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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Pirate Ships

By Cindy Vallar

Pirates did not sail ships expressly built for the purpose of plundering other ships. They acquired their vessels through mutiny or theft. (The single exception to this would be Major Stede Bonnet, who purchased his sloop Revenge.) From 1660 to 1730, they favored sloops, schooners, and brigantines. While such vessels were desired, the pirates didn’t always start their “careers” sailing these. Their first vessel was often a canoe or piragua. As time passed and they became more successful, they “traded” up. This was how Blackbeard acquired la Concorde, which he rechristened Queen Anne’s Revenge. He was one of a handful of pirates who sailed aboard ships larger than most pirates did. Another was Bartholomew Roberts, whose first vessel was the Rover. His next was the ten-gun sloop Ranger that he renamed Fortune, which he exchanged for a galley that was traded in for a French vessel with twenty-six guns. Her name became Royal Fortune, but he soon swapped her for Good Fortune, a brigantine, which he discarded after capturing a forty-two gun French warship, which he also called Royal Fortune.

For the most part, pirates favored boats – vessels with no more than two masts. According to Father Jean-Baptiste Labat, a Dominican missionary on Martinique who sometimes encountered buccaneers, this was because a) they required less maintenance; b) they cost less; and c) they didn’t need as many men to sail them. This last explanation meant that with fewer men aboard, each received a greater share of the plunder than they would have aboard a ship carrying a larger crew. Of course, boats also had several drawbacks. Without as many pirates, they couldn’t successfully attack larger ships and if the prey was better armed, the pirates were less likely to capture the merchantman. Still, some pirates just weren’t satisfied with small vessels with few “teeth.” Howell Davis’s Rover was armed with thirty guns and twenty-seven swivels. Defiance, captained by John Bowen, and Speaker, commanded by George Booth, mounted fifty-six and fifty-four guns respectively.

So what differentiated one sailing vessel from another? Let’s examine each one a bit closer.

Piragua & canoeNeither elegant nor romantic, canoes had a lot going for them as a pirate conveyance. Eighteenth-century buccaneers especially favored the piragua (also known as a pirogue), a large canoe with turned-up points at each end. Since these pirateers, as they sometimes called themselves, often attacked land bases, canoes allowed them to get close to shore or navigate inland waterways. These all-purpose craft were also easy to maneuver, quick, hard to see at night, and relatively quiet since they were rowed and their oars could be muffled. Whereas larger vessels often required time, money, and the knowledge and skill of a shipwright to build, a piragua or canoe could be completed in fifteen days. Being made of cypress, cedar, or “cotton tree” (kapok), they were also light and could be carried if needed. An average-sized canoe might accommodate up to twenty-one men; a larger one held forty-five; and a man-of-war piragua could carry up to 120 pirates. Native Americans paddled their vessels, but Europeans often fitted them with thwarts to hold oars and steered using a paddle or rudder.

SloopThe sloop had a single mast rigged with a main fore-and-aft sail and a jib sail. Fast, light, and agile, she easily caught up to slow merchantmen or fled from pursuers. She was also easy to handle, which meant she only required a small crew. Rather than climb aloft to tend the sails, sailors worked them from the deck. The only man aloft was the lookout. Sloops could be sailed in all types of weather and came in a variety of sizes, usually thirty-five to sixty-five feet in length. A sloop of 100 tons required just eight feet of water to float. They were armed with six to twelve guns on a single deck. Although smaller than some foe, the sloop was a dangerous adversary in spite of having fewer guns. She could easily outsail a broadside attack and, when armed with six or seven guns, could overcome a brigantine with fifteen or twenty cannons. Sloops were found in the Caribbean beginning in the early 1700s, and the best ones were built in Bermuda and Jamaica. As a pirate ship, she often had a crew of up to 150 men, but pirates weren’t the only ones who sailed sloops. The Royal Navy used them to hunt the scurvy dogs.

SchoonerWhile rigged with fore-and-aft sails like a sloop, a schooner had two masts. With her narrow hull and sails, she could achieve eleven knots in a stiff breeze. Her length averaged forty to seventy feet and her tonnage was often ninety to 100, yet she only required five feet of water to stay afloat. She often carried eight guns, four swivel guns, and seventy-five men, although only two men were needed to sail her. Schooners were popular in American and Caribbean waters, where they were used to transport flour, bread, livestock, and barrel staves to the West Indies, then they returned home laden with sugar, rum, molasses, and coffee. Early schooners were built in Bermuda or Jamaica, but in the late 1700s a new type of schooner emerged. Known as Baltimore Flyers and built in the shipyards of Fells Point in Maryland, they were popular among privateers. Thomas Kemp designed Chasseur, a topsail schooner launched in December 1812. At the time she carried ten long guns (all 12-pounders) and six other guns, as well as 150 men. These lightweight schooners possessed long masts angled aft to support the force of the wind in large sails. They rode low in the water, which meant that no matter the weather, conditions aboard were wet. While very fast, they had one drawback – unless handled by an experienced captain, they were prone to being driven under the waves or to capsize.

