A Cape Breton University history professor has set sail on a journey to discover the real world of the pirate — and whether that image we hold of a swarthy bearded man with an eye patch, a peg leg and a parrot is actually true.

Andy Parnaby will describe his findings in a talk this evening called Why Do Pirates Say Arrrrrrr?, part of a children's lecture series at the university. 

In a preview with CBC Cape Breton's Information Morning, he revealed that while "arrrrrrr" is standard among pirates of popular culture, it wasn't so much in reality.

However, because this adventurous breed of men came from all over the world, spoke many languages with different dialects heavily salted with technical seafaring terms, it was difficult for non-pirates to decipher what they were saying, Parnaby said.

"How they communicated was largely unintelligible. So if you were on the outside looking in, it sounded a lot like 'arrrrrrr.'"

andy parnaby

Cape Breton University history professor Andy Parnaby has researched the real life of pirates. (Hal Higgins/CBC)

Parnaby has also looked at other common questions about pirates:

What about the pirate accent?

"That's one part that does ring true," said Parnaby, noting that a lot of pirates came from the West Country of England, including Penzance, Cornwall and Bristol.  

"Imagine Hagrid from Harry Potter. That's a West Country accent, very piraty sounding," he said.

What about their garb?

"It's true that the wealthy ones did wear silks, gold jewelry, with pistols and swords hanging from their hips," said Parnaby.

"We know that because court records often included descriptions of what pirates appearing in court were wearing." 

But only a small percentage ever achieved wealth, he said, and the majority did not dress well. 

"Most pirates ended their career like the guy in the Stan Rogers' song, right — 'a broken man on a pier,'" said Parnaby. "Their careers maybe lasted two or three years."

Most ended up poor, killed in battle, swinging from a noose, or quietly returning to regular seafaring life.

What about the parrot?

Yes, some had parrots — but the image of a colourful bird on the shoulder is a fabrication, said Parnaby, explaining the bird would have been kept in a cage aboard ship.

"If you're gonna go into battle you don't want the parrot on your shoulder. It's a very, very easy target," he said.

The more typical pet was a rat, mouse or cat, and maybe a monkey if you sailed to tropical places, he noted.

Parrots were an attraction because then, as now, you could teach them to talk.

Parrots that could speak 3 languages 

"I've seen newpaper ads from the 1700s for an English waterfront market advertising parrots that could speak three languages," said Parnaby.

For a brief time there were pirates in Atlantic Canadian waters, he said, but there was no comparison with the tropics.  

"A pirate's life was short, they wanted money above all else. If you wanted Spanish gold or silver, you hung out around Panama, or the Carribean, and picked those ships off as they went over to the old world."

with files from CBC Cape Breton Information Morning