Thursday, June 19, 2008

Of Pirates and Parrots

The Hostage by N. C. Wyeth, 1911, for Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Did pirates keep parrots? Long John Silver's parrot, Captain Flint, may be fictional, but he has some basis in fact. While there are no records of well known pirates keeping parrots, there was a trade in exotic animals during the golden age of piracy. And where there was trade, it goes without saying, there were pirates. In seems reasonable that parrots, being easy to tame, quite colorful and rare would have been taken as booty if found. Also of note is the fact that those engaged piracy often liked to dress, eat or otherwise engage in practices that were usually reserved for the higher classes, so keeping an exotic pet would not be out of the question. But it is almost certainly Treasure Island that cemented parrots into the popular view of pirates.

Pirate (DK Eyewitness Books) by Richard Platt
A Pyrate's Life: Pirates, Parrots, & Pets

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Pirate Coins In The Golden Age

Bootie, originally uploaded by Ack Ook.

Blunt, booty, tin; call it what you may, but it was the raison d'être for nearly all pirates. The Spanish became fabulously wealthy in the new world, and pirates and privateers set out to relieve them of their riches. Once acquired, the pirates would squander their loot on drink, gambling and other vices you could very well imagine. They seldom, if ever buried their treasure. Coin was not they only thing they were after. Aside from precious metals and gems, things like medicine, clothing and weapons were also highly prized.

Ahhh, but who now can one mention a pirate's treasure without conjuring up images of parrots squawking out "pieces-of-eight" or chests full of doubloons? Here is a rundown of what you might have found in a pirates pockets in the Golden Age:

Pieces-of-eight (silver, 1497 to 1857): This was the silver dollar of its day. It was worth 8 reales (pronounced ray-ahls) and was frequently cut into pieces to make change, hence the name pieces-of-eight.

Doubloon (gold, 1566-?): A gold coin worth 2 escudos, see below.

Spanish Real (as in Reales) (silver/alloy, 1497 to 1864): This coin changed value a number of times throughout its existence. From 1642 to 1737 (which encompasses the Golden Age), there were two reales; on of silver (real de plata) and a less valuable one (real de vellón) made from billon (silver alloyed with other metals).

Gold Escudo (gold, 1566-1833): This coin was worth 16 silver reales during the golden age. Actually, they were minted in several quantities from 1/2 to 8 escudos, the 2 escudo coin was commonly known as the doubloon.

Onza (gold, 1566-????): A gold coin worth 8 escudos.

Going roughly on the facts in books:
1 Doubloon = 2 Escudos = 4 Pieces-of-eight = 32 Reales
1 Escudo = 16 Reales de plata
1 Pieces-of-eight = 8 Reales de plata

It should be noted that coins and other forms of money were in short supply in the new world. A pirate was more likely to come across all manner of goods than a galleon laden with coins. But there were some coins. Pieces-of-eight minted roughly in South America for transport back to Spain were known as cob. There were also coins from other nations used in trade, and a pirate might have to be "his own exchange broker", as Angus Konstam points out in one of his books.

But pieces-of-eight and gold doubloons will always remain at the heart of our romanticized image of pirates, weather its Ben Gunn's cave full of loot in Treasure Island or the treasure room at the end of the Pirates of the Caribbean rides. Pirates and coins go hand in hand, or coin in hand, if you please.


  • The Complete Idiot's Guide To Pirates, Gail Selinger

  • Pirates 1660-1730, Angus Konstam

  • Pirate (DK Eyewitness Books), Richard Platt

  • Wikipedia

The Great American Coin Company makes reproductions of some factual and fanciful pirate coins. You can even order them by the chest-load. Click here to go there.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stuart Gordon also planning Pirate movie

I have heard from more sources that another Pirate movie is being planned by Stuart Gordon. Gordon is known for films in the horror and sci-fi genres, so his could be an interesting piece. I have not really heard of any pirates movies in the horror genre before (although horror is not something that typically interest me, so I may have over looked them). Click here for more info.

