Portrait of a Pirate: Myths and Unexpected Truths

Compass on an old tattered map

It’s not the kind of illustration you might expect to find on a book about pirates—especially one that had the good fortune of being published months before the scheduled release of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

There’s no swashbuckling rogue on the cover. No treasure chest. Not even a Jolly Roger or an old salt with a patch on one eye and a parrot on his shoulder.

Instead, the cover of the new book by Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos—a graduate of Georgetown University’s master’s and doctoral programs in liberal studies—features … a house. Actually, a very nice house: Captain William Kidd’s three-story mansion in New York City near a city wall that would later be renamed Wall Street.

Her point is this: “Pirates are not the monsters that history has made them out to be.” Though some lived up to their reputations for brutality, others led more or less “normal” lives, at least while on land.

Five Myths About Pirates

  1. They all looked like Jack Sparrow.

    Only Johnny Depp looked like Jack Sparrow. Pirates wore typical maritime clothing of the day, with pirate captains and those with more money donning more expensive outfits.
  2. They were socially isolated and had little contact with Colonial society.

    Pirates had extensive networks on land that kept them in touch with the outside world. They had a mail system of sorts (ships ferrying letters back and forth) that enabled them to communicate with relatives, and even a commuter service to take “retiring” pirates from their famous haunts in Madagascar to more mundane lives in America.
  3. They made their captives “walk the plank.”

    While various fiction writers have concocted gruesome tales of this practice, Geanacopoulos has encountered nothing of the sort in the primary sources. In truth, while some pirates were indeed brutal, many pirate ships had codes of conduct that covered how they treated both each other and their captives.
  4. They served no useful purpose for society.

    Many scholars believe that pirates did serve a useful purpose. They contributed to the emerging economies of North America by supplying much-needed gold and silver coins from captured ships. They brought back exotic food and luxury items—which they could sell cheaply because pirates, after all, had little overhead. And they gave jobs to unemployed sailors, who were usually treated better aboard pirate vessels than on the brutal merchant ships of the day.
  5. They carried parrots on their shoulders.

    “Captain Flint” notwithstanding, Geanacopoulos says there’s no proof that anyone beyond Treasure Island’s Long John Silver had any such mascot—let alone one with a commission. 

Close Relationships on Land

Many pirates had wives and families, Geanacopoulos said. And some, like Captain Kidd, who helped found Trinity Episcopal Church and even paid for a family pew (though there is no record that he actually used it), were fairly prominent members of Colonial society.

The Pirate Next Door: The Untold Story of Eighteenth Century Pirates’ Wives, Families and Communities is Geanacopoulos’ first work of historical nonfiction. She has also written numerous articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. It is based on her doctoral dissertation, which proved, through her exhaustive research in London and New England, that pirates were not the “social isolates” that Colonial authorities dubbed them, but members of makeshift seagoing democracies who often had close contacts on land.

The book gave Geanacopoulos the opportunity to expand her narrative beyond the academic argument and paint well-rounded portraits of four pirate captains and their families.

“Each chapter begins with the account of a woman and is meant to show a different aspect of the pirate’s life,” she said. “The idea is to give a three-dimensional picture of these men to show that they were not just one-dimensional seafaring rogues, but ordinary men who took care of their families and were engaged in relationships on land.”

A Pirate’s Wife

The story of Captain Kidd and his wife, Sarah, is at times poignant and full of intrigue. Kidd was a celebrated privateer: A captain who was commissioned by the English to raid French ships. But during an ill-fated voyage to the Arabian Sea, Kidd “crossed the fine line between privateer and pirate,” Geanacopoulos writes, attacking a small trading ship flying English flags that was rumored to be carrying Greeks and Armenians with jewelry and other rich goods. When arrested months later in Boston, Kidd claimed that he could not control his mutinous crew, who had been months at sea without plundering any vessels.

A woman of once-high social standing, Sarah did all she could to clear her husband of piracy charges and even plotted, unsuccessfully, to spring him from his Boston cell. She failed, and he was taken to England, where he was tried and convicted by authorities, held in solitary confinement, and executed on May 23, 1701.

“Before he was hanged, Captain Kidd again proclaimed his innocence and told those around him to send his love to his wife and daughters,” Geanacopoulos writes. “He said his greatest regret ‘…was the thought of his wife’s sorrow at his shameful death.’”

After more than two years spent focusing on pirates for her dissertation and book, Geanacopoulos wants to write something about the history of New Orleans. But the ninth-generation New Orleanian doesn’t simply want to retell tales about a storied city that have been told many times before. “That’s not especially interesting,” she said.

Instead, as with her work on pirates, she wants to conduct original research into the lives of overlooked people from the past and use those stories to illuminate a larger truth about their world.

“I want to get a broad picture of the society and link that with specific families and their relationships,” Geanacopoulos said.  “And then I’ll have a story.”

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