Close your eyes and imagine a pirate. Was he wearing an eye patch, burying some gold and overusing the letter "r"? If so, we're here to tell you that the image of pirates that Hollywood has taught you isn't just wrong -- in most cases, the truth was even more badass.
For example ...
Quick -- do a pirate voice.
We don't care if you can't imitate any other accent in the world, if we ask you (or anyone else on earth) to talk like a pirate, you'll go, "ARRRR, MATEY!"
You can tell he's making the "ey" noise right now.
This is thanks to decades of cartoons and movies where everyone playing a pirate was legally obligated to litter their speech with "arrs" and the like while assuming the intonation of a rowdy drunken Englishman. Unless your name is Johnny Depp, that is; then you're obligated to assume the intonation of Johnny Depp in every Johnny Depp movie ever.
"What do you mean? I'm doing a pirate voice now. This is my pirate voice. *mumble mumble*"
Granted, outside of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise there haven't been a lot of pirate movies in the past few decades, but at the same time there's been no shortage of pirate or pirate-talking characters invading other genres: Like the Pirate Captain in The Venture Bros., the other Pirate Captain in The Simpsons, Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball and Agent Scurvy Pirateson in CSI: Miami.
Obviously, we know the "pirate accent" we hear in these shows and films is exaggerated, just like they would exaggerate a French or Mexican accent, but it must be based on something real, right?
The Venture Bros. wouldn't lie to us.
Phrases like "shiver my timbers" and traditional pirate songs like "Fifteen Men on the Dead Man's Chest" were made up by Robert Louis Stevenson for his novel Treasure Island, published in 1883 -- over 150 years after the end of the Golden Age of Piracy. We might as well tell you right now that 90 percent of all pirate tropes come from the same book: One legged pirates, squawking parrots, drunken mutinies ... all that stuff can be traced back to Treasure Island.
Yes, pirates did lose limbs in battle, mutiny on occasion and get shitfaced a lot, but Stevenson was the first to combine those elements into one package, creating the popular image of pirates.
Belts cinched up below the nipples, that's the Pirate Way.
But what about the "arr" voice? That actually comes from the West Country accent from the southwestern portion of England. In the 1950 Disney adaptation of Treasure Island, Robert Newton played a pirate from the West Country and overdid it a little with the accent, throwing "arr" into every other sentence. Two years later Newton used the same accent in Blackbeard the Pirate, and the stereotype was cast.
To put this in perspective, if Newton played a pirate from Boston, we'd all be imagining pirates shouting "wicked pissah" as they boarded enemy ships.
So what did pirates actually sound like? In reality, there never was one "pirate accent" at all, mainly because that makes no damn sense. The idea of a pirate dialect assumes that all pirates spoke English and used the same slang, when in fact many pirate crews were from different countries. If pirates did have a distinct way of speaking, it was only in the sense that they needed to employ nautical terms on a daily basis. You can take solace in the fact that English-speaking pirates did use the word "avast," but the probability of it ever being combined with "mateys" is slim at best.
This is avast, right? He's avasting that sail?
The eye patch the single most recognizable feature of a pirate -- when putting together a Halloween costume, it can make the difference between "badass sea warrior" and "asshole in a puffy shirt." In every pirate movie there's always at least one crew member who wears an eye patch, usually due to some hideous disfigurement. Like the guy with the wooden eyeball in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
"Just cleaning up my cataracts."
With all those peg legs, hook hands and eye patches, it's like these movies are trying to tell us that pirates, more so than any other group of people in history, were remarkably good at misplacing body parts. At other times they were simply born without them -- like One-Eyed Willie from The Goonies, who didn't even have an eye socket under that patch.
We can't really blame him for going into this line of business.
But what was it about pirates that made them more likely to lose an eye than, say, Vikings or something?
"We use them for table tennis."
Actually, it looks like the only reason pirates wore eye patches was to keep one eye adjusted to darkness while boarding another ship. That's right: If this theory is correct, they only wore the patch before and during a raid.
