5 Pirate Myths . . . And the Facts that Belie Them

The Somali pirates’ recent activity reminds us to revisit their 18th-century predecessors. After all, these are the pirates whose image has infiltrated popular culture and captured popular imagination. But which part of that image is fact and which part is fiction? A bit of pirate myth-busting with Peter Leeson, author of The Invisible Hook, can help us find out.

Myth 1: Pirates were bloodthirsty fiends who never turned down an opportunity to battle.

Fact: Pirates were loathe to engage in a fight. Pirates were businessmen; they were in it for the money. And battling targets could be expensive. Battle could injure or kill pirate crewmembers, damage the pirate ship, or damage the prospective prize. Because of this, pirates much preferred to take their victims without conflict, which they overwhelming did. To encourage merchantmen’s peaceful surrender, pirates promised to slaughter those that resisted them and “give quarter” to those that complied.

Myth 2: Pirate ships were portraits of chaos.

Fact: Pirate ships were orderly—according to some, more orderly than many merchantmen or ships of the Royal Navy. Pirates required “law and order” to prevent their criminal enterprise from collapsing. So, they wrote “pirate codes”—ship-board articles—that laid down rules for their roguish commonwealths and provided punishments for disobeying them. These rules prohibited violence and theft among sea bandits. On some ships they prohibited gambling, restricted drinking, and even regulated smoking.

Myth 3: Pirate captains were tyrants who ruled their men with an iron fist.

Fact: Pirates democratically elected their captains, who depended on crewmember approval for their positions of power. On merchant ships, captains wielded autocratic authority, which some abused for personal benefit. To prevent this on pirate ships, pirates developed a system of democratic checks and balances for their leadership. If a pirate captain stepped out of line, his men could (and did) democratically depose him from office. Pirates further checked their captains’ authority by separating power. They elected another officer, the quartermaster, who helped balance the captain’s command.

Myth 4: Pirates buried their treasure.

Fact: Pirates spent their loot, most as fast as they made it. There were two things pirates liked to spend money on most: whores and booze. Enterprising entrepreneurs supplying these goods and services set up shop in or around places pirates frequented, such as Port Royal, Jamaica, Nassau in the Bahamas, and even Madagascar, rapidly relieving pirates of their hard-earned loot.

Myth 5: Pirates made their prisoners walk the plank.

Fact: Pirates did brutally torture some prisoners; but they didn’t do so indiscriminately, and none of their tortures were as kind or as quick as walking the plank. Pirates predominantly reserved torture for when it could benefit them, such as to punish prisoners who held back booty. The threat of a truly horrible punishment for hiding valuables encouraged prisoners to reveal their valuables to their pirate captors. But pirates couldn’t afford to mistreat prisoners wantonly. If prisoners came to expect mistreatment whether they hid valuables from pirates or not, they would no longer have had a reason to relinquish their valuables, undermining pirates’ purpose.

Peter T. Leeson is an economics professor at George Mason University and author of new book, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates.