The Golden Age of Piracy (1650–1720) has inspired the national “Talk Like a Pirate Day” for several decades.
There is a lot more to piracy than pirate slang. For couldn’t pirates also sing, read and write? Love? Draw? How did they handle gender and racial equality? Weren’t they fair-minded individuals seeking fair and legal justice?
A pirate’s life went far beyond waving cutlasses, yelling and plundering. Pirates were not the scum of the ports or the flotsam of the sea. Many were average seamen who had tired of the backbreaking work for little pay, the abuse they suffered in the merchant fleets and the navies, and the lack of having any recourse to address wrongs. They wanted a comfortable life, money to spend, rum to drink, and the prospect of eventually becoming planters or merchants in their own right. For a taste of the pirate’s life (and the price they may pay for freedom) download a free eBook.
They owed their fearsome reputation to some cowardly captains who had feigned their own supposed valor by besmirching the behavior of the buccaneer, giving that as a reason for surrender. Please note that not all captains were alike; some surrendered to save their crews’ lives.
And if you, while reading this article, find yourself sympathetic towards these outlaws in pursuit of freedom, you are just discovering what lies within every single human being—a freedom fighter.
The question is, however, how far you should go in pursuit of that freedom. Lest you forget, pirates were criminals by definition. They broke the law and most of them ended their lives in battle or on the gallows. Theft, murder, mayhem, extortion, bribery, and kidnapping did not pay off then and it does not pay off today.
Pirate Gender Equality
Not allowing women among the pirates, even making it a capital offense to harbor a woman aboard, did not bode well for gender equality. Women were considered bad luck and a possible cause for arguments among the men which would prevent the unity of teamwork, an essential element on a wooden ship where everyone had to work together to survive. It was not so much disrespect for women as it was adherence to a code of conduct that would secure the highest survival potential.
However, there were exceptions. Several notorious female pirates dressed as men and fought on the same terms on the pirate ships: Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Grace O’Malley, and Rachel Wall. No women held officer ranks among pirate crews except for Grace O’Malley who held hers because of her rank within society as well as being the owner of her vessels.
An early sketch of the fearless Anne Bonny and Mary Read
Pirate Racial Equality
The Golden Age of Piracy could well have been one of the earliest places in the New World where blacks were, in some cases, equal with whites with a type of democracy and racial equality that was ahead of its time. Pirates were also known to sell slaves when given the opportunity.
It is estimated that 25–30% of pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy were former plantation slaves. Pirate ships needed hard-working, tough crews aboard their ships and turned to black slaves to recruit on equal terms with their white brethren. These were either black slaves on merchant ships who demonstrated skills the pirates could use (they were otherwise sold as originally intended) or they were runaway slaves known as maroons. Both the white pirates and black slaves sought survival as free men and their common purpose defused any racial differences. This included the right for black pirates to vote, the right to bear weapons, the equal division of the booty, and equal rights to fair and legal justice as per the Pirate Code.
However, on the mainland, justice for black and white pirates was not the same. While white pirates were usually hanged, black pirates were often returned to their former owners or sold into slavery.
A famous black pirate, “Black Caesar,” was a former African Chieftain who had escaped from a slave ship and raided ships in the Florida Keys.
The Pirate’s Code
Each ship had its set of laws but they generally covered the same ground: rules of discipline, how to divide stolen treasures, injury compensation, and the administration of justice.
Each pirate to have a voice in the affairs of the moment.
Every man to be called fairly by name and list in the doling out of prize shares. Every man allowed a suit of clothes from the prize. Marooning was the penalty for holding out so much as a dollar from the general fund.
No person to game at cards or dice for money.
Lights to be put out at eight o’clock at night.
Pirates to keep their cutlass, piece and pistols clean and fit for service.
No women to be allowed among them. And if any were captured, any man approaching her was to be executed.
To desert ship in battle was punished by death.
No quarreling of any kind aboard ship. Differences to be settled on the beach, properly supervised by quartermaster or captain. If combatants miss with pistols, they are to take cutlasses. Winner is the one who draws first blood.
If any man shall lose a limb or become crippled, he shall be compensated to the extent of eight hundred dollars out of the public stocks. Lesser injuries in proportion.
Justice was administered by a quartermaster who was backed by the entire crew serving as a jury. The only time 12 pirates were selected to serve as the jury was when the pirates entertained themselves by staging a mock trial. When judging one of their own, the entire crew voted.
There were several types of artists and artisans aboard a pirate ship:
Carpenters: The ship’s carpenter was a highly skilled artisan who would maintain all the wood aboard and keep the ship from sinking when there were leaks, holes or rotting wood in the hull or anywhere on the ship. He was skilled with his tools, could make anything from a mast to a deck to a new body part for a ship’s figurehead. The carpenter was also used as the ship’s surgeon if there was none aboard because of his ability to cut and saw. Say no more.
Coopers: This is a man skilled in the extremely important task of making and maintaining barrels that would store food, hold water and spirits, and keep gunpowder dry. Empty barrels were dismantled to make space and the cooper would reassemble them as needed if more supplies or food came on board.
Musicians: They did whatever was needed to help the crew keep time during tasks like swabbing the decks, hauling lines, mending sails or making repairs to the mast. As a tactic to intimidate and cause early surrender when approaching an enemy ship, musicians would also sound trumpets, beat drums, and play oboes. Pirates were after loot and money, not blood, and wanted to get their victims to surrender without fighting. Music made hard work lighter and made victory celebrations more lively.
Surgeons: The ship’s surgeons helped cure the sick as good as they could with the medicine and tools available and were otherwise only a couple of steps from a carpenter cutting off legs. However, if the pirates ever got a hold of a highly trained physician they would never let go of him as he could save more lives.
