#3. Sailors Became Pirates to Live a Life of Crime
Based on what we've learned from the singing pirates on Peter Pan, the life of a pirate was all about stealing, fighting and collecting booty, and therefore the decision to become one must have depended entirely on how much you enjoyed those things. Pirates of the Caribbean adds "ingesting massive amounts of alcohol" to the mix. Look at any pirate song and you'll see the same basic ingredients repeated over and over.
Above: Roughly three-tenths of a pirate.
In fact, the entire twist of movies like The Princess Bride (we're assuming you've either seen it by now or don't care) depends on people taking for granted that the only way to become a pirate was by being a complete wreck of a human being -- not even Westley's own crew knows he sort of stumbled upon his "Dread Pirate Roberts" title out of necessity, not criminal tendencies, because that would kill his reputation.
More so than those Saw movies he'd go on to make.
After all, it's not like decent citizens just went and became pirates all the time ...
Wait, no, it did happen all the time. The overwhelming majority of pirates were honest sailors who ditched their jobs because the conditions were awful. Only a small minority became a pirate because they actually enjoyed being an outlaw. Being a sailor during pirate times was one of the shittiest jobs ever, and if they lived under British rule, most of them didn't so much "sign up" as "get kidnapped by the Royal Navy."
This was before they invented patriotism.
Seriously, at one point, half the British Navy consisted of men forcibly recruited by hired thugs who scoured the harbors looking for anyone with a full set of limbs. If they didn't have enough money to pay off these thugs, they were suddenly sailors. "Pressed men" were paid less than volunteers (if they were paid at all), were shackled to the ships while on port so they didn't try to make a run for it and were flailed for any minor offense in a naval handbook that they probably didn't even get a chance to read.
"That's the last time he'll hum "Karma Chameleon" on deck."
That's without counting all the storms, crowded quarters and tropical diseases that made life so shitty for sailors in general. As a result, 75 percent of men who were press-ganged ended up dead within two years. So when a pirate crew captured their ship and offered them an alternative to certain death and constant humiliation, a lot of them understandably replied, "Fuck yeah!" In pirate movies, there's always a huge difference between the clean-cut lawful sailors and the nasty, deformed pirates, but it turns out they were basically the same thing.
Wouldn't the older pirates basically treat the fresh meat like slaves, though? Apparently not. We've told you about Black Bart, the sailor who was captured by pirates and six weeks later became their captain -- kinda like Westley's story in The Princess Bride, except for the fact that his crew knew exactly where he came from and didn't give a shit.
"This guy has fewer visible open sores than any of us. He should be captain!"
#2. Pirates Buried Their Treasure
This is like the main thing that pirates do, right? Steal treasure, put it in a chest, bury it someplace and then draw a map to remind themselves where they left it? If we are to believe RPG games, the whole world is littered with treasure chests that someone forgot about -- and according to The Goonies, the map could very well be hidden in your attic.
Which would imply that you're the descendant of a deformed mass-raping pirate, but whatevs.
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies notably found more things for the pirates to do than just bury and search for treasure, but those are still important parts of the story. After all, they couldn't get away with ignoring such a central part of real-life pirating, because this was totally a real thing that people did (we sure hope the next paragraph doesn't disprove it).
Pirates did bury their treasure ... like three times. None of those three guys made a map, meaning that authentic pirate treasure maps have simply never existed.
"Hey, this is just a picture of mom and dad wrestling without pants on!"
Not only did treasure maps not exist -- they were never even necessary, because the buried booty was usually found right away. The first pirate that we know for sure buried a treasure was Sir Francis Drake, who in 1573 robbed a Spanish mule train loaded with gold and silver and buried some of it along the road because it was too heavy to carry in one trip (if only there had been some mules nearby). Apparently the treasure wasn't so expertly hidden, though, because by the time Drake and his men came back to retrieve it the Spanish had found and dug up most of it.
Inside was a note that said, "SUCK IT, DRAKE."
Another famous pirate, Roche Brasiliano, confessed to burying more than a hundred thousand pieces of eight near Cuba after being tortured by the Spanish Inquisition, who thanked him for the tip and killed him. Captain William Kidd is said to have buried some treasure near Long Island in 1699, but again it was found by the authorities almost right away and used as evidence against him in England. And that's about it. If there were more, no one's been able to prove it.
Maybe if those guys had been more successful, treasure-burying might have caught on among pirates, but that doesn't seem to be the case. However, there were still persistent (unfounded) rumors that some of Captain Kidd's treasure was never found, and that was enough to capture the imagination of writers and painters everywhere.
Kidd's legend inspired Washington Irving's Tales of a Traveller in 1824 and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold-Bug" in 1843, among others, which incorporated the idea of a treasure map. Irving's work influenced Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, and the rest was (a gross misconception of) history.
"Centuries from now, my memes will live on."
So if they never buried it, what did pirates do with all that gold that they obviously collected? Well ...
#1. Pirates Mostly Stole Gold
Pretty much every pirate movie we've mentioned so far involves some sort of massive stash of pirate gold: There's the room full of treasure in The Goonies ...
The haunted gold cavern in Pirates of the Caribbean ...
Somehow, treasure hordes are less satisfying without Sean Astin.
And the entire treasure island in Treasure Island (we're guessing, we've never seen it). Often the entire plot revolves around getting or keeping the gold, like in Roman Polanski's Pirates or Cutthroat Island.
But pirates did raid ships and steal their gold: That's a historical fact, and don't you dare take that away from us, Cracked. Why else would they raid ships? What could possibly be more important to pirates than riches?
Other than booty.
How about soap? Or food? Or candles, sewing tools and other horribly mundane household supplies? When a ship was taken by pirates, the loot was more often that not a cargo of salted fish or supplies going to the colonies -- and they were pretty OK with that.
Riches don't stop the hunger seizures.
Pirates were big fans of gold and silver, but they were even bigger fans of not starving to death in the middle of the ocean or accidentally drowning because they didn't have the equipment to perform necessary repairs on their ships. Being outlaws, they knew they couldn't just pull into the local 7-Eleven and load up on provisions and spare parts, so they had to be judicious when it came to their loot. They also raided ships for slightly less boring stuff like gunpowder and navigational tools. For those sailing in tropical climates, however, the real treasure was actually a chest filled with medical supplies.
And if they did come across a spectacular amount of money (which did happen on occasion), they preferred to spend that shit right away in a place like Port Royal -- the pirate harbor so licentious that God pulled a Sodom and Gomorrah on it -- rather than save up to invest in some sort of 17th century 401k.
"I'll take me chances with Davy Jones' mutual fund."
For the truth behind other historic lies, check out The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies You Were Taught In History Class and 6 Ridiculous History Myths (You Probably Think Are True).
And stop by LinkSTORM to see how you can get a piece of David Wong's booty.
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