Think about it: Pirates needed to be able to fight and ransack both above and below deck, and since artificial light wasn't a thing, it could get pretty dark down there. A guy could trip on a treasure chest or something. It takes the human eye several minutes to adjust to darkness -- however, this way, pirates could simply swap the eye patch and immediately be prepared to fight in the lower decks without constantly running into walls, which is something you'd probably want to avoid if you're carrying a cutlass.
"Safety first, lads."
Obviously we don't know for sure that this was always the case, but this explanation does make more sense than "they all happened to lose one eye" or "they thought it would look cool." True, you're sacrificing your peripheral vision, but it's better than having no vision at all. If you don't believe us, it's easy enough to try this yourself -- just cover your eye with your hand for the next half hour and then walk into a dark closet.
In fact, this method works so well that it's still used by the American military today. Nighttime survival guides recommend keeping one eye closed during bright lights to preserve night vision, and the same goes for military pilots. So all those movie pirates wearing eye patches all the time? Turns out they're just being extra careful.
"Pillage smarter, not harder."
The classic Jolly Roger is so representative of pirates that we shouldn't even have to type the word "pirates" by now; a little symbol of a skull and some crossbones should suffice (we're lobbying hard to get that added to every keyboard). The flag has been used in virtually every movie where pirates appear, ever, from the really old ones with Errol Flynn ...
"If this shirt revealed any more of my chest, you would all be pregnant."
... to Veggie Tales.
Talking Mustached Cucumber, the Errol Flynn of our generation.
Or Disney's Peter Pan. Sometimes the skull is replaced with two cutlasses, like in Barbossa's flag in Pirates of the Caribbean, but other than that and how expertly or crappily it is drawn, it's always pretty much the same thing.
Flag-printing technology was surprisingly great in Barbossa's day.
But this makes sense, right? The purpose of the flag was to intimidate sailors and steal their loot while they were too busy shitting their pants, so it makes sense that they should all choose something ominous like a skull on a black background.
Actually, if there was a pirate ship approaching and you saw a black flag waving, you were in luck: It meant the pirates were willing to give quarter. The real "Oh shit we're completely fucked" flag sported a decidedly more minimalistic "completely red" design -- in fact, historians believe that the term Jolly Roger comes from "jolie rouge," which is French for "pretty red," which in turn sounds like the name of a romantic comedy starring Emma Stone.
She'll need one hell of a curling iron.
Also, the design of the black flag varied a lot from ship to ship: Only a few pirate captains used the skull and crossbones design, like Edward England and Christopher Condent. On the other hand, a pirate that you may have actually heard of, Blackbeard, used a bizarre flag with a skeleton holding an hourglass and stabbing a bleeding heart:
Which was also the cover of a My Chemical Romance album, we're pretty sure.
The hourglass was actually a common element in many pirate flags, since it symbolized the inevitability of death (more so than a freaking skull, apparently). Captains Walter Kennedy and Jean Dulaien also incorporated the hourglass, except in their case it was being held by a naked guy swinging a sword at a perplexed floating face:
His lack of genitalia was meant to represent the inevitability of your dick being cut off.
And some of them didn't give a shit, like Thomas Tew and his magnificently lazy flag of an arm holding a cutlass:
His original design was simply the words "I WILL CUT YOU," but it wasn't universal enough.
There are a lot of designs to make fun of and not enough time, sadly, but we should also mention that most pirates stuck to all red or all black flags. Also, all these designs are only recreations of the real thing based on descriptions like this one, so there's a huge chance that they all looked completely different in reality. For example, a museum in Florida has one of the only two authentic Jolly Rogers that remain, and it looks pretty far from the detailed skull drawing that we're used to. It's almost like it was shoddily put together by some sort of uncultured ... oh wait.
St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum
It was actually supposed to be a little guy dancing, but no one got it.