the 1874 poem “Invictus.” Henley developed tuberculosis of the bone as a child, and at the age of 19, had to get his left leg amputated below the knee. Henley was a large, jovial man full of energy, who got around on a crutch. Stevenson wrote Henley after he published Treasure Island and admitted, “I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”

Pirates with wooden legs were not a myth

Some pirates really did have wooden legs. Since they were not as mobile and had a disadvantage in fighting, they often worked as cooks, just like Long John Silver.

Piece of eight

Piece of eight with an American quarter for comparison.

American dollars were originally based on pieces of eight

Pieces of eight and doubloons are the two coins we all associate with pirates. “Pieces of eight” were coins with the value of eight reales. The piece of eight was the Spanish dollar, first minted after 1598. The United States based the value of its dollar on the piece of eight. Pieces of eight were legal tender in the United States until the 1857.

Take a look at the column and winding ribbon on the left side of this piece of eight. Some scholars say the dollar symbol $ is based on that column. In fact, $ was the original symbol for the piece of eight.

Ship in the sunset.

Photo from Pixabay.

Pirates practiced democracy

“Every Man has a Vote.” Pirates operated under a set of written rules and those were the opening words of Captain Bartholomew Roberts’ rules. Typically, pirates elected their captains. Exceptions were during battle, during which the captain exercised complete control. The only members of the crew couldn’t vote were captives or people pressed into service, because they might not vote in the interests of the crew.

Scholars have debated the origins of democracy on pirate ships. It may have been a reaction to the strict government on commercial and naval ships, or to the monarchy back home.

Charley Ross. River pirates kidnapped him for ransom.

Charley Ross, the first child kidnapped in the U.S. for ransom. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

River pirates committed the first kidnapping for ransom in the USA

 Two men in a carriage kidnapped four-year-old Charley Ross in Philadelphia in 1874. They offered him and his brother candy if they would take a carriage ride with them. When they offered the brother 25 cents to go into a store and purchase fireworks, they rode off with Charley. For the first time in American history, the kidnappers demanded ransom. Charley’s father was unable to pay, but hoped the kidnappers would release him anyway. Unfortunately, Charley was never seen again.

Two men were later shot during a burglary. One died right away, and the other confessed to the Ross kidnapping before he died. Charley’s brother viewed the bodies and identified them. They were members of a band of river pirates. They attacked ships on the Hudson River and its harbors and later on the Atlantic seaboard, as well as in Philadelphia and Baltimore.  Kidnapping for ransom, then, was a new form of piracy.

Charley’s tragic story left us two legacies, a new form of crime and the parental admonition never to take candy from strangers.

Which pirate legacy do you think has had the most lasting influence in the United States culture and history?

Literature on point:

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life among the Pirates (New York: Random House, 1996, 1st Harvest House ed.)

Carrie Hagen, we is got him: The Kidnapping That Changed America (New York: Overlook Press, 2011)

Tim Travers, Pirates: A History (The History Press)


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Pirate Flags: Ten Things You Probably Didn’t Know

The Jolly Roger, one of the traditional pirate flags, against storm clouds

Jolly Roger, (c) Lizard, shutterstock_100276868, with permission

Pull away, me lads o’ the Cardiff Rose
And hoist the Jolly Roger

Roger McGuinn’s song was the pirate song I grew up with. And the Jolly Roger – the skull and crossbones against a black background – still waves supreme over American pirate lore.

So imagine my surprise when I moved to Germany and learned a new pirate shanty, the German folksong Wir lieben die Stürme (We Love the Storms):

Unser Schiff gleitet stolz durch die schäumenden Wellen.
Es strafft der Wind unsre Segel mit Macht.
Seht ihr hoch droben die Fahne sich wenden,
die blutrote Fahne, ihr Seeleut habt acht!

(Our ship slices proudly through fierce churning whitecaps. The wind whips our sails and drives up our speed. Look high aloft how our banner is waving, the blood red banner, you sailors take heed!)

