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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Pirate Tactics
By Cindy Vallar

Contrary to popular opinion, pirates rarely just spied a ship and attacked it.  They gathered intelligence about their target and the people who guarded it and considered “what if” scenarios.  Planning, however, only worked if the details were kept secret, so only those with a need to know participated in this stage of the project.

Before any attack could be planned, pirates needed to acquire information about possible targets.  The more knowledge gathered, the better their chance of success.  Where did they acquire information about potential targets?  Taverns and coffeehouses were ideal places to learn about incoming and outgoing ships.  Who commanded a vessel?  How many men were aboard?  What cargo did she carry?

In A New Voyage Round the World, published in 1697, William Dampier described what type of information his fellow buccaneers sought when planning a raid on a Spanish town.William Dampier

“For the privateers…make it their business to examine all prisoners that fall into their hands, concerning the country, town, or city that they belong to; whether born there, or how long they have known it?  How many families, whether most Spaniards?  Or whether the major part are not copper-colour’d, as Mulattoes, Mustesoes, or Indians?  Whether rich, and what their riches do consist in?  And what their chiefest manufactures?  If fortified, how many great guns, and what number of small arms?  Whether it is possible to come undescrib’d on them?  How many look-outs or centinels; for such the Spaniards always keep?  And how the look-outs are placed?  Whether possible to avoid the best landing; with innumerable other such questions, which their curiosities led them to demand.  And if they have had any former discourse of such places from other prisoners, they compare one with the other; then examine again, and enquire if he or any of them are capable to be guides to conduct a party of men thither: if not, where and how any prisoner may be taken that may do it; and from thence they afterwards lay their schemes to prosecute whatever design they take in hand.” (Little, 80)
George LowtherPirates always interrogated sailors and passengers on seized vessels.  The threat of torture was often enough to make them talk, but when necessary, pirates tortured their prisoners.  It was necessary, however, to confirm the information whenever possible, for victims would lie in hopes of saving their lives.  Torture also revealed hidden booty aboard the prize.  On 14 September 1723, the Princess had almost reached Barbados when George Lowther attacked.  Successful in the capture, he and his men put lit fuses between the fingers of the surgeon and second mate until the two men revealed the hiding place of fifty-four ounces of gold.

Yet prisoners and places frequented by sailors weren’t the only sources of information pirates used in gathering intelligence.  Merchants, smugglers, native peoples, cimarrones (escaped slaves), and others who lived on the fringes of society or were friendly to pirates also supplied vital information.  Whenever possible pirates compared new revelations with what they already knew or had heard to verify the truth of the intelligence.

How did pirates locate potential targets?  Sometimes they sailed near established trade routes and attacked whatever ships crossed their path.  Other times they hid in coves or straits, where they waited to ambush unsuspecting prey.  In these cases, pirates relied on their acquired knowledge of where ships passed at given seasons of the year rather than gathering more detailed information on possible targets.  Pirates preferred hunting in coastal waters rather than the open sea because “[a] ship crossing from England to the New York colony might sight many sail during the voyage, or none at all.” (Little, 77)  At some point, all vessels navigated coastal waters, so while the risk increased when pirates cruised close to shore, this area also provided the greatest potential for locating prizes.

Prisoner forced to drink to
Prisoner forced to drink excessively

The more familiar with the region pirates were, the better their chances of finding prey.  Accurate nautical charts and knowledge of hazardous waters were essential for any captain and/or navigator.  If the wait took too long, they might need to replenish food and water, so knowledge of where to find these supplies was important.  Pirates also seized waggoners, charts, logs, and other ship’s papers, which might reveal the departure/arrival of treasure ships or vessels carrying prized cargo.  Although sometimes incorrect, charts and atlases provided pertinent details for navigating coastal waters and locations where the vessels could hide, careen, or resupply.

Other times, pirates targeted a specific ship, although this was often the more dangerous way to gain riches.  They had to acquire information about the ship, her cargo, and her approximate arrival or departure time.  No amount of intelligence gathering guaranteed success, for unlike today, ships didn’t arrive or depart on schedule.  In this scenario, pirates also had to consider “[v]ariables such as wind, weather, quantities of provisions, wood, or water, and simple timing” because each could impact the mission’s success or failure. (Little, 76)  If an attack succeeded, however, one prize could make a pirate rich beyond his dreams.

