Pirates, it seems, have developed a bit of a bad reputation over the centuries, and while they weren’t cuddly puppies in between plundering excursions, life on the ocean was a democratic and team-oriented affair. Pirates were hardworking risk takers who roamed the seas hunting for treasure, and some of that loot is just one part of the Houston Museum of Natural Science's Real Pirates exhibit running through Feb. 6.
Based on the life of sailor-turned-pirate Sam Bellamy and his ship the Whydah, the exhibit goes behind the eye patch for an authentic look at pirate life.
When you hear pirate, perhaps Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow comes to mind. While his eccentric character made an indelible impression on the big screen, in reality many assumptions made about pirates over the years don’t necessarily hold water. David Temple, in-house museum curator for the Real Pirates exhibit, addresses some of the myths surrounding pirates, starting with their most noticeable accessory, the eye patch.
Many assume pirates wore eye patches to cover their battle scars, but in reality, eye patches were the sign of a great navigator.
“The pirates would look into the sun to calculate their position and as a result many of them burned their eyes. Pirates with eye patches were old salts who had more experience than others on the ship,” Temple says. Sailors also lost eyes due to the dangerous nature of ship life, like flying wood or falling gear.
Another misconception about pirates is the often-heard “walk the plank” threat. Pirates who roamed the seas in the 18th century made very little use of this glamorized method of punishment. In fact, when push came to shove, that’s just what pirates did. They shoved or threw an offending sailor overboard. No plank required. Modern-day pirate tales primarily have J.M. Barrie’s stage production of Peter Pan to thank for the “walk the plank” mythology.
Pirates earned their reputations as rowdy looters, with no skills and even worse attitudes, and while Blackbeard’s legend didn’t do anything to dispel those thoughts, pirates were mostly sailors who just wanted a better life.
“Many chose to go pirate because life on the ships were really like modern-day labor unions,” Temple explains. “They were all paid fairly, they were fed and, if you were a pirate, it generally meant you had a skill.” The decision to “go on the account” was made mostly by unmarried men who were carpenters, surgeons and entertainers or others who had an appreciable skill.
Once aboard the ship, life could be violent but also progressive in the democratic way men were treated by the captain and each other. Voting played a crucial role in everything from electing a captain and the ship’s destination to where to dock or if the ship should go to battle.
A pirate ship was also the one place where all men were equal, regardless of skin color or nationality.
John Julian, a Mosquito Indian, piloted Bellamy’s ship, the Whydah, and preferred life on to the ocean to docking in a port.
“John Julian was somebody on the ship, but a slave on the land,” Temple says. It is estimated that 30 percent of the Whydah crew was of African descent and, like many other ships of the day, the crews came from many corners of the world.
“On that ship they were a brotherhood, their own nation — a pirate nation,” Temple says.
It would seem just right then that the pirate nation would have the colorful parrot as a mascot. Many believe parrots were chosen for their ability to fly and find other ships or dry land, but in reality pirates favored parrots for their exoticism. The multi-hued chatty birds were symbols of great travels and an easy way for a pirate to garner extra attention. Of course pirates also were fond of other animal shipmates like dogs, cats and monkeys.
Admission to the 18th-century pirate nation was an adventure for sure, and one that can be fully experienced at the Houston Museum of Natural Science Real Pirates exhibit.