How Pirates Work

Captain Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean"
Captain Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean"
Image © Walt Disney Pictures/The Kobal Collection/Marks, Elliot

Imagine you're traveling across the ocean by ship. You've had a good voyage, with mild weather and smooth seas. You're standing on the deck, enjoying the breeze on your last night on board.

But suddenly, pirates appear on the deck. They demand money, cargo and access to the captain's safe. They take control of the ship and threaten to maroon you and the crew on a nearby island.


You're not on a Spanish galleon, though, and these pirates aren't in curly wigs and waistcoats. It's the present day, you're on a modern cargo ship and the pirates wear military fatigues and carry machine guns. Your ship becomes one of the hundreds to be attacked by pirates every year.

What does it take to be a pirate, and what does it take to survive if you meet one? In this article, we'll look at how pirates work, whether they're robbing and plundering in the 17th century or the 21st.

Being a pirate seems pretty self-explanatory -- pirates use boats to attack other boats with the intent to kidnap, steal or otherwise do harm. But that basic definition doesn't cover it. Violence on the high seas has to meet a few other criteria to be piracy:

Image © Michael S. Yamashita/CORBIS
  • The attack must be for private gain using private vessels. Military activities, environmental protests or acts of industrial espionage are not piracy.
  • The pirates must operate outside the authority of any government. In the past, people who behaved like pirates but had governmental authority (often in the form of a Letter of Marque, an official document granting permission to attack and plunder enemy ships) were called privateers. Governments used privateers to harass enemies and supplement navies during times of war. In peacetime, many privateers, including Sir Frances Drake, turned to piracy.

In the past, piracy included attacks on ports and other settlements on land. Most modern laws, though, apply only to attacks on ships at sea. Some laws apply only to ships in international waters, and some apply whether a ship is in motion, at anchor or berthed. In addition, some current definitions of piracy apply only if the attackers use a ship to reach their target. In other words, not every definition of piracy includes people stowing away on a ship in order to attack it at sea.

History of Piracy

Piracy has existed for as long as people have used boats to move cargo. Here's a brief overview of how piracy has existed through history:

  • Ancient texts describe the Lukka, who attacked boats off the coast of what is now Turkey, as early as the 14th century B.C.
  • Piracy was common off the coasts of ancient Greece and Rome until Roman leader Pompey orchestrated a massive anti-pirate campaign around 67 B.C. Various sources claim that as many as 10,000 pirates died.
  • In the 15th and 16th centuries, for example, corsairs robbed and plundered in the Mediterranean Sea. These pirates operated out of North African ports on the Barbary coasts -- for this reason, they were known as Barbary Pirates.
  • From the late 1500s to the 1600s, pirates preyed on the large Spanish galleons that visited the American coast, known as the Spanish Main, twice a year. These galleons dropped off supplies for the colonies and picked up gold and silver to take back to Spain.
  • In the 17th century, buccaneers used Port Royal, Jamaica and the island of Tortuga to attack Spanish trading ships in the Caribbean Sea.

In general, piracy has been prevalent in all parts of the world that have relied heavily on sea trade. For example, Chinese texts record pirates in the South China Sea beginning with the end of the Han Dynasty in 220 B.C.


But these historical pirates didn't really resemble the swashbuckling, aquatic Robin Hoods many people imagine when they think of pirates. Today, the word "pirate" conjures up a pretty specific image of a man with:

  • An enormous ship with lots of cannons and sails, as well as a flag bearing a skull and crossbones
  • A tricorne (three-cornered) hat or a bandanna
  • An extravagant, knee-length coat
  • A blousy shirt with lace or ruffles at the collar and cuffs
  • Knee-high boots with cuffs
  • Hoop earrings
  • Leathery skin and lots of scars
  • A cutlass, daggers and flintlock pistols
  • A peg leg or a hook in place of a hand
  • A pile of treasure
  • A map that leads to the treasure, on which X marks the spot
  • A parrot

This modern concept of the quintessential pirate comes from two primary sources: The Golden Age of Piracy, which lasted from the mid-1600s to the early 1700s, and books like "Treasure Island" and "Peter Pan."

We'll look at each of these in more detail in the next section.

The Golden Age of Piracy

Sources disagree about the exact dates of the Golden Age of Piracy, but most place it at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. Blackbeard, possibly the most well-known historical pirate, sailed during this period. Calico Jack, who sparked controversy by allowing women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Reade on his ship, was a Golden Age pirate as well.

Piracy peaked between 1690 and 1730 for several reasons. There were lots of ships to attack -- they carried slaves from Africa to the Americas and sugar, rum and other goods from the Americas to Europe. Additionally, the English and Dutch governments had used privateers during the War of the Spanish Succession. When this war ended in 1714, many privateers turned to piracy rather than accepting a less affluent life as a sailor on a merchant ship. New colonies on the American coast did not generally have the means to defend themselves against pirate attacks, so they became easy targets.


