(Background Music ~ Antti Martikainen)

Golden Age of Piracy

      The Golden Age of Piracy is a common term given to western world piracy activity dating from about the 1650s to 1730 in maritime history. This piracy included the attacks on Spanish colonies and shipping in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. The looting of Muslim and East India Company targets in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. And later on the plundering of shipping along the American East Coast and West African Coast. This was done mainly by Anglo,French and later American seaman. In popular culture the modern conceptions of pirates of old is derived largely, though not always accurately, from this Golden Age of Piracy. Some factors contributing to the rise in piracy during the Golden Age included the increasing quantities of valuable cargoes being shipped to Europe over vast hard to defend ocean areas, the rivalry between nations over power and wealth, the ineffective governments in European and their overseas colonies, reduced European navies in certain key regions, and an abundance of well trained and experienced sailors or privateers left unemployed by the end of war.

      One of the most predominant myths about pirates is the belief that they were all a bunch of evil men completely lacking in any moral standards or beliefs. This was simply not true. Yes some pirates were rapists and murders, and some were truly sadistic killers. But most pirates were not much different in their moral beliefs then the other sailors of their time. Some worked as privateers and some on military ships before becoming pirates. Furthermore, not all buccaneers volunteered to serve as pirates of their choosing. Some were pressed men who were forced into serving when their ships were captured by pirates. Other men were abducted in ports and forced to join the pirates crew. (Note: Abducting seamen in ports to serve aboard naval warships was not an uncommon practice in the military back then.) Not to try and justify their actions here, but in a time of wretched poverty and little opportunity for most, some found in the brutal life of piracy a risk worth taking.

      The majority of these pirates were by nature rebellious and lazy. However they took their work quite seriously, and in most cases before a large crew would sail off on a voyage, a set of written articles was drawn up which every member of the ships company was expected to sign. These articles, also known as the pirate code or rules of the sea, stated the ability of the crew to vote on most matters of importance, regulated the distribution of plunder among the crew, set the scale of compensation for injuries received in battle. They laid out the basic rules for shipboard life, and the punishments for those who broke the rules. The contract was binding and, if betrayed, was punished harshly. The articles of piracy varied from one ship to another but most were generally very similar in scope. These articles were well needed as pirates were tough and ruthless men, notorious for their foul language and prolonged bouts of drinking... which frequently led to quarrels and violence. These rogue men of the sea came together forming a rather uneasy partnership, attracted by the lure of plunder and the desire for a better life.

Many pirates of the Spanish Main during the Golden Age of Piracy
adopted a code of conduct. These articles or rules would often be
agreed upon and signed by all members of the crew before going to sea.
Below is an example of a real pirates code from that time period.

Articles of Piracy

ARTICLE 1: Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of the Moment; has equal title to the fresh Provisions, or Strong Liquors, at any Time seized, and use of them at Pleasure, unless a Scarcity make it necessary, for the good of all, to Vote a Retrenchment.

ARTICLE 2: Every man shall obey civil command; the captain shall have one full share and a half in all prizes. the Quartermaster, Carpenter, Boatswain, and Gunner shall have one share and quarter.

ARTICLE 3: If any man shall offer to run away, or keep any secret from the Company, he shall be marroon'd with one bottle of powder, one bottle of Water, one small Arm, and shot.

ARTICLE 4: If any Man shall steal any Thing in the Company, or game, to the value of a piece of Eight, he shall be Marroon'd or shot.

ARTICLE 5: If at any Time we should meet with another Marrooner (that is, Pirate) that man shall sign his Articles without Consent of our Company, shall suffer such Punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit.

ARTICLE 6: That man that shall strike another, whilst these Articles are in force, shall receive Moses's Law (that is 40 Stripes lacking one) on the bare Back.

ARTICLE 7: That Man that shall snap his Arms, or smoke Tobacco in the Hold, without cap to his Pipe, or carry a candle lighted without lantern, shall suffer the same Punishment as in the former Article.

ARTICLE 8: That Man that shall not keep his Arms clean, fit for an Engagement, or neglect his Business, shall be cut off from his Share, and suffer such other Punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit.

ARTICLE 9: If any man shall lose a joint in time of Engagement, he shall have 400 Pieces of Eight: if a limb, 800.

ARTICLE 10: If at any time you meet with a prudent Woman, that Man that offers to meddle with her, without her Consent, shall suffer Death.