Red flags are also traditional pirate flags

Red flag, morguefile free photos

A blood red pirate flag? Really?

Unbelieving, I asked my German husband, who assured me that the pirate flags of German lore are indeed red. Maybe, he suggested, the Jolly Roger is just an Anglo-American invention.

His comment drove me to the history books.

As so often the case, we were both right. Red pirate flags are just as entrenched in pirate history as are black ones. Here are some interesting facts I found:


Black flags

Francis Drake, English privateer

Francis Drake, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, 3a38830r, public domain

Black pirate flags have an ancient history. Francis Drake, an English privateer, usually flew the flag of St. George, although in 1585, he flew black banners and streamers.

Red flags

Red pirate flags also have a history. In 1681, buccaneers off the islands of Juan Fernández flew a “bloody flag.”

No quarter

Red and black have two different meanings. A French flag book from 1721, containing colored engravings of both black and red pirate flags, labeled the red flag as “flag called no quarter.” Captain Richard Hawkins confirmed this meaning in 1724. His pirate ship flew the black Jolly Roger when he was willing to give quarter and the red banner when he wasn’t.

Jolly Roger

Flag of the pirate Blackbeard

Blackbeard’s flag, pictured here, was similar to Hawkins’. Wikipedia, public domain.

The Jolly Roger doesn’t have to be the skull and crossbones. Captain Richard Hawkins described his “Jolly Roger” as a full skeleton with an hourglass in one hand, indicating limited time, and a dart in the other hand, indicating violence. Other captains flew pirate flags with similar symbols.

Origins of Jolly Roger

The term “Jolly Roger” might have come from the French jolie rouge, or “red flag.” It might also derive from “Old Roger,” which means “devil.”

Skull and Crossbones

Jolly Roger as skulls and crossbones

Jolly Roger as skulls and crossbones, morguefile photos

The skull and crossbones became popular among English, French, and Spanish pirates by 1730.

National Colors

A 1684 book, Buccaneers of America, doesn’t mention black flags or skulls at all. English buccaneers in America sailed under English colors.

Red in Santa María

1725 woodcut of the Jolly Roger

1725 woodcut from Charles Johnson’s “A General History of the Pyrates,” public domain

A sailor’s journal described 300 buccaneers marching on the town of Santa María in 1680. The various companies flew pirate flags of pure red, pure green, and red and yellow stripes. Red was the most common color.

Blackbeard and his flags

Blackbeard the pirate

Blackbeard, 1725 print, LOLPPD, public domain, 3b09722r

Of Blackbeard’s squadron of five ships in 1718, two flew black flags and three flew red.

Pirate flags in fiction

Both colors appear in English fiction. Daniel Defoe’s description of pirates in his 1720 story Captain Singleton has them flying both black and red flags.

What symbols do you associate with pirates?


Literature on point:


David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life among the Pirates (New York: Random House, 1996, 1st Harvest House ed.) 114-119.

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Heligoland: Germany’s Pirate Hideout

Dodgerton Skillhause, morguefile free photos

Dodgerton Skillhause, morguefile free photos

Pirate hideouts always entice with the lure of buried treasure.

Last week’s announcement that an American explorer might have found Captain Kidd’s treasure in Madagascar puts pirates back into the news. Madagascar was a famous 17th century pirate lair, but Germany had a pirate hideout too. A legendary pirate rendezvous in the 14-16th centuries, Heligoland – Germany’s only high sea island – harbored the country’s most famous pirate, Klaus Störtebeker. Shall we open Heligoland’s treasure chest and look at some of the colorful history inside?

Pirate Hideout Heligoland

The cliffs of Heligoland.

Pirates could keep watch for other ships from these tall red cliffs.

