Short URL for this page:
Pirates were an ornery lot. The movies and novels have painted a picture of these freebooters as a romantic fraternity, and nearly always as wronged men following some noble cause. Nothing could be further from the truth. In general, they were little more than the dregs and scum of the seaports of the world. Today we would consider them gangsters. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries they were a part of the life of the times, just as criminals are today. They existed in every part of the world; the seas around Europe, off Africa, in oriental waters, the Caribbean, and off the North American coast. Many of the names most famous in the story of pirates captured prizes off North Carolina. But before we go into the story of the North Carolina pirates, perhaps it would be best to determine just what manner of men these were who sailed under the Black Flag.
A pirate, in most cases, began life as an honest seaman. But he lived in an age when the life of a sailor was hard, and the pay was small. A dissatisfied sailor was always a good prospect as a future pirate. And it wasn't difficult to find others who dreamed of easy money. It was not uncommon that a number of these unhappy seamen would find themselves in the crew of some merchant vessel whose captain was a hard taskmaster. Upon such occasions, it was easy to turn pirate. A mutiny would be staged, and the discontented men would seize control of the ship. After a successful mutiny, the captain and the loyal members of the crew would be either murdered or perhaps set ashore and marooned on the nearest island. Sometimes these seagoing gangsters would become so bold as to steal a ship as it lay at anchor within a harbor.
The capture of his ship was sometimes the occasion which would lead an otherwise honest seaman to take up piracy. Pirates usually offered the crew of a captured vessel an opportunity to join them. The decision was not too difficult. Many a sailor, bored with the humdrum existence aboard a merchant vessel, jumped at the chance for excitement and easy money. This last reason, probably more than any other, was the most popular excuse for turning pirate.
p3 [p2] Piracy was not strictly a man's game. Some pirate captains went so far as to carry their wives to sea. Then there were women who were actually members of the crew. Two of the more famous, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, fought just as fiercely and were just as bloodthirsty as the male members of their group.
Once a man entered a career of piracy, it was not unusual that he change his name. In many instances this was to prevent bringing shame upon his family. On other occasions, he preferred being known by some nickname which had been bestowed upon him by his comrades. Among the more famous of these pet names were "Blackbeard," "Gentleman Harry," "Calico Jack," and "Long Ben."
Many pirates began their careers as privateers, in a form of legal piracy.a In fact, privateering was described during this period as being "a nursery of pirates." Privateering came about because in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries nations could not afford to maintain large regular navies. When war did break out, they were forced to increase their naval strength to meet the challenge of an enemy, yet remain within reasonable bounds of expense. Most nations met this need by issuing Letters of Marque and Reprisal. These documents authorized the owners of merchant vessels to arm their ships with cannon, sign on fighting crews, and prey upon the commercial shipping of the enemy. All captured prizes were brought back into port, sold at auction, and the sale proceeds divided between the government, the owner, and the crew. This practice not only weakened the economic resources of the enemy, but it enrolled those seamen who were willing to risk their lives upon the open sea. At the end of war, few privateersmen looked forward to returning to the poorly paid and rather dull existence of ordinary seamen. The answer was piracy!
It was not difficult to find enough men to form a crew; but pirates without a ship are about as useless as a saddle without a horse. This problem was usually solved by stealing what they needed. After spotting a likely looking small ship anchored in the harbor, the pirates would wait for a dark night when most of the ship's crew was ashore. Then, in small boats, or even canoes, they would row silently out to their intended prize. Slipping quickly over the side, they would overpower the crew members still on board. Still under cover of darkness, they would sail quietly out of the harbor. Sometimes this small ship would be used to capture a larger vessel better suited to the needs of p4 piracy. The first would be sunk or abandoned. Seldom were ships specially built for piratical activities, although this was done upon some occasions.
Most merchant ships had to undergo considerable changes before they were felt to be suitable as pirate vessels. The deckhouses, for instance, were cut down flush, or level, with the deck. This not only lowered the silhouette upon the open sea, but it also lessened the danger of flying wood splinters during battle. Next, the gunwales, or railings along the sides, were built up. This not only protected, but also offered concealment for the pirates on deck.
