Often portrayed in popular culture in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, plays such as Pirates of Penzance, and books such as Treasure Island, pirates have captured our imaginations for years.
Here are a few things you might not have known about these water bandits.
The English word “pirate” is derived from the Latin term “pirata” which means sailor or sea robber and from the Greek word “peirates” which literally means “one who attacks ships.”
The spelling of the word wasn’t standardized until the eighteenth centuries and “pirrot,” “pyrate,” and “pyrat,” were commonly used until then. Maybe “parrots” got confused and thought they were pirates as well.
The earliest documented instance of piracy was in the 14th century BC, when the Sea Peoples, a group of ocean raiders, attacked the ships of the Aegean and Mediterranean civilizations. It’s always nice to be the first to market.
The ancient Greeks regarded piracy as a viable profession and considered it an entirely honorable way of making a living with literary works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey making many references to the abduction of women and children to be sold into slavery. Yup. Perfectly honorable.
The rulers of Minoan Crete were the first to raise a navy specifically for the purpose of battling piracy. He managed to clear the surrounding waters of piracy for a time, until his navy was destroyed by a tsunami around 1400 B.C. and piracy resumed.
Pirates would often prowl narrow sea channels that funneled shipping into predictable routes. Examples included the waters of Gibraltar, the Strait of Malacca, Madagascar, the Gulf of Aden, and the English Channel.
Julius Caesar was once kidnapped and briefly held by Cicilian pirates and held prisoner. When the pirates asked for a ransom of 20 talents ($600,000 in today money), he scoffed at them and demanded they ask for 50 talents.
Whilst incarcerated by pirates, Caesar treated them like his subordinates and somehow managed to gain their respect. However, he told them that when he was released, he would return, hunt them down, and crucify them. Upon his release, Caesar made good on his promise, raised a private navy, and killed all the pirates, who hadn’t taken him seriously and didn’t even bother to leave the island where Caesar had been held. Caesar got his 50 talents back.
The most widely known and far-reaching pirates in medieval Europe were the Vikings, seaborne warriors from Scandinavia who raided and looted between the 8th and 12th centuries. The raided the coasts, rivers, and inland cities of all Western Europe as far as Seville, and also the coasts of North Africa, Italy, and all the coasts of the Baltic Sea. They were feared marauders. How times change.
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In 1241, an English pirate named William Maurice was the first person known to have been hanged, drawn, and quartered, indicating the severity with which then-King Henry III viewed the crime of piracy. Pretty severe, if you’re wondering.
Although the Atlantic and Caribbean pirates were heavily romanticized, Mediterranean pirates equaled or outnumbered them at any given point in history. And yet they never got a Disney ride of their own. Now THAT’S piracy.
Pirate galleys were small, nimble, lightly armed, but heavily manned in order to overwhelm the often minimal crews of merchant ships. Because of their agility, pirate craft were generally very difficult to hunt down. As they say, it’s not the size of the ship, but the motion of the tiny craft filled with bloodthirsty seamen.
Using oared vessels to hunt pirates was common practice in both the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and the British even built hybrid sailing vessels with oar parts on the lower decks for the specific purpose of pirate hunting.
Chinese pirates used junks, a ship with a robust sail layout. Junks that were armed with carronades and other weapons for naval or piratical uses were called war junks. The ship probably did not appreciate being called junk.
Chinese pirates were a huge problem, with Ching Shih and her husband Zheng Yi commanding tens of thousands of men, enough to combat the Qing Navy.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, there were Muslim pirates known as Barbary corsairs who had a Christian counterpart in the Knights of Saint John. The two sides were described as a “mirror image of maritime predation, two businesslike fleets of plunderers set against each other.”
In the late 17th century, rumors abounded of a pirate utopia known as Libertalia, an anarchist colony in Madagascar founded by pirates under the leadership of the possibly fictional Captain James Mission. According to legend, Libertalia lasted for about 25 years and its precise location is not known. Unless you play Uncharted IV, which is an awesome game.
