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The True View of a Pirate Ship and Crew

May 19, 2012
The True View of a Pirate Ship and Crew
  • The True View of a Pirate Ship and Crew

    Written by Captain Python

    The exact picture of what a Pirate ship and crew was, is very often confused. A combination of romanticism, stereotyping, Hollywood films, and video/computer games has effected what we think a true pirate crew and ship is. Let us take a look into what is true and what is not.

    Pirate Crews – The Stereotype
    The common stereotype of a Pirate would include these items: Wooden leg, Eye patch, Hook, Bandanna, Hat with Skull&Cross, Treasure Map, Cutlass, Pistol, and a Parrot or 2.


    Every one thinks “Pirate.” These items have become so recognizable, due to the fact that two children stories have them. That is all because of “Treasure Island” and “Peter Pan.” “Treasure Island” brought with it the wooden leg (which is ironic because Long John Silver had no wooden leg, but just a missing leg), parrots, and treasure maps. While “Peter Pan” brings the hook, and that the pirate captain was always a rich looking, and well educated man. But why are pirates so accepted into modern times? It is because so many Pirate novels and plays presented a romantic pirate, whose tasks were good, like rescuing a princess or lady. So people starting thinking that pirates were really wrongly accused adventurers. But amazingly or not, some of the common stereotypes are true. The wooden leg was true, but not in a major sense like it is today. Pirates constantly got legs, arms, and other body parts hit in battle, mainly due to splinters caused by cannon balls. For every man hit by a cannon ball, there are probably 100 more men hit by splinters. After sailors in the Royal English Navy were wounded and disabled for life, they were commonly hired for cooks in the Navy, and were also hired commonly in civilian ships too. Eye patches were sometimes used too. But there is one thing to remember about head wounds, you had to be real luck if anything that hit your head didn’t kill you. Most likely a splinter took out an eye, and is probably the most possible situation for just taking out an eye. Also, the eye patch didn’t necessarily need to be black. Most likely if they had a patch, it was made out of scrap material. It is even more likely they just left it open. It looked really scary in combat. So over all, maybe out of every 1,000 sailors at sea, you might have one man with a wooden leg who was a cook, and maybe 10 or less men with a missing eyes. So in other words, only a fraction of 1% of sailors would look like this.

    Some items that pirates are suppose to commonly carries are true too. A pirate in combat would commonly use the cutlass, which was an excellent weapon for sea combat. Being short, it did not get caught up in rigging, and could be used under deck. Carrying 1 to 6 pistols were common too. A pistol gave you a shot to take out an opponent quickly. What they did was engage an opponent, stall or block his sword, take the pistol, stick it in his gut and pull the trigger. It also makes a good club. Carrying multiple pistols gave multiple shots, and if a pistol didn’t fire due to dampness of the powder (which happened a lot), they will most likely have at least one pistol that fires. These techniques were also used by the navies and merchants of Europe, but usually less in pistols due to they were quite expensive for a weapon. Also, Pirates occasionally always carried their weapons with them everywhere.

    The treasure map was invented for the story of “Treasure Island”. Pirates rarely ever buried treasure. They would rather spend it. If they had to bury it, they would most likely just write instructions, not a map. Or maybe not even that, just remember were it is. But then we are getting into fiction, due to that if never really happened. There are only a couple of examples of that. It is very similar to the myth of walking the plank, invented by “Peter Pan.” There are only one or two documents on that happening. Unusually a pirate would just kill you, or throw you overboard, especially in front of the ship, and you would be crushed by the ship.

    The flag of Pirates was not always the scull and cross bones. Maybe only a handful of pirates used that flag. The scull actually is from medieval times, representing death, so it was commonly called the “death head.” Just a black flag alone represents a pirate. The black flag means, “surrender or suffer the consequences.” The consequences and warnings were commonly put on the flag. Time glasses represented, “Time is running out.” An arm with a sword represented, “Force in form or Combat will be used.” There were many other symbols too, from spears and bloody hearts, to devils and whole skeletons. A red flag represented, “No quarter given in battle.”

    The parrot did appear too in the real world of the 17th and 18th Centuries. They made popular pets; due to they were populous in the area of the Caribbean. They could be taught to say phrases. They became popular because they were moderately easy to keep. But also there was the occasional monkey. There were also dogs and cats in ships. They helped keep the rodent population down.