The captain was quite often the only man aboard who had a private cabin. The men usually slept below deck. There was no limit to the size of a pirate crew, which often led to crowded conditions. In most cases, each man had a small space that he could call his own, where he could eat and sleep. Yet, when the crew became exceptionally large, some of the men had to sleep up on the open deck, even in the midst of heavy seas and violent storms. The life of a pirate was by no means a comfortable existence.
Generally speaking, pirates preferred a small ship to a large one. There were several reasons for this. In the first place, they were usually faster and more maneuverable. If pursued by a more powerful adversary, they could slip into the shallow inlets and sounds where larger vessels could not follow. Then too, a smaller ship was easier to "careen." This was a necessary procedure for all ships of the day. It involved sailing the vessel into shallow water until she ran aground. The cargo, cannon, and other gear would then be moved to one side, causing the ship to cant, or lean heavily to one side. The slanted position would expose that area of the hull below the water line. If they were fortunate enough to ground their ship near a tree-lined shore, the crew would then use ropes and pulleys to pull it over even more.
Careening was necessary because of the tendency of barnacles and other marine life to attach themselves to the bottom of the ship. This accumulation of parasites acted as a drag and prevented the vessel from slipping easily through the water. In tropical waters there was also the teredo worm, which attached itself to the hull and bored thousands of tiny holes through the p5 wooden planking. Careening made the task of scraping the bottom much less difficult. After the bottom of the ship had been scraped clean, the hull was treated with a daubing of tallow and sulphur.
It was sometimes necessary to careen a ship as often as three times a year. This was especially true of vessels operating in tropical or semi-tropical waters. While this operation was being carried out in the shallow waters of some sheltered cove, the pirates would pitch camp on the shore. A temporary fort would be constructed by throwing up earthworks. This they would strengthen by bringing cannon from their ship and mounting them on crude fortifications. The idea behind this was to prevent possible surprise and capture.
There was little consistency in the selection of names for pirate ships. The favorite seems to have been "Revenge." Blackbeard's ship was called the "Queen Anne's Revenge," while another pirate, Richard Worley, named his vessel the "New York Revenge's Revenge." Perhaps this was their way of revenging themselves upon the life which they felt had treated them so shabbily in the past. More expressive names were sometimes selected, among them: "Defiance," "Adventure," "Black Joke," "Bravo," "Sudden Death," "Flying Horse," "Batchelor's Delight," "Good Fortune," "Night Rambler," "Flying Dragon," and "Snap Dragon." Stede Bonnet's "Royal James" implied political affiliations. Many bore poetic or religious names entirely out of keeping with their sinister purpose. Among these were the "Happy Delivery," "Most Holy Trinity," "Blessings," "Mayflower," "Liberty," "Childhood," "Merry Christmas," and "Morning Star." It would seem that pirates sometimes considered the names of their ships as big jokes upon their intended victims.
The captain of a pirate ship was, in most instances, elected to his position by the other members of the crew. If they later decided that he was not the proper person for the job, they would reduce him in rank by simply holding another election. Should the former captain object to his demotion, there were other methods of getting rid of him. He would be shot, stabbed, thrown overboard, or marooned and left to die of hunger and thirst on some desert island. One pirate crew went so far as to elect thirteen different captains in the short space of several months. And the captain was not always the most important man aboard ship. In many crews it was only during the course of a battle that he had supreme authority. Then it was his duty to direct p6 and lead the fighting. But like all rules, there were exceptions. Upon many occasions, the captain was sole master and almost a dictator. Blackbeard was one such commander.
The officer of next importance was the quartermaster. He also was elected by the crew members. It was his duty to look after interests of the men. On some ships, the captain was not allowed to make an important decision until he had first secured the consent of the quartermaster. This was the pirate way of preventing a captain from assuming too much authority. It was the responsibility of the quartermaster to decide just what loot was to be taken from a captured prize. In doing this, he had to determine the amount of cargo space in his own ship, and how easily the captured articles could be sold without too many questions being asked. It was also his duty to supervise the sale of all plunder and divide the proceeds among the crew.
