The History and Culture of Pirate Ships

What Pirates Looked for in a Pirate Ship

'Mayflower II replica at sunset, Massachusetts'
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm / Getty Images

During the so-called "Golden Age" of piracy (roughly 1700-1725), thousands of pirates terrorized shipping lanes all over the world, particularly in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. These ruthless men (and women) needed good ships to be able to run down their prey and escape from pirate hunters and navy vessels. Where did they get their ships, and what made for a good pirate craft?

What Was a Pirate Ship?

In one sense, there was no such thing as a “pirate” ship. There was no shipyard where pirates could go and commission and pay for a pirate ship to their specifications. A pirate ship is defined as any vessel whose sailors and crew are engaged in piracy. Thus, anything from a raft or canoe to a massive frigate or man of war could be considered a pirate vessel. Pirates could and did use very small boats, even canoes when nothing else was at hand.

Where Did Pirates Get Their Ships?

Since no one was making ships exclusively for piracy, pirates had to somehow capture existing ships. Some pirates were crewmen on board naval or merchant vessels who took over by mutiny: George Lowther and Henry Avery were two well-known pirate captains who did so. Most pirates simply traded ships when they captured one that was more seaworthy than the one they had been using.

Sometimes brave pirates could steal ships: "Calico Jack" Rackham was cornered by Spanish gunships one night when he and his men rowed over to a sloop the Spanish had captured. In the morning, he sailed away in the sloop while the Spanish warships shot up his old ship, still anchored in the harbor.

What Would Pirates Do With a New Ship?

When pirates got a new ship, by stealing one or by swapping their existing ship out for a better one belonging to their victims, they usually made some changes. They would mount as many cannons on the new ship as they could without significantly slowing her down. Six cannons or so was the minimum that pirates liked to have on board.

The pirates usually changed the rigging or ship’s structure so that the ship would sail faster. Cargo spaces were converted into living or sleeping quarters, as pirate ships usually had more men (and less cargo) onboard than merchant's vessels.

What Did Pirates Look for in a Ship?

A good pirate ship needed three things: it needed to be seaworthy, fast, and well-armed. Seaworthy ships were especially necessary for the Caribbean, where devastating hurricanes are a yearly occurrence. Since the best ports and harbors were usually off-limits to pirates, they often had to ride out storms at sea. Speed was very important: if they could not run down their prey, they would never capture anything. It was also necessary to outrun pirate hunters and navy ships. They needed to be well-armed in order to win fights.

Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, and Black Bart Roberts had massive gunboats and were very successful. Smaller sloops had advantages as well, however. They were quick and could enter shallow inlets to hide from searchers and evade pursuit. It was also necessary to "careen" ships from time to time. This is when the ships were intentionally beached so that the pirates could clean the hulls. This was easy to do with smaller ships but a real chore with larger ones.

Famous Pirate Ships

Model Of Queen Ann's Revenge
Model Of Queen Ann's Revenge Blackbeard The Pirate's Flagship On Display At The Maritime Research. John Pineda /Getty Images

1. Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge

In November of 1717, Blackbeard captured La Concorde, a massive French slaving ship. He renamed her Queen Anne's Revenge and refitted her, mounting 40 cannons on board. The Queen Anne's Revenge was one of the most powerful ships around at the time and could go toe-to-toe with any British warship. The ship ran aground (some say Blackbeard did it intentionally) in 1718 and sank. Researchers believe they have found it in the waters off of North Carolina. Some items, such as an anchor, bell, and spoon have been found and are displayed in museums.

Captain Bartholomew Roberts, engraving.
Captain Bartholomew Roberts, engraving. Culture Club/Getty Images

2. Bartholomew Roberts' Royal Fortune

Most of Roberts' flagships were named Royal Fortune, so sometimes the historical record gets a little confusing. The largest was a former French man of war that the pirate had refitted with 40 cannons and manned by 157 men. Roberts was aboard this ship during his fateful final battle in February of 1722

3. Sam Bellamy's Whydah

The Whydah was a massive merchant ship captured by Bellamy on her maiden voyage in 1717. The pirate modified her, mounting 26 cannons on board. She was shipwrecked off of Cape Cod not long after she was taken, however, so Bellamy did not do much damage with his new ship. The wreck has been found, and researchers have found some very interesting items which have allowed them to learn more about pirate history and culture.


Cawthorne, Nigel. A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas. Edison: Chartwell Books, 2005.

Cordingly, David. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996

Defoe, Daniel (Captain Charles Johnson). A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.

Konstam, Angus. "The Pirate Ship 1660-1730." New Vanguard, First Edition edition, Osprey Publishing, June 20, 2003.

Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009

Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Mariner Books, 2008.

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Minster, Christopher. "The History and Culture of Pirate Ships." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). The History and Culture of Pirate Ships. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The History and Culture of Pirate Ships." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).