    For hats, pirates and sailors alike did wear “bandannas.” It sheltered the top of the head, and let the head breathe. But sailors commonly wore many arrays of caps, and brimmed hats. But a lot of sailors went without hats. Most of the time it depended on the weather, and the person’s personal style.


    Pirate Crews – True Pirates
    Pirates were not as likable as the stereotype. The modern pirate can relate more to the real pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries than the stereotype. Pirates were not romantic, but commonly desperate men, seeking basic survival, and a slight possible profit. Most pirates that are famous, made big profits, and are probably one reason why they are famous. The common pirate was in for survival.

    The common pirate started out as a merchant seamen, or European Navy seamen. Their skills were in how to sail and fight (especially if you were in a Navy for fighting). From the 17th to 18th Centuries, the percentage of pirates that were former seamen climbed from 75% to 95% toward the end of the Golden Age of Piracy. Also, the majority of pirates were English. Usually, Piracy increased after wars, when seamen were unemployed due to the navies of those countries going into peace disbanded most of their ships, due to they were not needed anymore, and the cost to keep them up was expensive. So, seamen who could not find a job, and did not know any other trade, might be reduced to becoming a pirate. Another way that seamen became pirates is through mutiny. A good percentage of mutinies ended up in piracy. Also, privateering usually led to piracy if a privateer crew and captain were not kept under control. Many seamen were also pressed into service of pirates. There were many seamen who did become pirates voluntarily, but there were far more who were forced to become pirates on threat of torture, marooning, and death. Pirates could always use as many men as could be obtained. Usually after being at sea for a few months, sometimes as much as half the crew could be gone due to death by disease. Sometimes a major disease, like the plague, could kill of most a ship’s crew. So sometimes, if there were no volunteers on land, they would ask for volunteers on captured ships, and sometimes press men if they needed more than what volunteered.

    Usually a Pirate career was short, due to you spent most of the time hiding from naval ships, and searching for ships that you can actually take. It is physically, mentally, and tactically hard to be a pirate. You have to know when and were to hide from Naval ships and more powerful ships, have to be able to deal with starvation and the bare necessities, wait long periods of time for a prize that is easy enough to take come along, know how to seduce a target to surrender, and how to keep a crew under control and your command. It takes that and more to be able to handle a ship. Most of the time, bad leadership and decisions led to being caught, or even maybe breaking up before taking a first prize. The decisions of the democratic pirates might lead in the wrong direction; due to they all vote on matters of the ship. There were probably a lot of attempts to try piracy, but soon gave up and went to a more legal trade.

    Pirates usually lived on a going from day to day basis, due to there were very few ports to go to re-supply, and refit, and would be lucky even to have the money. Usually all pirates had was what they stole. So if they are out at sea and don’t find a prize for a long period, they will most likely run out of food. But of course, simple solutions to that is raiding fishing boats and small villages, but that usually warns the local patrolling ships hired to fight off pirates of where you are, and will come after you. Also, most supplies for repair came off ships they captured, so they commonly stripped the sails off a ship, and the boards, and sometimes yards and spars so they had supplies for themselves so they could repair their ships. Very valuable items to the Pirates sometimes were considered common goods for everyday life. Sometimes carpenter’s tools and medical supplies were worth their weight in gold to the Pirates.

    Pirate crews often were in short supply of skilled people on board. Three primary skilled people they looked for were carpenters, surgeons, and coopers. Carpenters could help repair their ship, and help clean the bottom of the ship off to gain speed. Surgeons could help save lives after battle through proper surgery, and help cure the sick, but usually common surgeons were commonly only a couple steps up from a carpenter cutting off legs. Physicians were extremely skilled doctors, who were only commonly found as surgeons on ships of the line. If a pirate crew ever got a hold of one, the pirates would never let go of him. But that was extremely rare to find on the small ships pirates attacked. Most likely a physician would be found on a small ship as a passenger. Passengers on a ship were commonly taken to ransom off for big money. Slaves on ship were taken too, and were sold by pirates for profit.

    Their democratic crew most likely elects the captain of a pirate crew. So the captain was often not that rich captain we commonly think of. The only times a captain wasn’t elected, or was rich, was when a man bought a ship and made himself captain, or a investor put him in command. But it is most likely, 3 out of 4 Pirate crews democratically elected their captain. But one thing about democracy is that you can be removed from power, and your crew makes decisions too. A lot of times, there were problems with this, due to monarchy was still strong in this time period. Sometimes the struggles between captain and crew could be disastrous.

