Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
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:
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.1. A pirate ship must be seaworthy.
2. A pirate ship must be fast.
3. A pirate ship must be armed.
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.
Or as Richard Zacks put it, “wrap the ship in very thick ropes to hold her together.” (Zacks, 159)[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)
Nor 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.
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.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)
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
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.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)
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.
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
Together, this armament totaled fifty-one guns. The table below shows a sampling of the number of guns other pirate ships carried.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)
# of Guns
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.
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.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)
“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.
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,
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.. . . 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)
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.[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)
Another option for obtaining a vessel was to stage a mutiny and go on the account. This was how Henry Every began his piratical career. At the time, he was the First Mate of Charles II, a privateer out of Bristol.
When our Gentry saw that all was clear, they secured the Hatches, so went to work; they did not slip the Anchor, but weighed it leisurely, and so put to Sea without any Disorder or Confusion, tho’ there were several Ships then lying in the Bay . . . .
In studying how merchant seamen turned to piracy, Marcus Rediker found forty-eight instances where crews of British ships mutinied over a twenty-two-year period, beginning in 1715. In one third of these the mutineers went on the account.The Captain, who by this Time, was awaked, either by the Motion of the Ship, or the Noise of working the Tackles, rung the Bell; Avery and two others went into the Cabin; the Captain, half asleep, and in a kind of Fright, ask’d, What was the Matter? Avery answered cooly, Nothing; the Captain replied, Something’s the Matter with the Ship, does she drive? What Weather is it? . . . No, no, answered Avery, we’re at Sea, with a fair Wind and good Weather. At Sea! says the Captain, How can that be? Come, says Avery, don’t be in a Fright, but put on your Cloaths, and I’ll let you into a Secret: – You must know, that I am Captain of this Ship now, and this is my Cabin . . . I am bound to Madagascar, with a Design of making my own Fortune, and that of all the brave Fellows joined with me. (Defoe, 51)
Not all mutinies were peaceful; a case in point was the Three Sisters. At the trial, Captain John Stairs testified:
The attack continued and Stairs was wounded several times, before he jumped overboard to be rescued by a fishing schooner three hours later.I saw Jordan presenting a pistol down the sky-light, I thought at me; I startled, and the pistol was discharged – the ball from which grazed my nose and side of my face, and entered the breast of Heath, who fell on his knees, and cryed: “oh my God I am killed” . . . . I then determined to go on deck – on going up the ladder I met the prisoner, Edward Jordan, in the act of descending . . . he held an axe in his right hand and a pistol in his left. (An Interesting, 7)
Of course, a rare method was to buy a ship specifically to go a-pirating. In fact, the only man to opt to procure his vessel in this fashion was Stede Bonnet, who “fitted out a Sloop with ten Guns and 70 Men, entirely at his own Expence, and in the Night-Time sailed from Barbadoes. He called his Sloop the Revenge . . . .” (Defoe, 95)
What vessels pirates chose varied according to time period and what was at hand. During the seventeenth century, buccaneers preferred the pinnace, the barca longa (Spanish equivalent to a pinnace, although the English referred to them as barques), and the fly-boat (English equivalent of the Dutch fluyt). The last vessel didn’t lend itself well to piratical endeavors because she was a lumbering ship; more often than not she ended up being prey rather than hunter. Even so, buccaneers did use the fly-boat when raiding close to shore.
Left: Calmare Nyckel, a pinnace built around 1625 (painting by Jacob Hägg) [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Right: 17th-century Flyut [Source: Dover Sailing Ships]
The pinnace, on the other hand, was a favorite of these sea rovers because of her narrow beam and small size. Initially, such vessels were no longer than thirty-five feet long. As time passed, however, the term also applied to three-masted vessels between forty and 200 tons. Her masts carried both square and lateen sails; her guns numbered from eight to twenty. Henry Morgan often utilized large pinnaces in his pirate squadrons.
Another popular marauding vessel was the piragua, which was often described as a large canoe.
