Why do pirates say 'arr'?

19 September is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. But did pirates really say and do the things we think they did?

Did pirates say 'arr'?

Probably not

Pirates would have talked like other merchant sailors of the day, a number of whom came from the working class of the South West of England. Whilst a South West English accent does lend itself to an ‘arrr’ noise, it certainly wasn’t the defining characteristic we think of it as. Pirates would have come from all over the place, including Scotland, Ireland, France, Sweden, and a large number from London. 

Another contributing factor may have been the portrayal of Long John Silver by Robert Newton in the 1950 TV version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Newton was from the West Country, as was the character of Long John Silver, so his accent no doubt influenced people’s idea of pirates.

Did pirates have parrots?


Pirates would take traditional trade routes, in order to follow the ships that carried the things they wanted to steal. Animals were one of the things that would have been traded at the time, especially exotic and interesting animals such as parrots. Not only were parrots a good money maker for pirates on returning to England, they were also entertaining during the long and dull journey, and took up a small amount of space. Not every pirate would have had a parrot companion, but they wouldn’t have been uncommon on journeys.

Did pirates drink rum?


Rum was a big part, not just of being a pirate, but of being a sailor. Until as late as 1970 'tots' of rum were given to sailors in the British Navy every day, as part of their rum ration. A 'tot' is one eighth of an imperial pint and sailors would receive it at midday. If you were lower down in the ranks, your rum would be mixed with water, to make grog. 

When making long trips, water would be the first to go bad, beer would go next, and then rum. Therefore, it would make more sense to pack more rum, as it would last longer.

Rum also comes from sugarcane, something that was abundant in Jamaica, where pirate ships regularly visited. Rum was not only easier to transport than sugar but also came with the added bonus of making you drunk.

Rum was even used to help put a stop to Scurvy. By adding citrus and water to rum, making grog, sailors would get their vitamin C, whilst still getting their precious rum. 

Did pirates make people walk the plank?


Forcing a captive to walk the plank typically involved binding their arms and legs, so that they could not swim, and forcing them to walk off a beam of wood jutting out of the ship, and falling into the sea.

Whilst we know that walking the plank took place at least a few times, there aren’t many documented instances. Therefore, it’s unclear whether or not this was a regular occurrence – most likely it wasn’t. It would have been easier to simply push someone overboard if they needed getting rid of. 

Did pirates have hooks and wear eye patches?

Some did

Being a sailor, and especially being a pirate, is dangerous business. Whilst it certainly wasn’t a prerequisite of being a pirate, losing an eye or a hand was a common occurrence amongst those who sailed the seven seas.

Similar to how we think that pirates talk, a lot of our ideas of what pirates look like comes from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Stevenson did a lot of research prior to writing the book, particularly by reading A General History of Pirates. 

He also went on tour around the USA, where he met lots of Civil War veterans who had lost limbs and eyes in conflict. This experience of conflict would have been similar to pirates, and influenced Stevenson's depiction of them. 

Was Captain Hook real?