    The Pirates were overall a desperate group, and were scary too when on the attack. But with the crew, the ship is the next recognizable thing. The ship was a very important thing in a pirate career.

    Pirate Ships – The Stereotype
    The Pirate ship is also another thing that is commonly messed up by novels and movies. There are two things commonly done to pirate ships, they are painted black, and are big warships. In the novels, ships being painted black commonly happen. Usually these black ships are also schooners. While pirate ships are commonly small ships, schooners were more common by 1720. Also, while a ship might have painted their ship, and one might have some black on it, it was more common that a ship would be painted to look like a merchant. Also, the crew and captain made the decision how the ship was painted. Also, painting the ship was most likely one of the pirate’s least worries. Also, if a ship did get painted black, it would most likely be more recognizable as a particular ship. One modern movie that has a really good example of a black Pirate ship is “Pirates of the Caribbean” with the Black Pearl.

    The big Pirate warship is partly true. While there were a few big ships with around 40 guns, to every one big warship, there were probably 12 or more smaller ships with 0 to 20 guns. More pirates preferred smaller, faster ships to bigger ships that were most likely slower. Usually, when a pirate had a big ship, they had a smaller, faster ship to go with it. Bartholomew Roberts owned a few big ships. So did Blackbeard, but there were far more pirates that had smaller ones. Blackbeard’s last stand was in the small Ship Adventurer. Where does this come from? Mainly movies and novels. Novels like “Captain Blood” showed big fleets of big warships. Same with the “Black Swan.” Also, when these two books became movies, they helped enforce this. In the movies, they use big ships so there is more room for shooting the film and for big fight scenes.

    Pirate Ships – True Pirates
    Pirates usually preferred smaller ships to bigger ships due to that they were faster than bigger ships, and merchants. They were also shallower in the draft so they could escape warships. Usually when a merchant sees a much faster ship, flying a black flag, they know that they probably have no chance to outrun it. Usually small ships are armed with 6 to 12 mounted guns, and 0 to 18 swivel guns, depending on the crew. There are usually crews of 15 to 80 on board. Sometimes some ships had no guns due to that they couldn’t afford it, or steal it, or the ship was too small, or the Pirate crew just stared raiding. Ship types in this group include Sloops, Pinks, Barques, Schooners, Cutters, Ketches, Brigs, Brigantines, and Snows.

    There are also bigger ships. There are those medium ships that had 14 to 24 mounted guns, and any amount of swivel guns. It has a crew of 80 to 125. Usually these ships are old merchants ships transformed into Pirating ships. These ships have more room and are more stable at sea. Types include Barques, smaller Galleons, Brigs, Brigantines, and ships of that size that can hold than many guns, and a lot of crews and guns.

    Then there are the Pirate warships. They usually have 24 to 40 mounted guns, any amount of swivel guns. They usually have a crew of 125 to 200. These ships are also those old merchants ships transformed into Pirating ships. Many fear these ships. It takes Naval ships to compete with them. Most ships like this are Frigate type size ships, and medium Galleons.

    How do these Pirates transform these ships? There are many ways to fix a ship to become a fighting vessel. It is simple enough to add gun ports in a ship, but it takes more than that. One way is to make a ship “flush” which means evening out decks. That includes removing forecastles, evening out quarterdeck and poop decks into one deck, or sometimes evening out the ship all into one deck. Below deck, removing bulkheads makes room for more guns under decks. Bulkheads are made to hold cargo, without the bulkheads, the cargo can roll around under decks. Combining all these modifications, they make more room under decks; more room on the top decks, and makes the ship overall lighter.

    But one thing about the type of Pirate ships out at sea, around 75% are small ships, around 20% are medium sized ships, and 5% are big warships. But, the one thing about these ships, the small ones might seem small compared to warships, but to the civilian world, the common merchant ship has a crew of 15 or so, and only 6 or so guns. Two small pirate ships combined could have the firepower of a small fleet for civilians.

    Pirate ships were in reality, just common ships of the time, turned into vessels that could handle combat. A lot of Pirate ships weren’t even ships, ships being vessels with 3 masts. But the Pirate ship will always be in legend, the monster of ships.

    *Note from Author: The information above will help in understanding the tactics by me written in the future.