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What the pirates in movies actually looked like in real life

Did pirates actually have parrots as pets or hooks for hands? Author of “The Republic of Pirates,” Colin Woodard explains. Following is a transcript from the video.

Colin Woodard:I think the average person imagines a pirate with a hook for a hand, a great big floppy hat, a blue waistcoat, and maybe even a peg leg, with a parrot on his shoulder.

This particular gang of pirates, who were active at the very beginning of the 18th century for only 4-5 years. Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, the women pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny, were all part of this one gang. It’s this gang that all of the pop culture images and iconography related to pirates comes from.

One of the most common Oceanic sailing routes for English seamen was to go from England to the Caribbean because that was a major route of merchant shipping. And so they would come back to grey, dreary, England, and one of the things they would bring back with them was colourful birds from the tropics, especially parrots, who could be trained to sit on your shoulder but also to actually speak words. And you can imagine how boring it must have been on a pirate ship on your off hours, what are you going to do? The colourful and talkative parrots were treated as a form of entertainment and recreation.

All of these characteristics pirates had, because having a parrot as a pet, missing arms, eyes and hands, was very common among sailors in that time period. And almost all pirates had previously been sailors. Most pirates had been merchant or naval sailors prior to going into piracy. And the big piracy outbreak was prompted by the ending of a big colonial war, the Spanish succession.

So you had thousands of people without a means to sustain themselves with a special skill set. The pressures on sailors were enormous. So many of them mutinied and took over their vessels. These pirates from the golden age of piracy were folk heroes at the time they were still alive. They argued they weren’t thieves and brigands, they said they were engaged in essentially a social revolt against the ship owners and ship captains who made their lives miserable. They were Robin Hood figures, robbing from the wicked rich to settle scores.

Many of them, in fact, had been in accidents because being a sailor, whether a pirate or not, was very dangerous. Rigging fell in storms, cargo and barrels shifted around, in battle you’d be hit by wooden splinters. So lots may have also had eye patches and hooks for arms because they’d lost their eyes and limbs in these various accidents, so pirates probably looked like some crazy fiend from the early Mad Max movies. A bunch of people bizarrely dressed like a post-apocalyptic image.

And that was precisely the idea, especially Blackbeard’s, was to cultivate an image of terror, so somebody would be so scared of them they’d surrender without a fight. In fact, of all the accounts of all of Blackbeard’s raids and captures of ships, he threatened a lot of people but he never actually killed anybody prior to his final, fatal battle with the Royal Navy.

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