Originally found in northern European waters, the versatile brigantine or brig became popular in the West Indies and was the most widely built merchant ship in the American colonies. In 1704 she usually had two masts rigged with square sails, but could use fore-and-aft sails on her mainmast. She averaged eighty feet and 150 tons, was manned by 100 sailors, and carried ten guns. Pirates liked her because she was fast and made a good consort vessel to a larger pirate ship. Charles Vane’s first boat was a sloop he called Ranger. After capturing a brigantine in August 1718 that he appropriated for his use, he also called her Ranger.

Brigantine and Fluyt

The fluyt (also spelled flute) originated as a Dutch merchantman in the sixteenth century. She was economical to operate and carried a large cargo while only requiring a small number of men to sail her. She had three masts, a wide, boxlike hull, and a high, narrow stern. She was 100 feet long, weighed 600 tons, and carried fourteen small guns. While they were versatile vessels that could carry a large amount of armament, they performed poorly when chasing prey. Queen Anne’s Revenge was an example of a fluyt.

Since these vessels weren’t built to the pirates’ specifications, they had to adapt them to meet their needs. The pirates themselves didn’t leave any written records outlining these changes, although Basil Ringrose mentioned the following details in his book.
On Monday night our Captain, with 24 men, went from the ship into another creek, and there took several prisoners, among whom was a shipwright and his men, who were judged able to do us a good service in altering our ship . . . .

Wednesday, 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 . . . . (Ringrose, 420-421)
Captain Charles Johnson also provided three clues as to what these adaptations entailed in A General History of the Pyrates.
Clue 1
Captain England took a Ship called the Pearl . . . for which he exchanged his own sloop, fitted her up for the pyratical Account, and new christen’d her, the Royal James. (Defoe, 115)

Clue 2 (pertaining to Bartholomew Roberts’ last vessel)
The Pyrates kept the Onslow for their own Use, and gave Captain Gee the French ship, 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 forty Guns. (Defoe, 229)

Clue 3 (pertaining to George Lowther’s prize)
[They] 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)
From this information, historians surmise that the pirates took down bulkheads (internal walls) on lower decks to open up the space. (The one exception to this was the aft bulkhead separating the captain’s cabin from the rest of the ship.) They cut additional gun ports in the sides of the weather deck and, when possible, on a lower deck above the water line to accommodate more armament. Sometimes they altered the rigging (masts, sails, and yards) to increase speed. They got rid of the forecastle, pilot’s cabin, and much of a raised quarterdeck to create a single, flush deck that ran the length of ship. (see note 1) A letter from Bombay to the East India Company, dated 28 May 1695, discussed the effectiveness of such alterations. A squadron of their ships had attempted to capture Henry Every’s vessel.
[The  Fancy] 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. (Privateering, 111)
They also cut away decorated railings and anything else that would impede the use of their guns or impact her sailing abilities. Figureheads and any other identifying features were also removed. In the case of a canoe they installed sideboards to prevent water from swamping the boat when they sailed in open waters.

Before these alterations Sam Bellamy’s Whydah and Teach’s Queen Anne’s Revenge were slave ships. What made these vessels attractive to pirates?
1. Their speed. Since these ships carried human cargo, the faster they arrived at their destinations, the more slaves remained alive to sell.

2. Their size. They were large and could carry significant weight without rolling over. This permitted pirates to mount greater numbers of heavier armament.

3. Their galley. Slave ships had to feed a lot of people, so the area reserved for cooking was large and the pots used could accommodate food for at least 100 people.

Part 2
While evidence exists about the type of vessels pirates used and documentary tidbits provide clues about how they adapted their ships to meet their needs, one aspect is a rarity to find. What does the inside of a pirate ship look like

The simplest answer is: we don’t know. Historians and archaeologists have pieced together what is known from a variety of sources, but in the grand scheme of things this information is scant. The older a vessel is, the likelihood that she is an exact replica is minute. Rather she’s an approximation of what the original may have looked like had she survived or we possessed the original plans and specifications. Shipwrights of replicas base their designs on available documentation and what is known about the vessels of the period in general. David Macgregor writes in Merchant Sailing Ships 1815-1850: “Shipbuilders’s plans vary in their information and the compilation of a drawing based on such sources usually requires the combination of details taken from several plans. Some of the best detail available comes from contemporary models, and warship models must be employed to supplement that found on merchant ships. Prior to 1815 the differences between fittings [for] merchantmen and men-of-war grows less distinct as one goes backwards in time.”

