Forget 'walking the plank.' Pirate portrayals—from Blackbeard to Captain Kidd—are more fantasy than fact.

How we think famous swashbucklers walked, talked, and dressed didn't come from the history books, so where did these pirate myths come from?

An illustration from 19th-century artist Howard Pyle depicts a man being forced to walk the plank. Although there is no record of this type of punishment, it remains popular in pirate mythology.
Image courtesy of Bridgeman Images

Say “pirate,” and people envision grizzled men with eye patches, parrots, and treasure maps. They picture buccaneers forcing their victims to walk the plank, and crying “Shiver me timbers” as they fly the Jolly Roger flag. It turns out, many of these stereotypes are not true. Pirates have been around for nearly as long as people have sailed the world’s waters, and, in fact, still exist. It’s just how they’ve been depicted that’s often misleading. So where did these misinterpretations come from?

Pirates are commonly portrayed wearing colorful attire. He may sport as a loose-fitting shirt with a bandana around his head, a scarf around his waist, ripped pants, wearing tattered boots, like Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. Or he may appear a bit foppish, much like Stede Bonnet, the "gentleman pirate" in the 2022 series Our Flag Means Death

(Meet pirate queen Zheng Yi Sao, who tormented the South China Sea in the early 19th century.)

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