Their size was such that small guns could be mounted and they served well when launching attacks inshore. Père Jean-Baptiste Labat, a Dominican priest who spent time with the buccaneers, described a pirogue (French for piragua, which is Spanish) as being thirty-one feet in length and having a width of almost five feet at its broadest point, but the bow and stern were only twenty inches wide. Its steering mechanism was a large paddle, and it had two masts upon which were hoisted two square sails.500 of the men transferred into twenty-three canoes that the ships had been towing or carrying. These were the same type of forty-foot, single-sail canoes that Morgan had used in his odyssey to Central America . . . . The canoes were becoming a Morgan trademark; so was traveling by night. (Talty, 106)
While a piragua might carry up to 120 buccaneers, smaller ones that could hold fifteen to twenty-five men were used more often. Their low profile meant they were difficult to be seen on water. Since they were paddled, rather than rowed, they could slip quietly through the water without alerting sentries with good hearing. Their openness, however, meant there was no protection from rough weather, heavy seas, or shots fired by the enemy.
From the 1690s onward, how vessels were classified changed. Instead of this being determined by the shape of their hulls or what they were used for, the number of masts and type of sails utilized differentiated one from another. A “boat” was any vessel that had one or two masts, and the preferred one of the golden age of piracy was the sloop. Today’s definition of this boat – a single mast possessing a fore-and-aft sail, one that parallels the length of the vessel, as well as a jib sail, a triangular sail forward of the mast – wasn’t as well-defined in the early 1700s. For example, the English sometimes called vessels with two masts, carrying square mainsail and topsail, a sloop and some naval sloops, which first came into use around the middle of the previous century, could have three masts.
The sloops most sought after were those built in either Jamaica or Bermuda because they were fast, sometimes achieving more than eleven knots. Red cedar was used to build the Jamaica sloop, which also had a low freeboard – the visible side of the boat between the waterline and the deck – and raked mast, meaning it was placed at an angle rather than standing perpendicular. A Bermuda sloop might have twelve gunports. In either case, a sloop’s deck was usually flush, meaning there was no raised portion between the bow and stern. A schooner of 100 tons could carry up to seventy-five pirates and fourteen guns.
Another boat was the brigantine. Her foremast carried a square-rigged sail, while her mainmast was rigged with both a fore-and-aft sail and a square topsail. Dispersing 150 tons and measuring eighty feet in length, she could carry ten guns and 100 men. The brig and snow were related to this class of boat, but with slightly different rigs. Pirates used all three types, but these boats weren’t as popular as the sloop or a ship.
Left: Bermuda sloop, artist unknown [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Right: Brigantine Experiment by Nicolay Carmilleri, 1807 [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
An article in a 1717 issue of the Boston News-Letter mentioned a new type of boat: the schooner. Like the brigantine, she had two masts, both of which carried fore-and-aft sails, and a narrow hull. A square topsail on the foremast was occasionally used. Edward Low captured one in 1722, changing her name from Mary to Fancy, but schooners were a rarity among pirates of the golden age.3 A schooner’s advantage over other vessels was her speed. In a stiff breeze, she scudded over waves at up to eleven knots. Her shallow draft also permitted her to venture into shoal waters and remote coves, places that larger ships would never dare to tread.
Left: Schooner [Source: Author's collection]; Middle: Model of Whydah by Joel Salazar [Source: Wikimedia Commons]; Right: Queen Anne's Revenge, 1736 [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The second most-popular pirate vessel was the ship, which meant she had at least three masts and carried square sails on all of them.4 With an average tonnage of 350 and a main deck extending 110 feet in length, she could carry up to 200 pirates and in excess of twenty guns. They were the flagships of pirate flotillas – similar to the mother ship of Somali pirates today – and their armament and manpower made them akin to the largest warships stationed in British colonial waters in the early eighteenth century. While many pirates aspired to nab a ship, only the most successful marauders succeeded in capturing them. The best-known examples were Queen Anne’s Revenge, Royal Fortune, and Whydah.