Ship's cannonMost vessels had a main deck (also called a weather or spar deck) as their top deck. Below this was the living space and below that the cargo hold. (If a vessel was larger, it might have more decks.) While all pirates maintained guns on the main deck, schooners, sloops, and other small vessels only had this single deck for their armament. (see note 2) The round shot (cannonball) the gun fired determined the cannon’s size. On a pirate vessel, 4-pounders were typical and ten or twelve of them might be mounted on the deck. Two-pounders, used as chase guns, were attached to railings where the gunner could swivel them in a 180-degree arc.

Shipwrights didn’t leave written plans or records of ship interiors, but some items were located in the same place regardless of the type of vessel. For example, the captain’s cabin or “Great Cabin” was always located in the stern, but it might or might not be below the weather deck. That depended on whether the pirates disposed of elevated decks (such as the poop deck and the quarterdeck) or not. Use of this room was one perk of being a pirate captain, but it wasn’t necessarily his alone.

[T]hey separate to his Use the great Cabin, and sometimes vote him small Parcels of Plate and China . . . but then every Man, as the Humour takes him, will use the Plate and China, intrude into his Apartment, swear at him, seize a Part of his Victuals and Drink, if they like it, without his offering to find Fault or contest it. (Defoe, 213-214)

What set these quarters apart from others was that it usually had at least one window, usually on the stern, but sometimes on the quarters – the aft sides of the vessel – depending on her size. Sometimes there was a skylight, which could be opened.

Captain William Snelgrave, who was captured by pirates in April 1719, described one such space:

there was not in cabin either chair, or anything 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. (Sanders, 37)

Elizabeth II
Elizabeth II, Roanoke Island, 1585
Elizabeth II
Elizabeth II, Roanoke Island, 1585
Mayflower II
Mayflower II, Plymouth, 1620
                      Constellation 1854
USS Constellation, Baltimore, 1854
Benjamin F
                      Packard 1883
Benjamin F. Packard, Mystic Seaport, 1883
Benjamin F.
                      Packard 1883
Benjamin F. Packard, Mystic Seaport, 1883
Captain's Quarter Examples, 16th century - 19th century

While equality was paramount on a pirate ship in the eighteenth century, this wasn’t always the case in earlier periods of history. Don Francisco de Zarate spoke of this when giving testimony about Sir Francis Drake.

He is served on silver dishes with gold borders and gilded garlands, in which are his arms. He carries all possible dainties and perfumed waters. He said that many of these had been given him by the Queen. (Antony, 63)

Below deck, men of medium or tall height usually had trouble standing upright. They navigated the dim or dark interior stooped over, being careful not to knock their heads on the oak beams supporting the deck above. The height between floor and ceiling could be as little as four feet six inches. Aside from being dark, these areas of the vessel would be damp and mildewy. Hatchways provided access between decks, but the hatch might be kept closed even in moderate weather and/or seas.

The main living area for the crew was at the front of the vessel and was called the forecastle. On merchant ships this was where sailors lived, cooked, mended, stored weapons and clothing, relaxed, and slept. The only light came from tallow candles. A description of one vessel’s crew accommodations read, “small dark cave, without light or warmth . . . sometimes six or seven foot square, for six or seven men, stowed half full of rope and sails, damp and wet.” (Renner, 63) These quarters were crowded, filthy, and smelly; they could be sweltering in hot temperatures and freezing in cold ones. They lacked privacy and comfort.

                      Constant 1607
Susan Constant, Jamestown, 1607
Mayflower II
Mayflower II, Plymouth, 1620
Charles W
                      Morgan 1841
Charles W. Morgan, Mystic Seaport, 1841
                      Constellation 1854
USS Constellation, Baltimore, 1854
Crew Quarter Examples, 16th century - 19th century

Hammocks, if used, would be slung up at night, but taken down and stowed during the day. Since pirate crews often numbered 150 to 200 men, the forecastle was too small to accommodate everyone. For this reason, pirates tended to sleep wherever they found space. Captain Snelgrave also wrote about sleeping conditions on the pirate ship where he was held:

it seems every one lay rough, as they called it, that is, on the Deck; the Captain himself not being allowed a Bed. (Antony, 82)

The buccaneers of the seventeenth century often slept on the deck when in warmer temperatures. William Dampier wrote:

Especially when we are at an Anchor, the Deck is spread with Mats to lie on each Night. Every Man has one, some two; and this with a Pillow for the Head and a Rug for a Covering, is all the Bedding that is necessary . . . (Little, Buccaneer’s, 16-17)

Although the cabin Snelgrave described lacked furniture, it probably had some hardware, such as keyholes, knobs, hooks, and hinges. These would have been fashioned in whatever style was used during the period in which the vessel was built. Merchant ships of the eighteenth century often used pine planking for the china cupboard. Cut-outs or rails prevented the dishes from toppling from the shelves in high seas, while permitting the china to be displayed. Some shelves were scalloped. Some cupboards had enclosed sections with doors on the bottom half.

