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Pirate Ships of the West

By Cindy Vallar

Pride of
                      Baltimore I --

We were schooner-rigged and rakish, with a long and lissome hull,

And we flew the pretty colors of the crossbones and the skull;

We’d a big black Jolly Roger flapping grimly at the fore,

And we sailed the Spanish Water in the happy days of yore.

-- “A Ballad of John Silver” by John Masefield

The opening verse of this poem perhaps encapsulates our impression of the pirate ship, especially during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Regardless of the time period, the ship has served as an indispensable tool in the pirate’s arsenal and as their primary mode of transport since men first ventured onto the sea. Equally indiscriminate of when and where is the fact that pirates prize three qualities in whatever vessels they sail:
1. A pirate ship must be seaworthy.

2. A pirate ship must be fast.

3. A pirate ship must be armed.
The first might seem obvious, but a pirate rarely acquired his vessel fresh from the shipyard and made to his specifications. He was far more likely to gain it through theft – after all, he plundered for a living. He took advantage of what came his way, especially the first time he nicked someone’s boat. This meant the vessel might look seaworthy, but looks could deceive. The longer he and his mates sailed, the less fit she became. Their vessel’s hull had to be stout enough to weather any storm. They needed the sails to withstand high winds. Her pump had to be reliable, so they could excise water seeping into her interior. Not to mention that he and his mates had to know how to sail and what to do in whatever conditions Mother Nature might throw at them.

                Catarina 3/26/2004 (Source:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cyclone_Catarina_from_the_ISS_on_March_26_2004.JPG)Where they sailed might also impact her seaworthiness. Their course and destination were decided by majority vote, rather than just the captain telling them where they were bound. This meant their hunting grounds extended around the world, but a savvy captain and navigator knew when to avoid certain waters at certain times of the year. It was better not to be traversing the Indian Ocean in May or November when cyclones might strike. Typhoons plagued the western Pacific and Asian waters from December to March. Hurricanes tended to strike the Caribbean and Atlantic between June and November. Woe be the pirate who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time!

Aside from these hazards, there was another that impacted the hull, particularly in tropical waters like the Caribbean Sea. This was why wooden ships needed to be careened on a regular basis. This procedure allowed the pirates to clean their ship’s hull to remove seaweed and barnacles that decreased her speed – up to three knots – and to repair any damage caused by the teredo navalis (also known as shipworm, but really wood-boring mollusks) that ate holes in the hull. If repairs weren’t made, seepage widened to leaks because the seams opened, sometimes to the point where she could fall apart, as nearly happened to William Kidd’s Adventure Galley.
[She] was so leaky that they feared she would have sunk every hour, and it required Eight men every Two Glasses to keep her free; and [Kidd] was forced to woold her round with Cables to keep her together.1  (Cabell, Captain, 76)
Or as Richard Zacks put it, “wrap the ship in very thick ropes to hold her together.” (Zacks, 159)

Stede BonnetNor did Stede Bonnet take care of his Ranger, which he renamed Royal James after parting company with Blackbeard, and it proved to be his downfall.
The last Day of July, our Rovers with the Vessels last taken, left Delaware Bay, and sailed to Cape Fear River, where they staid too long for their Safety, for the Pyrate Sloop . . . proved very leaky, so that they were obliged to remain here almost two Months, to refit and repair their Vessel: They took in this River a small Shallop, which they ripped up to mend the Sloop . . . . (Defoe, 99)
Word of their presence reached South Carolina and Colonel William Rhett was sent to capture them. Seven pirates died; five were wounded, two of whom later succumbed. Bonnet and the rest of his men were taken to Charles Town to stand trial.

While impossible to eradicate the problem of shipworm damage, it was possible to slow down their destruction. Before it became common to sheath hulls in copper, shipwrights built ships with an inner and an outer hull. Captured at the beginning of 1578, Nuña da Silva was a Portuguese pilot held captive aboard Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. He described her as being
stout and strong. She has two sheathings, one as perfectly finished as the other. She is fit for warfare and is a ship of the French pattern, well fitted out and finished with a good mast, tackle and double sails. She is a good sailer and the rudder governs her well. She is not new, nor is she coppered nor ballasted. She has seven armed port-holes on each side, and inside she carries eighteen pieces of artillery, thirteen being of bronze and the rest of cast iron . . . This vessel is waterfast when she is navigated with the wind astern and this is not violent, but when the sea is high, as she has to labour, she leaks not a little whether sailing before the wind or with the bowlines hauled out. Taking it all in all, she is a ship which is in a fit condition to make a couple of voyages from Portugal to Brazil. (Childs, 32)
The sheathing he referred to was comprised of a sacrificial outer hull that lessened the chance of damage to the inner hull. In between these two layers a mixture of tar and horsehair was applied as a further hindrance. Only a fragment of the hull from Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) remains, and it includes a section of thin planks of Scotch pine comprising her outer, sacrificial hull.2 Beneath this wooden sheath cattle hair was tacked on using small iron nails.

