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Common Tactics on How Pirates Took Merchant Ships

May 19, 2012
Common Tactics on How Pirates Took Merchant Ships
  • Common Tactics on How Pirates Took Merchant Ships

    Pirates commonly lived from day to day, not knowing if they would survive the next day, or eat the next day. People didn’t go into Piracy commonly for profit, but for just basic survival; just to keep food in your stomach. So when a Pirate saw a ship on the horizon, they hoped that it was a merchant ship full of supplies. But also, they hoped that it wasn’t a Naval ship, armed for battle, and full of properly fed men ready for combat. Pirate crews were not as good as you think they were. Many pirates started as either common person from land, recent sailors unemployed from the Navies of Europe, and/or fishermen. Most Pirates tried to avoid combat, so unless they had experience from the Navy, or had been a Pirate for a long time, they most likely didn’t know how to fight, and most likely didn’t practice at the guns because gunpowder and shot cost money, and were invaluable to a Pirate that most likely had to steal everything. Pirates didn’t steal as many ships as you think. But then again, a Pirate was commonly desperate, and would fight with all he’s got. A common pirate career might only include 1 capture, or 10 captures, or 50 captures like “Black Bart” did. So there wasn’t that much time to gain experience in combat. So many factors went into on who and what a pirate was.


    Step 1: Find a Target

    The first thing to do was to find a suitable target for a prize. A pirate might sail on commonly traveled sea-lanes, but then naval ships would protect that. A Pirate might sail a little ways from the sea-lanes, were a lone merchant might want to make a sail to a port by himself. When a merchant was by himself, he would arrive in port most likely by himself with few other merchants around, so he could get a better price for his goods. But merchants usually traveled lightly armed, so they could save space on the ship for cargo, and more cargo meant more money to be made in port. But then are those “smart” merchant that takes that one rout no one travels, which is supposedly “secret” or was like that one dirt trail of today a car rarely travels. But those ships going to that trouble usually had a very valuable cargo. Also, if you are desperate for food, you can just find a village somewhere, steal from the farms and fishermen, or even try to take a small village. But usually Pirates tried to stay at sea so they couldn’t be tracked that well. So if a pirate ransacked a village, when news reached the nearest ship of war, they would go to that area to track that pirate because there is a good chance he is still in the area. The amount of miles of ocean is over double the amount of miles of land. The only time a Pirate would go on land, would be to get supplies (especially water), to repair a ship, or if they made a profit at sea and wanted to spend it. The small chance of profit at sea made Piracy more rational to those who were starving.

    Step 2: Shadow you Prey, Observe

    After seeing a ship on the horizon, unless it is a very big ship, like Frigate size, they usually would pursue and see what kind of ship it is. They usually wanted to find a ship that was slower than them, only manned by a small crew to only sail the ship, and was weaker than the Pirates in firepower. Sometimes a prize might be just a small fishing boat. At least that offers food. But then again, this ship they are targeting, might be a Galleon, Fleut, or a bigger merchant ship. The reason Galleons were so treasured by Pirates was not because they were easy to take, but because they offered the opportunity to take a ship that could make your fortune, or at least supply the Pirates for a very good period of time. A Pirate might shadow a ship for a day, or a week. Not until the pirates were certain a ship was possible to capture. Then it was time to try and get close enough to do what ever it takes to capture it.

    Step 3: Advance on your Prey

    Now when the Pirate is sure that he can take on his target. It is time to try and get close enough to the prey to persuade it into surrendering, or to do battle. By this time, the Pirate crewmembers are thinking many things. They are thinking, “Am I going to live? Is my next meal on that ship? Is my fortune on that ship? Will I be decapitated? Can we catch this merchant?” Meanwhile, the Captain is making the decisive decisions on how to lure this merchant. One very common tactic would be to fly a false colours, or false flag. This tactic was actually legal. But you could not fire a shot until you raised your true flag; legally that is. If the Pirate raises the colours from the country the merchant they are advancing on is from, it may ease the merchant captain’s mind that it is just an ally, and ease his sails so he goes at normal speed. Some people would think by now, “I’m a pirate, why should I change my false flag?” If you don’t, and the country the Pirate used for false colours catches the Pirate, they will be just more determined to hang them. Also, a later tactic concerns the flag. Another thing is to act in distress, while flying false colours. This might draw the merchant to come to your assistance, and draw him within range. Little tricks like this were used. When you got a ship into range, the convincing the target to surrender could be done. But then there was the last ditch attempt at just sailing within range, if the Pirate’s ship was fast enough. But then again, when that merchant saw the Pirate coming strait for him, he would ready his ship for action, making it harder for the Pirate to convince the merchant to surrender.

