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The Pirates’ Arsenal of Torture
By Cindy Vallar
In the stocksLike the first piratical attack, the first use of torture is unknown. Both, however, can be traced back to at least 2000 B.C.E., and once introduced, neither disappeared from history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word itself dates back to Middle English (1100-1500) and in its earliest connotations “referred to a physical disorder characterized by twisting.” Governments implemented torture to extract information or make examples of people who defied the law. Henry VIII of England instituted a law that said if you didn’t attend church, you would lose an ear. A person might be pilloried for any number of sins, as Anne Marrow was in 1777. Her crime was unusual – she married three women while posing as a male then got caught – and while being put in the stocks meant being publicly shamed, she suffered even greater pain. Those who punished her put out her eyes before releasing her.

Some forms of torture resulted in severe pain, others in death. George Choundas, author of The Pirate Primer, lists sixty-four ways to torture and punish a person, from using the “bilbo” to “walking the plank.” Imagine having boiling water (or some other liquid) poured into your ears, or your lips sewn together or sliced off entirely? Shivers and Hore, late seventeenth century pirates, preyed on merchant ships in the Red Sea, “took a Sail-needle and Twine and sewed [John Sawbridge’s] Lips together and so kept him several Hours with his Hands tied behind him.” (Zacks, 127)
One torment often associated with pirates was flogging. This was a common form of punishment in the navy. After just three strikes of the whip, one recipient felt:

. . . every nerve from the scalp of my head to my toenails. . . . I put my tongue between my teeth, held it there and bit it almost in two pieces. What with the blood from my tongue, and my lips which I had also bitten, the blood from my lungs or some other internal part ruptured by the writhing agony, I was almost choked and became black in the face. (Gibbs, 24)

Whether inflicted at sea or on land, flogging was a brutal form of punishment. Near the end of the War of 1812, two men received severe punishments from the lash.

The shrieks of the [first] youngster were dreadful, calling upon God and all the holy angels to save him. After the first dozen another boatswain’s mate took the cat; and, when he [the prisoner] had received two dozen, he fainted and hung by his wrists. The punishment was suspended for a few moments until he had revived sufficiently to stand on his feet. He then took four dozen more, making six in all; and, when taken down, he could not stand. The other received seven dozen. He fainted, however, before he had received the first [dozen] and received the greater portion of his punishment in that state. The flesh was fairly hanging in strips upon both backs; it was really a sickening sight. (Gibbs, 24)

Cat-o'-nine-tailsSince many suffered similar fates while following a legal trade, pirates didn’t often inflict the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip made from nine knotted lengths of rope fastened together by a handle, on their mates. There were a few exceptions, though, to this. The articles signed by those who sailed with John Phillips included one variation of flogging:

5. That Man that shall strike another whilst these Articles are in force, shall receive Moses’s Law (that is, 40 Stripes lacking one) on the bare Back. (Defoe, 342)

This punishment is said to be the number Christ received, but it actually appears in Deuteronomy 25:3: “but he must not give him more than forty lashes. If he is flogged more than that, your brother will be degraded in your eyes.”

Another variant of flogging was known as whipping and pickling. Christopher Condent inflicted this torture on an abusive merchant master. After flogging the man’s bare back, the pirates poured salt water or vinegar over his wounds.

Bartholomew Roberts slew a drunken crewmember who insulted him. Jones cursed Roberts for killing his mate. The captain stabbed Jones with a sword, but that only riled the pirate more. He “seized the Captain, threw him over a Gun, and beat him handsomely.” (Defoe, 224) The crew took sides, and to stem the ensuing battle, the Company decided to punish Jones to maintain Roberts’ dignity. Jones endured “two Lashes from every one of the Company” (more than 100 men) as soon as his wound healed. This form of whipping was similar to that of running the gauntlet on a naval vessel or being flogged around the fleet.

The cruelest form of torment for a pirate wasn’t dancing the hempen jig (hanging), but becoming “Governor of the Island” – a polite way to say marooned! According to Bartholomew Roberts’ articles, “…if [the pirates] defrauded the Company to the Value of a Dollar, in Plate, Jewels, or Money, Marooning was their Punishment.” (Defoe, 211) This was also a punishment for those who left the ship or their stations during battle. Abandoned on a deserted island or spit of land that couldn’t support life, the pirate took with him the clothes he wore, a bottle of water, a pistol, powder, and shot. The island became his prison. The hot sun burned and blistered his skin. Without food and water, he starved and became dehydrated. At high tide, the water might flood the island or leave him standing in water up to his neck. And then there were the sharks! If the marooned pirate wished to end his life quickly, he used the pistol. Of course, committing suicide might damn a believer’s soul forever.


