Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.

MARK TWAIN (1835-1910)


Treasure Maps

There are no documented cases of a real pirate ever drawing up a treasure map, let alone putting an X on it to mark where the treasure is buried. In fact only one pirate, William Kidd (c.1645-1701), is ever attested to even have buried any treasure.
He buried at least some of his wealth on Gardiners Island before sailing into New York. Having been accused of being a pirate he hoped to use it as a bargaining tool. He failed and was hanged on May 23, 1701, at Execution Dock, Wapping, in London. His body was hung in chains over the Thames, and remained there for 20 years.
There is some doubt as to whether Kidd even was a pirate. As he operated under a ‘letter of marque’ and only took ships that were French or under French protection, as per his letter, he was technically a legal ‘Privateer’. In fact his commission was in part to capture pirates. Not that he ever took many ships at all. He was however vilified by his enemies as a violent pirate and the wealthy Englishmen who financed his voyage chose to hand him in rather than be accused of piracy alongside him.
The first proper treasure map with an X marking the spot appears in fiction in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). Perhaps the earliest document listing buried treasure is the copper scroll discovered near Qumran in 1952. Dating to c.50 ad, it contains a list of 63 locations with detailed directions pointing to hidden treasures of gold and silver. No item mentioned in it has ever been found. 

FactaTalk Like a Pirate Day is a spoof holiday, celebrated on the 19th of September.


Where there is a sea there are pirates.

Pirate Politics

Pirate ships were run as democratic co-operatives with written constitutions under a system called ‘Jamaica Discipline’.
Articles included the election of a Captain and a Quartermaster. The Captain was in sole command during actions, but the Quartermaster was in charge of discipline, provisions, and dividing up plunder. He could veto the captain (except in battle). Captains could be voted out of office or punished (Oliver La Bouche was deprived of his captaincy and flogged for attempted desertion). The Captain had no special quarters or provisions and could only keep such loot as the Quartermaster assigned him.
Rules were strict. The articles for Captain Bartholomew Roberts' ship the Fortune (flourished 1719-22) make it sound like a boarding school: no gambling, no smuggling girls into the dorm, no playing music on a Sunday, and lights out at 8 o'clock sharp.
The Articles of Captain George Lowther and his Ship’s Company included insurance arrangements – ‘He that shall have the Misfortune to lose a Limb, in Time of Engagement, shall have the Sum of one hundred and fifty Pounds Sterling.’ 

During the golden age of piracy, pirates numbered no more than 7,000 men; the Royal Navy numbered 13,000.

WALT DISNEY (1901-66)

There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island.

Pirate Lore

Pieces of Eight
In the USA the Spanish dollar or peso was common currency well into the 19th century. The coin, originally the bullion coin of Spain's New World empire was often physically cut into eight pieces for small change - hence the term 'pieces of eight'. Two-eighths hence made a quarter so a quarter dollar (25 cents) is known as 'two bits'. Pieces of eight only ceased to be legal US tender in 1857.
Pirate Booty
Most pirate booty wasn’t ‘treasure’ so much as food, water, alcohol, weapons, clothing, ship's fittings or whatever commodity was in the hold. The attacked ship itself might also be sold or taken over if better than the pirates’ own ship. The crew and passengers on a taken ship were also valuable either for ransom or to be sold as slaves. During the 17th century over a million Europeans were captured and sold into slavery by North African (Barbary) pirates.
Pirate Galleons
Few pirates were stupid enough to sail in galleons as per Pirates of the Caribbean. Most used galleys (with banks of oars rather than sails) as these can be rowed against the wind and in any direction unlike the sailing ships that were their prey.
There is no historical evidence for any pirate ever owning a pet parrot.
Peg Legs
Two privateers are known to have had wooden legs. The first of the modern era to be historically attested is the 16th-century Frenchman François Le Clerc, known as Jambe de Bois (Peg Leg). Cornelis Corneliszoon Jol (1597- 1641), nicknamed Houtebeen (pegleg) (Pé de Pau in Portuguese and Pata de Palo in Spanish), also had a wooden leg although again he was really more of a privateer than a pirate. Of course one man’s privateer is another man’s pirate and the Spanish called him El Pirata.

In Icelandic, a vikingr was a pirate and ‘to go viking’ was to go on an expedition.

Captain Pugwash

Captain Pugwash was a fictional pirate in a series of British children's comic strips and books created by John Ryan. The character's adventures were adapted into a black and white TV series first shown on the BBC in 1957, and a later colour series, first shown in 1974–75.
Captain Horatio Pugwash sails the high seas in his ship the Black Pig, ably assisted by cabin boy Tom, pirates Willy and Barnabas, and Master Mate. His mortal enemy is Cut-Throat Jake, captain of the Flying Dustman.
There is a persistent urban legend, repeated by the now-defunct UK newspaper the Sunday Correspondent, which ascribes suggestive names – such as Master Bates, Seaman Staines, and Roger the Cabin Boy to Captain Pugwash's characters, and suggesting that the Captain's name was a slang Australian term for oral sex. John Ryan successfully sued both the Sunday Correspondent and the Guardian newspapers in 1991 for printing this legend as fact. John Ryan’s family are understandably sensitive about this issue, which he regarded as having ruined his reputation, and they discourage discussion of it. QI is happy to be able to contribute to putting the record straight.

Franc╠žois le Clerc is the only known pirate to have had a peg-leg.

There is no historical evidence for any pirate having ever owned a pet parrot.