One of the most predominant myths about
pirates is the belief that they were all a bunch of
evil men completely lacking in any moral standards or beliefs. This was simply not true. Yes some pirates
were rapists and murders, and some were truly
sadistic killers. But most pirates were not much
different in their moral beliefs then the other
sailors of their time. Some worked as privateers and
some on military ships before becoming pirates.
Furthermore, not all buccaneers volunteered to serve as
pirates of their choosing. Some were pressed men who were forced into serving when their ships were captured by pirates. Other men were abducted in ports and forced to join the pirates crew. (Note: Abducting seamen in ports to serve aboard naval warships was also a common
practice in the military back then. As was the use of black slaves to do some of the back breaking manual labor and dangerous tasks aboard ship.) Not to try and justify their actions but in a world of poverty and little opportunity for most, some found in the brutal life of piracy a risk worth taking.
The majority of these pirates were by nature rebellious and lazy. However they took their work quite seriously, and in most cases before a crew would sail off on a voyage, a set of written articles was drawn up which every member of the ships company was expected to sign. These articles regulated the distribution of plunder among the crew, the scale of compensation for injuries received in battle, and set out the basic rules for shipboard life and the punishments for those who broke the rules. The written articles varied from one ship to another but most were generally very similar. These articles were well needed as pirates were tough and ruthless men, notorious for their foul language, and prolonged bouts of drinking, which frequently led to quarrels and violence. They came together in a rather uneasy partnership, attracted by the lure of plunder and the desire for an easy life.
Terms for Piracy
The word pirate simply means one who robs or plunders at sea. Piracy is a term for sea-robbery. Reason tells us that pirates were no more than common criminals, but some still see them as figures of romance. As they are associated with daring deeds on the Spanish Main, with rakish black schooners and exotic tropical islands and sea chests overflowing with gold and silver coin.
Over the years many stories have been told and fact has merged with fiction. In reality seamen who resisted a pirate attack were commonly hacked to death and thrown over the side. The plunder was not usually chests full of doubloons and pieces of eight, but typically a few bales of silk and cotton, some barrels of rum or tobacco, spare canvas for sail, carpentry and navigation tools, food or medicine, and
perhaps a half dozen slaves.
These were pirates or privateers who operated in the Mediterranean. The most famous were the Barbary Corsairs from the Barbary Coast of North Africa who were authorized by their governments to attack the shipping of Christian countries. Some of these states even helped organize the pirates and the ones that operated from them were called corsairs. Among these states were Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.
One of the most famous Barbary corsairs was Barbarossa. Less well known were the corsairs of Malta. They were sent out to loot shipping by the Knights of St. John, a military order created during the crusades to fight the Muslims on behalf of the Christian nations. At first these men were driven by religion but after a while the rewards of piracy became to great.
The Barbary Corsairs intercepted ships traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar or coming from the trading ports of Alexandria and Venice, swooping down on the heavily laden merchantmen, in their swift galleys powered by oars and sails. They looted their cargos, captured their passengers and crews, and held them for ransom or sold them into slavery.
The term privateer could apply to an armed vessel, its captain or its crew. Many of the pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy began their careers as privateers. Privateers worked under letters of
marque from the various countries that used them to basically wage a form of economic warfare on there enemies. Maritime nations made use of privateers in times of war as a cheap way of attacking enemy shipping (saving the cost of building and maintaining a navy).
Usually the limits of the Marque were vague, leaving it up to the captain and crew to determine what they could undertake. Privateers often worked beyond the limits as detailed by their letter of Marque, many attacking neutral countries as well as hostile nations. These men did the same kind of things as pirates, but unlike pirates who were regarded by most as
villains, they were seen by some as patriots by their respective countries because they were only suppose to attack hostile nations ships, and shared a part of their plunder with their countries rulers.
When the various countries with interests in the New World were openly competing for the riches found there, some men saw that it could be quite rewarding becoming a privateer. But eventually most of these countries began to turn away from the use of privateers as they made peace with there rivals, and many of these men where unwilling to give up their wicked ways....and so began a career in piracy.
Originally hunters of cattle and pigs on the island of Hispanola (now Haiti and Dominica), buccaneers got their name from the French word boucan which means barbeque. This was because of the way they barbequed their meat on grills. Driven out by the Spanish, the hunters joined the groups of runaway slaves, deserters and others who preyed on the ships of the hated Spanish. These buccaneers called themselves "The Brethren of the Coast".
By the end of the 17th century the word buccaneer was being applied generally to most of the pirates and privateers who had bases in the West Indies. The buccaneers established their headquarters on the little island of Tortuga. Later they used Jamaica as a base of operations. One of the most famous buccaneers was Sir Henry Morgan. Under his command five hundred buccaneers from Tortuga and one thousand buccaneers from Jamaica captured Panama in 1671.
Marooners were yet another special breed of pirate harassing the Spanish Main. Marooner is a
corruption of the Spanish word "cimarron" which loosely translates to "deserter" or runaway. In those days many Spaniards deserted their Navy at the first opportunity, and over time their numbers began to grow into a serious problem for Spain. Another group of marooners were the cimarron negros. These were the runaway slaves that had been brought to the Americas by Spain to haul the heavy cargos of gold and silver. The cimarron's quickly joined with the other deserters and runaways and became known as Marooners.
Eventually this term became a common word for any pirate in the Caribbean, but not as common as Buccaneer. As time passed the pirate punishment of leaving shipmates on small deserted areas of land entered the language as "Marooning". The pirates would use this form of punishment for certain offenses, such as deserting the ship or quarters in battle, or stealing from other pirates. Marooning may not sound like such a serious punishment, but it usually meant a slow death from starvation or exposure. One of the most famous of these marooned men was the pirate Selkirk, better known as Robinson Crusoe.
The pirates code of conduct varied a little
from ship to ship, but mostly they looked
much the same. Below is and example
of a real pirates code.
The Articles of Piracy
ARTICLE 1: Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of the
Moment; has equal title to the fresh Provisions, or
Strong Liquors, at any Time seized, and use of them
at Pleasure, unless a Scarcity make it necessary, for
the good of all, to Vote a Retrenchment.
ARTICLE 2: Every man shall obey civil command; the
captain shall have one full share and a half in all
prizes. the Quartermaster, Carpenter, Boatswain, and
Gunner shall have one share and quarter.
ARTICLE 3: If any man shall offer to run away, or
keep any secret from the Company, he shall be
marroon'd with one bottle of powder, one bottle of
Water, one small Arm, and shot.
ARTICLE 4: If any Man shall steal any Thing in the
Company, or game, to the value of a piece of Eight,
he shall be Marroon'd or shot.
ARTICLE 5: If at any Time we should meet with another
Marrooner (that is, Pirate) that man shall sign his
Articles without Consent of our Company, shall suffer
such Punishment as the Captain and Company shall
ARTICLE 6: That man that shall strike another, whilst
these Articles are in force, shall receive Moses's
Law (that is 40 Stripes lacking one) on the bare
ARTICLE 7: That Man that shall snap his Arms, or
smoke Tobacco in the Hold, without cap to his Pipe,
or carry a candle lighted without lantern, shall
suffer the same Punishment as in the former Article.
ARTICLE 8: That Man that shall not keep his Arms
clean, fit for an Engagement, or neglect his
Business, shall be cut off from his Share, and suffer
such other Punishment as the Captain and Company
shall think fit.
ARTICLE 9: If any man shall lose a joint in time of
Engagement, he shall have 400 Pieces of Eight: if a
ARTICLE 10: If at any time you meet with a prudent
Woman, that Man that offers to meddle with her,
without her Consent, shall suffer Death.