In 1579, Francis Drake learned from a captured Spanish officer that three treasure ships were expected – one bound for Panama and two for Callao.  Drake ordered a captured Portuguese pilot to sail the Golden Hind to Callao.  Upon entering Lima’s port city, almost half of Drake’s seventy crewmembers boarded smaller vessels to sail close to the anchored Spanish ships and cut their cables.  Drake hoped to seize the ships after the wind carried them out to sea, but the wind died and the enemy ships failed to move anywhere.  As a result, he sailed toward Panama to intercept the great galleon laden with silver.

Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake

The Nuestra Señora de la Concepción was sighted on 1 March.  Rather than follow it, Drake pretended to do the opposite.  He also hung cables and mattresses over the side of the Golden Hind to slow the vessel.  When the two ships came within shouting distance, one of Drake’s prisoners warned the captain of Concepción, so Drake ordered marksmen to fire a volley and for bow chasers to fire chain shot, which brought down the mizzen mast.  After Drake’s gunners fired shot from a larger gun, the Spaniards surrendered while English archers boarded the galleon.  Concepción carried “a great quantity of plate, 80 lb of gold, and 26 tons of uncoined silver[,]” according to a contemporary report, and it took five trips and six days to transfer the booty to the Golden Hind. (Cordingly, 30)  Today, the treasure would be worth around £14 million ($26 million), and was sufficient not only to make rich men of all aboard but also allowed Queen Elizabeth to pay off her foreign debt.

Henry Morgan sacking Puerto
                PrincipePirates, however, didn’t always attack ships, especially the buccaneers of the seventeenth century.  When they raided land targets, they had to determine which weapons and supplies were essential to achieve their goal.  Sometimes the best way to secure information for this type of operation was to spy out the terrain.  A year before Drake raided Nombre de Dios, a port city on the Isthmus of Panama in 1572, he donned the disguise of a Spanish merchant and visited the town where “…he inspected the harbor and noted the location of the King’s treasure-house.  He had found a sheltered cove nearby which would provide a safe anchorage…. He also made contact with some of the escaped black slaves called Cimaroons who lived in the surrounding jungle and were always ready to revenge themselves on the hated Spanish.” (Cordingly, 26-27)

Once the intelligence was gathered and a plan formulated, pirates set out on their venture.  Their leader, the captain, was someone willing to step into the fray rather than wait on the sidelines while his men did battle.  His courage and daring were essential, but so were his ability to be flexible and his willingness to adapt his plans to fit the altered situation.  Pirates might plan for every possible contingency, but fate often delivered something unexpected.

When Drake and his band of seventy-three men attacked Nombre de Dios, their first goal was to put the shore battery of six guns out of commission.  Having achieved this, they divided; Drake attacked from the east while his brother created a diversion to the west.  “Drake…marched into the town with beating drums and the sounding of trumpets.  There was panic from the inhabitants, who imagined they were being attacked by a huge force.” (Cordingly, 27)  Then the unexpected occurred.  Spanish soldiers wounded Drake in the thigh, and a thunderstorm soaked the pirates’ powder and matches, making their weapons useless.  The men wanted to give up, but Drake convinced them otherwise.  Ignoring the pain, he led them to the treasure house, but once inside, they found it empty.  The treasure fleet had sailed six weeks earlier; another shipment wouldn’t arrive for months.

Whether the attack occurred on land or at sea, surprise was essential.  On land, fewer citizens had a chance to hide their valuables or escape with them.  At sea, fewer pirates died and the prize sustained less damage.  Speed and mobility were also important to the success of attacks.  This was why pirates favored fast ships that were easy to maneuver and had shallow drafts.

Possible Target: Spanish GalleonOnce the lookout sighted a potential target, the pirates did not immediately attack.  They stalked the prey to identify the type of ship, whether she rode low or high in the water (full cargo vs. empty hold), and to determine the prey’s possible firepower.  This intelligence gathering took several hours to several days.  “To discern the details of armament and crew of an unknown vessel by naked sight alone – whether, for example, the crew were many or few, and how many ports or cannon the vessel might have – it had to be no more than a few hundred yards away, and even then many details were obscure.  And because most nations had other nations’ vessels in their naval and merchant fleets…it was not possible to determine nationality solely from design or general characteristics.” (Little, 109)

During the chase, the pirate captain watched how the prey sailed.  What sails did she carry?  Where was she headed?  Did her captain alter course once he sighted the unidentified ship (i.e. the pirate ship)?  The longer the prey remained on its present heading, the better.

