7 myth-busting pirate facts we learned from Black Sails

From parrots and patches to pieces of eight: the surprising truth about the pirates portrayed in History channel’s Black Sails.

Last updated: 07 February 2017 - 09.59pm

Buried treasure? Walking the plank? You clearly weren’t paying attention in your history lessons.

These fabled buccaneers have been shrouded in myth and cliché for centuries, making it tricky to untangle fact from fiction. Enter Black Sails.

The History channel show reveals how real pirates operated in the early 18th century, with a killer storyline and a bit of drama to boot. Here are seven pirate facts that will challenge everything you thought you knew about the marauding men of the seven seas…

1. Buried treasure

X does not mark the spot. Pirates’ plunder was kept on board the ship, before being divided up among the pirate crew. The idea of buried treasure was, in fact, a work of fiction borne from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic book Treasure Island, first published in 1883.

2. Pirate talk

Avast me hearties! Ever wondered why all pirates seem to have West Country accents? Well, they didn’t – there was no recognisable ‘pirate accent’. They came from London, Bristol, Scotland, France and many other places. Again, this myth all stems from the character Long John Silver in Walt Disney's Treasure Island (1950). Robert Louis Stevenson has a lot to answer for.

3. Eyepatches, hooks and wooden legs

Pirate fancy dress usually consists of one or all three of the following; a peg leg, an eyepatch and a hook for a hand. The imaginations of authors are to blame for this look; Long John Silver had a wooden leg in Treasure Island, while Captain Hook had a hook for a hand in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904). However, this had some basis in fact, as sailors could lose eyes or limbs in battle, or in a shipboard accident. While a pirate with a peg leg couldn't climb the rigging, he could at least act as the ship's cook, hence the one-legged cook Randall in Black Sails (played by Lawrence Joffe).

4. Walking the plank

The ruthless raiders of the Black Sails era wouldn't bother with this pantomime – it was much easier to stab or shoot their victim and throw him over the side. The plank, like Tinkerbell and Never Never Land, was the invention of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie.

5. Swashbuckling style

Bandanas and piercings are common pirate garb for fancy dress costumes today, but pirates never looked like this – it was a look invented by the American artist Howard Pyle in the late 19th century. When he was asked to illustrate children's pirate books, he drew on Spanish bandits for his inspiration. Real pirates of the period just wore the same clothes as any other early 18th-century sailor.

6. Arrrr, Maties!

Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Pirates of Penzance is where the idea of pirates wearing skull and cross bone-decorated hats came from, as well as the idea of the jolly pirate band. This is a far cry from real pirate crews of the Black Sails era, who were capable of murder and torture, if given the opportunity. A strong leader – someone like Black Sails' Captain Flint – was needed to keep a pirate crew in check.

7. Jolly Roger

Think ‘Jolly Roger’, and most people will think of a black flag and skull and crossbones. The term actually originates from the French ‘jolie rouge’, a reference to the red flag used by armed warships in the 17th century. Over time this developed into the pirate banner we know today, decorated with motifs designed to intimidate potential victims. Skeletons, skulls and weapons all served as a warning of what might happen if a victim refused to surrender.

Discover how real pirates ruled the seven seas and watch Black Sails at 10pm, Tuesdays, History, BT channel 327

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