When La Concorde (Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge), the Onslow (Roberts’s Royal Fortune), and the Whydah were taken, they were slave ships (also called guineamen). Pirates liked them because they had been built for speed, since the owners wished to cross the Atlantic Ocean as quickly as possible to deliver their African cargo to plantations in the New World. Nor was it unthinkable for the pirates in their smaller vessels to capture such a large one. Merchant ships often carried fewer men to work them than was recommended to keep down costs. For example, the Henrietta Marie was a slave ship of 180 tons. Her crew numbered twenty and to protect her, she carried eight small guns called minions, which were equivalent to four pounders. Thirty pirates aboard a small sloop might well catch such a vessel if their desire was strong enough. And Blackbeard’s certainly was when he attacked La Concorde with two sloops, 250 men, and twenty cannon in November 1717. Having acquired his new flagship, Edward Thache finally had what he needed to dare to blockade the port of Charles Town, South Carolina in May 1718. According to Governor Robert Johnson:
On average these weapons measured eight feet in length. One recovered brass swivel gun might have been used as QAR’s signal gun. An interesting tidbit was that some reclaimed guns contained round shot and evidence of powder charges, indicating that Blackbeard kept his guns loaded at all times.This company is commanded by one Teach alias Blackbeard has a ship of 40 od guns under him and 3 sloopes tenders besides and are in all above 400 men. (Wilde-Ramsing & Carnes-McNaughton, Blackbeard’s Sunken, 28)
While La Concorde was initially built as a privateer and then converted to a slaver, Whydah was most likely constructed to transport enslaved Africans from the West African trading post Whydah (also spelled Ouidah) to the Caribbean. She had three masts and weighed around 300 tons. Her hull measured 100 feet in length. In addition to her sails, she could also maneuver when the wind was calm through the use of sweeps, long oars that were extended through oar ports cut in the sides Whydah’s hull. When Samuel Bellamy captured her in 1717, she carried ten guns, but he added another sixteen or eighteen to her armament, as well as ten swivel guns. Barry Clifford discovered her wreck site off the coast of Cape Cod in 1984, and between then and 1992 he and his team recovered twenty-seven cannon. Where the guns came to rest suggested they had been mounted
When the nor’easter struck, Whydah slammed into a sandbar and heeled over. In the process, one of these guns pinned the youngest of Bellamy’s crew, a boy named John King, to the ocean floor.with the smaller three-pounder cannon situated in the far stern (3 cannon) and bow (2 cannon), the heavier six-pounder cannon tending to be placed closer amidship (4 cannon), and the more common four-pounder cannon placed throughout the length of the vessel (17 cannon). (Hamilton, 130)
Another galley used as a pirate ship began life as a privateer. Her name was Adventure Galley and her captain was William Kidd. Built in 1695, she carried a crew of 152 and thirty-four guns. She weighed 287 tons. As for her other specs, they might have been similar to that of another galley, also built at Deptford, England, around 1676: keel length 114 feet, a breadth of 28½ feet at her widest point, and a water depth of at least 8½ feet.
Since pirates did not acquire their vessels through the usual means, they adapted them to fit their needs. Unfortunately, pirates failed to provide us with detailed specs of these conversions, but Captain Johnson provided a few hints.
Charles Galley before a light breeze by John Forbes, 1676
Comparable to Kidd's Adventure Galley
[Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London]
Captain England took a Ship called the Pearl, Captain Tyzard Commander, for which he exchanged his own Sloop, fitted her up for the pyratical Account, and new christen’d her, the Royal James . . . . (Defoe, 115)
[George Lowther and his men] one and all came into the Measures, knocked down the Cabins, made the Ship flush fore and aft, prepared black Colours, new named her, the Delivery, having about 50 Hands and 16 Guns . . . . (Defoe, 307)
[Bartholomew Roberts and company] kept the Onslow for their own Use . . . and then fell to making such Alterations as might fit her for a Sea-Rover, pulling down her Bulk-Heads, and making her flush, so that she became, in all Respects, as compleat a Ship for their Purpose, as any they could have found; they continued to her the Name of the Royal Fortune, and mounted her with 40 Guns. (Defoe, 229)
Henry Every also altered his Fancy according to a letter from Bombay to the East India Company, dated 28 May 1695.
