Why Were Pirates Called Motley Crew?

Across the ages, pirates have many names, including privateers, buccaneers, and corsairs. However, one moniker has become more popular than others—the term “motley crew,” which applied to the crew of a pirate ship. Pirate television shows and movies popularized these names—but why were pirate crews called “motley crews” in the first place?

Pirate crews were called motley crews to denote the fact that they were from mixed backgrounds. Pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy came from many different countries, and many pirates were from previously enslaved races. Additionally, the term “motley crew” connotated that the crew was unruly.

We have all heard of the iconic band Mötley Crüe that shares the same name as pirates of old, perhaps for similar reasons! Historically, the term has fascinating origins and reflects the political times of the Golden Age of Piracy (from 1650-1730). In this article, I will explore how pirates came to be called motley crews. To learn more, keep reading!

The Meaning of “Motley Crew”

The word motley has several definitions. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, when used as an adjective, it can mean either something that has different colors or consists of numerous different people (or things). [1] Both definitions are necessary when used in the context of pirate crews.

Pirate Crews Came From Diverse Backgrounds

During the Golden Age of Piracy, pirates came from all walks of life and some of the most wealthy European countries.

You could find pirates that were from a host of different countries, including: [2]

  • Britain 
  • Wales
  • The Netherlands
  • Spain
  • Ireland 
  • France
  • Portugal 

Several of these countries were not just countries—they were also empires. This status meant they had numerous colonies—including South America, Asia, and Africa. Many people from these colonies made their way to the country that ruled their homelands, hoping to make money.

Pirates were generally people from impoverished backgrounds looking for a way to make money. Many of these immigrants turned to piracy when work in European countries did not prove as lucrative as they had hoped. Additionally, many native Europeans, especially those from lower economic classes, turned to piracy to make quick money.

Additionally, many formerly enslaved people joined pirate crews. These included fugitives of freed enslaved peoples when pirates raided the slave ships or plantations. [3] Including formerly enslaved people on board pirate ships only added to the varied ethnicities of the crew and was another reason that crews were occasionally called motley crews.

Another way in which pirate ships’ crews were often diverse was in terms of religion. Many pirates followed the religion of their birth, generally some form of Christianity. However, others were not religious, and even god-fearing pirates were very superstitious and would make offerings to pagan gods. [4]

However, there were also pirates from other religions. For example, after being expelled from Spain and Portugal, some Jewish people joined pirate crews, especially ones that often conflicted with the Spanish and Portuguese navies, such as Ottoman pirate ships. [5] 

The Ottoman Barbary pirates were themselves primarily Muslim. While they generally kept to their ships, some joined ships with European crews. While there is little evidence of Chinese pirates being religious, they would burn joss paper as offerings to their ancestors. [6]

Thus, pirate crews were a melting pot of different cultures, ethnicities, and religions, explaining why people called them “motley crew.”

Pirate Crews Were Unruly

Pirates tended to become unruly—another reason people named them a motley crew.

Though pirates did not commit mutiny anywhere near as much as popular media would have us believe, there are still instances in which rebellions happened. For example, pirate William Fly organized a mutiny against the captain of the ship on which he was working—only to find himself on the receiving end of a revolt from his new crew a short while later. [7]

While pirates did not necessarily turn against their own, people still feared them for their brutality and tendency to attack merchant ships and undefended settlements on land, such as plantations.

Additionally, pirate havens and strongholds were full of taverns and brothels. [8] As crews frequented these locations, they developed a reputation for being unruly, again contributing to their labeling as a “motley crew.”

Motley Crews in Popular Media

Two sources of pop culture have popularized the term “motley crew” in the modern day – the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and the heavy metal band Mötley Crüe.

Pirates of the Caribbean

In the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the term “motley crew” is most prominently used to refer to the crew of Jack Sparrow’s ship, The Black Pearl. [9]

The term—in both its original contexts—since the crew of the Black Pearl is both extremely unruly, led by the drunken Captain Jack Sparrow himself, and visibly diverse. 

The pirate and smuggler Anamaria is a woman of color who Jack Sparrow refers to as a native of the Caribbean [10], Elizabeth Swan is the daughter of the Governor of Port Royal, and Will Turner was an accomplished blacksmith before turning pirate. 

The crew also included animals at points, including Jack the Monkey (owned by Hector Barbossa) and a parrot owned by the pirate Cotton.

Mötley Crüe

Mötley Crüe is a heavy metal band formed in 1981. The group’s members are:

  • Vince Neil (lead singer)
  • Nikki Sixx (bassist)
  • Mick Mars (lead guitarist)
  • Tommy Lee (drummer)

Though the band’s name brings up connotations of a pirate crew, it does not have anything to do with pirates. At formation, the band did not have a name.

While band members were brainstorming a name, Mick Mars also played gigs with other bands, including one named White Horse. During a gig with White Horse, one of the other members of the band called the group “a motley looking crew.” [11]  With their wild hair and antics—it’s no wonder the pirate imagery followed this band.

Mars used the phrase as the inspiration for the band’s name, initially spelled “Mottley Cru.” The four members later made adjustments to the spelling until they came to the version known around the world today – Mötley Crüe.

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