Gunners: Firing a cannon was a very dangerous and complicated procedure: the correct amount of powder, the fuse, the aim of the shots, and keeping the cannons operational. If anything went wrong, the consequences could be disastrous. Skilled and trained Master Gunners were in charge of all of the cannons and their operation.
There was one more “artist” aboard—the “Sea Artist.” He was not someone who painted seascapes; this is a term used to describe the ship’s navigator. The Sea Artist was an expert at reading and correcting charts, using navigational tools and reading the ocean—being able to tell shallows and hidden reefs and if a storm was approaching.
The Sea Artist could read and correct charts and maps
Musicians, carpenters, navigators, and doctors were highly prized by pirate ship crews and were often kidnapped and forced to work on pirate vessels. Few, if any, artists or artisans were held for ransom. They were simply kept until they either escaped, were caught by the authorities or the pirate ship no longer needed them or found someone new to take their place.
Pirates and Literacy
In the 1600s, literacy was often defined as merely being able to write your name. Reading and knowing the alphabet were not part of the equation.
At the turn of the century (the year 1700), half of the English-speaking men and about a quarter of the women could read. Literacy depended on your social status and level of income to be able to afford tutors. Some lower-class people such as sailors and pirates did have access to learning through the church or they were taught by their parents.
Scottish sailors were all likely to read, write, and calculate owing to the parish school system of universal education initiated in 1616.
It is reasonable to assume that a fraction of the sailors who became pirates could minimally write their names and sign documents.
Below is a selection of some of the best pirate books, past and present; some of them included as they cover the subjects discussed in this article.
1883: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
The tale of buccaneers and buried gold that started it all; the origin of all pirate adventure stories. It includes elements such as treasure maps marked with “X,” the Black Spot, schooners, tropical islands, and one-legged sailors with parrots on their shoulders.
For a bit of nostalgia, watch the Treasure Island 1934 Original Movie Classic.
1922: Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
The first part of this story was based on Henry Pitman, a surgeon who tended the wounded Monmouth rebels and was sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to penal transportation to Barbados where he escaped and was captured by pirates. In the book, Blood and the men who escaped the plantation stole a Spanish ship that attacked Port Royal and turned pirate. The real Pitman eventually made his way back to England. For the history behind this novel, go here.
Also see the 1935 trailer of Captain Blood with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
1929: Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck
This was Steinbeck’s first novel and only historical fiction novel, based on the life and death of the 17th-century vicious privateer Henry Morgan. It is about Morgan’s two driving ambitions: to attack and raid Panama City, a place known as the “Cup of Gold,” and to capture the heart of La Santa Roja—the Red Saint—a woman who is supposedly as beautiful as the sun.
Morgan is eventually successful in his pursuits yet pays a large personal price for his victory with his world collapsing around him and then dying a lonely and disillusioned man. Steinbeck inverted the traditional tale of carefree swashbucklers and in a way laid the foundation for his later novels about greed for power and failed purposes.
For additional information about this treasure and its history, watch this video.
1935: Under the Black Ensign by L. Ron Hubbard
This was L. Ron Hubbard’s first pirate story, written and published at the outset of his professional writing career. It was not the last. In 1940 Typewriter in the Sky was published and in 1946 he wrote the unpublished novel Stormalong, a swashbuckling historical romance novel of buccaneers, love, and war.
Under the Black Ensign is about Tom Bristol who has been press-ganged into serving aboard a British vessel and who has felt the cruel captain’s lash with a cat-o-nine-tails on his back. Freed from his servitude by pirates, his good fortune takes a bad turn: the pirates accuse him of murder and leave him to die on a deserted island. Finding himself in the unexpected company of a fiery woman and a crafty crew of black slaves turned pirates, he raises a pirate flag of his own and sets off to make love and war on the open seas.
1987: On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
On Stranger Tides takes place during the Golden Age of Piracy. It centers around John Chandagnac’s quest to reclaim his inheritance stolen from him by his uncle and to rescue an Englishwoman.
This is a pirate adventure with a unique difference—it is a fantasy pirate story featuring ghosts, voodoo, zombies, and the fabled Fountain of Youth. It also features real historical figures such as Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, and Woodes Rogers alongside fictional ones.
The story was the inspiration for the Monkey Island video game series by LucasArts as well as the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Watch this video to get the author’s view on On Stranger Tides and its movie adaptation.
2003: The Pirate Queen by Alan Gold
Grace O’Malley was a notorious Irish female pirate who built a powerful empire that stretched from Connaught in Ireland to the cobalt waters of Africa. She commanded a dozen ships and thousands of men and became the terror of the English on the high seas.
This fictional account chronicles her daring exploits that nearly bankrupted the English treasury and her outright defiance of English rule during the era of Elizabeth I.
2004: The Only Life That Mattered by James L. Nelson
This book chronicles the short but merry lives of two female pirates; Mary Read and Anne Bonny, as well as Calico Jack Rackham. It is based on the true story of these notorious pirates who plundered, stole, and fought throughout the Caribbean, all to live the life of freedom that they wanted.
2012: The Legendary Adventures of the Pirate Queens by James Grant Goldin
With the subtitle “a serio-comic novel of Anne Bonny & Mary Read,” this pirate tale is a different and audacious account based on the true existence of these two female pirates. Mary Read is in disguise as “Martin Read,” a sailor, who is in love with another sailor, while Anne Bonny, a Southern Belle turned pirate herself, takes a strong liking to “Martin Read” with Captain “Calico Jack” Rackham getting jealous. For a great review that will make you want to read this one, go here.
If we missed any pirate books that should have been included, feel free to comment and suggest additions.
And don’t forget to download your free ghost pirate eBook!