Golden Age pirates had many of the qualities that people associate with pirates today:

Image courtesy National Park Service
  • Flags: The Jolly Roger made its first appearance in the early 18th century. Before that, pirates often sailed under false colors, flying the same flag as nearby ships in order to gain captains' trust. Pirates used distinctive flags to threaten and intimidate their victims, who would often surrender without a fight. The pirates could then gain control of an undamaged ship without any loss of ammunition or life.
  • Clothes: Although they typically wore practical clothing that was well suited to life at sea, Golden Age pirates often had expensive, high-quality garments that they had taken as plunder from captured ships. The stereotypical pirate garb mimics the clothing that was popular during the Golden Age. You can see what this clothing looked like at the Costumer's Manifesto.
  • Parrots: Pirate ships didn't necessarily have resident parrots who shrieked, "Pieces of Eight," but pirates did often capture parrots in order to sell them.
  • Hooks and peg legs: Piracy was difficult, dangerous work, and pirates often lost limbs in battle or accidents. But two notable fictional characters have reinforced the idea of pirates with missing limbs -- Captain Hook from "Peter Pan" and Long John Silver from "Treasure Island." In addition, although most pirates were weathered and leathery, few were old. The challenges of a pirate's life meant that most were in their 20s.
  • Armaments: Flintlock pistols were common during the Golden Age of Piracy. But they also weren't very reliable at sea -- salt and water could keep them from firing. Pirates often went into battle armed with multiple flintlock pistols, a machete-like cutlass and multiple daggers.

In the next section, we'll look at the types of ships pirates used.

Pirate Ships and Myths

A basic ship design
A basic ship design

Golden Age pirates also have some notable differences from modern depictions. They generally used small, fast ships rather than immense galleons. Most used fast, maneuverable ships called sloops. Sloops could carry around 75 men and around 14 small cannons. They had shallow draughts, so they could travel into shallow water to evade or pursue other ships. Pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries also used schooners, which were American versions of sloops, and brigantines, which could hold about twice as many men as sloops.

These pirates also weren't usually after gold, silver and jewels. Their plunder consisted mainly of tobacco, rum, sugar and ordinary supplies. The concept of treasure maps and piles of wealth comes primarily from "Treasure Island" and other romanticized pirate tales. One notable exception is the pirate Sam Bellamy, whose ship Whydah sank off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in a storm in 1717. The Whydah's plunder included chests of gold and coins. National Geographic has more information about the Whydah and its treasure.


In addition, many stories and movies have depicted pirates as charming rogues or aristocrats forced into piracy through unfortunate circumstances. Pirates have been portrayed as romantic heroes, such as "The Princess Bride"'s Dread Pirate Roberts, or noble outlaws, such as "Pirates of the Caribbean"'s Captain Jack Sparrow. But pirates from every area, including the Golden Age, weren't usually noble or aristocratic. Although some followed codes of conduct and elected their captains democratically, they were still thieves and murderers. While some pirate ships were racially integrated, many participated in the slave trade by capturing and plundering slave ships.

Many people think of pirates as rich, living off the plunder of many ships. While some pirates had more wealth than merchant sailors, long sea voyages made their lives far from easy. The pirate diet often included spoiled meat, bitter water tainted with algae, and hard tack, which was like a very hard cracker that didn't spoil as quickly as ordinary bread. Even so, a ship's store of hard tack was often infested with small bugs called weevils. You can learn about hard tack and how to make your own at the Gettysburg National Military Park site.

Pirate Attacks

"The Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard," painted in 1718 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
"The Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard," painted in 1718 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
Image courtesy © Bettmann/CORBIS

When it came to attacking an enemy ship, pirates preferred to get up-close and personal. Pirates wanted to plunder ships before sinking them. Pirates needed to be able to plunder ships before they sank or to keep the ship rather than sinking it. This, in addition to their cannons' inherent dangerousness, made ship-to-ship battles risky. Pirates instead liked to intimidate their victims into surrendering or board the enemy ship and fight hand to hand on the deck.

The ideal pirate attack could go one of two ways. The pirates could approach their target openly, run up the Jolly Roger, and accept the ship's surrender. Or, the pirates could use smaller boats and board to the enemy ship using grappling hooks and ropes. One of the pirates would disable the ship's rudder to help prevent escape.


But not every ship surrendered peacefully, and not every raid went without a hitch, so pirates used heavy weapons when necessary. Cannon fire could disable or destroy a ship. Cannons could also fire double cannon balls or chain shot, which could damage or destroy masts and rigging. They could also fire grapeshot at the sailors. When firing at people, pirates generally tried to take out the sailor at the ship's wheel first.