Many pirate communities operated as limited democracies, instituting a system of checks and balances similar to the one used by the present-day United States.
Mary Read and Anne Bonny were two of the most famed female pirates of all time; they’re the only two women known to have been convicted of piracy at the height of the Golden Age of Piracy.
Spanish anti-pirate ships forced Caribbean buccaneers to move from Hispaniola to Tortuga and the limited resources there forced even more piracy, which was further augmented after the English captured Jamaica from the Spanish and freely granted letters of marque to buccaneers, essentially creating a pirate town.
Caribbean pirates expanded beyond the Caribbean when an earthquake in 1692 destroyed Port Royal and reduced the attractiveness of the Caribbean as it eliminated the pirates’ chief market for fenced plunder and, at the same time, merchants and governors from largely ignored English colonies such as Bermuda, New York, and Rhode Island funded pirate voyages in the hopes of raising more gold for their provinces.
With the Caribbean dwindling, many pirates started targeting Spain’s Pacific coast colonies as well as the Indian Ocean, which served as passage for high-value luxury goods like silk and calico and the added benefit of not being patrolled by a powerful navy. Really, they were just asking to be robbed.
A number of famous pirates came out of this era, including Thomas Tew, Henry Every, Robert Culliford, and William Kidd (who’s identification as a pirate is subject to much controversy).
William Kidd, or as he was known, Captain Kidd, was requested by an American governor to attack his fellow pirates, but was himself declared a wanted pirate, an accusation that was confirmed when he took an Indian ship hired by Armenian merchants, which just happened to be captained by an Englishman who held passes promising him protection of the French crown. Though he had been commissioned to take French ships, it didn’t hold up in court and he was summarily executed. He clearly needed a better lawyer.
Between 1713 and 1714, a number of peace treaties were signed, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession and left thousands of trained, bored sailors with an itch for seafaring and a need for money. So… blame the Spanish.
In 1715, pirates launched a major raid on Spanish divers recovering gold from a sunken treasure galleon near Florida. The leaders of the pirate force were Henry Jennings, Charles Vane, Samuel Bellamy, and Edward England, four names that would soon be enshrined in infamy. Upon return to Jamaica, they found that the Governor would not allow them safe harbor so, instead, they founded a new pirate base at Nassau, which would become a home base for many pirates and their recruits…
…that is until Woodes Rogers, a former privateer, became the Governor of the Bahamas, and drove out all the pirates. Sort of the way St. Patrick drove out all the snakes. Except Rogers did it with cannons.
smal The origin of the name is lost in time, but one theory is that it stemmed from the name of the red flags used during naval warfare to signal “no mercy,” which were called Joli Rouge (“pretty red”) by the French and that non-French speaking pirates simply butchered the name.
An alternate theory is that the name originated from a pirate named John Quelch, who had been flying a flag called the “Old Roger” off the coast of Brazil. “Old Roger” was the nickname for the devil. John was the first person to be tried for piracy outside England under Admiralty Law and thus without a jury. He was subsequently hanged.
Before the skull and crossbones design was standardized, pirates flew all sorts of flags of their own design, most of which involved symbols of death and various colors. Pirate historians claim that most pirates who were active between 1716 and 1726 were part of two large interconnected groups sharing many similarities. This accounts for the rapid adoption of the skull and crossbones flag amongst many men operating across thousands of miles of ocean.
Blackbeard (real name Edward Teach) was one of the most feared pirates of all. Before boarding a ship, he would weave hemp through his beard and light it on fire to intimidate his enemies. Yeah. That’ll do it.
Blackbeard flew a flag of his own design, which featured a skeleton with horns against a black background. The skeleton held an hourglass in one hand and carried a spear pointing to a heart dripping with blood. And you thought the flaming beard was scary.
In 1996, Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was found off the coast of North Carolina. Thirty-one cannons and 250,000 artifacts have been recovered. One such artifact was a urethral syringe, which was used to treat syphilis with mercury. Ouch. Plot twist: mercury does not, in fact, cure syphilis.