Terms for Piracy

    The word pirate simply means one who robs or plunders at sea. Piracy is a term for sea-robbery. Reason tells us that pirates were no more than common criminals, but some still see them as figures of romance. As they are associated with daring deeds on the Spanish Main, with rakish black schooners and exotic tropical islands and sea chests overflowing with gold and silver coin.

    Over the years many stories have been told and fact has merged with fiction. In reality seamen who resisted a pirate attack were commonly hacked to death and thrown over the side. The plunder was not usually chests full of doubloons and pieces of eight, but typically a few bales of silk and cotton, some barrels of rum or tobacco, spare canvas for sail, carpentry and navigation tools, food or medicine, and prehaps a half dozen slaves.

    These were pirates or privateers who operated in the Mediterranean. The most famous were the Barbary Corsairs from the Barbary Coast of North Africa who were authorized by their governments to attack the shipping of Christian countries. Some of these states even helped organize the pirates and the ones that operated from them were called corsairs. Among these states were Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.

    One of the most famous Barbary corsairs was Barbarossa. Less well known were the corsairs of Malta. They were sent out to loot shipping by the Knights of St. John, a military order created during the crusades to fight the Muslims on behalf of the Christian nations. At first these men were driven by religion but after a while the rewards of piracy became to great.

    The Barbary Corsairs intercepted ships traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar or coming from the trading ports of Alexandria and Venice, swooping down on the heavily laden merchantmen, in their swift galleys powered by oars and sails. They looted their cargos, captured their passengers and crews, and held them for ransom or sold them into slavery.

    The term privateer could apply to an armed vessel, its captain or its crew. Many of the pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy began their careers as privateers. Privateers worked under letters of marque from the various countries that used them to basically wage a form of economic warfare on there enemies. Maritime nations made use of privateers in times of war as a cheap way of attacking enemy shipping (saving the cost of building and maintaining a navy).

    Usually the limits of the Marque were vague, leaving it up to the captain and crew to determine what they could undertake. Privateers often worked beyond the limits as detailed by their letter of Marque, many attacking neutral countries as well as hostile nations. These men did the same kind of things as pirates, but unlike pirates who were regarded by most as villians, they were seen by some as patriots by their respective countries because they were only suppose to attack hostile nations ships, and shared a part of their plunder with their countries rulers.

    When the various countries with interests in the New World were openly competing for the riches found there, some men saw that it could be quite rewarding becoming a privateer. But eventually most of these countries began to turn away from the use of privateers as they made peace with there rivals, and many of these men where unwilling to give up their wicked ways....and so began a career in piracy.

    Originally hunters of cattle and pigs on the island of Hispanola (now Haiti and Dominica), buccaneers got their name from the French word boucan which means barbeque. This was because of the way they barbequed their meat on grills. Driven out by the Spanish, the hunters joined the groups of runaway slaves, deserters and others who preyed on the ships of the hated Spanish. These buccaneers called themselves "The Brethren of the Coast".

    By the end of the 17th century the word buccaneer was being applied generally to most of the pirates and privateers who had bases in the West Indies. The buccaneers established their headquarters on the little island of Tortuga. Later they used Jamaica as a base of operations. One of the most famous buccaneers was Sir Henry Morgan. Under his command five hundred buccaneers from Tortuga and one thousand buccaneers from Jamaica captured Panama in 1671.

    Marooners were yet another special breed of pirate harrassing the Spanish Main. Marooner is a coruption of the Spanish word "cimarron" which loosely translates to "deserter" or runaway. In those days many Spaniards deserted their Navy at the first opportunity, and over time their numbers began to grow into a serious problem for Spain. Another group of marooners were the cimarron negros. These were the runaway slaves that had been brought to the Americas by Spain to haul the heavy cargos of gold and silver. The cimarron's quickly joined with the other deserters and runaways and became known as Marooners.

    Eventually this term became a common word for any pirate in the Caribbean, but not as common as Buccaneer. As time passed the pirate punishment of leaving shipmates on small deserted areas of land entered the language as "Marooning". The pirates would use this form of punishment for certain offenses, such as deserting the ship or quarters in battle, or stealing from other pirates. Marooning may not sound like such a serious punishment, but it usually meant a slow death from starvation or exposure. One of the most famous of these marooned men was the pirate Selkirk, better known as Robinson Crusoe.