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Long John Peter

Family Guy

The first third of this past Sunday's Family Guy was an hilarious tribute to classic pirate movies. Peter befriends a parrot and then terrorizes the town with a pirate crew. There is more info here on wikipedia.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Pirate Sam

The Warner Bros. Store Is Closed had a post about Kirk Mueller which featured this great drawing of Pirate Yosemite Sam.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Public Domain: The Map from Treasure Island

Saturday, December 1, 2007

"The Fate Of A Treasure Town" available on Google Books

Howard Pyle's short story The Fate Of A Treasure Town is now available for viewing and download at Google Books. The story and a number others are part of a public domain book called Adventures Of Pirates and Sea Rovers. Unfortunately, I don't think this book has the illustrations set up the same way they appeared when the story was originally published in Harpers Monthly Magazine. Follow this link to the book:

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Captain Kidd (1945) available for download

The public domain (and historically questionable) film, Captain Kidd (1945) is available for download and/or viewing at The film stars Charles Laughton as Captain Kidd. The film is not without merit. The story manages to make a complete arc, which is not something that can be said for every movie nowadays. This film is in the public domain, but it has been released on DVD numerous times, sometimes along with Return to Treasure Island a.k.a. Long John Silver (1954). The DVD in my possession is from a company called American Home Treasures.

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Monday, July 9, 2007

Pirates and Concertinas: History or Myth?

Sea chanties are often the music most associated with pirates in popular culture, and the instrument most associated with sea chanties and pirates is the concertina.

As it turns out, the concertina (and other related instruments like the accordion) were not invented until about 1829 (verified in numerous online encyclopedias), a hundred years after the golden age of piracy (1690- 1730). Nevertheless, concertinas appear in The Pirates of the Caribbean rides and movies as well as in Disney's adaptation of Peter Pan.

Of course it can be said that Peter Pan is pure fantasy, and not really set in the golden age. Interestingly, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was originally planned as walk-through exhibit featuring historical pirates. Of course, it evolved into something much more fanciful, and we all love every bit of it.

So what did pirates play? They did play jigs and shanties. According to The Idiot's Guide To Pirates, pirate musicians were very popular aboard ship. Author Gail Selinger writes that pipe and drum units were kept on naval ships. Pirates would spare the lives of musicians who were willing to join them. She mentions instruments such as bagpipes and lyres, but she also mentions the concertina. She probably wasn't writing about the golden age.

The Pirate's Realm (website) also mentions trumpets and fiddles.

So how do I feel about the concertina? I don't mind it a bit. History be damned, its part of the great pirate mythos.

"A pirate's life is a wonderful life You'll find adventure and sport. But live every minute For all that is in it The life of a pirate is short."

Click here for more discussion on Pirates and concertinas

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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Excerpt's from Howard Pyle's "The Fate of a Treasure Town"

I wish I could find this story. I'm not sure if it is published in any books. It should be made available for free since it is in the public domain and the images that accompany it are part of our perception of pirates. In fact, they are some of the most widely used images of pirates. These excerpts come fome here. The images were not taken from that site.

An Attack on a Galleon.

Pyle wrote: "Perhaps one of the convoys lags from the rest of the fleet. There comes skimming out from behind the fringed headland a lean, low pinnace full of half-naked cutthroats–white, black, and yellow. It swoops down upon the derelict galleon like the kestrel upon the wild goose...."


"A lonely island; a long strip of coral sand with combing breakers bursting upon it; a shining mass of treasure poured out upon a sail-cloth spread upon a beach; a circle of hungry-eyed, wolfish, unshaven, partly clad figures gathered about in the sunlight; the pirate chief standing over the booty—counting, adding, subtracting, parcelling.

"So the treasure was divided...."


Extorting Tribune from the Citizens.

"So the [pirates] returned to [Cartagena], which now lay entirely at their mercy without even the dim shadow of . . . authority as a protection. What followed need not be written in full; what they did may better be imagined than told. It is not said how long they remained, but it was long enough to hunt every odd corner for remnants of treasure that had been left behind. In the end, hearing further news of the approach of the Dutch and English fleet, they demanded a payment of 5,000,000 livres as the price of their departure without burning the town—and, incredible as it may sound, they got their price."


The Buccaneer was a Picturesque Fellow.

"The buccaneer was a picturesque fellow when you regard him from this long distance away. He belonged to no country and recognized no kith or kin of human nationality. He spent his money like a prince, and was very well satisfied to live rapidly, even if in so doing his death should come upon him with equal celerity. He clothed himself in a picturesque medley of rags, tatters, and finery. He loved gold and silver ornaments—ear-rings, finger-rings, bracelets, chains,—and he ornamented himself profusely with such gewgaws. He affected a great deal of finery of a sort—a tattered shirt or even a bare skin mattered not very much to him provided he was able to hide his semi-nakedness beneath some such finery as a velvet cloak or a sash of scarlet silk; patched breeches were not regarded when he had a fine leather belt with a silver buckle and a good sword hanging to it. And always there were a long-barrelled pistol or two and a good handy knife stuck in a waist-belt with which to command respect.

"Such was the buccaneer of the seventeeth century."

This story originally appeared in Harper's Monthly, December 1905

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