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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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To Capture Prey and Plunder It
By Cindy Vallar

Treasure Ship

Pirates relied on three elements to capture prey: surprise, speed, and terror. When a target was spotted, they either closed the distance quickly or stalked the other ship (sometimes for days) to determine whether to attack or not. They evaluated the risk factor through observation. What was the shipís length? How many masts had she and how were her sails rigged? What flag did she fly? How many guns and crew were aboard? How low did she sit in the water?

VikingThe Vikings were consummate masters in the use of intimidation. They terrorized their victims, sometimes catching spears in mid-flight and hurling them back at the thrower. Their longboats seemed to appear out of nowhere, and the Norse descended on villages and monasteries with lightning speed. Since death during battle insured them eternal glory, their ferocity in battle was legendary.  Their favored weapons included the broadsword, battle-axe, and spear.

To deflect an enemyís sword the Barbary Corsair held a dagger in his left hand while wielding a rapier with his right. The Chinese, who also favored hand-to-hand battle, wielded two-handed hackers - a heavy sword capable of slicing through heavy armor.

Later pirates, however, favored capture over fighting. One of their tactics was the ruse de guerre.  After sighting a possible victim and determining her nationality, the pirates ran up a flag that identified them as a friend. When they got close enough to fire their guns, they struck their colors in favor of the Jolly Roger and fired a single shot across the other shipís bow. Too late, the prey realized its mistake and had no choice but to surrender or fight. If the target struck its colors, the pirates ordered her crew to lower their boats and ferry a prize crew over to their ship. If the other ship chose to fight, pirates preferred to board and fight rather than fire their guns, which could inflict serious damage to their intended prize.

Boarding PiratesThe weapons pirates favored often depended on the time period and circumstances. They wielded swords, pistols (usually a flintlock), grappling irons, half-pikes, knives, and belaying pins. Sometimes they lobbed grenades of tar and smoldering rags to frighten and confuse the other crew. They also scattered caltrops or crowsfeet on the deck. These barbs made nasty wounds for barefooted seamen and pirates alike. Pirates used axes to climb the wooden sides of the ship and bring down sail. A single blow could sever a rope the width of a manís arm.

Pirates of the 16th and 17th centuries used blunderbusses. Their limited range and large spread made them ideal weapons for boarding pirates. Early blunderbusses were narrower than the trumpet-shaped guns most people think of when they hear that word. Musketoons, with their short barrels and limited range, were easier to use in cramped quarters on a pitching deck than muskets.  Any weapon that utilized gunpowder, however, could misfire if the sea air dampened the powder.  Since these firearms required time to reload, pirates either carried more or used them to club an opponent.

During the 17th century, the cutlass became the sword of choice because its short broad blade worked well in close quarters. Longer swords became entangled in the rigging. Pirate captains sometimes favored the smallsword over the cutlass.

Gun crewAlmost every ocean-going vessel carried some type of armament. Unlike naval ships, pirates avoided firing their guns except as a warning to heave to and surrender. The navyís object was to destroy, whereas the pirates wanted to preserve the vessel. A shot delivered broadside might destroy a ship or damage her enough to make her unseaworthy.

Often guns were mounted on four-wheeled truck carriages with worms, rammers, and sponges kept close at hand. (Guns is the correct term when referring to artillery aboard ships. Cannon refers to guns of a specific size that used a specific type of ordnance.) The four-pounder was the most common gun aboard a pirate sloop. Roundshot had an effective range of about 100 yards and was used to smash the hull and masts. It rarely sank a ship, but on impact roundshot sent deadly splinters flying through the air. Chain or bar shot decimated rigging and sails. At close range, gunnery crews fired grapeshot to cut down the crew.

Even when forced to fight, however, pirates used gunfire sparingly. They didnít have the luxury of sailing into any port to purchase their ordnance. If they didnít obtain it at a port friendly to pirates, they acquired it from their victims.

Once pirates captured their prey, they searched for anything of value. Gold doubloons amounted to seven weeks pay for most seamen. The Spanish treasure fleets carried gold and silver melted down to save space. Pirates craved these treasures, but also stole from passengers. This was how they acquired fancy daggers or jewelry laden with precious gems (emerald, garnet, amethyst, blood stone, malachite, ruby, opal, diamond, tigerís eye, sapphire). Necklaces, crosses, reliquaries, fan holders, pins, pendants, rings, and snuffboxes were frequent items amongst pirate treasure.

Treasure ChestWhile gold, silver, and jewels were the most desired booty, pirates also stole other items. These might include clothes, shipsí supplies, fabric (like silk), spices (cloves, nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon sticks), animals (provided fresh meat), rum, indigo, tobacco, sugar, flour, hardwood, copper, medicine, tea leaves, green coffee beans, alcohol and wine, olive oil, housewares, and slaves. During the 17th and 18th centuries Chinese porcelain became a favored prize. Pirates also placed a high value on weapons and ammunition.

Pirates sometimes became wealthy overnight, but usually squandered their ill-gotten gains when they reached land. In 1693, Thomas Tew (who lived long enough to enjoy his wealth and to mingle with society) captured a ship in the Indian Ocean. When the pirates divided the plunder, each manís share came to £3,000 (worth over $3.5 million today).


© 2002 Cindy Vallar

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