Pirates

A piratePirate captain on deck by Howard Pyle, from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, c. early 20th century. Repro ID: D6169-1 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonThroughout history, there have been people willing to rob others transporting goods on the water. Thousands of pirates were active from 1650–1720. These years are sometimes known as a 'Golden Age' of piracy. Famous pirates from this period include Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Henry Morgan, William 'Captain' Kidd, 'Calico' Jack Rackham and Bartholomew Roberts.

In some parts of the world, especially the South China Seas, piracy still exists today.

What is a pirate?

A pirate is a robber who travels by water. Though most pirates targeted ships, some also launched attacks on coastal towns.

Who were the first pirates?

Pirates have existed since ancient times. They threatened the trading routes of ancient Greece, and seized cargoes of grain and olive oil from Roman ships. Later, the most famous and far-reaching pirates in early Middle Ages Europe were the Vikings.

Were pirates sometimes known by other names?

Yes. Pirates were sometimes known as corsairs or buccaneers.

Who were the corsairs?

Corsairs were pirates who operated in the Mediterranean Sea between the 15th and 18th centuries. Muslim corsairs, such as the daring Barbarossa (red beard) brothers, had bases along the Barbary coast of north Africa. They built many strong fortresses to defend the Barbary ports of Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis. Christian corsairs were based on the island of Malta. Muslim and Christian corsairs alike swooped down on their targets in swift oar-powered boats called galleys to carry off sailors and passengers. Unless these unfortunates were rich enough to pay a ransom, they were sold as slaves or put to work as oarsmen on the corsair galleys.

Who were the buccaneers?

In the 17th century, buccaneers lived on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and its tiny turtle-shaped neighbour, Tortuga. At first, they lived as hunters, and shot wild pigs with their long-barrelled muskets. Their name came from the special wooden huts called boucans where they smoked their meat.

Later, the governors of Caribbean islands such as Jamaica paid the buccaneers to attack Spanish treasure ships and ports. Some of the largest scale raids were led by the Welsh captain, Sir Henry Morgan. Although raids began in this way, with official backing, the buccaneers gradually became more and more out of control, eventually attacking any ship they thought carried valuable cargo, whether it belonged to an enemy country or not. The buccaneers had become true pirates.

Why did so many pirates operate in the Caribbean Sea and off the coast of America?

Howell DaviesThe Welsh Pirate Howell Davies. Engraving by A. Cartel after drawing by A. Debelle, Historic des Pirates and Corsaires by P. Christian, c. early 19th century. Repro ID: D6270-2 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonThe explorer Christopher Columbus established contact between Europe and the lands that were later named America at the end of the 15th century, while searching for a quick route to the east.

As he was working for the king and queen of Spain, these 'new lands' were claimed by the Spanish, who soon discovered them to be a rich source of silver, gold and gems. From the 16th century, large Spanish ships, called galleons, began to sail back to Europe, loaded with precious cargoes that pirates found impossible to resist. So many successful pirate attacks were made that galleons were forced to sail together in fleets with armed vessels for protection.

As Spanish settlers set up new towns on Caribbean islands and the American mainland, these too came under pirate attack.

Why were pirate attacks so often successful?

BlackbeardCaptain Teach commonly call'd Black Beard by Thomas Nicholls [artist]; James Basire[engraver], 18th century. Repro ID: PU2732 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonPirate ships usually carried far more crew than ordinary ships of a similar size. This meant they could easily outnumber their victims. Pirates altered their ships so that they could carry far more cannon than merchant ships of the same size. Stories about pirate brutality meant that many of the most famous pirates had a terrifying reputation, and they advertised this by flying various gruesome flags including the 'Jolly Roger' with its picture of skull and crossbones. All these things together meant that victims often surrendered very quickly. Sometimes there was no fighting at all.

Did pirates really make their captives 'walk the plank'?

They did, but it probably didn't happen very often. It's likely that most victims of pirates were just thrown overboard.

Why was the pirate Blackbeard particularly feared?

As well as being heavily armed with knives, cutlasses and pistols, Blackbeard (real name Edward Teach) tried to make himself look especially fearsome in order to intimidate his victims. He had wild eyes and a mass of thick tangled hair. Into his hair he twisted pieces of fuse which he set alight during battles, so that his face was surrounded with smoke to create an even more terrifying image.

What sort of booty did pirates seize?

The most precious prizes were chests of gold, silver and jewels. Coins were especially popular because pirate crews could share them out easily. Coins were far more likely to be made of silver than gold, because ten times as much silver was mined in America, but wealthy passengers were sometimes robbed of gold doubloons they brought with them from Spain.

Emeralds and pearls were the commonest gems from America, providing rich plunder. However, pirates did not only seize precious cargoes like these. They also wanted things they could use, such as food, barrels of wine and brandy, sails, anchors and other spare equipment for their ship, and essential tools such as those belonging to the ship's carpenter and surgeon.

Were there any women pirates?

Anne BonnyAnne Bonny, female pirate. Artist unknown, c. 18th century. Repro ID: 7750 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonYes, but only a few. Two of the most famous were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. It was against pirates' rules for women to be on board ship, so they disguised themselves by dressing up in men's clothes.

They each joined the crew of a ship in the West Indies led by 'Calico' Jack Rackham. They took part in many attacks, and fought as fiercely as all the other pirates. Eventually, the crew were all captured in 1720, put on trial in Jamaica, and sentenced to death. Anne Bonny claimed that Rackham would not have been hung like a dog if he had fought like a man!

Although the two women pirates were sentenced to death, they escaped execution when they revealed in court that they were both pregnant.

Mary Read died of fever in prison before her baby was born, but no-one knows what happened to Anne Bonny, for no records exist of her life after her trial.

How did governments fight back against the pirates?

Successful pirate attacks became so frequent and troublesome that governments were forced to take strong action. In the 18th century, they sent heavily armed naval warships to the pirates' favourite hunting grounds. Terrible battles were fought, during which some of the most famous pirates, such as Bartholomew Roberts and Blackbeard were killed. Other pirates were captured and put on trial, and were then executed amidst great publicity. Bodies were coated with tar and hung in special iron cages as a dreadful deterrent to others thinking of taking up piracy.

What were privateers?

Privateers were privately owned (rather than navy) ships armed with guns, operating in time of war. The Admiralty issued them with 'letters of marque' which allowed them to capture merchant vessels without being charged with piracy.