Black Sails History: Ship Battles in the Age of Sail

We return to the real history behind Black Sails with an examination of ship-to-ship battles.

Black Sails has had more ship battles than a TV show has any right to have. With excellent CGI and a large budget, they’ve put together some amazing shots, from running and pursuing ships to shots of—well—cannon shots.

The on-screen battles have been thrilling, but rarely accurate. Real ship actions were often boring. Boring battles? Yes, but interspaced with moments of pure terror.

First, a little background. Cannons on ships had only been in use for a little over a hundred years. Before that, there had been some effort with catapults and bows-and-arrows. But the main method had been ship-to-ship ramming.

This was only practical with galleys (ships propelled by banks of rowers). Only a galley could control its speed and direction with enough precision to target and attack another ship. But galleys had their own drawbacks. The rowers needed to be fed and housed, and even if they were slaves, this used a lot of resources. Rowers also grew tired. Wind-powered ships could travel faster over an extended period of time.

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Wind-powered ships also had the deck space and manpower to host cannons. A cannon of the time required a team of five to service it during battle: A loader, a sponger, a rammer, and two additional men to help the others heave the gun, which could weigh as much as two tons, into firing position on a moving deck.

None of this came easily. A good gun crew was a practiced gun crew, and practicing could use up tons of powder and dozens of cannonballs.

Then there was the issue of aiming. In Black Sails, cannons tend to hit what they aim at. In real life, it was somewhat different. It might take hours of patient work and dozens of fired shots just to adjust the angle and elevation in order to actually hit a target. A more experienced crew would have better luck. But on a deck that moved up and down at the same time it was moving side to side and forward, aiming was as much an art as a skill.

Gun crews on fixed locations, like forts, could get ahead of this by practicing hitting things in their own harbor. Practice could teach a crew person taught to tweak elevation and lateral adjustments to hit any spot in the adjoining water in time, but this information wasn’t transferrable. Each cannon was hand-cast, each gun carriage handmade, and knowing the fine art of firing one gun was not necessarily transferrable to another.

Partially because of the difficulty of aiming, the established way of fighting ship to ship was very formal.

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In a navy-to-navy fighting, the accepted method was to line one’s ships up, bow to stern, in a long line. Ships large enough to take part in this maneuver were called, appropriately, ships of the line. They were big—1000 tons or more—and carried perhaps a hundred guns and as many as a thousand crew memebers.

When two navies met at sea, they first formed their lines of battle. With uncooperative wind and currents, this might take days, which would not make for an interesting TV show.

Once the lines were formed, the two columns sailed toward each other in opposite directions. As each ship came into firing range with the ship on the opposite side, it began to fire.

Ships were rated by their broadsides, a broadside being the firing of all guns on one side of the ship, or one-half of the ship’s full cannon power. A ship of the line, with 100 guns each firing a shot weighing 32 pounds (a 32 pound cannon ball) was said to have a broadside of 1,600 pounds. Every time the ship fired all the guns on one side, it would throw 1,600 pounds of iron shot at the enemy.  

The ships, made of oak, were designed to withstand a barrage like this and rarely sank. But the men in the ship would be torn to pieces. Not only was iron flying through the air, but also splinters of wood knocked loose by the shot.  Such splinters could no doubt pierce flesh down to the bone. Chunks of rigging fell, breaking the men below. The noise was incredible. It was not uncommon for men deafened by the noise of battle to take days to recover their hearing.

Eyewitnesses wrote of men mashed into liquid by a single shot. Limbs were crushed to pulp. The screams of the injured and dying rivaled the noise of the cannons. Blood covered the deck in such quantities that it sloshed ankle-deep. The smoke from the burning powder obscured everything, sometimes even the sun.

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During this chaos, men were expected to stick to their posts and do their jobs. Time and again, the gun crews swabbed, loaded, primed, aimed and fired their guns. They continued even when the deck around them was smashed to splinters, when the gun, recoiling from the force of the shot, ran over feet and legs, maiming men with scars that would last for life.

Sometimes a gun would overturn, crushing its crew beneath it. Sometimes guns would explode due to improper loading or interior flaws or corrosion. In the long, slow-moving parade of ships, this hell might go on for hours. When the lines of ships passed each other, they would begin maneuvering to turn around and come at each other again. Once again, this might take days.

Interestingly enough, battles that went this way really didn’t accomplish much.

Many pirates had been in such battles. A huge proportion of pirates were former navy men who turned out of their service when the last big war, called Queen Anne’s war by the English, and by most others, the War of Spanish Succession, had come to an end. In those days, navies did not even bring their sailors home. Rather, they dumped them at the most convenient port. Often this port was in the Caribbean.