Not-so-Jolly Rogers

Turns out, pirate life wasn’t really glamourous

Although the theme of this year's tall ships is naval, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic will still be presenting its usual pirate mascot alongside a costumed naval captain on the boardwalk this year. Museum curator Dan Conlin says the public's interest in pirate culture remains as strong as it ever was, though he's quick to point out the Johnny Depp-meets-Blackbeard mascot isn't an accurate portrayal.

"Most pirates wore rags," he says. "It's only if a pirate was doing unusually well that he would start to dress a little more flamboyantly."

There are other myths fuelled by the Pirates of the Caribbean films and popular folklore. Conlin points out that contrary to the fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson, pirates never buried treasure, nor did they force captives to walk the plank. Pirate crews were also surprisingly democratic, with each ship boasting a written article dictating equal sharing and elections for officers.

And most pirates weren't particularly bloodthirsty---Conlin says in most cases the pirates came aboard vessels, stole the loot and left most of the crew alive. Of course, there were exceptions, like the famously unpredictable Captain Edward "Ned" Low, who spent a period pillaging vessels anchored in Shelburne during the heyday of piracy in and around Nova Scotia.

"He was a big fan of torture," says Conlin. "He liked to cut off body parts---ears and noses. He would cook your own nose and make you eat it, and then rip your guts out and kill you. He was quite a nasty character."

The punishment for piracy at its peak in Nova Scotia was equally grisly. Captured pirates faced a mandatory death sentence, with the corpses of the guilty strung up on poles at places like Black Rock Beach in Point Pleasant Park at low tide, and then the corpse was covered in tar and placed in an iron cage nailed to a post at the entrance of Halifax Harbour as a deterrent to other would-be offenders. In the wake of our current sewage woes, one has to wonder how this would have affected the tourist trade in the eighteenth century.

"At one point, you had a pirate hung up at Point Pleasant Park and four navy mutineers hung up at McNab's Island," says Conlin. "Tall ships that came in would see rotting corpses on portside and rotting corpses on starboard side. Welcome to Halifax." ---AL

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