Other officers aboard ship were usually appointed by the captain and the quartermaster, although in some ships these also were elected by the crew. Among these were the lieutenant, who acted as second-in‑command to the captain. He had no regular duties, but he was to take over the command should the captain be killed in battle.
There was also the sailing master, a most important person. His responsibility was the navigation of the ship and the supervision of the trimming of the sails. Next in importance was the boatswain, or bo'sun. The bo'sun acted in the capacity of foreman, for he was in charge of the general upkeep of the ship and all supplies. The gunner was another very busy man. Not only did he have the care and repair of the weapons on board, but he was also to instruct the crew members in their use. In addition to the above-mentioned, there were various other minor officers on board ship whose duties were more specialized, including the carpenter, the sailmaker, and the surgeon.
Pirates were a cantankerous pack. This, in turn, made the problem of discipline one of the most difficult on board ship. The whip was the primary instrument of punishment, but the quartermaster was the only officer who was given authority to flog a member of the crew. There were other methods by which a dispute could be settled. Should two seamen start a fight on shipboard, the quartermaster was p7 supposed to make an attempt to persuade them to settle it peacefully. If he was unsuccessful, he would then take them ashore to the nearest land. Each was given a cutlass and a pistol, and they were instructed to settle their differences by a duel. The first of these quarrelers who drew blood, if only by a nick, was declared the winner.
More serious offences were tried before a pirate jury. If found guilty, one might be "keel-hauled." This meant tying one rope under his arms and another to his feet. Then he would be thrown overboard and dragged beneath the hull, from one side of the ship to the other. Even if he survived this punishment, the pirate would be badly cut from the barnacles clustered on the bottom. If the jury decreed death, little time was wasted. The guilty seaman was tossed overboard immediately. Marooning was one of the more popular forms of pirate punishment. A man so doomed would be abandoned on some desert island with little or no food and water. Alexander Selkirk, whose adventures inspired Daniel Defoe to write "Robinson Crusoe," was a privateer who was marooned by his captain on Juan Fernandez Island.
There were regulations governing the conduct of the crew. These were "Articles" signed by every member of the crew when he joined up. Here is a typical set of pirate laws, those signed by the crew of Captain John Phillip's "Revenge" in 1723. For the sake of clarity, the wording has been somewhat changed.
1. Every man promised to obey all orders.
2. The captain was to have one and one‑half shares in the proceeds from all prizes. The quartermaster, sailing master, carpenter, boatswain, and gunner were allotted one and one‑quarter shares apiece. All others were to have one share. (This division of shares varied on different ships.)
3. If any member of the crew attempted to run away, or keep a secret from other members, he was to be marooned on a desert island with a bottle of water, a pistol, and a small amount of ammunition.
4. If a member of the crew stole anything from his shipmates, or if he gambled beyond his ability to pay, he could be either marooned or shot.
5. If a new pirate signed on in the future and committed some crime, he could be punished in any manner that the captain and the crew thought fit.
6. If one member of the crew struck another in anger, his punishment was to be "Moses's Law" (that is, 40 stripes lacking one), well laid on with a whip upon the bare back.
7. Any man who snapped a pistol, smoked an uncovered pipe, or carried an unprotected candle into the hold below decks was to be given thirty-nine lashes upon his bare back.
p8 8. Any pirate who did not keep his weapons clean and ready for instant use, or who neglected to perform his share of shipboard duties, forfeited his share of any loot which might be acquired. He was also subject to any other punishment thought fit by the captain and his shipmates.
In addition to rules governing their behavior, there was also a form of pirate insurance. For instance, if a member of a group lost his right arm in battle, he would receive 600 pieces of eight. Because the majority of men were right-handed, the loss of the left arm was considered less damaging and worth only 500 pieces of eight. This same distinction was applied to the loss of legs. The loss of the right leg was worth 500 pieces of eight, the left only 400. Eyes and fingers held the same value. The loss of either required a payment of 100 pieces of eight to the unfortunate seaman.