Sometimes, pirates used the ruse de guerre to trick victims into allowing the pirate ship to come so close to the prey that she could not successfully defend herself once the pirates revealed their true colors.  They hoisted the same nation’s flag, or that of an ally, as the prey.  Le Sieur du Chastelet des Boys, a traveler aboard a Dutch ship in the 1600s, found himself in the midst of an attack by Barbary corsairs.  When he sighted six Dutch ships coming to the rescue, his relief was immeasurable until “the Dutch flags disappeared and the masts and poop were simultaneously shaded by flags of taffeta of all colors, enriched and embroidered with stars, crescents, suns, crossed swords and other devices.” (Pirates, 87)

The ruse de guerre wasn’t always successful.  “False colors were so prevalent and so often misused that identification according to colors was dubious at best.” (Little, 117)  For example, Captain John Cornelius tried to convince an English slaver that his ship, Morning Star, was a pirate hunter.  “About Ten Cornelius came up with them, and being haled, answered, he was a Man of War, in Search of Pyrates, and bid them send their Boat on board; but they refusing to trust him, tho’ he had English Colours and Pendant aboard, the Pyrate fired a Broadside, and they began a running Fight of about 10 Hours, in which Time the negroes discharged their Arms so smartly, that Cornelius never durst attempt to board.” (Defoe, 600)

If, however, pirates utilized the ruse de guerre in combination with other deceptions, their chance of success improved.  To lure the intended target within range, they might alter their sails or camouflage the gunports.  While most pirates hid belowdeck or out of sight behind the gunwale, a few pirates donned female attire and strolled the deck.  When pirates sailed with two ships, they sometimes disguised one to appear as if it was a legitimate ship that had taken the second vessel as a prize.  “[T]o attack two Spanish vessels, filibusters and buccaneers flew a Spanish flag from a recently captured Spanish ship, and from their boats as well.  But they also flew English and French colors from the boats, giving a distinct impression that the Spanish ship had captured the French and English.  The ruse succeeded.  Of the two vessels that approached, one was sunk with grenades, and the other was captured.” (Little, 118)

BlackbeardOnce pirates revealed their true intentions, they often fired a shot across their prey’s bow as a warning to strike her colors and surrender.  If the prey refused, the pirates attacked.  To capture the vessel and her cargo while inflicting the least amount of damage as possible, their gunners peppered the sails rather than raking the prey with broadsides.  Aloft, marksmen used muskets to clear the deck.  Officers and helmsmen were favorite targets.  “It helped even the odds against a stout enemy, and overwhelmed a weaker one…. Twenty men with muskets might do more damage to the prey’s crew than a single six-pound round shot…” (Little, p. 57) Grenadoes also cleared the deck and wreaked havoc.  The smoke from these, as well as the guns, acted as camouflage to disguise the boarding.  Fifteen grenadoeswere found in the excavation of Samuel Bellamy’s Whydah.  Before Blackbeard and his crew boarded Lieutenant Maynard’s sloop, they “threw in several new fashion’d Sort of Grenadoes, viz. Case Bottles fill’d with Powder, and small Shot, Slugs, and Pieces of Lead or Iron, with a quick Match in the Mouth of it, which being lighted without Side, presently runs into the Bottle to the Powder, and as it is instantly thrown on board, generally does great Execution, besides putting all the Crew into a Confusion; but by good Providence, they had not that Effect here; the Men being in the Hold.  Black-beard seeing few or no Hands aboard, told his Men, that they were all knock’d on the Head, except three or four; and therefore, says he, let’s jump on board, and cut them to Pieces.  Whereupon, under the Smoak of one of the Bottles just mentioned, Black-beard enters with fourteen Men, over the Bows of Maynard’s Sloop…” (Defoe, 81)

Cutlass Pistol
                        and axe

Once pirates boarded their prey, they used a variety of weapons to subdue the enemy.  They also used their weapons in multiple ways.  Once a pistol was fired, a pirate used the butt as a hammer.  The hilt and pommel of the cutlass could inflict similar damage.  Axes, used to cut away boarding nets raised to prevent pirates from boarding or to hack through closed doors or hatches, could split or crush a person’s skull.  After buccaneers attacked two Spanish ships near Panama in 1680, Basil Ringrose, a buccaneer who kept a journal, wrote, “…such a miserable sight I never saw in my life, for not one man there was found but was either killed, desperately wounded, or horribly burnt with powder, insomuch that their black skins were turned white in several places, the powder having torn it from their flesh and bones….  Their blood ran down the decks in whole streams, scarce one place in the ship was found that was free from the blood.” (Cordingly, 114)

