Let’s say, a ship is attacked by pirates, and they either subdue the people the ship in battle or, as sometimes happens injured crew, is not interested in dying to preserve someone else’s stuff. What should the people onboard expect comes next?
The Reputation of Pirates
Cotton Mather called pirates “Sea monsters who have been the terror of them that haunt the sea,” and indeed pirates did employ terrorist tactics, but even so, there were some loosen general boundaries. Sometimes the people on the ship were actually the main booty: murder then became unlikely, although so did an easy release.
This is true of both the European, and Ottoman, or North African Mediterranean corsairs. It was also usually the case when pirates encountered a slaving vessel; pirates sold captive Africans without compunctions, often driving down prices when they did so.
The worst-case scenario for most merchant men though, would be that the pirate ship is flying the red flag, metaphorically, or literally, and that, moreover the pirates really mean it this time, everyone on board the ship is going to be killed, and the ship is spoiled, and maybe burned to the waterline too. But this terrible outcome was at least uncommon enough, that when it did happen, it raised eyebrows.
Pirates through the History
Most pirates weren’t complete sociopaths—the occupation was too invested in profit, for too much decadent destruction and, more importantly, it required too much teamwork for chaotic evil to be practical. Sailing through a storm with a pack of supervillains would be a recipe for drowning in the cold saltwater.
Some pirates, like the notorious Golden Age Edward Lowe, may have been actually deranged. His one-time captive, Philip Ashton, called him and his crew “Devils Incarnate.” But even the story of his excesses demonstrates that they were aberrant among pirates. Captain Spriggs left Low’s company and took his ship, according to a crew member of Spriggs, the seaman Richard Hawkins, because Low allowed one of his crew to murder a prisoner “in cold blood” and refused to punish him, although the ship’s articles clearly required a hanging for a murder.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Strategies Used by Pirates
So, while pirates were nasty men, and often kidnappers as well, clearly to be dreaded, sailors often made the calculation that surrender was safer, than an all-out resistance that might fail. Not all pirate attacks, not even most, meant that all was lost, most of the time, pirates would try to avoid a pitched battle, what they wanted was a speedy surrender. Sometimes pirates also used terror, reputations for brutality, threats of total annihilation in the hopes that their prey would quietly surrender and not require too much additional bloodshed.
Pirates were willing to use beating and torture to find valuables on the ship. But the target of such treatment was more likely to be the captain, officers, and perhaps any passengers than the common sailors, who in most cases weren’t paid enough to have a lot of concealed treasure lying around their pocket money of course, was probably lost cause.
Plank walking was extremely unlikely but, beating, cutting, various forms of hand and foot tortures, threats, psychological torture, and imprisonment were all very much on the table. Included among these, was the nautical practice of woolding, which is extremely unpleasant technique of twisting a knotted rope encircling the victim’s head or neck and slowly tightening it. The name comes from the practice of wrapping rope or chain around a damaged mast to strengthen it. A human head is not much like a mast unfortunately, as some historians have argued though, pirates were not necessarily more violent than legal forces of war like marines, soldiers, or the navy.
Pirates towards the Women
Pirates were also often willing to use violence against the rare woman who fell into their power, although again, not always. According to Charles Johnson, Captain John Phillips sailed under articles that included, “If at any time you meet with a prudent woman, that man that offers to meddle with her without her consent shall suffer present death.” But what is a prudent woman? The word prudent here has the sense of circumspect. It’s a judgment as to the woman’s status and background as well, to some extent of her appearance presumably.
Here’s an example of what would probably count as a prudent woman, sailing in the Dutchess in 1709, the privateer woods Rogers noted that, “Amongst our prisoners there was a gentle woman and her family, her eldest daughter, a pretty young woman of about 18, was newly married and had her husband with her. We assign them the great cabin aboard the galleon, and none were suffered to intrude amongst them or to separate their company. Yet the husband, I was told, showed evident marks of jealousy, the Spaniards epidemic disease, but I hope he had not the least reason for it amongst us.” Rogers example of how he treated these gentlewomen is not unique. Genteel women, those of the middling and higher classes, if attacked by pirates, would have a reasonable expectation of decent treatment.
Pirates and Working Class Women
Working class women, and women who are not white Europeans had no such likelihood of safety, however. In this instance, Rogers suspected his lady prisoners of hiding jewelry and sent another prisoner, a Black woman, to search them.
The pirates were pleased with the gold chains that the gentlewomen were subsequently forced to deliver up. They were so pleased, in fact, that as Rogers wrote, they awarded their prisoners “three female mulatto slaves” in return for their gold. The further treatment or even the names of these four enslaved women whom Rogers clearly regarded as in an entirely different category to the wealthier white ladies were nowhere recorded.
Common Questions about What do Pirates Look for When they Attack?
When the pirate ship is flying the red flag, metaphorically, or literally, the pirates really mean it this time everyone on board the ship is going to be killed, and the ship is spoiled, and maybe burned to the waterline too.
Woolding was the nautical practice, which is extremely unpleasant technique of twisting a knotted rope encircling the victim’s head or neck and slowly tightening it. The name comes from the practice of wrapping rope or chain around a damaged mast to strengthen it.
The word prudent, according to the pirates, has the sense of circumspect. It’s a judgment as to the woman’s status and background as well, to some extent of her appearance presumably.