Imagine a pirate. The image that comes immediately to mind is a man, disabled in various ways, with a peg leg, a hook for a hand, a patch over one eye, and a parrot on his shoulder. He is rough, coarse, sometimes humorous, sometimes terrifying. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to Hollywood films, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, this image of the pirate has for centuries now suffused an American, and increasingly global, popular culture.
The image is a myth, but it is no less powerful for that. Like all myths, it contains a small but essential element of truth. Pirates of the “Golden Age,” who marauded on the high seas from 1660 to 1730, were almost all common working sailors, poor men from the lowest social class, who crossed the line into illegal activity, most of them bearing the scars of a dangerous line of work. Naval warfare of the era featured cannonballs blowing up wooden ships, sending an explosion of splinters and chunks of wood that blinded and severed the arms and legs of mariners. Sailors fell from the rigging, suffered hernias while lifting heavy cargo, caught malaria and other debilitating diseases, and lost fingers to rolling casks. Many died, their bodies dumped into that vast gray-green graveyard called the Atlantic Ocean. Crippled mariners made up the majority of beggars to be found in the port cities of the Atlantic world.
The ravaged body of the pirate is a key to understanding the real history of those who sailed “under the banner of King Death,” the infamous black flag, the pirates’ Jolly Roger.
— source yesmagazine.org | Paul Buhle & Marcus Rediker & David Lester | Jan 26, 2023