According to Spaniards, a wooden-hulled ship, even should she be protected, might survive a decade if she sailed the Caribbean. The same might be true for a pirate ship, but those marauders rarely retained their vessels for that length of time.

The next quality in a pirate’s shopping list of requirements was speed. The faster a vessel moved, the sooner she reached her prey or escaped from a pursuer; or as Captain Johnson put it: “. . . a light Pair of Heels being of great Use either to take, or escape being taken . . . .” (Defoe, 168) This gave smaller vessels an advantage over larger ones, which is why pirates favored sloops and brigantines, for example, over large ships with three masts rigged with square sails. The former tended to be narrower and have shallow drafts, while the latter were broader and required a greater amount of water under their hulls to stay afloat. The less water depth needed, the better a pirate’s chances of eluding pursuers.

The shape of a ship’s sails and how the wind struck the canvas also influenced her speed. Watching the sails, the wind, and the ship’s movement in the water allowed the pirate’s navigator to gain another knot over less skilled men. This advantage proved fortuitous when Charles Vane needed to evade Royal Navy vessels hot on his trail. According to one naval officer, “our sloops gave over the chase, finding he out-sailed them two foot for their one.” (Konstam, Pirate Ship, 7)

Of course, the number of guns a ship carried affected her speed as well. A 2-pounder – cannon that fired a two-pound shot – weighed 600 pounds. A 6-pounder’s weight ranged from 1,000 to 1,500 pounds. The saker, a type of gun aboard Drake’s Golden Hind, weighed 1,400 pounds and it’s believed he carried as few as two or as many as six of them. The greater the number and size of the guns, the lower the ship sat in the water and the slower her speed. How many guns a vessel could carry depended on her size, and although pirates preferred not to wage battle against their prey, they preferred to arm their ships with as many guns as they could and still remain upright.

Mayflower minionNaval gun converted for land use at Battle of New
Examples of guns used at sea. Left is a minion, one of the guns used on the Mayflower.
Right is a 24-pounder converted to land use at the Battle of New Orleans.

The first of Bartholomew Roberts’s Royal Fortunes – he rechristened several ships with this name – carried more armament than Blackbeard’s Queen Anne's Revenge. According to a Danish seaman who was taken prisoner, the Royal Fortune
has mounted 12, 8-pounders; 4, 12-pounders; 12, 6-pounders; 6, 8-pounders, and 8, 4-pounders; and in her main and foremast has 7 guns, 2 & 3-pounders, and 2 swivel guns upon her mizen. (Cordingly, 167)
Together, this armament totaled fifty-one guns. The table below shows a sampling of the number of guns other pirate ships carried.

Pirate Ship
# of Guns
Pirate Captain
Adventure Galley 34 William Kidd
Content 4 George Barrow
Defiance 56 John Bowen
Delivery 16 George Lowther
Fancy 30/34 Henry Every
Fortune 10 Bartholomew Roberts
Fortune 28 Edward Low
Good Fortune 18 Bartholomew Roberts
Queen Anne’s Revenge 40 Edward Thache
Ranger 12 Charles Vane
Ranger 24 Bartholomew Roberts
Rising Sun 35 William Moody
Rover 59 Howell Davis
Rover 30 Bartholomew Roberts
Royal Fortune 26 Bartholomew Roberts
Royal Fortune 40/42 Bartholomew Roberts
Royal James or Revenge 10 Stede Bonnet
Speaker 54 George Speaker
Speakwell 30 John Taylor
Whydah 28/30 Samuel Bellamy
Whyndham or Wyndham Galley 24 Thomas Cocklyn

With this shopping list of necessary attributes – seaworthiness, speed, and guns – what types of vessels appealed to pirates? Contrary to Hollywood’s depictions, the majority of pirate ships were small vessels. Queen Anne’s Revenge and Royal Fortune were exceptions rather than the rule. Appendix II in David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag lists thirty-seven incidences of piracy, between 1716 and 1726, in which the type of ship was noted. Of these, nineteen were sloops; thirteen were ships; five were brigantines; one was a schooner; and one was a snow. This small sampling shows that 48% of the time, pirates favored sloops as their vessel of choice. But what was the difference between each of these conveyances, were they the only ones pirates used, and how did they acquire them?

