Understanding Pirate Treasure

Treasure Island (1950). Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Image

We’ve all seen the movies where one-eyed, peg-leg pirates make off with great wooden chests full of gold, silver, and jewels. But is this image really accurate? It turns out that pirates very rarely got their hands on gold, silver or jewels. What sort of plunder did pirates actually take from their victims?

Pirates and their Victims

During the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy," which lasted roughly from 1700 to 1725, hundreds of pirate ships plagued the waters of the world. These pirates, while generally associated with the Caribbean, did not limit their activities to that region: they struck off the coast of Africa and even made forays into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They would attack and rob any non-Navy ship that crossed their paths: mostly merchant and slaver vessels plying the Atlantic. The plunder the pirates took from these ships mainly traded goods that were profitable at the time.

Food and Drink

Pirates often plundered food and drink from their victims: alcoholic drinks, in particular, were rarely if ever allowed to continue on their way. Casks of rice and other foodstuffs were taken on board as needed, although the less cruel pirates would make sure to leave enough food for their victims to survive. Fishing ships were often robbed when merchants were scarce: in addition to the fish, pirates would sometimes take tackle and nets.

Ship Materials

Pirates rarely had access to ports or shipyards where they could repair their vessels. Pirate ships were often put to hard use, meaning that they were in constant need of new sails, ropes, rigging tackle, anchors and other things necessary for the day-to-day maintenance of a wooden sailing vessel. They stole candles, thimbles, frying pans, thread, soap, kettles and other mundane items. The pirates would often also plunder wood, masts or parts of the ship if they needed them. Of course, if their own ship were in really bad shape, the pirates would sometimes simply swap ships with their victims!

Trade Goods

Most of the "loot" gained by pirates was trade goods being shipped by merchants. Pirates never knew what they would find on the ships they robbed. Popular trade goods at the time included bolts of cloth, tanned animal skins, spices, sugar, dyes, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, wood and more. Pirates had to be choosy about what to take, as some items were easier to sell than others. Many pirates had clandestine contacts with merchants willing to purchase such stolen goods for a fraction of their true worth and then re-sell them for a profit. Pirate-friendly towns like Port Royal or Nassau had many unscrupulous merchants there who were willing to make such deals.


Buying and selling slaves was a very profitable business during the golden age of piracy and slave ships often were raided by pirates. Pirates might keep the slaves to work on the ship or to sell them themselves. Often, the pirates would loot the slave ships of food, weapons, rigging or other valuables and let the merchants keep the slaves, which were not always very easy to sell and had to be fed and cared for.

Weapons, Tools, and Medicine

Weapons were very valuable: they were the "tools of the trade" for pirates. A pirate ship without cannons and a pirate crew without pistols and swords were ineffective, so it was the rare pirate victim that got away with his weapon stores unplundered. Cannons were moved to the pirate ship and the holds were cleared of gunpowder, small arms, and bullets. Tools were highly prized by pirates: carpenter's tools, surgeon's knives or navigational gear (maps, astrolabes, etc) were as good as gold. Likewise, medicines have often looted: pirates were often injured or ill and medicines were hard to come by. When Blackbeard held Charleston hostage in 1718 he demanded - and received - a chest of medicines in exchange for lifting his blockade.

Gold, Silver, and Jewels!

Of course, just because most of their victims didn't have any gold doesn't mean that the Pirates never got any at all. Most ships had a little gold, silver, jewels or some coins aboard: the crew and captains were often tortured to get them to reveal the location of any such stash. Sometimes, pirates got lucky: in 1694, Henry Avery and his crew sacked the Ganj-i-Sawai, the treasure ship of the Grand Moghul of India. They captured chests of gold, silver, jewels and other precious cargo worth a fortune. Pirates with gold or silver tended to spend it quickly when in port.

Buried Treasure?

Thanks to the popularity of Treasure Island, the most famous novel about pirates, most people think pirates went around burying treasure on remote islands. In fact, pirates rarely buried treasure. Captain William Kidd buried his loot, but he's one of the few known to have done so. Considering that most of the pirate "treasure" to be had was delicate, such as food, sugar, wood, ropes, or cloth, it's not surprising that it was never buried.


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  • Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.
  • Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009
  • Konstam, Angus. The Pirate Ship 1660-1730. New York: Osprey, 2003.