    Step 4: Warning Shots and Scare Tactics

    Now, when the Pirates are in range of their prey, they surprise it. At this point, there are many things pirates can do to scare their enemy into surrender. One very common warning is for the Pirates to take down their flag, and replace it with their flag. Their flag usually was flag that sent the basic message “surrender or die.” A lot of the time, this change of flags is accompanied with a warning shot or shots. Usually they would be aimed to go over across the top of the bow of the target ship, or land a few yards in front of the ship. What this did is warn their target that if they don’t surrender, that force will be used, and that their guns were in range, and they could batter your ship into splinters. Another scare tactic would be to get the crew to all get up and start yelling their heads off, wave all the weapons in the air they could, make noise, and sometimes firing off a pistol or two (That would show that they has not only cannon that could batter them from far away, but pistol that could be extremely deadly in combat. And if they had pistols, they most likely had good cutlasses too.) Sometimes the Pirates when facing the Spanish would make sure the Spanish saw their black sailors, and/or they would paint the faces of some with black so they looked like their were black. The Spanish were terrified of blacks with weapons due to their economy depended on black slavery, and these blacks might have a grudge against them for that, or they were most likely been slaves. Also blacks were believed to be very fierce fighters. Usually by this point, when most or all of these tactics are used, most merchants will want to negotiate surrender, or at least a bribe to leave them alone for now. These merchants want to make a least a little profit. Some merchants carry cargo just to bribe pirates. But in some cases, it might take a few minutes of terrorizing to convince prey that they need to surrender. Usually, 66% off merchants will surrender 5 minutes or less after the identity of the pirates reveal their identity, IF the merchant are caught by surprise. But there are those merchants who take a little combat to convince, and those targets you did not surprise but just charged at like a bull. They will require more convincing.

    Step 5: Disable the Crew

    By this point, the pirates see that the target isn’t going to give in to you so quickly. So it will take a little fighting to convince the prey to surrender. When this comes about, the one thing that will discourage a merchant captain is if he looses a lot of crew. Most likely he has very limited crew, probably close to the minimum crew to sail his ship. He mans his ship with so little crew to save money to pay them and to feed them, and to save room. Every man he looses makes the job of sailing his ship and repairing it even harder, after loosing maybe 7% to 15% of his crew, he may think of surrender. So the pirates will target his crew, not only to seduce the prey into surrender, but also to make sure the merchant doesn’t have crew to fire their guns, use musket against them, or swivels guns. If the pirates have to board the prey, less crew means less resistance. But this might not work, due to maybe the merchant crew is bigger than the pirates expected and can take casualties, or the prey hasn’t lost much crew because the prey’s crew has properly protected themselves and hid from incoming shots and splinters. The merchant probably thinks it can get away. So why not take away his escape?

    Step 6: Disable their Sails and Rigging

    If the merchant hasn’t surrendered yet, he either thinks he has a good chance to escape, or very valuable cargo onboard. Targeting the crew hasn’t work so it is time to show that if they want to live, they will have to fight it out with them to leave. So it is time to aim for the sails, yards, and rigging. This will either make their ship overwhelming slower than the Pirate ship. But any damage inflicted on the ship’s ability to sail, will have to be repaired if it is going to be taken as a prize. By this point, the target ship’s captain is probably very discouraged, with its crew beaten up, it’s only way of escape disabled, and a band of desperate pirates ready to board him. If he doesn’t surrender by now, then he must either think he still has enough crew to repel an attack, or he has a very valuable cargo on board. But if he does not surrender, there is the next thing, taking possession of her through boarding.

    Note on Prisoner Policies

    All Pirates had their own policies toward prisoners. From the point of just revealing it’s identity, most pirates would accept surrender. If the Pirates have to do a bit of fighting, accepting surrender lowers a little bit, but is still very possible. If the target fights it out until the Pirates have to shoot away it’s sails and rigging, then there is probably only a 60% to 75% chance that the Pirates would accept surrender, due to the Pirates are most likely fed up with their foe yielding to surrender. But if it is necessary to board an enemy ship, all Pirates have their different policies. If they board, some pirates will give no quarter due to they had warned their target so much and given them plenty of time to surrender. Other Pirates will board and will take prisoners if a man surrenders by himself. Letting some of the crew leaves possibilities for letting the prisoners volunteer to serve on the Pirate crew to boost the crew number. But one tricky subject is the merchant captain. The captain was the one that led his men to fight against the Pirates. In some policies, the captain is to be shot on sight. So he must be made an example what happens to those who resists the Pirates if he is captured alive. Of course, if the Pirates have a policy of no quarter when boarding a ship, then the captain should have been killed already. But if prisoners are taken, and they take the captain, the captain should most likely be either marooned or killed in some way to make an example of him.

