Black Sails: The Life of a Pirate

Black Sails may be a fanciful depiction of the life of a pirate, but there are elements of truth there, as well!

As we saw last week, pirates were almost always common sailors, fed up with their lot in life, who decided to make a strike for personal freedom. But how did piracy differ from the life these men had left behind? Common pirates, that is to say, crew, outnumbered their officers by, perhaps 20 to one, and pirate ships were vastly overmanned. A 200 ton merchant vessel might be crewed by 17 or 18 men, 4 of whom were officers. A pirate vessel of the same size would carry a hundred men, with perhaps six or eight officers. On a merchant vessel, crew were an expense. For pirates, more warriors provided a higher level of terror, their stock-in-trade. Pirates organized their lives around the “cruise” or raiding mission. Pirates who had blown though their profits from the last cruise would look up their officers and demand to go out to sea. Officers, who had a slightly higher income, but presumably whored with the same women and drank at the same taverns, did not go broke quite so easily. In a typical cruise, forty to sixty pirates would man a small, fast, nimble ship and set sail for between four and six weeks. The captain chose a hunting ground and set the course. He could be outvoted by his crew on this, but in fact he had nearly complete control as long as his men were happy. Once the lookout sighted a merchant vessel the crew voted whether or not to attack. Pirates regularly robbed vessels much larger and better armed than themselves, so the choice could mean life or death. The captain’s real authority kicked in as soon as his ship began to follow the prospective victim. In chase or battle, but only then, a pirate captain’s word was law. A chase might last for days, both vessels piling on canvas, the merchant fleeing before the wind, the pirates straining to catch up. Speed and agility were of prime importance. The pirates would have done everything in their power to make sure their ship was as fast and light as possible, while the more heavily weighted merchant was at a disadvantage. When the pirates drew in close, they began to threaten. A working pirate ship might have as few as four cannons, and face a vessel five times her size with twice as many guns. But a merchant captain didn’t commonly run gun drills. Powder and shot were expensive. Nor did he normally allow his crew to handle swords and pistols. (One of my biggest giggles in the Black Sails opener was John Silver conveniently finding a sword to hand just when he needs one.  A merchant captain, bent on keeping his crew cowed and compliant, was not going to leave weapons lying around.) Meanwhile the pirates, experienced men, showed off their expertise by firing a cannon shot across the merchant’s bow. Pirates lined up along their ship’s railing, wearing their finest clothes (indicative of successful raids in the past) shouting and waving deadly weapons. A good show would frighten the merchant crew into blundering terror. Furthermore, the display of common men, work-hardened sailors, wearing fine clothes and carrying swords and pistols sent a message to the merchant captains that his safe world, where “gentlemen” were in charge and “subordinates” knew their place, was no longer the order of the day.   If the pirates were lucky, the merchant captain would also have heard stories. Pirate crews “punished” captains who resisted them. Just as a merchant captain’s authority was often based on personal cruelty, the pirates offered personal, bloody violence. A cannon shot could only kill a man. A pirate with a knife could do much, much worse. Usually the larger, better armed ship surrendered without a fight. Once on board, the pirates went for three things – the ship’s operating fund, the captain’s money and personal possessions, and cargo. The operating fund might be locked or hidden away, but the quartermaster, little more than a clerk on a merchant ship, had no reason to defy the pirates in order to keep somebody else’s money safe. Pirates showed a certain glee in going through a merchant captain’s property, taking his clothes, silver shoe buckles, even his bedding if a pillow or blanket caught anyone’s fancy. They didn’t rob sailors. Merchant captains not only were well paid, but sometimes also speculated in trade. And in a cash-only world, all the money could be counted on to be in the captain’s cabin. Also stored away for his private use would be superior food and liquor. Many pirates recruited sailors just by showing them the food they could be eating. After all coins and valuables had been taken, the pirate captain and quartermaster looked over the cargo. Common Caribbean trade goods were rice, cotton, tobacco, sugar, and indigo. The pirates took the most valuable of the cargo available, and used the labor of the honest sailors to move it to their ship. As shifting cargo in a vessel at sea could be a tricky business, they might also throw some goods overboard to make for easier maneuvering.   The pirate captain might interview the sailors or read the ship’s log, looking for harsh discipline, and then deal with the merchant captain. Or he might not. He might trash the remaining cargo, or not. He might even set the captured vessel on fire. Finally, business completed, the pirates went on their way. A cruise usually lasted four to six weeks, and caught five or six prizes. In between, the quartermaster counted and distributed the money and other goods. Unlike the merchant quartermaster, this position on a pirate ship was an elected office, equal to the captain. It could be said that a pirate captain caught the money, and the quartermaster distributed it. The crew needed to trust their quartermaster completely. But pirate rules still stated that distribution must take place in the open, where all could see. Coins were often parceled out by weight, and large objects of gold or silver might be cut up with pincers or hacked apart with a cutlass for easier distribution. On many ships, the spoils were kept in bags, each marked with the owner’s name, and thrown together in a random cabin, like some kind of pirate credit union. No reason to lock it up. Pirates didn’t steal from each other. When the ship got back to port, the quartermaster sold off the goods and passed out the money. Then the drinking and the whoring began. A typical low-level pirate made more money off a single six week cruise than an honest man could earn in two years. Once it was in his hand, he’d run through it in two months. When the money ran out, it was time to dig up the officers, provision the boat, and set sail once again… TS Rhodes is the author of The Pirate Empire series. She blogs about pirates at  Read more about Black Sails here. 

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