Blackbeard’s last stand against the Royal Navy was equally brutal.  “Black-beard and the Lieutenant fired the first Shots at each other, by which the Pyrate received a Wound, and then engaged with Swords, till the Lieutenant’s unluckily broke, and [Maynard] stepping back to cock a Pistol, Black-beard, with his Cutlash, was striking at that Instant, that one of Maynard’s Men gave him a terrible Wound in the Neck and Throat, by which the Lieutenant came off with only a small Cut over his Fingers.  They were now closely and warmly engaged, the Lieutenant and twelve Men against Black-beard and fourteen, till the Sea was tinctur’d with Blood round the Vessel; Black-beard received a Shot into his Body from the Pistol that Lieutenant Maynard discharg’d, yet he stood his Ground, and fought with great Fury, till he received five and twenty Wounds, and five of them by Shot.  At length, as he was cocking another Pistol, having fired several before, he fell down dead; by which Time eight more out of the fourteen dropp’d, and all the rest, much wounded, jumped over-board, and call’d out for Quarters, which was granted, tho’ it was only prolonging their Lives a few days.” (Defoe, 81-82)

Fight between Blackbeard and Lt.

These tactics weren’t used only in Caribbean waters.  The Barbary corsairs employed them in the Mediterranean.  They “would fly a foreign flag in order to ‘lure the unsuspecting victim within striking distance.’  Then gunners perched on the rigging would ‘ply the shot with unabated rapidity,’ raking the victim’s deck.  Meanwhile ‘the fighting men stand ready, their arms bared, muskets primed, and scimitars flashing, waiting for the order to board.’”  On the reis’s (captain’s) cue, the corsairs swarmed the prize. “‘[T]heir war-cry was appalling; and the fury of the onslaught was such as to strike panic into the stoutest heart.’  After overcoming the crew, the pirates chained survivors, who would become hostages for ransom or slaves for sale, manned the captured ship, and proceeded to their home port.” (Lambert, 39)

Bartholomew Roberts off the
                  African coast with pirate fleet and 11 captured

Planning, intelligence gathering, daring, quick-thinking, speed, mobility, and the ability to adapt played roles in whether an endeavor succeeded or failed.  Perhaps this was why Bartholomew Roberts became one of the most successful pirates to sail the seas.  Once, he and his men stumbled upon a fleet of forty-two Portuguese ships, bound for Lisbon, off the Bay of los todos Santos.  Although outnumbered and outmanned, Roberts sailed the Rover into the Portuguese convoy and “…mix’d with the Fleet, and kept his Men hid till proper Resolutions could be form’d, that done, they came close up to one of the deepest, and order’d her to send the Master on board quietly, threat’ning to give them no Quarters, if any Resistance, or Signal of Distress was made.  The Portuguese being surprised at these Threats, and the sudden Flourish of Cutlashes from the Pyrates, submitted without a Word, and the Captain came on board; Roberts saluted him after a friendly Manner, telling him…that their Business with him, was only to be informed which was the richest Ship in that Fleet; and if he directed them right, he should be restored to his Ship without Molestation, otherwise, he must expect immediate Death.  Whereupon this Portuguese Master pointed to one of 40 Guns, and 150 Men, a Ship of greater Force than the Rover, but this no Ways dismayed them…so immediately steered away for him.  When they came within Hail, the Master whom they had Prisoner, was ordered to ask, how Seignior Captain did? and to invite him on board…But by the Bustle that immediately followed, the Pyrates perceived they were discovered…so without further Delay, they poured in a Broadside, boarded and grappled her; the Dispute was short and warm, wherein many of the Portuguese fell, and two only of the Pyrates.” (Defoe, 204-205)  Within the hold and cabins of the vessel, Roberts and his men discovered sugar, skins, tobacco, 90,000 gold Moidores, and jewelry, including “a Cross set with Diamonds, designed for the King of Portugal.” (Defoe, 205)

For more information, I recommend these books:

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.

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover Publications, 1999. (**other editions of this title list the author as Captain Johnson)

Esquemeling, John. [Alexandre Exquemelin] The Buccaneers of America. The Rio Grande Press, 1992.

Konstam, Angus. Buccaneers 1620-1700. Osprey, 2000.
Konstam, Angus. Elizabethan Sea Dogs. Osprey, 2000.
Konstam, Angus. Pirates 1660-1730. Osprey, 1998.

Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. Hill and Wang, 2005.
Little, Benerson. The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630-1730. Potomac Books, 2005.

Pirates: Terror on the High Seas—From the Caribbean to the South China Sea. Turner Publishing, 1996.


Copyright © 2006 Cindy Vallar

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