Left to right: Edward England (source: Wikipedia Commons), George Lowther (source: Dover Pirates CD), Bartholomew Roberts, and Henry Every (source: Wikipedia Commons)
Another buccaneer, Basil Ringrose, also described changes made to his company’s vessel.Your Honours Ships . . . gave him chase, but hee was too nimble for them by much, having taken down a great deal of his upper work and made her exceeding snugg, which advantage being added to her well sailing before, causes her to sail so hard now that shee fears not who follows her. (Jameson, 155)
By removing the bulkheads, or dividing walls, the pirates opened up the space below the main deck so it was possible to see from one end of the vessel to the other. Since equality and the rule of share and share alike were of keen importance to pirates, this removal also reduced the likelihood of one pirate stealing from another. If the vessel was large enough, this lower deck was probably located above the waterline, which then allowed the pirates to insert gunports into the hull on both sides and arm the space with additional guns.5Wednesday, May 25th. This day we finished our great piece of work, viz. the taking down the deck of our ship. Besides which, the length of every mast was shortened; and all was now served and rigged, insomuch that it would seem incredible to strangers, could they but see how much work we performed in the space of a fortnight or less. (Ringrose, 421)
To make the weather deck (also known as the main or spar deck) flush meant removing any structure – such as a raised quarterdeck, a poop deck, or a forecastle – that impeded free movement between the bow and the stern. Both Bartholomew Roberts and George Lowther did so, although historians are uncertain of the extent Edward Thache altered his. Now, the pirates no longer had to mount a few steps to gain access to the quarterdeck or foredeck of the ship. Not only did this make it easier to maneuver when in a battle, but also no one was above anyone else among the company. It also allowed for the mounting of additional ordnance. Decorative railing might also be removed to lessen the chance of maiming or death by flying splinters during battle. In addition, the pirates might re-rig the ship and/or reposition her masts to increase her speed and change her identity.
Reality was far different. The only cabin that might remain intact was the captain’s, but he no longer had sole use of it. The whole company of pirates could come and go as they pleased. Captain William Snelgrave, whose Bird Galley was captured off Sierra Leone in 1719, described the pirate captain’s cabin.The romantic vision of a pirate captain is of a grand commander giving orders, living in a luxurious, tapestry-draped cabin with soft rugs from Persia and India, a chamber where golden candleholders glittered on exquisite Venetian glassware and decanters filled with rare wines, shining on treasure chests in which rubies, diamonds and emeralds coruscated, a room full of riches for a despot. (Burl, 40)
One pirate captain who didn’t seem to thoroughly adopt the total equality among pirates was Thache. Instead of razing the stern cabin, he retained it and used it for himself, rather than sharing its use among all his men. The artifacts found in this area lend credence to this hypothesis. The food he and his officers ate was served on ceramic and stemmed glassware, rather than those made of wood or pewter. When the ship was abandoned, stray coins and gold dust were left behind. Such items were not, however, found in the forward section where his men frequented. Large amounts of lead shot were also found in the stern, suggesting that he kept tight rein over this to prevent anyone from challenging his authority.There was not in the Cabbin either Chair, or any thing else to sit upon; for they always kept a clear Ship ready for an Engagement: So a Carpet was spread on the Deck, upon which we sat down cross-legg’d. (216)
One conversion Blackbeard did make was to remove the wall that separated the waist of La Concorde from the quarterdeck. Its original purpose was to provide an additional layer of security to the ship’s crew in case the slaves rebelled during the Middle Passage. This barrier turned the stern into a small fortress from which the crew could defend themselves. Retaining it, however, would have prevented the pirates having easy access fore and aft during battle.
Edward Thache (Blackbeard) and 1736 illustration of Queen Anne's Revenge
(sources: Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons)
Her guns were not all the same, since those recovered from the wreck site vary in weight and size. Nor were they manufactured at the same place, as some came from France, others from Great Britain, and one from Sweden. Since the main deck could not carry all these guns, Blackbeard had to place some on the lower deck and have the carpenters cut gunports into the hull. These changes were made at Bequia, “an island small enough to lack a British or a French garrison, and a long-established watering place for buccaneers, privateers and pirates.” (Cabell, Hunt, 41)
Renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge, she “was a three-masted, ship-rigged, floating war machine . . . constructed of sawn planking held together with fasteners of iron or wood sealed with coatings of pitch and tar. Propelled by the natural forces of water and wind, the ship had yards of sailcloth that were manipulated through a matrix of ropes, pulleys, and cleats. Its sailing ability and particular tendencies were intimately known by its officers and crew.” (Wilde-Ramsing & Carnes-McNaughton, Blackbeard’s Sunken, 29)
