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Buccaneer Trends and the Truth About Pirates

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Buccaneer Trends and the Truth About Pirates


Buccaneer Trends and the Truth About Pirates

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From racing through landlocked Central Asia to sailing the Spanish Main.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) All right, my hardies, follow me.

ELLIOTT: It seems pirates are everywhere this summer: on the big screen, even the Happy Meal box. To clear up some common myths about Blackbeard and his brothers, we turn to Gail Selinger, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Pirates. She joins us from the Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles.

Well, I said brothers, but there were a few notorious female pirates as well.

Ms. GAIL SELINGER (Author): Well, there are actually quite a few female pirates and they started off as early as Vikings. They were known for their audacity. They were known for their fierceness and they were known for not taking any guff from any man, woman or government.

ELLIOTT: Now, if you asked me to draw you a pirate I'd probably give him an eye patch, a bushy beard, maybe a peg leg, a parrot on his shoulder or a hook where his hand should be. Then there's this little speech bubble that would come out. He would be saying, Aargh! Were pirates really like that?

Ms. SELINGER: Well, if you had one pirate that looked exactly like that he would no longer be on a ship. But different elements were actually true, not just for pirates, but for ex-sailors or people on land. If they had a hand cut off, most of them could not afford a hook so they would just have their stump and they still would be able to fight if they had their legs. The misnomer of pirates having parrots on their shoulders happened mostly on - when they went into town because exotic animals such as birds and monkeys were very desired by the upper class. And they would carry them on their shoulders around town as advertisements to sell them.

ELLIOTT: Where did our misconceptions about pirates come from?

Ms. SELINGER: I think one of our biggest misconceptions started with Robert Louis Stevenson's book Treasure Island. And most of the items that he wrote about in his story we have now taken as reality, such as in a pirate treasure map X marks the spot. I mean if you were going to have a treasure map and it went into somebody else's hands, why would you tell them exactly where the spot is that they buried treasure?

ELLIOTT: Did pirates really sing little ditties like yo ho ho and a bottle of rum?

Ms. SELINGER: Well, they didn't sing yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. That actually - that verse comes yet again from Treasure Island. And then in 1901 Henry Waller put music to it for a Broadway musical and that's what we know as 15 men on a dead man's chest. And the chorus is yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

ELLIOTT: Now the Pirates of the Caribbean are all the rage this summer, the movie. Everybody loves Jack Sparrow. Was there anybody really like that back in the pirate days?

Ms. SELINGER: Well, there was no pirate named Jack Sparrow, but the character that he's playing I believe is very realistic. Most of the time pirates were either drunk or hung over, or they had a situation called landsman syndrome, which means that when you get on land after having been on a ship for a very long time your equilibrium is not quite right and you tend to weave. So I think in that regard Jack Sparrow is very realistic.

ELLIOTT: You know, people are still looking for Blackbeard's treasure hundreds of years now after he died. Why is Blackbeard such a famous pirate? Why do people still seem to have a fascination with him today?

Ms. SELINGER: Blackbeard was a very notorious sadistic man. First of all, in that day he was extremely tall. He was over six feet. He was very broad shouldered. He dressed in black. He had very, very long hair and his beard went as far down as his chest. And when he was ready for battle he would take fuses from cannon and he would light the slow fuses and put them underneath his hat. So when you saw him he literally had a smoky cloud around his face.

ELLIOTT: So despite people's somewhat romantic views of pirates in this day and age, these were some pretty creepy characters.

Ms. SELINGER: These were very creepy characters. The modern pirates of today are just as creepy. The only difference is, pirates of today do not want to be known by name because they would be easier to track down and kill.

ELLIOTT: Gail Selinger is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Pirates. In her spare time she sails tall ships off the coast of California. Gail Selinger, thanks for joining us.

Ms. SELINGER: Thank you and have a great day.

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