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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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Punishing Their Own and Hunting Prey
By Cindy Vallar

The quartermaster punished pirates for minor infractions such as quarreling, abusing prisoners, and failing to keep their weapons clean. The most severe offenses included murdering a fellow pirate, disobeying the captain's orders during battle, deserting the ship before they ended their voyage, or being a poor musician. While the quartermaster immediately shot any deserters who were caught, pirates tried their comrades and those found guilty received whatever sentence the pirates deemed fair.

No written accounts exist of pirates tying a murderer to his victim, weighting down both bodies, and tossing them overboard, but the Royal Navy punished seamen in this manner. Navies also used keelhauling as a form of punishment. Bound at the wrists, a seaman was hoisted out to the mainyard while a weighted line was attached to his bound feet. The other end of the line was passed under the hull and attached to the opposite end of the mainyard. Someone covered the guilty man's face with an oily rag to prevent drowning, then he was dropped into the sea and the line was hauled in, dragging him under the water against the ship's hull where barnacles slashed his skin before he resurfaced on the opposite side. Since he suffered this punishment three times, few survived.

Towing, a variation of keelhauling, involved tying the accused to a line fastened to the stern. As the ship continued its voyage, the accused was dragged through the ocean. Often, he endured this punishment for days before succumbing to exhaustion and hypothermia.

The punishment most inflicted on seamen was a flogging, using a special whip known as the cat o' nine tails. The nine strands of a rope were unwound, knotted, and then covered with tar. Sometimes fish hooks or metal balls were affixed to the ends of the cat, which was kept in a red bag. The person wielding the cat cleaned the ends between each lash, but not always. The man to be whipped had his shirt removed before being tied to a grate or a gun. In the navy after a flogging, salt and vinegar might be applied to the open wounds. Moses' Law meant the guilty man endured forty stripes minus one as Jesus was punished.

Infractions that merited the severest consequence among pirates involved stealing from the crew or abandoning one's post in battle. Offenders received the most dreaded of all punishments - marooning. This slow, cruel death was included in the articles Bartholomew Roberts' and John Phillips' crews signed. The disgraced pirate was abandoned on a deserted island, preferably a sand bar without fresh water, food, or shelter. He had with him the clothes he wore, one day's worth of water, a pistol, powder, and shot. His mates returned to their ship and sailed away, leaving him to die. If he preferred a quick death, he could kill himself with the pistol. To do that, however, damned his soul forever.

Pirates did not inflict violence only on themselves. Some tortured their victims for information or to exact revenge. Others did it to amuse themselves.  Many pirates learned methods of torture from their days as honest seamen or from attending public executions. Several buccaneers were noted for their cruelty, especially when dealing with Spaniards. Aside from burning victims with matches, they cut a man into pieces, slicing off some skin, then an arm, then a leg. It was an excruciating form of torture.  Alexandre Exquemelin wrote "Among other tortures...one was to stretch their limbs with cords, and at the same time beat them with sticks and other instruments. Others had burning matches placed betwixt their fingers, which were thus burnt alive. Others had slender cords or matches twisted about their heads, till their eyes burst out of the skull." This last instance of torture, called "woodling," resembled how seaman bound cordage around a mast. It was fast and effective and required no supplies not already at hand.

Women didn't escape tortures as brutal as those inflicted on men. One Spaniard reported Henry Morgan and his crew set a naked woman "upon a baking stove and roasted [her], because she did not confess" where she stashed her money. Some women endured repeated rapes, and if they survived and returned to society, society often considered them damaged goods.

Most of the tortures recorded in historical documents occurred when pirates attacked cities or towns. Few accounts exist of them using such cruelty at sea.  In those instances, officers - particularly captains - of captured ships endured whatever tortures the pirates invented. This was especially true if the crew complained of unjust or harsh treatment at an officer's hands.

Authors of pirate fiction devised the punishment most associated with pirates. Walking the plank was, for the most part, a myth, but in 1829 The Times of London reported pirates aboard captured a Dutch brig, blindfolded the crew, bound their wrists and tied shot to their feet, then made them jump overboard. One passenger, who revealed where the gold was hidden, escaped.


2003 Cindy Vallar

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