Merchant vessels of this time period were “almost entirely constructed of wood, and [were a] confusing jumble of tarred rope, mildewed sails, spare masts and spars, muddy anchor cable, hen coops, hammocks, seamen’s chests, wooden crates of various sizes, and numerous barrels containing water, beer, salt pork, and gunpowder. . . . an assorted collection of cows, goats, ducks, geese, and chickens were kept in pens belowdecks. . . . Many seamen kept pets: dogs and cats common, so were parrots and monkeys.” (Cordingly, 68)
Similar or more rudimentary conditions were present on earlier vessels as well, such as Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. But little documentation of the ship survived. In The World Encompassed, which was published in 1628, his nephew Francis Fletcher recorded that she was “burthen 100 tonnes” and was one of five vessels that set sail in November 1577.Belowdecks . . . smells of bilge water, manure, decaying wood, and tarred hemp . . . toilet facilities . . . were extremely primitive. The seamen either climbed onto the leeward channels (platforms along the ship’s side for spreading the rigging) and urinated into sea, or went forward to beakhead or “heads.” On wooden structure overhanging the bows of the ship would be two or three boxes with holes in them. The seamen sat on the boxes, or “seats of easement” as they were called, and defecated through the hole into water below. On smaller ships without a beakhead, the heads were inboard and waste was discharged through a pipe in ship’s side. (Cordingly, 69)
These ships he mand with 164 able and sufficient men, and furnished them also with such plentifull prouision of all things necessary, as so long and dangerous a voyage did seeme to require; and amongst the rest, with certaine pinnaces ready framed, but carried aboard in pieces, to be new set vp in smoother water, when occasion serued. Neither had he omitted to make provision also for ornament and delight, carrying to this purpose with him, expert musitians, rich furniture (all the vessels for his table, yea, many belonging euen to the Cooke-roome being of pure siluer), and diuers shewes of all sorts of curious workmanship, whereby the ciuilitie and magnificence of his natiue contrie might, amongst all nations whithersoeuer he should come, be the more admired. (Fletcher, 7)
Initially dubbed Pelican, she was an example of a race-built galleon. After Spanish shipwrights developed the galéon from the earlier carrack in the second half of the 1500s, England modified the design to make their vessels low, sleek, and fast, which made them ideal for pirates. This was accomplished by lowering the stern- and forecastles, and melding a sleeker hull with a low, slow-rising superstructure that ended with the quarterdeck. No extant plans exist of Drake’s galleon, but the Deptford dry dock where she was preserved for public display suggested that she required at least nine feet of water beneath her keel and might have measured sixty-seven feet in length and nineteen across her beam. Her three masts and bowsprit could carry slightly more than 4,000 square feet of canvas, which allowed her to reach eight knots when conditions were good. The number of men in her crew is unknown, but when she departed the Moluccas, John Drake mentioned that she carried sixty men; when she reached the Cape of Good Hope there were fifty-nine.
Replica of Francis Drake's Golden Hind docked in Southwark
(source: Wikimedia Commons)
Drake’s cabin was small and comfortably furnished. The gentleman adventurers who accompanied him slept two to a cabin below the poop deck. Most of the crew slept on the deck between the guns, since this was a time before hammocks were often found aboard ships. Later, when they became the norm, pirates might sleep in them, but only if there were enough for all of them. In larger crews, this was unlikely, so they, too, slept on a deck wherever they found free space.
Golden Hind’s round-the-world voyage was not without peril. After the ship became stuck on a reef, John Fletcher wrote:
She remained seaworthy, so they lightened her load, discarding five tons of spices and eight guns. Twenty hours later, the tide and wind pushed her off the reef. When she arrived back in London, she could still sail, but Queen Elizabeth decreed the Golden Hind be preserved in dry dock.[Drake showed] us the way by his own example, first of all the pump was well plied, and the ship freed of water. We found her leaks to be nothing increased. Though it gave us no hope of deliverance, yet it gave us some hope of respite, as it assured us that the hulk was sound Which truly we acknowledged to be an immediate providence of God alone, as no strength of wood and iron could possibly have borne so hard a violent a shock as our ship did, dashing herself under full sail against the rocks, except the extraordinary hand of God had supported the same. (Childs, 33)
John Quelch served as the lieutenant on the Charles, an eighty-ton brigantine. After the captain died, Quelch assumed command and the boat went on the account. At most, she would have measured about ninety feet in length from her stern to her bowsprit and her beam (width) was twenty feet. The crew lived on a deck between the main deck and the cargo hold, but the captain and Quelch occupied a cabin situated astern on the main deck, the roof of which provided a raised quarterdeck from which the brigantine was steered using a tiller.6 According to several period documents, Charles might have been a galley with sweeps in addition to sails. Her guns, probably ten to twelve 4-pounders, were mounted on the main deck; when not in use, these weapons were lashed to the deck and gunwales and covered with tarpaulins to keep them dry. If she had swivel guns, these were mounted on the railings at the bow and stern. She carried a crew of seventy, far more than the approximate dozen actually needed to sail her. She was relatively new when she set sail, but by the time she returned to Marblehead, she had been woefully mistreated.