Flags played an important role in pirate operations. Not only were these gruesome bits of cloth designed to flatter the vanity of the captain and the crew, but they were also intended to strike terror into the hearts of the intended victims. Quite often these characteristic emblems were no more than crude daubs of white paint splashed across a bit of dark fabric. The phrase most frequently used to refer to these pirate flags was "Jolly Roger." Some people think the expression came from the fact that the English often referred to the Devil as the "Old Roger." Others feel that it came about through poor English pronunciation of the French phrase, "joli rouge," literally meaning "pretty red." Quite often, especially in the earlier days of piracy, the pirate flag was made of red cloth. Even after the more sinister black ensign became popular, many buccaneer captains preferred one the color of blood. In fact, some pirate captains displayed both. There was no set rule. One captain even went so far as to display a white flag with the words "For God and Liberty" lettered across it.
Nearly every captain had his own distinctive flag. The most popular design was the familiar skull and crossbones, although these were not always arranged in the same pattern. Upon occasion, the entire skeleton was represented. Sometimes an hour glass would be included in the design. This was an implication to their intended victims that life would be short if they chose to resist capture.
[p9] Despite these awesome threats on cloth, the average pirate always tried to avoid a battle if he could. To their way of thinking, p10 fighting usually meant death for someone, and there was no guarantee that it would be the pirate who would be alive when the smoke of battle drifted away. So it was that they flew their bloody flags, and encouraged ferocious tales about themselves, as a means of gaining their plunder without risking a fight. And upon many occasions the capture of a prize was relatively easy. Often, when a merchant vessel was attacked by pirates, the captain and the crew would surrender quickly. They could see little sense in risking their own hides just to protect the owner's cargo. Yet, on the other hand, if they did show fight, it was not unusual for the pirates to fall away to seek an easier conquest. Why risk a bloody victory, when the ocean was so full of ships?
When on the prowl, the pirate crew would usually cruise about until they sighted a lone ship, not too heavily armed. While they were at a distance, they would fly some respected flag, such as the Union Jack of England, that would not arouse the suspicions of the intended prize, so that they could creep up within cannon-shot. Then up would ride the Jolly Roger. A hail would float across the water, ordering the prize to heave to. If the victim attempted to flee, a cannon would send a warning shot across the bow. If this was not too successful, the pirates would pile on sail and try to maneuver into such a position as to deliver a crippling broadside.
A barrage of cannon balls ripping through the sails and rigging and crashing through the hull, would soon leave a prize helpless and drifting aimlessly. The pirate ship would be steered alongside. Grappling hooks would be flung across the interval. Mighty heaves on the ropes attached to the grappling hooks would bring the two ships together, side by side. They would be lashed tightly to prevent their drifting apart. Then, shouting like banshees, firing pistols and winging cutlasses, the pirate crew would swarm across the gunwales. The fight was soon over. The pirates always outnumbered the crews of the ships they attacked.
Pirates rarely killed their prisoners. If they did, it was generally because their captives had offered a particularly strong resistance before surrendering. In such cases, those crews which fought the most fiercely could expect the least mercy. To discourage further opposition, the pirates made sure that stories of their atrocities were spread throughout the seaports of the world. This explains why the pirates were often able to take, without too much effort, larger and better-armed vessels than [p11] p12 their own. Remembering the tales of the cruelty of pirates, ordinary sailors were ofttimes unwilling to risk death and torture just to save a merchant's cargo.
Sometimes the practice was to release the prisoners shortly after the captured cargo had been transferred to the pirate vessel. If the captured ship was more to the pirate's liking, the prisoners were given their old vessel. Upon some occasions, the captives would be put ashore in a spot where there was a good chance of their being picked up by some passing vessel. Often the crew of the surrendered merchant vessel would be offered the opportunity of signing on with the pirate crew. Many did.