Heligoland is the North Sea’s only high sea island. Twenty-nine miles offshore, a splash of red sea cliffs, meadows, and white sands rises from the seafloor northwest of the German port Cuxhaven. It’s small – less than a square mile – but its allure made the literary rounds. Goethe wrote about it in 1827: From the west, a description of the Island of Heligoland just reached me, with beautiful depictions of geological and biological nature, the amassed remains of prehistoric life, and fresh evidence for the survival and impact of the eternal world spirit.”*

Germany acquired Heligoland from England in 1890 in exchange for Zanzibar. A naval station during the two world wars, it served as the German base for the Battle of the Heligoland Bight. Now it attracts scientists, not warships. Heligoland hosts two biological research stations, one for birds and one for marine life.

These are the rocks of Heligoland.

Behold the birthplace of quantum physics.

It is also the birthplace of quantum mechanics. In June 1925, Werner Heisenberg, a young German physicist, travelled to Heligoland to escape his hay fever on the mainland. There he made a major breakthrough – what has been called one of the major “jumps” in 20th century physics. “It was about three o’clock at night when the final result of the calculation lay before me…. At first I was deeply shaken…. I was so excited that I could not think of sleep. So I left the house … and awaited the sunrise on top of a rock…. That was ‘the night of Heligoland.’”** Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in 1932.

The Pirate Störtebeker

What Heisenberg did for physics, Störtebeker did for German legend.

Klaus Störtebeker joined an infamous privateer group called the “Victual Brothers” in the late 14th century. They were mercenaries who fought for Denmark and Mecklenburg interchangeably in a series of conflicts in the North and Baltic Seas. Because Störtebeker took merchants captive, people later compared him to Robin Hood.

Pirates are fond of nicknames, and Störtebeker was no exception. In Low Saxon, “Störtebeker” means “empty the [gallon-sized] mug in one gulp.” He had a reputation for drinking too much wine.

When Denmark and Mecklenberg made a peace agreement in 1395, the Victual Brothers needed a new line of work. They first grounded a pirate town in Visby on the Swedish isle of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, but after they were attacked, the pirates moved to the North Sea. Störtebeker became one of their leaders. By 1400, Störtebeker had made Heligoland his basis.

Störtebeker's defeat at Heligoland.

Störtebeker’s defeat at Heligoland. Hamburger Staatsarchiv. Public domain.  „Stoertebeker1“ von Das Original wurde von Seebeer in der Wikipedia auf Deutsch hochgeladen – Übertragen aus de.wikipedia nach Commons.. Lizenziert unter Gemeinfrei über Wikimedia Commons – http://bit.ly/1RKmorW

A fleet from Hamburg attacked Heligoland in 1401 and defeated the pirates in 1401. The Flemish ship “Painted Cow” defeated Störtebeker’s ship, “Red Devil.” Tradition has it that one of his crew turned traitor and poured molten lead down the Red Devil’s rudder shaft. The rudder froze, the pirate lost control of his ship, and Painted Cow gained an advantage. You can see a model of the Painted Cow in the cellar of Hamburg’s city hall (Ratskeller).

Germany’s most famous pirate was executed on October 21 of the same year. He begged for mercy for his fellow sailors, but was refused. About 75 pirates were executed that day.

Impaled skull of a pirate.

An impaled pirate’s skull from about 1400. Found 1878 in Hamburg during a contruction project. “Schädel Hingerichteter Hamburg” by Michail Jungierek – Own Work, Ausstellungsstück im Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://bit.ly/1QMQQ3l

According to medieval tradition, people publically displayed the skulls of executed pirates on stakes. Two of these skulls have survived. Forensic scientists have examined them but can’t prove whether one was Störtebeker’s.

More than any other German outlaw, Störtebeker has become the stuff of legend and is a popular figure in German literature. Operas, poems, and novels etch the pirate legend into German culture.

Can you think of any other outlaws who are so celebrated?

Literature on point:

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe & Carl Friedrich Zelter (Max Heller, ed.), Der Briefwechsel zwischen Goethe und Zeller, Vol. II (1819-1827) (Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1915) p. 592.

** Mauro, Dardo, Nobel Laurietes and Twentieth-Century Physics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p. 179.

Helmut Neuhold, Die berühmtesten Freibeuter und Piraten (Wiesbaden: marixverlag, 2013).

Klaus Störtebeker.

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