Although Captain Jack Sparrow’s signature dreadlocks mostly barred any view of his ears throughout the five “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, the common pirate trope has a few distinguishing characteristics: They drink rum, they wear a distinct hat and maybe an eyepatch, they say things like “arrgh” and “matey”...and they dig their jewelry.
Most of these particular traits were bred from pop culture and storytelling, the source likely being American artist Howard Pyle’s late 1800s illustrations. Pyle is credited with the first depictions of what a pirate looks like and how they dress, and he based these sketches off of other drawings he’d done of Spanish peasants and bandits. But as much as the makeup of a pirate can be steeped in imagination, the earrings do have an interesting history.
Piracy dates back to the 14th century BC and has existed in nearly every part of the world; to put it simply, piracy involves groups of men aboard ships who enjoy attacking and looting other ships. While an illegal act, catching modern pirates can be difficult due to the doctrine of universal jurisdiction for international waters.
Beyond commemorative intentions (for example, some say the earrings symbolized a pirate’s status as a voyager or honored their first trip through the dangerous waters of Cape Horn or a trip across the Equator), the more plausible explanation for the earrings is all about these men’s wishes to be taken care of after death.
If earrings were made out of gold or silver -- universally accepted forms of currency centuries ago -- wearing it on their person ensured that regardless of when or where these pirates died (even if their bodies washed up after a drowning), they could pay their way to a proper burial. Some would even go so far as to engrave the names of their homes into the metals in order to be returned home if need be. And since the day-to-day happenings of life as a pirate were, by definition, treacherous and cruel, this isn’t that hard to believe.
Pirates, it turns out, weren’t the only ones who liked their earrings; regular old sailors donned the jewelry as well, but rather than needing money to be sent back home for a funeral, they most likely wore earrings more for superstitious reasons, like the assumption that they improved eyesight and prevented seasickness.
And this practice of wearing your valuables didn’t stop at earrings. Pirate historian Gail Selinger has found that coins would also have holes drilled in them in order to be worn as necklaces or bracelets, in case pouches were ever stolen.
Take note: If you ever become a pirate, you’ll need your ears pierced. But, like...don’t become a pirate.