The life and times of a pirate

Who became a pirate and what was life like for them? Step into the world of pirates in the classic age of piracy.

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.

'Golden Age' of piracy

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.

Find out more about the most infamous pirates

Learn more about the Golden Age of Piracy

What was a pirate's life really like?

We know the legend of swashbuckling, treasure chests and plank-walking, but what was a pirate's life actually like, and who chose to pursue this life of crime?

Where did pirates come from?

Although more British pirates were born in London than other seaports, there is no doubt that the most famous pirates were born elsewhere:

  • Henry Morgan, Bartholomew Roberts and Howell Davis were Welsh
  • Captain Kidd and John Gow were born in Scotland
  • Avery was from Plymouth
  • Blackbeard was from Bristol

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.

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 ships.

How did pirates attack other ships?

Pirate 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. It's likely that most victims of pirates were just thrown overboard rather than being made to ‘walk the plank’.

Who were the real pirates of the Caribbean?

How were pirates brought to justice?