There seems to be little truth in the old stories of pirates forcing their victims to walk the plank. Certainly there are no records which bear this out. But one would hardly expect pirates to keep such records. Stede Bonnet, it has been said, was the only captain to force his captives to walk the plank, and this is but hearsay. If a buccaneer wished to dispose of his victims, it was much easier to drown them without ceremony by merely tossing them over the side into the open sea. The English pirate, Thomas Cobham, once went so far as to bundle the entire crew of one prize into the mainsail of their vessel. After the ends of the canvas were lashed together, this parcel of squirming humanity was calmly heaved into the ocean. Personal hatreds against certain nations, ports, or captains usually brought out the cruelty in pirates.
Perhaps it was the very monotony of the sea itself which was responsible for the cruel streak in pirates. Day after day, when there were no prizes in sight, there was only work and the continually rolling sea. Certainly there were few restrictions to prevent any savage impulse which might cross a pirate's mind. No matter what he did, he knew that if he was ever caught, the automatic punishment would be death at the end of the hangman's rope. It would sometimes seem that their cruelty resulted from a determination to wreak vengeance on a world that considered itself better than pirates. Cruelty amongst the buccaneers sometimes took on the characteristics of a sport. Victims would be made to run the gauntlet, or perhaps flogged for no apparent reason. A rope around his waist, their prisoner would be tossed into the sea for a ducking which served no other purpose than to furnish the pirates a good laugh. Mutilations were not uncommon, and an ear would be sliced off, a nose slit, or a hand lopped off amidst the jeering and raucous laughter of p13 the pirates. But these men lived in an age when brutality was common and not thought exceptional.
The plunder taken off the North American coast by these sea rovers would, in most cases, be taken into some colonial port and sold. The merchants welcomed them. Not only did this provide a way for getting around the payment of the customs duties of the despised English trade laws, but the pirates always sold their goods cheaper than anyone else. Thus, the merchants stood to make a greater profit than ever when they did business with the pirates.
Once the booty had been sold, it was up to the quartermaster to divide the proceeds. Upon nearly every occasion it was soon gone, spent carousing and merrymaking in the nearest tavern. This brought in additional profits to the local merchants.
The idea of buried treasure is one of the most exaggerated notions concerning piracy. Much more money has been spent searching for pirate gold than has ever been found. In the first place, most pirates were of such spendthrift nature that they seldom accumulated enough treasure to bury. Their future was so uncertain that there was little use in saving their ill‑gotten gains. There are very few instances of any pirate ever dying a rich man.
All in all, the picture of piracy is not a very pretty one. The life of the average buccaneer was a life of hardship, brutality, and danger. And that life was a short one. When they died, few people took time to mourn their passing. Seldom did a pirate die in bed of natural causes. The end usually came with a terrible suddenness, in the midst of battle, shipwreck, in a tavern brawl, of scurvy, and tropical fevers, or other diseases. Even if he was fortunate enough to escape these hazards, there was always the gibbet with its hangman's noose. All nations punished piracy by hanging. Sometimes, when captured at sea, they were not even allowed a trial or hearing of any sort. Swift justice came at the end of a rope swung from the nearest yardarm. Even in death there was little respect paid his mortal remains. Few pirates ever received a decent burial. Bodies of the more notorious pirates were embalmed in tar, and then hung in chains at some prominent point along the water, there to sway in the wind and serve as a terrifying example to those who might be tempted to follow their career.
One of the very few pirates who managed to escape the hangman's noose and other pitfalls of his profession was Captain p14 Thomas Goldsmith. He died in Dartmouth, England, in 1714. Even in death his reputation and the opinion of his fellow man followed him into the grave. The epitaph on his tombstone read:
Pray then ye learned clergy show
Where can this brute, Tom Goldsmith, go?
Whose life was one continuous evil
Striving to cheat God, Man and the Devil.
What a memory to leave behind!
a For a more detailed explanation of privateering, piracy, and the differences between them, see D. B. Chidsey, The American Privateers, chapter 2.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
of Colonial NC
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 26 May 13