When Henry Morgan and his men captured Gibraltar in 1669, a Portuguese man endured several forms of torture once he told them he only possessed 100 pieces of eight. The pirates did not believe him, so they stretched him on the rack until they broke both his arms. Still he didn’t change his story.

Morgan with prisoner

They tied him with small cords by his two thumbs and great-toes unto four stakes that were fixed in the ground at a convenient distance, the whole weight of his body being pendent in the air upon those cords. Then they thrashed upon the cords with great sticks and all their strength, so that the body of this miserable man was ready to perish at every stroke, under the severity of those horrible pains. Not satisfied as yet with this cruel torture, they took a stone which weighed above 200 pound, and laid it upon his belly, as if they intended to press him to death. At which time they also kindled palm-leaves, and applied the flame unto the face of this unfortunate Portuguese, burning with them the whole skin, beard, and hair. (Esquemeling, 155)

Even then, the man didn’t confess and endured additional beatings and insufficient nourishment. Eventually, he and the pirates agreed on a ransom of 1,000 pieces of eight, which he paid.

Whether the man survived long after is unknown, but Alexandre Exquemelin recounts several other means the pirates used to gain information, such as hanging victims by their privates until those parts were torn from their bodies. Others were crucified with lit matches placed between their fingers and toes. The pirates under Francis Sprigg, who served under George Lowther and Ned Low before becoming a captain himself, captured a merchant ship under the command of Master Hawkins. After torching his vessel, they invited Hawkins below to dine with them. Food wasn’t served. Instead, they forced him to eat “a dish of candles . . . and then, in order to aid digestion, the poor man was thrown about the cabin until he was covered with bruises . . . .” (Dow, 280)

In 1922 Rafael Sabatini introduced readers to Captain Blood. Among the pirates populating his tale was Captain Le Vasseur, who held a length of knotted cord and asked, “You know what this is? It is a rosary of pain . . . capable of screwing the eyes out of a man’s head.” This was an actual form of torture the pirates used, although they referred to it as “woolding.” It was the simplest device for inflicting pain, and rope was always readily available on a ship. The “rosary” was wrapped around the head. A stick or other long, thin object was inserted at the back of the head inside the “rosary,” then the pirate twisted the cord to tighten it. If the victim opted to keep silent, his eyes eventually “burst out the skull.” There were times the pirates used this form of torture in combination with another. In February 1719, Walter Kennedy and his pirates wanted the chief mate of a vessel to reveal where the merchantman’s cash was hidden. This victim later told Admiralty officials the pirates “put a rope about his neck and drew him up under the main top and kept him hanging there about a minute and let him down again and then put a rope around his head and tied it across his ears and twisted it until he was almost blind and insensible.” (Sanders, 55)

Other forms of torture included strappado and sweating. A person who endured the former had his hands tied behind his back. Another rope bound his wrists then was slung over a yard or tree branch. The pirates lifted him off his feet before letting him freefall, but just before his feet touched the ground or deck, they jerked the rope to stop him. As a result, the man often suffered dislocated shoulders that made it so difficult to breathe he slowly suffocated. Sweating, on the other hand, was sometimes endured by captured captains who had misused their men. “Between decks they stick Candles round the Mizen-Mast, and about twenty-five men surround it with Points of Swords, Penknives, Compasses, Forks &c in each of their hands: Culprit enters the Circle; the Violin plays a merry Jig; and he must run for about ten Minutes, while each man runs his Instrument into his Posteriors.” (Redicker, 87)


Betagh, a member of George Shelvocke’s crew, wrote in his 1728 account that once they captured a Portuguese ship, the captain readily revealed where his gold was stashed, rather than endure “that piece of discipline used by the merry blades in the West-Indies, call’d ‘Blooding and Sweating’; which is done by making the captain, on declining to discover his money, to run the gauntlet naked thro the pyrate’s crew; each of them furnished with a sail-needle, pricking him in the buttocks, back and shoulders. And thus bleeding, they put him into a sugar cask swarming with cockroaches, cover him with a blanket, and there leave him to glut the vermin with his blood.” (Shelvocke, 19)

Lest you think only Caribbean pirates tortured their victims, examine those who hunted in the Pacific. Anyone who resisted the brigands sailing the South China Sea was stripped and had his hands tied behind him. Then he was hoisted from the deck by his hands and beaten with rattan rods. Sometimes he dangled there for almost an hour. To make certain someone paid a captive’s ransom, the pirates sliced off the victim’s finger or ear and included it with their demand for payment. If they failed to get what they wanted – money, food, opium, weapons, or naval supplies – a Chinese scholar revealed their victim’s fate in a poem entitled “Song of Ransom.”

