International Talk Like a Pirate Day is coming up (September 19), which means only one thing. Putting up with people trying out their worst West Country accents and spouting nonsense like, ‘Shiver me timbers’, ‘Ahoy, me hearties’, or a simple ‘Yarrr’. Whether they’ve got a Bristol-twang or are doing a sing-song Cornish (most people probably can’t tell the difference), the West Country is the go-to accent. But is the modern pirate-voice based on historical fact or is something else at fault?
Did all pirates come from the West Country?
The South West of England lent itself to piracy thanks to coves and inlets, helpful for hiding and smuggling goods. While its many ports provided men and great access to the rest of the world. It meant the West Country accents became prevalent in the Golden Age of Piracy between the 1650s and 1730s.
The most famous of all pirates, Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Teach, was a Bristolian. Despite a short career, as a scourge of the seas he defined the infamous and villainous image of pirates. Such terrifying acts as stuffing smoking fuses in his hair to frighten enemies and shooting his own men to command respect from his crew, still serve as frightful images.
Another Bristolian pirate was Woodes Rogers. After years as a privateer, he became a pirate-hunter in 1717. Arriving in the pirate capital of Nassau – home to more than 2,000 pirates – the following year, he established a government; forced many outlaws to surrender; and made the Bahamas virtually pirate free.
Notably, in 1709, Woodes also rescued Alexander Selkirk – a Scottish seaman who later inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – from a Pacific island. Famously, Daniel Defoe met Alexander at the Bristol pub The Llandoger Trow. While Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, was another legendary local of the pub on King Street.
Other notable West Country pirates include Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir John Hawkins. But not all pirates were from there. Anne Bonny, one of the few female pirates, was Irish, William Kidd was Scottish, and Bartholomew Roberts was Welsh. Pirates came from all over, many from North Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe too. So it’s unlikely all, if at all many, pirates had West Country accents.
Where did the stereotypical pirate accent come from?
Namely one man, the actor Robert Newton who came from Dorset. In 1950, he starred in Disney’s first completely live-action film Treasure Island and used his own accent to play Long John Silver. Two years later, he played the title character in Blackbeard the Pirate, before revising the character of Long John Silver in a film of the same name in 1954.
His West Country accent became synonymous with pirates in Hollywood thereafter. Especially its distinctive element of the drawn out ‘rrrr’. It’s prevalence has seen the accent appear in movies as recent as the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
It’s unlikely any real pirates sounded anything like modern day Bristolians, or even close to the Hollywood reimagining of the West Country accent. But coupled with Bristol and the West Country’s pirating past, it is a difficult relationship to unpick.