Another famed Caribbean Pirate was Bartholomew Roberts, the pirate with the most captures who was famous for hanging the governor of Martinique from the yardarm of his ship. He was seen by many as a hero and his death (after being shot in the face with a cannon) was widely considered to mark the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.
There were quite a few female pirates as well, including Mary Read, Anne Bonny, Grace O’Malley, and Ching Shih. When it came to gender equality, pirates were way ahead of the game.
The pirate’s drink of choice was grog, a mixture of rum, water, lemon juice, and sugar. Sounds like the recipe for a fantastic weekend.
Pirates actually did have eye patches. One of the reasons given was that pirates wore patches to keep one eye adjusted to night vision for seeing below deck. Also, because they just look cool.
Although walking the plank was common in contemporary pirate lore, most pirates just killed people straight away because they weren’t James Bond villains who gave their enemies a chance to live.
Pirates tended not to kill many people aboard the ships they captured. If the ship surrendered, they usually killed no one, because if it became known that pirates took no prisoners, victims would fight to the last breath, making victory more difficult and costly. Pirates were nothing if not pragmatic.
If pirates wanted to torture their foes, they would drag them from a rope behind the ship (a practice known as keelhauling), strand them on a desert island, or lash them with a whip.
Pirates didn’t always bury their treasure... They often needed money to spend their loot on grog, women, and whatever else it was that pirates liked.
Also, pirate treasure wasn’t always just gold and silver. Most of it was food, lumber, cloth, and animal hides. Y’know, practical stuff.
In fact, the most highly-prized plunder was medicine. A doctor’s chest would be worth around $470,000 in today’s value.
Each pirate ship had its own code of conduct that covered details such as how loot would be divided, who did what chores, and general expectations. One of the most common rules was “no fighting onboard.” If two pirates had a disagreement, they had to wait until they were on land before going at it. Besides, it’s difficult to “step outside” when you’re on a boat.
Splitting up the loot was fairly egalitarian with most of the crew receiving an equal share with the Captain and commanding officers receiving slightly more as per their agreement. On average, a pirate could expect the equivalent of a year’s wages from each captured ship. Crews of successful pirates would often receive a share valued at $1.17 million at least once in their careers.
One of the larger amounts taken from a single ship was that by Captain Thomas Tew from an Indian merchantman in 1692 with each ordinary seaman on his ship receiving a share worth £3,000 ($3.5 million today) and Tew himself receiving 2.5 times that.
By contrast, an ordinary seamen in the Royal Navy received 19s per month ($580). Not surprisingly, over 42,000 seamen deserted.
As a way to prevent desertion and increase morale, the Royal Navy changed the rules so that plunder from captured ships went to the captors rather than the Crown. This led to some massive financial windfalls, the biggest of which was the capture of the Spanish frigate Hermione, which resulted in each individual seaman netting £485 ($1.4 million today) with the two responsible captains receiving £65,000 each ($188 million today). Essentially, the Royal Navy legitimized piracy.
Pirate mythology paints buccaneers and womanizing, bearded hooligans with a taste for rum. In truth, pirates welcomed homosexuality and even had their own form of gay marriage. Matelotage was a civil partnership between two male pirates. Matelotage partners openly had sex with each other, shared their property, and lived together.
Pirate code decreed that any man found “seducing one of the latter sex and carrying her to sea in disguise, he shall suffer death.” Desertion was also punishable by death.
Piracy remains a huge problem in the 21st century, with modern-day pirates armed with rockets and machine guns using small motorboats to attack and board cargo ships.
Somalian pirates are amongst the most notorious of the modern-day pirates, prowling the waters in the Gulf of Aden. Many Somalis were forced into piracy when illegal fishing by foreign vessels and the offshore dumping of toxic waste by international conglomerates heavily depleted the fishstock in Somali waters.
Estimates are that modern-day piracy has resulted in worldwide losses of US$16 billion per year.
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