The chief, his head wrapped in a red kerchief,
Interrogates both rich and poor, who beg for their lives;
The ransom for each is set at ten thousand or more in gold.
With a great shout, he orders paper and brush for carefully penned notes,
Demanding a hundred items to be delivered within ten days,
And should the deadline be missed, the hostages will be disemboweled.
(Antony, 125)

The severest forms of torture, however, were reserved for naval personnel. The pirates nailed seamen’s feet to the ship’s deck and beat these men until they threw up blood. At this point, they were left until the pirates decided it was time to hack them to pieces. In 1845 a handbill appeared in Liverpool asking for donations because “I am a poor young man who have had the misfortune of having my tongue cut out of my mouth . . . by the Malay Pirates, on the Coast of Malacca. There were Fourteen of our Crew taken . . . some of whom had their eyes put out, some their legs cut off . . . .” (Pirates, 204)

Some pirates, especially during the seventeenth century, raised torture to an art form. Montbars, a Frenchman from Languedoc, earned the nickname “The Exterminator.” He liked to slit open a victim’s belly just enough to reach in and pull out one end of the man’s bowel. This he nailed to a tree or wall, whatever was close at hand, then he beat the man with a burning log so he unwound his own bowel. Needless to say, this form of torture often ended with the victim’s death.

L'Olonnais feeds heart to

L’Olonnais’s hatred for Spaniards manifested itself time and time again during his brief, but successful, career as a buccaneer in the 1660s. His brutality earned him the nickname Fléau des Espagnols, or Flail of the Spaniards. In his attempt to raid San Pedro, he captured several soldiers. When they refused to tell him what he wanted to know, he “ripped open one of the prisoners with his cutlass, tore the living heart out of his body, gnawed at it, and then hurled it in the face of one of the others, saying, ‘Show me another way, or I will do the same to you.’”(Exquemelin, 107) L’Olonnais was particularly enamored with woolding, although he used whatever means were necessary to extract information. He often cut prisoners until they died, starting with a slice of flesh and progressing to a hand, then an arm, and finally a leg. In the end, however, he suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Indians of Darien. They “hacked [him] to pieces and roasted [him] limb by limb.” (Exquemelin, 117)


Like those who remained on the right side of the law, pirates implemented various forms of torture to extract information. The more immediate their need, the more extreme the manner in which they inflicted pain. Oftentimes, pirates tormented captives to elicit the hiding places of their treasure. Sometimes, though, these brigands tortured people for the sheer fun of watching their victims suffer. Another reason for its use, especially during the 1600s when Buccaneers hunted prey, was torturing their victims to exact revenge. Whatever the reason for inflicting such torment, the pirates achieved not only the plunder, but when word got back to other vessels, sailors were more apt to surrender without a fight.



For additional information, I recommend these resources:

Antony, Robert J. Pirates in the Age of Sail. W. W. Norton, 2007.

Beal, Clifford. Quelch’s Gold: Piracy, Greed, and Betrayal in Colonial New England. Praeger, 2007.

Choundas, George. The Pirate Primer. Writer’s Digest, 2007.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. Random House, 1995.

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Dover, 1999.
Dow, George Francis, and John Henry Edmonds. The Pirates of the New England Coast 1630-1730. Dover, 1996.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. St. Martin’s, 2003.
Esquemeling, John. The Buccaneers of America. Rio Grande Press, 1992.
Exquemelin, Alexander O. The Buccaneers of America translated by Alexis Brown. Dover, 1969.

Gibbs, Joseph. Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Lives and Legends of the Pirate Charles Gibbs. University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

Kellaway, Jean. The History of Torture and Execution. Lyons Press, 2003.

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

Murray, Dian H. Pirates of the South China Coast 1790-1810. Stanford University, 1987.

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. Oxford University, 2002.

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

Redicker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Beacon Press, 2004.
Rogozinski, Jan. Pirates! Brigands, Buccaneers, and Privateers in Fact, Fiction, and Legend. Facts on File, 1995.

Sabatini, Rafael. Captain Blood. Bantam, 1976.
Sanders, Richard. If a Pirate I Must Be . . . . Skyhorse Publishing, 2007.
Shelvocke, George. A Privateer’s Voyage Round the World. Seaforth, 2010.
Swain, John. The Pleasures of the Torture Chamber. Dorset, 1995.

Vallar, Cindy. “A Most Unwelcomed Death,” Pirates and Privateers, 1 June 2001.
Vallar, Cindy. “Punishing Their Own and Hunting Prey,” Pirates and Privateers, 1 May 2003.

Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd. Hyperion, 2002.

Copyright © 2010 Cindy Vallar

(The original version of this article appeared in the August 2007 issue of Pyrates Way under the title "Discipline at Sea.")
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