The ship’s galley was often located on a lower deck in or near the bow. A special platform was built for the stove, which was originally made of brick with one side glazed. Attached to the oven was a chimney, a metal tube extending from the oven upward through the main deck to allow heat and smoke to escape. In earlier centuries the galley was often portable, a wooden box lined with sand or clay. These were lit only in calm seas, otherwise waves rocking the ship could cause the coals to tumble out and start a fire. In addition to stored food, such as hard tack or ship’s biscuits, live animals were often found on board. These either stayed in wooden coops or freely roamed the deck.

                                  fireboxUSS Constellation
Galley stove, portable firebox, ship's hold

The hold was located amidships. Treasure was stored here, as were barrels, staves, cordage, sails, and other ship’s supplies. Ballast was under this and often consisted of iron, stones, or sand.

While these descriptions provide some idea of the interior of a pirate ship, they concern Western ships. What about the junks that sailed in Eastern waters? Unlike their Western counterparts, Asian pirates lived on these ships with their families. The poop deck was reserved for the use of the captain, his wife or wives, and their children. The rest of the pirates and their families lived in dormitory-like sections of the cargo hold or on an open deck. The galley was located on the after-deck. Those unfortunate to be kept captive aboard a pirate junk often slept in dark, stinky spaces eighteen inches wide and four feet long.

One aspect of shipboard life not discussed yet is the head, or in non-nautical jargon, “the toilet” facilities. The majority of pirates simply urinated over the leeward side of the ship. If they used the head – a small platform or plank of wood with holes cut into it – this was located forward of the forecastle and overlooking the water. At night or in stormy weather pirates might take advantage of “piss tubs” located in corridors or corners of the ship. The one problem with these buckets was their aroma.

Finally, stories often talk about lookouts in the crow’s nest. The only problem with this is that pirate ships, and most other vessels, didn’t have these features. No matter the time period, a ship usually had a lookout or lookouts posted on the deck at the bow and/or high above the main deck on a yard. The lookout for the Mayflower stood on a forward spar and held onto the mast. Galleons, and other ships, had bowls near the tops of masts that provided a place for the lookout. On a schooner, a pirate stood on the crosstrees of the fore- and/or mainmasts. Images of early ships often include what looks like a crow’s nest, but that term first came into use in the early nineteenth century aboard whaling ships.


1. A flush deck means the planks are on a single level. There is no raised quarterdeck or forecastle, or a lowered waist. A sailor can walk from bow to the stern without having to ascend or descend a ladder until he goes below deck. This is a general explanation of what constitutes a flush deck, although there are variations to it and the term doesn’t mean there aren’t raised segments, such as a “skylight” for a cabin, on the upper deck. Flush-decked vessels provide little protection from heavy seas washing over the ship. The privateers built in Baltimore during the War of 1812 are examples of boats with flush decks.

2. Only vessels with multiple decks, several of which would be above the water line of a ship, would be able to also have a separate gun deck below the main one. Some navy ships, such as a third rate ship of the line, had two while first and second rate ships of the line possessed three.

For additional information, I recommend the following resources:
Antony, Robert J. Pirates in the Age of Sail. W. W. Norton, 2007.

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, 2003.
Cordingly, David, and John Falconer. Pirates Fact & Fiction. Cross River Press, 1992.

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.

Fox, E. T. King of the Pirates: The Swashbuckling Life of Henry Every. The History Press, 2008.

Garwood, Val. The World of the Pirate. Peter Bedrick, 1997.

Konstam, Angus. Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate. John Wiley & Sons, 2006.
Konstam, Angus. The Pirate Ship 1660-1730. Osprey, 2003.

Little, Benerson. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630-1730. Potomac, 2005.

Macgregor, David R. Merchant Sailing Ships 1815-1850. Naval Institute Press, 1984.

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

Renner, Mary Anne. Eighteenth-century Merchant Ship Interiors (thesis). Texas A&M University, 1987.
Ringrose, Basil E. “The Dangerous Voyage and Bold Attempts of Captain Bartholomew Sharp” in The Buccaneers of America by John Esquemeling. Rio Grande Press, 1992.

Sanders, Richard. If a Pirate I Must Be . . .: The True Story of “Black Bart,” King of the Caribbean Pirates. Skyhorse, 2007.
Selinger, Gail. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates. Alpha, 2006.

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