To answer the second question first, no. Many times, pirates began their careers in a canoe or piragua (also spelled pirogue and periago). This was especially true during the seventeenth century when buccaneers roamed the Caribbean. William Dampier explained the difference between the two boats.
We reckon the Periagoes and Canoas that are made of Cedar to be the best of any; they are nothing but the Tree it self made hollow Boatwise, with a flat bottom, and the Canoa generally sharp at both ends, the Periago at one only, with the other end flat. But what is commonly said of Cedar, that the Worm will not touch it, is a mistake, for I have seen of it very much Worm-eaten. (Dampier, 29)
The pirates’ first vessel was often one of opportunity. Later, when they came across a worthier prize, they replaced their original boat with this new one. If you’ve seen or read Captain Blood, Peter and his friends initially procured a small boat. When Spanish privateers attacked Port Royal, their boat was damaged beyond repair. Only then did Peter commandeer the larger Spanish ship.

“Trading up” was common among real pirates. After Woodes Rogers arrived at New Providence in the Bahamas, Charles Vane refused to submit. He fled aboard Ranger, a sloop armed with six guns. In August 1718, he captured a brigantine slave ship, which was faster and bigger. He transferred Ranger’s cannon to the brigantine, making for a total of twelve guns, and renamed his new ship, Ranger.

Bartholomew Roberts repeatedly traded up. He began his career aboard a thirty-gun ship named Rover in July 1719. After capturing a ten-gun sloop, he boarded this new prize and, in his absence, those aboard Rover sailed off to pirate on their own. Forced to trade down, Roberts christened the sloop Fortune, and eventually made his way to Newfoundland, where he took a liking to a Bristol galley with sixteen guns. Several weeks later, he exchanged the galley for a French ship armed with twenty-six guns, which he named Royal Fortune. He added a brigantine (Good Fortune, 18 guns) in the West Indies. The ultimate prize for him was the Onslow, a ship of the Royal African Company, which he armed with forty guns and reused a favorite name of his, Royal Fortune. It was on this Royal Fortune that he lost his life in February 1722 during a battle with HMS Swallow.

Bartholomew Roberts with Royal Fortune and Ranger
                  in Whydah Road on the Coast of Guiney from Charles
                  Johnson's 1724 A General History of Pirates (Source:
Captain Bartholomew Roberts on Guinea Coast in 1721/1722 with Royal Fortune and Ranger
from Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates (1724) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Seizing a prize was the most common means by which pirates procured their vessels. Most of the time, this occurred at sea. Perhaps the most famous example is Edward Thache’s capture of La Concorde, which became his flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge. According to the Steward of Martinique, a man named Mesnier,
. . . on 28 November, being 60 leagues from here by 14 degrees by 27 minutes of latitude north, having been attacked by two English pirate ships, one 12 and the other of 8 guns armed with 250 men commanded by Englishman “Edouard Titche,” was taken by the pirates with 455 Negroes, who left said Dosset with his crew in the Grenadines on the island of Bequia near Grenada. (Brooks, 363)
Sometimes, these thefts took place while the vessel was anchored in a port’s harbor or in a safe anchorage. For example, Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny stole aboard the sloop William in New Providence and sailed away in August 1719. Three years later, Edward Low and his men sailed into Port Roseway (Canada) where thirteen fishing boats had taken shelter for the weekend. Pretending to be fellow fishermen in search of news, pirates boarded Philip Ashton’s Milton.
[The boarders] drew their cutlasses and pistols from under their clothes and cocked the one and brandished the other and began to curse and swear at us, and demanded a surrender of ourselves and vessel to them. It was too late for us to rectify our mistake and think of freeing ourselves from their power. (Ashton, 262)
They repeated this ruse multiple times, and from these prizes, Low selected a new schooner out of Marblehead named Mary for his own, because the clean lines of the eighty-ton boat would sail well. He moved his weapons, provisions, and men to her decks, and changed her name to Fancy.

To be continued . . .

1. “Glasses” refers to hourglasses or sandglasses that were used to keep time aboard ship. They came in a variety of sizes and time measurements. For additional information, check out Sand Glass and History of the Hourglass.

2. Shipworm prefers eating oak instead of pine, which is why the Scotch pine was used to protect QAR’s exterior hull.

For additional information, I recommend the following resources:

Aker, Raymond. “Reconstructing Drake’s Golden Hind: A Fifty-Year Quest,” Mains’l Haul 36:4 (Fall 2000), 15-21.
Ashton, Philip. “He Repeated the Snapping of His Pistol at My Head” in Captured by Pirates: 22 Firsthand Accounts of Murder & Mayhem on the High Seas edited by John Richard Stephens. Fern Canyon, 1996, 260-291.

