Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, a worldwide celebration of pirate cliches, memes and stereotypes. Real pirates, of course, were less predictable and much more dangerous than cinematic representations. Pirates of the 17th and 18th century had a well-justified reputation for brutality. They reserved their worst tortures for captured sea captains, particularly if evidence suggested they had mistreated their own crews.
A 1669 report from a British colonial official described one form of pirate violence:
“It is a common thing among privateers… to cut a man in pieces, first some flesh, then a hand, an arm, a leg… sometimes tying a cord about his head and twisting it with a stick until the eyes shoot out, which is called ‘woolding’.”
Worse treatment was given to a woman in Porto Bello:
“A woman there was set bare upon a baking stone and roasted, because she did not confess of money which she had only in their conceit.”
In 1724 a mariner named Richard Hawkins, who spent several weeks captive aboard a pirate vessel, described a ritual dubbed the Sweat. It was usually employed to extract information from prisoners:
“Between decks, they stick candles round the mizen mast and about 25 men surround it with points of swords, penknives, compasses, forks, etc., in each of their hands. The culprit enters the circle [and] the violin plays a merry jig… and he must run for about ten minutes, while each man runs his instrument into [the culprit’s] posteriors.”