The Pirates of the Caribbean films greatly popularized pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries. They are indeed inspired by real historical facts about pirates of that era, even if there are also inaccuracies, which is normal because it is a fiction, not a documentary.
(Who were the real Pirates of the Caribbean?)
Why the Caribbean?
As seen in the films, the Caribbean was indeed infested with pirates at the time, particularly in the early 18th century which marked the golden age of piracy in this sea.
Piracy began there two centuries earlier when Europeans began to colonize America. European merchant ships traded slaves, sugar, precious metals, tobacco and coffee which were worth a lot of money, obviously attracting pirates.
(Spanish galleons, like this one, loaded with goods were highly sought after by pirates who could easily become rich if they got their hands on them.)
The Caribbean was a great den of pirates, of course because a good part of the merchant ships passed through there, but also because it is a sea dotted with coves and small uninhabited islands where it was therefore easy for all kinds of criminals to hide. It was a difficult region to police.
Who were these pirates?
Pirate crews were made up of men of all nationalities and social backgrounds: aristocrats, former merchant or military sailors, even women, Native Americans and former African slaves.
For example, Blackbeard’s famous ship ( Queen Anne’s Revenge ) had a crew of 60% former African slaves.
Some pirates were hardened criminals who did it for profit but many did it to have a better life. Indeed, the life of a sailor was terrible, it was even one of the worst jobs in the world at the time.
In the merchant or military navy, crews were often abused and undernourished, all for pitiful pay. Many sailors therefore preferred to become pirates in order to escape this mistreatment and earn more money.
Furthermore, the development of the slave trade enriched shipowners and planters at the expense of ordinary citizens who fell deeper into poverty, which pushed many of them to turn to illegality.
What were the ships?
The Pirates of the Caribbean films show large ships like the Black Pearl, so it is often believed that pirates of that era had ships like this.
But in reality, many sailed on much smaller boats like sloops : 12 meter long sailboats, very popular with pirates for their speed and maneuverability, as well as for their shallow draft which allowed them to sail easily in shallow coastal waters.
Pirates generally sought to get their hands on larger ships. For example, Blackbeard’s best ship was originally a French slave ship, Le Concorde , which he seized in 1717 and later renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge.
How did the pirates operate?
They preferred to attack isolated merchant ships. Movies often show them raising the black flag, which is a real fact. In general, pirates did not seek combat, they preferred to rely on intimidation and deterrence.
(These flags actually had varying colors and patterns depending on the ship but they always represented death or the passing of time. The message was clear: surrender or die!)
Very often there was no fight. The cannon fire and boardings we see in movies were rare in reality. The terrified merchants preferred to surrender when they saw this flag of death, and also when they saw the pirates screaming and armed to the teeth. But when they refused to surrender, the pirates did not hesitate to fire their cannons.
In the first film The Curse of the Black Pearl , the battle scene between the Black Pearl and the Interceptor shows the pirates firing chain balls (two balls linked together by a chain) to break the masts of the opposing ship. These cannonballs were actually used for this function. It was not to destroy the ship but to immobilize it.
Contrary to their image as bloodthirsty bandits, the pirates did not systematically massacre captured crews. Most of the times, this happened when they tried to resist, which was rare as I explained, and even then it was often the officers who were punished.
Pirates usually even offered captured crews to join them. And many accepted to escape the meager salaries and poor living conditions in the conventional navy.
Pirates of the Caribbean shows us a pirate lair that actually existed on Tortuga ( Turtle Island).) in the 17th century.
Pirates are known for being heavy drinkers and debauchees, a reputation definitely established by the kind of cities they favored in the Caribbean.
The English colonial town of Port Royal that we see in the films was in reality a major pirate port, like Tortuga. They could station there because they were mandated by the English to attack their enemies, notably the Spanish.
In the 18th century, Blackbeard was based in Nassau, Bahamas. At the time, it was not a paradise of cruise ships and luxury hotels. It was a filthy town, filled with taverns and brothels where pirates came to spend their spoils, just like in Tortuga and Port Royal.
Port-Royal was also considered the most depraved city in the world due to the record level of alcoholism and prostitution.
But these sordid towns were also prime markets: traders from the West Indies and North America who dealt with pirates could find excellent quality products at unbeatable prices, which was very lucrative for everyone.
The Pirate Code
Jack Sparrow often talks about the famous “pirate code”. This is not a Hollywood invention. Each pirate ship had written rules that the crew often agreed to, called “articles of agreement.” Before boarding, each pirate signed these documents.
These rules were to allow crew members to work together and not descend into anarchy. The articles of agreement varied from ship to ship but always included clauses on discipline and specifying each ship’s share of the spoils.
Some even provided compensation for the injured, a form of “social security” before its time.
The pirate crews had promoted a form of democracy far ahead of its time. The captain was elected by the crew, he owed nothing to his origin or his social rank but to his own skills. And he could even be ousted by the crew if he didn’t suit them.
In the first film, Jack Sparrow is exiled to a small lost island by his crew who only leaves him a pistol with a bullet to end things with. This is what actually happened to several pirate captains.
We always associate pirates with gold. We often imagine pirates diving their hands into chests full of gold. There is some truth to this, although in reality pirates mainly got their hands on sugar, rum or tobacco rather than gold, especially in the 18th century.
The story of the first film revolves around a cursed Aztec gold chest. This supernatural plot is inspired by pirate legends that date back to the 16th century. At the time, many Spanish galleons transported gold from the American colonies. Some sailors believed that this gold was cursed because of the strange faces and gods engraved on the coins.
In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht ended the War of the Spanish Succession. As a result, European navies demobilized many men who found themselves unemployed. Many of them then turned to piracy to earn money.
Piracy in the Caribbean and on the North American coast then entered its golden age, so much so that it threatened international maritime trade. Every week, more and more merchant ships fell into the hands of pirates.
Some even besieged ports, as seen in the first film when the Black Pearl attacks Port Royal. For example, in 1718, Blackbeard imposed a blockade on the city of Charleston in South Carolina and only left the port when a ransom was paid.
A powerful pirate nation even emerged in New Providence after the English governor lost control of that port, a true Pirate Republic appeared there, financed by the loot amassed by the great pirates of the time like Blackbeard, Black Sam or Black Robert.
This pushed the navies of different countries (Great Britain, France, Spain, etc.) to fight piracy by all means to eradicate it, which therefore put an end to the golden age which will not have lasts a long time.