Barton, Rose. “Cannibals of the Seas: Pirates & their Ships,” No Quarter Given 3:6 (January 1997), 4-5
Beal, Clifford. Quelch’s Gold: Piracy, Greed, and Betrayal in Colonial New England. Praeger, 2007.
Bicheno, Hugh. Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs: How the English became the Scourge of the Seas. Conway, 2012.
Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Time-Life Books, 1978.
Brooks, Baylus C. Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World. Lulu Press, 2016.
Burl, Aubrey. Black Barty: The Real Pirate of the Caribbean. Sutton, 2006.

Cabell, Craig, Graham A. Thomas, and Allan Richards. Captain Kidd: The Hunt for the Truth. Pen & Sword, 2010.
Cabell, Craig, Graham A. Thomas, and Allan Richards. The Hunt for Blackbeard: The World’s Most Notorious Pirate. Pen & Sword, 2012.
Childs, David. Pirate Nation: Elizabeth I and her Royal Sea Rovers. Seaforth, 2014.
Clifford, Barry, and Kenneth J. Kinkor. Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship. National Geographic, 2007.
Coote, Stephen. Drake: The Life and Legend of an Elizabethan Hero. Thomas Dunne Books, 2003.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates. Random House, 1995.
Culver, Henry B. The Book of Old Ships: From Egyptian Galleys to Clipper Ships. Dover, 1992.

Dampier, William. Memoirs of a Buccaneer: Dampier’s New Voyage Round the World, 1697. Dover, 1968.
Daniel, Shanna L. “The Seat of Ease: Sanitary Facilities from Shipwreck 31CR314,” Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project, August 2009.
De Bry, John, and Marco Roling. “Revisiting the Fiery Dragon” in Pieces of Eight: More Archaeology of Piracy edited by Charles R. Ewen and Russell K. Skowroneck. University Press of Florida, 2016, 57-92.
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
Dolan, Eric Jay. Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates. Liveright Publishing, 2018.

Fletcher, Francis. The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake. London, MLDCCCLIV.

Gulseth, Chad M. “Black Bart’s Ranger” in Pieces of Eight: More Archaeology of Piracy edited by Charles R. Ewen and Russell K. Skowroneck. University Press of Florida, 2016, 93-109.

Hamilton, Christopher E. “The Pirate Ship Whydah” in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006, 131-159.

An Interesting Trial of Edward Jordan, & Margaret His Wife, Who Were Tried at Halifax, Nova Scotia November 15th 1809, for the Horrid Crime of Piracy & Murder. Boston, 1809.

Jameson, John Franklin. Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period: Illustrative Documents. Macmillan, 1923.

Konstam, Angus. Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate. John Wiley & Sons, 2006.
Konstam, Angus. The Pirate Ship 1660-1730. Osprey, 2003.
Konstam, Angus. Pirates: Predators of the Seas. Skyhorse, 2007.
Konstam, Angus. Scourge of the Seas: Buccaneers, Pirates and Privateers. Osprey, 2007.

Little, Benerson. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630-1730. Potomac Books, 2005.
Lizé, Patrick, “Piracy in the Indian Ocean: Mauritius and the Pirate Ship Speaker” in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006, 82-99.
Lusardi, Wayne R. “The Beaufort Inlet Shipwreck Artifact Assemblage” in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006, 196-218.

Masefield, John. “A Ballad of John Silver” in The Book of Pirates selected and illustrated by Michael Hague. HarperCollins, 2001.

Pirates in Their Own Words: Eye-witness Accounts of the ‘Golden Age’ of Piracy, 1690-1728 edited by E. T. Fox. Fox Historical, 2014.

Ringrose, Basil. The Dangerous Voyage and Bold Attempts of Captain Bartholomew Sharp in John Esquemeling’s The Buccaneers of America. Rio Grande Press, 1992, 285-475.

Sanders, Richard. If a Pirate I Must Be . . . : The True Story of “Black Bart,” King of the Caribbean Pirates. Skyhorse, 2007.
Simons, Joe J. Those Vulgar Tubes: External Sanitary Accommodations aboard European Ships of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries. Texas A & M University, 1997.
Snelgrave, William. A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-trade. James, John, and Paul, MDCCXXXIV (Sabin Americana edition).

Talty, Stephan. Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe that Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign. Crown, 2007.

The Whydah Sourcebook compiled and edited by Kenneth J. Kinkor. Unpublished, 2003.

Wilde-Ramsing, Mark U. “The Pirate Ship Queen Anne’s Revenge” in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen. University Press of Florida, 2006, 160-195.
Wilde-Ramsing, Mark U., and Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton. “Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge and Its French Connection” in Pieces of Eight: More Archaeology of Piracy edited by Charles R. Ewen and Russell K. Skowroneck, University Press of Florida, 2016, 15-56.
Wilde-Ramsing, Mark U., and Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton. Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize: The 300-year Voyage of Queen Anne’s Revenge. University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd. Hyperion, 2002.
Copyright © 2019 Cindy Vallar

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