    Step 7: Boarding

    Boarding in any situation can be very dangerous if not done intelligently. Boarding meant going onto a ship you most likely did not know well, with men apposing you who knew the hiding spots of their ship. But boarding can bring quick possession of a ship. In a merchant ship, you are most likely facing either a group of landsmen who probably don’t know how to fight, and are only learning their job at sea. Then again, if this is after a war, a merchant captain could hire many of the best-unemployed sailors from ships of war, and they will know their jobs already and know how to fight. But most likely it is a mix. There are two main ways to board a ship:

    Boarding By Boat For smaller ships, this is more common. For small ships, grappling will most likely do more harm to the ships, and cause more trouble. The Pirate ship would pull within musket shot, launch a boat or boats with a boarding crew that are big enough to handle the job of taking on the enemy crew. While the boats row over to the enemy ship, the home ship will give them covering fire, keeping the merchant crew’s heads down. The boats might even be armed with small swivel gun in the bow. When the boats make it to the target ship. The Pirates must make a major decision, where to board the ship? The one place not to board would be in the waist of the ship. If they did attack from the waist, they would be exposed to crossfire from both bow and stern. Boarding would have to take place from either bow or stern, or possibly both. The stern is most likely the place were more men will be, due to it is most likely the highest deck on the ship. The bow is a very likely place due to it won’t be as fortified as the stern. But fighting from the bow will expose the Pirates to fire from the stern. While the bow might be easier to get onto, working through the ship from the bow is harder. Boarding from the stern will be harder, but taking the rest of the ship will be a little easier. Once the Pirates hit the deck, they need to keep moving, taking prisoners if their policy allows it, and taking down anyone who resists. The quicker they work through and secure the ship, the less time and the more unlikely to resist you.

    Boarding By Grappling For bigger ships, like Galleons, grappling is necessary, and can be done in a safer manner. First, a Pirate must get close enough to the enemy ship to throw grappling hooks. During throwing these hooks, securing them, and pulling the ships together, the enemy crew will try to get rid of the hooks, and to cut the ropes. So fire will have to be kept on the enemy crew so they keep their heads down and so letting you pull the ship together. One thing to watch for when boarding in any way is boarding netting. Boarding netting makes climbing up the side of a ship into the ship difficult. When the ships are together, the Pirates will most likely employ most of the ship’s crew in taking the enemy ship. When going into the enemy ship, the Pirates will most likely spread boarders to go into all three sections of the ship, concentrating on the bow or stern. Like when boarding by boat, is it important to avoid crossfire in the waist. Sometimes when grappling, they will only touch at a particular point like bow-to-stern or bow-to-bow, and that will be the only point of attack. When the Pirates hit the deck, they will sweep over the ship, as quickly as possible, taking out resistance, and maybe taking prisoners if policies allow. With more numbers, the attack will be more overwhelming, and most likely take a shorter time.

    Step 8: Taking Care of the Crew

    Depending on a Pirate’s policies, there might be some prisoners. Now, if the captain is amongst them, then he should be taken care of immediately. The rest of the prisoners can be dealt with accordingly. If there are prisoners, the Pirates took prisoners for a reason, either to show that it is all right to surrender to other ships, and to get volunteers from the crew and possibly press crewmembers from the enemy crew. Also, it is a good idea to spare any passengers. Passengers can be ransomed. Also, there might be specialists amongst the crew, like surgeons, carpenters, and coopers. All these will help with the upkeep of the ship. Also the crew can be sold into slavery. Also, there are those ships that surrender before boarding, and the Pirates have to deal with them accordingly, and they get to sail away (once again, policies).

    Step 9: Taking Care of the Prize

    After the crew is dealt with, the Prize has to be dealt with. If the Pirates plan to sell the ship in a port, then repair the ship so it can be sailed into port. But if they can’t sell the ship, and they don’t want to keep it, then after taking the cargo, they can either send the ship afloat or sink it. But if it is set it afloat, that leaves evidence. But what about if the Pirates don’t have enough cargo space to hold all the other ship’s cargo on the Pirate ship? There are two options, they can either take the prize ship to the port or place they are selling the cargo (But usually if there is a port, they can usually sell the smaller ships. But also this puts evidence on that pirate they stole it) or you can take the cargo that is most valuable. After that, life continues on for the pirates.