Black Sails History: Pirate Battle Tactics

Black Sails often shows off the way pirates would take on other ships and their enemies, and there's historical precedent for much of it.

As we saw in last week’s article, in the early 1700’s, navies liked to duke it out in toe-to-toe action. These massive ship battles created horrific conditions for serving sailors, and rarely brought any decisive results for the nations.

Pirates, who had been on the short end of the stick, did not want to replicate these sorts of events. To be concise, pirates were in the TAKING business, not the fighting business.

Pirates didn’t usually sail the biggest ships, of have the largest most numerous cannons. But pirate ships had huge numbers of pirates on them. And, as we saw in the very first Black Sails episode, large numbers of pirates are pretty scary.

The most common piratical tactic was to get in close to potential prey, and make a huge, frightening show of force aimed to cause the other ship to surrender. This was made easier by the fact that merchant ships ran with the smallest crews possible. Pirates, who not only had to sail their ships, but also needed boarding parties and gun crews, need much larger crews.

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Methods of looking intimidating ranged from wearing the fancy coats, wigs, and other captured finery of former victims, to stripping naked and carrying knives in their teeth. This tactic was used by the pirate prince Sam Bellamy in his first piratical action.

A group of pirate ships had chased a French merchant ship into a cove before the wind died. None of the ships could move without wind. Then Bellamy showed up with his followers. A group of about 30 men, with no proper ship at all, only a couple of large canoes. Bellamy sided with the pirates, and bartered his men’s help for a share of the treasure. The agreement was that Bellamy’s canoes would tow the largest pirate ship into shooting distance of the French merchant.

We should note here that the pirates weren’t afraid to fight. They just wanted to keep fighting to a minimum.

Bellamy was set up with tow ropes, and gave his men instructions to take off all their clothes and carry knives in their teeth. And that was how the descended onto the French ship. The French captain, who had been brave enough when facing down several conventional pirate ships, was intimidated by the naked screaming men, and surrendered without a fight.

If the target could not be persuaded to surrender, the pirates would open fire. Pirate crews had a lot more practice than merchant crews. For a ship owner, powder and shot were expensive, and time drilling a crew was a waste of manpower. For pirates, powder and shot were their stock-in-trade, and a practice session at the big guns was a welcome relief from the boredom of searching for prey.

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The pirates did not want to sink ships. You can’t steal from a ship that’s at the bottom of the ocean. So the first shots were either aimed to take out the merchant’s sails, or anti-personnel rounds designed to tear up the crew.

To this end, anything could be used. Pistol shot bound into bunches, pieces of chain, even rocks and chunks of broken glass. When this was fired into a mass of men it did terrible damage to them, but left the ship mostly intact.

If a merchant was determined to resist, and had enough men to sail the ship and fire cannons, a real battle might break out. The pirate captain would probably still not fight broadside-to-broadside. Instead, the presumably more maneuverable pirate ship would be brought around to cut across the merchant ship’s bow or stern, Because of the way ships were constructed, it was nearly impossible to mount cannons in these areas. The rear of the ship was especially vulnerable.

Pirates also fought unconventionally. It was not unknown for them to take the cannons off their ships, carry them to shore in boats, and set up an ambush or defensive positon on a high point. Though the guns might weigh as much as two tons, with enough rope and manpower amazing things could be accomplished.

They also fought from positions of extreme disadvantage. A grounded ship could still fight if she could bring her guns to bear. Indeed, a deck tilted away from an opposing force offered superior cover for pirates to fight from.

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A grounded ship could also be freed. If a fight lasted long enough (and in the days of uncertain aiming, fights often did) the tide might rise enough to carry a grounded ship free. Or the captain might lighten the ship. The most common way to do this was to pump most of the ship’s water over the side. A ship would likely be carrying several tons of water, and this could make a huge difference. Shifting other items within the ship might also serve to break contact with the wreck or sandbar that the ship was lodged against.

Historically, ships also shook themselves free of obstructions by simple action of their guns. The kick of a broadside could virtually lift a ship into the air. It was used by navies for exactly this purpose on several occasions.

So what should Flint’s fight against the cannons of the Nassau fort look like?

Flint sails in, runs aground on the wrecked ship. The fort opens fire, but can’t hit their target. The fort’s gun crews reload. Gun captains squint into the sun, and sweating men use wooden levers to raise the angle of their shots. Meanwhile, on the pirate ship, Flint shouts orders. The carpenter reports – water coming in. Flint commands him to shore up the hole. As the ship begins to tilt, Flint orders the guns moved to set her right. The crew races to obey.

This time one of the fort’s guns had the right range, but they are shooting too far south. More adjustments. More shots. Closer.

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Flint sends men out in the longboat to tow his ship off the wrecks. Meanwhile, one of the cannons breaks free, and runs wild across the deck, smashing everything in its path. But now the deck is closer to level, and Flint’s gun crews are firing back.

This has the makings of a real nail-biting scene. But it would be expensive to shoot, and if it wasn’t done right the viewers could lose track of what was going on. This is TV, after all.

TS Rhodes is the author of The Pirate Empire series. She blogs about pirates at