Unfurling all her sails, Adventure Galley possessed 3,200 square yards of canvas and could achieve a speed of fourteen knots. Since she was a galley, she could also navigate in little or no wind using her forty-six sweeps, twenty-three per side, to attain a speed of three knots. Kidd’s cabin was large enough to accommodate meetings with all his officers; his first mate had only a small cubby. Both were austere in their decoration and furnishings, but were an improvement over where the rest of the crew of 150 lived. They had to sleep and eat wherever they could find space. When they needed to relieve themselves, they ventured onto the bowsprit. There was no dedicated space reserved for the galley, so cooking was done in a giant stewpot in a bricked hearth, but only when the seas were calm. The hold contained a shot locker, where six tons of ordnance were kept for the 12-pounders. One-ton casks of water served as ballast and were placed amidships. It took forty men walking an hour or longer around the capstan to raise Adventure Galley’s anchor (3,000 pounds) and its cable (another 6,000 pounds).Sails that had been haphazardly stowed were flapping about in the breeze, rigging was falling down, and lines lay strewn about the deck. Assorted rubbish was everywhere: broken jugs, scraps of biscuit, discarded bits of clothing, and probably a pile of human feces or two in the odd corner o the foredeck. The stink of a ship neglected wafted about the blistered and cracked deck rails of the Charles. (Beal, 100)
Constructed in London, Whydah was a galley of 300 tons, although square-rigged sails were her means of propulsion. She was at least 100 feet, although she might have been longer. Her weather deck and lower deck would have been flush. Although various artifacts reveal much about her design, several mysteries remain. Did she have a ship’s wheel or a whipstaff? Had she a spritsail? When becalmed, were sweeps used to propel her?
When she was captured in 1717, she was armed with eighteen guns. Ralph Merry and Samuel Roberts, two seamen captured by the pirates, gave depositions that stated, “we met with a Ship of 28 guns called the Wedaw”; Captain Beer, who spent two hours as Bellamy’s prisoner, told the Rhode Island Dispatch that the Whydah was a “Galley of 30 guns, 200 brisk Men of Several Nations.” (Whydah, 125, 105)
Within the wreckage of the Whydah was found a lead tube. There would have been two of these – one in the head and the other the stern – and the tube was called a “pissdale,” or ship’s toilet. Instead of fancy china, the pirates ate off pewter plates, some of which have the owner’s initials etched on them. Mauls, caulking chisels, hammers, and other tools provide evidence of the work carpenters and blacksmiths did to maintain her, while compasses and stylus were used by her navigator and nested scales were used by the quartermaster or surgeon to determine the weight of gold or medicine, respectively.
Example of ship's carpenter's tools
At the time of her capture, La Concorde weighed between 200 and 300 tons and was armed with sixteen guns. Her crew numbered seventy-five when the pirate sloops intercepted her. Thache increased her ordnance, with at least twenty-six, but not more than forty guns, and changed her name to Queen Anne’s Revenge. These weapons made her a formidable enemy.
In the year 1718 the Royal Navy had on its books sixty-seven ships of the line, fifty fifth-rate and sixth-rate warships, seven sloops, and some thirteen thousand seamen . . . Even the smallest of the ships of the line had fifty guns and was equal in force to Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, the largest of the pirate ships. (Cordingly, 206)By the time QAR and her consorts departed Charles Town, South Carolina, Thache began to question the wisdom of having so many men under his command. After all, the more men the less each man received of the plunder. This might be why the flagship ran aground in Topsail Inlet on 10 June 1718. David Herriot, who once commanded the captured Adventure but had since joined the pirates, testified:
[t]hat about six Days after they left the Bar at Charles-Town, they arrived at Topsail-Inlet in North Carolina, having then under their Command the said Ship Queen Anne’s Revenge, the Sloop commanded by Richards, this Deponent’sAmong the artifacts recovered were plates and flatware made of pewter, items made from ceramic, glass bottles, silver spoons, jugs of German stoneware, oil jars made in Italy, and instruments used in science and medicine. Iron hoop fragments indicated that she carried hogsheads. Stones used for ballast weighed over 2,700 pounds in total. Her stern cabin had a gallery of windows and portions of the glass panes were also salvaged. Each one was four inches wide and blue-green in color, indicating the glass came from Languedoc, France.