Pirates were an unruly bunch who disliked authority.
Yet they also knew that in order to have success as pirates,
they would need to bond together by setting rules to live,
work, and fight bye. Pirates typically elected a quartermaster to
represent their interests, maintain order, and punish minor offenses.
Serious crimes were normally tried by a jury of the crew.
If found guilty, the form of punishment was also voted on by the crew.
Below are common forms of punishment in the golden age.

Pirate Discipline

    The pirate was locked in wrist and leg irons and thrown into the ships hold. Alternatively, they would be held on the ships deck or in the rigging where they would be exposed to extreme weather conditions.

    A pirate was attached by rope to a wooden beam and dunked into the water repeatedly.

    Flogging with a cat o' nine tails was used less onboard pirate ships because of it's association with this common form of discipline handed out by the authorities aboard naval vessels of the time. Many sailors strongly resented it's use.

    The person was tied to a rope hanging from the ship mast's yardarm. The rope and the unfortunate subject were then subsequently tossed into the sea and dragged under the ships keel on one side and then brought up on the other side to the corresponding yardarm. Aside from drowning torturously slowly, the ships hull, covered in sharp barnacles, would cut like razors making for a very slow and painful death.

    This meant placing someone on a remote uninhabitable island without food or water where they stood little hope of surviving or being rescued. Pirates were often allowed a pistol or knife with which to commit suicide in preference to a slow death by starvation or wild animals.

    Being sold as a slave was not an uncommon punishment for persons who committed crimes or violated the pirate code of discipline. There were many slave plantations in the Caribbean and on the Eastern Coast of the Americas where slave trading was a legitimate economic activity of the times. The proceeds could then be shared amongst the remaining crewmembers.

    This involved the pirate crew poking and prodding the victim with cutlasses, swords and various sharp instruments while he tried to dodge the blows. This was made rather difficult as he was attached to a mast by a short rope. The pirates only option was to run or 'dance' around the mast all the time accompanied by the sound of the ships fiddle.

    A typical pirate punishment was to tie the perpetrator to the pirate ships mast for a set length of time. Sometimes, a misbehaving pirate or enemy was tied to the mast while being flogged.

    The person was simply pitched over the side of a moving ship and left for dead. Alternatively, the accused was towed by a rope behind the ship until he died from hypothermia and exhaustion.

    A popular method of execution in modern books and movies about pirates. In reality it was rarely used, despite its widespread notoriety, this punishment involved pirates forcing captives or members of their own crew to be blindfolded, before walking across a plank hanging from the side of the ship, and plunging into the ocean. One of the only known accounts of such an occurrence featured the crew of a Dutch ship that was captured by pirates in 1829. Pirates fastened cannon shot to the victims legs and then forced them to walk the plank one at a time.

Punishments for Pirates

A favored method of execution by the French. It's arguably the least cruel method of execution. Decapitation, especially when done by a skilled French executioner, would be fairly quick and painless. Sometimes the head of the punished pirate would be put on display for all to see as a warning against piracy.

Otherwise called the 'long drop', this was the most common form of execution for captured and convicted pirates. It was fairly effective at breaking the pirates neck at the end of the drop, killing him quickly if done correctly.

A cruel and twisted version of hanging most often reserved for pirates, the Marshals Dance involved hanging with a short rope as punishment. This prevented the prisoners neck from breaking and caused them to asphyxiate. The odd jerking of their limbs as they slowly strangled to death was said to resemble dancing by those who had the stomach to watch, which lead to the popular phrase "Dancing the Hempin' Jig" to describe this method of hanging.

This was sometimes done after execution to the renowned pirates. It involved putting the corpses on display to the public inside body shaped metal cages. This was done by the authorities as a deterrent, to discourage all others from following a path of piracy or highway robbery. Bodies were sometimes coated in tar, to prolong the public display of the decomposing corpses. Execution Dock, located on the north bank of the River Thames, in London, was the final resting place for men such as Captain Kidd, who suffered this fate in 1701.

Gibbeting could also be a cruel form of execution. This involved putting a prisoner in a gibbet at low tide in the sea, or a tidal river, and allowing their body to be fully submerged by the slow rising tide three times. The bodies would then be removed and either disposed of, or if the pirate was particularly infamous, displayed at well traveled crossroads or along the banks of a public river as a gruesome deterrent.

The Golden Age of Piracy - Terror at Sea

Page best viewed with a 1080px width.

Copyright 2000-2024 Brethren of the Coast, All Rights Reserved.