What Life Actually Was Like For A Real Pirate

In between bouts of pirate-talk and rocking out to Alestorm (or Lazy Town, whichever you prefer), you may have wondered what life would’ve been like if you actually were a pirate. As it turns out, your life on the seas would’ve been drastically different from the one seen in movies like Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean. Here’s how your life would’ve truly gone, ye scurvy dog.

You were truly brutal and ruthless


When you think of pirate brutality, you probably run with sword fights, plank-walking, and the Boo Box. But the truth is, if you wanted to be a successful pirate, you needed to be brutal, ruthless, merciless, and violent beyond even the goriest of horror films.

The famed pirate Blackbeard was known for hacking off women’s fingers if they wouldn’t give up their rings. Instead of thin, elegant swords, most pirates would prefer to go after each other with axes and thick cutlasses, hacking at their opponents like they were trees. And if you really irked them, prepare to pay painfully — one story speaks of a pirate trying to get information about nearby treasure from a couple of captives. He tortured them by tying each to a tree. He then carved out one of their hearts, and forced the other victim to eat it. If Johnny Depp wants to add a little something to his character for Pirates 6, here’s a fine start.

You probably wore an eyepatch

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No pirate costume is complete without an eyepatch. It shows that you’re hardcore and been through some stuff, like a hook to the eyeball. And unlike some other pirate stereotypes, there’s actually truth to this one. Many pirates did indeed wear eyepatches, but they didn’t do so for fashion’s sake, or to hide a terrible wound. They actually had far more mundane, practical motives, like navigating in the dark.

A smart pirate would wear a patch over one eye, so it was constantly adjusted to darkness. If Soggybottom Jack found himself in pitch black and needed good vision fast, all he’d need to do is switch the patch to the other eye. That way, one eye’s immediately ready to fight in the dark, while the other doesn’t need to readjust at all.

In a way, an eyepatch is the best of both worlds. It’s cool looking, shows that you’re tough as nails, and that you’re dreadfully smart to boot. No smart pirate would dare tangle with one possessing such a total package.

Your ship was uncomfortable and disgusting

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Don’t think for a second you would have been comfortable on your ship. Movies and TV portray the pirate life as one big party, which was kinda true, except the party was run by the worst, most disorganized, most disgusting frat ever. Yes, life on a pirate ship was shockingly terrible.

The problems grew worse with food and drink. The lack of refrigeration meant food like meat and vegetables would spoil extremely fast. Beans and flour could rapidly get moldy too, because ship conditions were perpetually wet. And even storing fresh water was hard, due to the possibility of algae scum forming in it.

Their only solution most of the time was to eat terrible food like hardtack: super-hard, dry bread that was barely edible and had weevils crawling in it half the time. As for their liquid solution: they just got stinking drunk off of rum. Alcohol didn’t spoil, so they typically drank that in place of water. They weren’t getting drunk because “yo ho ho it’s a pirate’s life for them” — they did it because it was either that or death from dehydration.

You didn’t bury your treasure, but spent it fast

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Don’t think all this talk of sugar and silk being a pirate’s preferred treasure means they rejected riches. On the contrary, if they found gold, silver, or anything else valuable, they took all they could carry. But all this talk of buried treasure hidden here and there is almost complete bunk. And the idea of treasure maps promising gold if you just follow the X? That’s actual complete bunk.

If you think about it, this was the only way to survive as a pirate. The scurvy sea-outlaw life carried the risk of death behind every wave, so it made absolutely no sense to bury your booty and go back for it later. Chances were good there’d likely be no later. And if you didn’t use your money to buy what you needed to survive, there’d definitely be no later.

So now you know — if some shyster tries to sell you a map to Blackbeard’s lost treasure, walk away, because it’s a scam. If you truly want to track down Blackbeard’s money, go to Port Royal and find wherever they keep the booze. You’re now as close as you’ll ever get.

You probably had a pet, maybe a parrot

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Some pirate stereotypes are true, like the parrot thing. While not every captain came equipped with a squawking bird on his shoulder, a good chunk of them did, but not purely for aesthetic, look-at-me-I’m-a-pirate reasons. Like everything else a real pirate did, owning a parrot was more practical than anything else.

Dogs were out of the question, as they were more of a aristocratic thing at the time. Cats were okay, because they were small and could catch mice, but good luck getting the typical cat anywhere near a wet ship surrounded by water. Plus, pirates were exotic and wanted cool, exotic pets too.

Some delightfully went with pet monkeys, but most preferred parrots. They didn’t eat a lot, you could easily store what they did eat, you could talk to them, and when you got sick of them (or simply needed the money), they fetched a pretty penny on the black market.

That’s right, in addition to everything else you’re learning today, now you know there was once a black market parrot trade — and that there still is one today.

You might have been working for the government

To many of us, the appeal of being a pirate is that you’re an outlaw. You have no bosses, no CEOs, no shareholders — as long as you keep plundering, you can get as rich as you want. It’s like freelancing, except with significantly more scurvy and stabbing.

But if a pirate was good enough at their job, legitimate and supposedly law-abiding governments might actually hire them to do their dirty work. Over the course of the “Golden Age” of piracy — a period around the 1600s and 1700s where no sailor was safe from murderous, looting pirates — pirates had become scary good at what they did. So, in a case of “if you can’t beat ’em, make ’em join you,” some governments would actually hire these career criminals as privateers, charging them with ransacking other nations, attacking enemy ships … basically, they were now legal hitmen.

Captain Henry Morgan (yes, the rum guy) was a particularly excellent privateer, attacking Spanish posts throughout the Americas and becoming one of the New World’s first truly feared characters. You know you’re good at being bad when the most impressive bad stuff you did was at the paid behest of the government.

jason iannone



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