Sloop, command by one Capt. Hands, one of the said Pirate Crew, and a small empty Sloop which they found near the Havana. . . . That the next Morning after they had all got safe into Topsail-Inlet, except Thatch, the said Thatch’s Ship Queen Anne’s Revenge run a-ground off of the Bar of Topsail Inlet, and the said Thatch sent his Quarter-Master to command this Deponent’s Sloop to come to his Assistance; but she run aground likewise about Gun-shot from the said Thatch, before his said Sloop could come to their Assistance, and both the said Thatch’s Ship and this Deponent’s Sloop were wreck’d . . . .
Says, ’Twas generally believed the said Thatch run his Vessel a-ground on purpose to break up the Companies, and to secure what moneys and Effects he had got for himself and such other of them as he had most Value for. (Pirates in, 97-98)
A lead pissdale was also found in QAR’s wreckage. “Its purpose was essential for nautical travelers needing to heed the call of nature, for this was the liner of their toilet, appropriately called the Seat of Ease.” It “would have been built into a small, enclosed balcony off the stern quarter and used by officers and their guests. The tiny enclosed room was equipped with a wooden seat over a hole lined with sheet lead to carry the waste down and out into the sea.” (Wilde-Ramsing & Carnes-McNaughton, Blackbeard’s Sunken, 94)
To illuminate the dark interior of the ship, the pirates used lanthorns and gimbals. The former were either wooden or metal lanterns with panes made from thin sheets of horn. A gimbal was a small oil lamp that was affixed to an iron hook that could then be hung from a rafter, which kept it from tipping over when the ship rocked. The one found on QAR has a decorative hen to hold the wick.
Unlike Adventure Galley, Queen Anne’s Revenge did have a galley with a built-in cookstove. This would have been set in a wooden box lined with bricks. Here, the pirates’ cook used the large cauldrons commonly found on slave ships to prepare the pirates’ meals. He would have used wood for fuel.
Sampling of Galley Stoves from 1492-1620
(from left to right): Santa Maria (portable), Elizabeth II, Susan Constant, Mayflower
Although she did not begin her piratical career as such, Stede Bonnet’s twelve-gun Revenge became one of Thache’s consorts. His was not an ordinary pirate ship; nor was he an ordinary pirate. The 28 October to 4 November 1717 issue of the Boston News-Letter included this tidbit:
On board the Pirate Sloop is Major Bennet, but has no command, he walks about in his Morning Gown, and then to his Books, of which he has a good Library on Board. (Brooks, 347)In 1719 Christopher Condent (also known as William or Billy One-hand, among other names) acquired a Dutch East Indiaman, which he renamed Fiery Dragon. Her complement of ordnance totaled forty guns, twenty brass swivel guns, and three coehorn mortars. Two years later, the pirates decided to retire and while details are unknown, the ship burned in St. Mary’s harbor at Madagascar. Barry Clifford and his crew came across her remains while searching for William Kidd’s Adventure Galley. The remains of her frame follow that used by Dutch shipwrights, and fir treenails, rather than the typical oak ones that France and England utilized, were found. Chinese porcelain fragments of bowls, cups, and platters depicted flowers and other plants, as well as a few pagodas, birds, and bodies of water. Another find was a terra cotta lion made from purple clay.
Pirate ships of the West had many commonalities with merchant and naval vessels since they began life with legitimate purposes in mind. Yet these were not the only ships plying the seas. Those of Eastern regions differed greatly and pirates of those seas also sought vessels that were seaworthy, fast, and well armed.
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.
3. Schooners became popular later on for privateering, especially during the War of 1812, and would become a favorite trope of authors in their pirate stories.
4. The image of a full-rigged ship is probably the vessel that easily comes to mind when "ship" is mentioned today, but in the past the term applied to a specific class of vessels.
5. If any cannon remained unused, these could be relegated to the hold to substitute for the stone as ballast. In this way, they had ready armament for new consorts or the extra guns could later be sold.
6. The tiller was connected to a long pole that subdivided the captain’s cabin and was attached to the rudder. The helmsman either pulled or pushed the tiller to move the boat.
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.
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