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Five Things You Didn't Know About Pirates

Ahoy, my fellow landlubbers! As many of you are well aware, pirates have been massively popularized in literature and cinema. After all, who hasn't read or heard of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island? And who hasn't cackled or guffawed at Captain Jack Sparrow's swashbuckling antics in Pirates of the Caribbean?

However, my dear friends, it is my unfortunate duty to inform you that you have been slightly misled. For the most part, pirates weren't the hotheaded hooligans they have been made out to be. In reality, they were hardened mariners striving to survive on the high seas. They relied on rules and order. They utilized democracy and science. They even had workers' comp!

Without further ado, here are five things you may have not known about pirates:

1. No Buried Treasure. Extensive research by University of Pittsburgh Professor Marcus Rediker has debunked this common belief. Pirates rarely buried their treasure, partly because they didn't see the point of saving or hiding their riches, but mostly because the type of loot they took on -- usually food, trading goods, clothes, etc. -- was either perishable or served absolutely no purpose buried in a treasure chest.

For the most part, pirates actually traded their stolen goods in the New World. In fact, this trade infusion may have greatly boosted the local economies of large seaports and struggling settlements in the Americas.

2. Pirates Were Astronomers.
Or at least the navigators were. For pirates plundering in the 15th through the 18th centuries, celestial navigation using astrolabes or sextants was the prime method of navigation at sea. In order to calculate position and course heading, pirates had to recognize several celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon, and certain stars, including Polaris, Rigel, and Procyon.

talk-like-a-pirate.gifPirates didn't actually talk like scallywags. (Illustration by John McCoy)

3. Grog Helped Ward off Scurvy.
Aboard most pirate vessels, grog was the alcoholic beverage of choice. The simplest recipe called for rum and water, but many pirates added lime or lemon juice to ensure adequate intake of vitamin C and to make the beverage slightly more palatable. Some even ingeniously added exotic spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg to their rum cocktails.

4. Pirates Had Worker's Comp. A life spent ransacking and raiding was a dangerous one, which is why it didn't hurt to have some basic insurance. For example, the code of the pirate ship Revenge decreed that, "If any Man shall lose a Joint in time of an Engagement, [he] shall have 400 Pieces of Eight ; if a Limb, 800."

By and large, buccaneers in the Caribbean had similar compensation. French writer Alexandre Exquemelin, who served under Admiral Henry Morgan (better known as Captain Morgan), described one such policy:

"...for the loss of a right arm six hundred pieces of

eight; for the loss of a left arm five hundred pieces of

eight; for a right leg five hundred pieces of eight; for the left leg four hundred pieces of eight for an eye one hundred pieces of eight; for a

finger of the hand the same reward as for the eye."

One thing you may have noticed: lefties got a rotten deal!

5. Pirates Rocked the Vote (but hopefully not the boat). As it turns out, pirate ships weren't crewed by lamebrain individuals serving under dictatorial captains; they were floating bulwarks of democracy. Pirate captains were often elected, and the quartermaster served as an arbiter in matters of dispute. Thus, pirate ships had three branches of government. The crew functioned as the legislative branch, the captain served as the executive branch, and the quartermaster acted as the judicial branch.