10 Facts About Pirates

Captain Kidd in New York harbor

Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” lasted from about 1700 to 1725. During this time, thousands of people turned to piracy as a way to make a living. It is known as the “Golden Age” because conditions were perfect for pirates to flourish, and many of the individuals we associate with piracy, such as Blackbeard, “Calico Jack” Rackham, and “Black Bart” Roberts, were active during this time. Here are 10 things you maybe did not know about these ruthless sea bandits.

of 10

Pirates Rarely Buried Treasure

Some pirates buried treasure—most notably Captain William Kidd, who was at the time heading to New York to turn himself in and try to clear his name—but most never did. There were reasons for this. First of all, most of the loot gathered after a raid or attack was quickly divided up among the crew, who would rather spend it than bury it. Secondly, much of the “treasure” consisted of perishable goods like fabric, cocoa, food, or other things that would quickly become ruined if buried. The persistence of this legend is partly due to the popularity of the classic novel “Treasure Island,” which includes a hunt for buried pirate treasure.

of 10

Their Careers Didn't Last Long

Most pirates didn’t last very long. It was a tough line of work: many were killed or injured in battle or in fights amongst themselves, and medical facilities were usually non-existent. Even the most famous pirates, such as Blackbeard or Bartholomew Roberts, only were active in piracy for a couple of years. Roberts, who had a successful career as a pirate, was only active from 1719 to 1722.

of 10

They Had Rules and Regulations

If all you ever did was watch pirate movies, you’d think that being a pirate was easy: no rules other than to attack rich Spanish galleons, drink rum and swing around in the rigging. In reality, most pirate crews had a code that all members were required to acknowledge or sign. These rules included punishments for lying, stealing, or fighting on board. Pirates took these articles very seriously and punishments could be severe.

of 10

They Didn't Walk the Plank

Sorry, but this one is another myth. There are a couple of tales of pirates walking the plank well after the “Golden Age” ended, but little evidence to suggest that this was a common punishment before then. Not that pirates didn’t have effective punishments, mind you. Pirates who committed an infraction could be marooned on an island, whipped, or even “keel-hauled,” a vicious punishment in which a pirate was tied to a rope and then thrown overboard: he was then dragged down one side of the ship, under the vessel, over the keel and then back up the other side. Ship bottoms were usually covered with barnacles, which often resulted in very serious injuries in these situations.

of 10

A Good Pirate Ship Had Good Officers

A pirate ship was more than a boatload of thieves, killers, and rascals. A good ship was a well-run machine, with officers and a clear division of labor. The captain decided where to go and when, and which enemy ships to attack. He also had absolute command during battle. The quartermaster oversaw the ship’s operations and divided up the loot. There were other positions, including boatswain, carpenter, cooper, gunner, and navigator. Success on a pirate ship depended on these men carrying out their tasks efficiently and supervising those under their command.

of 10

The Pirates Didn't Limit Themselves to the Caribbean

The Caribbean was a great place for pirates: there was little or no law, there were plenty of uninhabited islands for hideouts, and many merchant vessels passed through. But the pirates of the “Golden Age” did not only work there. Many crossed the ocean to stage raids off the west coast of Africa, including the legendary “Black Bart” Roberts. Others sailed as far as the Indian Ocean to work the shipping lanes of southern Asia: it was in the Indian Ocean that Henry “Long Ben” Avery made one of the biggest scores ever: the rich treasure ship Ganj-i-Sawai.

of 10

There Were Women Pirates

It was extremely rare, but women did occasionally strap on a cutlass and pistol and take to the seas. The most famous examples were Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who sailed with “Calico Jack” Rackham in 1719. Bonny and Read dressed as men and reportedly fought just as well (or better than) their male counterparts. When Rackham and his crew were captured, Bonny and Read announced that they were both pregnant and thus avoided being hanged along with the others.

of 10

Piracy Was Better Than the Alternatives

Were pirates desperate men who could not find honest work? Not always: many pirates chose the life, and whenever a pirate stopped a merchant ship, it was not uncommon for a handful of merchant crewmen to join the pirates. This was because “honest” work at sea consisted of either merchant or military service, both of which featured abominable conditions. Sailors were underpaid, routinely cheated of their wages, beaten at the slightest provocation, and often forced to serve. It should surprise no one that many would willingly choose the more humane and democratic life on board a pirate vessel.

of 10

They Came From All Social Classes

Not all of the Golden Age pirates were uneducated thugs who took up piracy because they lacked a better way to make a living. Some of them came from higher social classes as well. William Kidd was a decorated sailor and very wealthy man when he set out in 1696 on a pirate-hunting mission: he turned pirate shortly thereafter. Another example is Major Stede Bonnet, who was a wealthy plantation owner in Barbados before he outfitted a ship and became a pirate in 1717: some say he did it to get away from a nagging wife.

of 10

Not All Pirates Were Criminals

During wartime, nations would often issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal, which allowed ships to attack enemy ports and vessels. Usually, these ships kept the plunder or shared some of it with the government that had issued the letter. These men were called “privateers,” and the most famous examples were Sir Francis Drake and Captain Henry Morgan. These Englishmen never attacked English ships, ports, or merchants and were considered great heroes by the common folk of England. The Spanish, however, considered them pirates.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Minster, Christopher. "10 Facts About Pirates." ThoughtCo, Mar. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/facts-about-pirates-2136238. Minster, Christopher. (2021, March 6). 10 Facts About Pirates. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-pirates-2136238 Minster, Christopher. "10 Facts About Pirates." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-pirates-2136238 (accessed March 22, 2023).