When pirates successfully captured a ship, they had to deal with its crew. They could make the victims part of their own crew, kill them or sell them as slaves. Or, pirates could maroon the victims on an island, leaving them with few if any provisions. In addition, raids on ports and other settlements often involved torture, murder and kidnapping for ransom.

Pirates could be similarly violent when dealing with the crews of their own ships. Many codes of conduct listed death as the punishment for crimes like stealing or smuggling women on board. Another punishment was keelhauling, in which the offending pirate was tied to a rope and dragged under the keel of the boat. Keelhauling usually resulted in death by drowning, and the barnacles attached to the hull of the ship could rip the offending pirate's skin and clothing to shreds. Walking the plank, however, is a literary invention, not an actual pirating practice.

The Golden Age ended in the 1730s, as colonies on the coast of the Americas became more able to defend themselves from attacks. We'll look at how Golden Age pirates compare to modern pirates in the next section.

Modern Maritime Piracy

The USS Winston S. Churchill follows a suspected pirate vessel in the Indian Ocean in 2006.
The USS Winston S. Churchill follows a suspected pirate vessel in the Indian Ocean in 2006.
Image by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Kenneth Anderson, courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

Movies and books have romanticized the idea of classic pirates, but modern pirates are anything but romantic. In 2005, nearly 300 ships were the victims of pirate attacks, down from a peak of nearly 450 in 2003. Most of these attacks take place off the coast of Indonesia, Somalia and Bangladesh. Authorities also report that Iraq is becoming a new piracy hotspot. The most common targets for modern pirates are cargo ships, tankers and container ships. The ships are most vulnerable when they're berthed or anchored.

Piracy has flourished during the last few years for several reasons:


  • Economic conditions in piracy-prone areas have led some people to resort to illegal activity. These conditions have also prevented some governments from being able to respond adequately to reports of piracy.
  • Some shipmasters have been reluctant to report pirate attacks, since reporting procedures can lead to delays and expense. In some cases, shipmasters have also questioned the integrity and efficacy of local authorities.
  • Shipping companies have staffed ships with smaller crews to save money. A smaller staff is less able to keep constant watch or respond to threats.

Modern pirates use some of the same tactics as Golden Age pirates. They often attack ships from astern at night, using grappling hooks and ropes or hooks on poles to board the ship before anyone raises the alarm. But modern pirates aren't always after a ship's cargo, since selling large amounts of goods requires access to markets that will accept them. Instead, pirates take the crew's personal valuables, electronic items and other supplies. In addition, some ships keep large amounts of money in a safe to purchase supplies and compensate for exchange rates. A ship's safe can be a tempting target for pirates.

For the most part, these attacks take place relatively near shore, and the pirates use small speedboats to carry them out. But some attacks have occurred as many as 400 nautical miles from the shoreline. In these cases, authorities have suspected that smaller ships worked in conjunction with a large mother ship, carrying fuel, supplies and ammunition. A few attacks from canoes have also taken place very near the shore.

As with Golden Age pirates, modern pirates arm themselves heavily. They use guns, knives, grenades and rocket launchers. Pirates threaten and assault crew members, take hostages and maroon their victims. They may also transfer the ship's crew to the attack vessel and depart with the entire ship and its cargo. In some cases, crew members have died at the hands of modern pirates. Pirates also take advantage of current technology, monitoring communications between ships and ports to determine the best targets and plan of attack.

Unlike Golden Age pirates, who often spent their lives at sea, modern pirates typically operate from shore. The few who pursue a career in piracy rather than attacking a few random ships must have access to markets to sell their plunder. They must also have an organizational structure, weapons and surveillance equipment. Pirates who steal entire ships have to find sympathetic ports where the authorities are willing to disregard their illegal activities. In these ports, pirates re-register ships with new names and false identification, creating phantom ships to use for illegal purposes.

Preventing Pirate Attacks

Fortunately, there are tools and techniques for avoiding, preventing and surviving pirate attacks. A satellite system called ShipLoc allows shipping companies to monitor the location of their ships. This can be particularly useful if pirates hijack or steal a ship. Companies can also install non-lethal electrical fences around a ship's perimeter, as long as that ship does not carry flammable cargo. In addition, International Maritime Organization regulations require ships to be able to send distress signals and warnings covertly in case of pirate attack.

To prevent pirate attacks, crews should:


  • Avoid discussing a ship's route or cargo while in port
  • Keep constant watch in areas prone to piracy
  • Avoid bottlenecks in shipping lanes
  • Search the ship before leaving port to make sure no one is on board without authorization

The best defense against a pirate attack is evasion -- it's easier to keep pirates from boarding than to force them to leave. Upon detecting the approach of pirates, a crew should:

  • Call for help and warn other ships in the area
  • Take evasive action and attempt to out-maneuver the attackers
  • Sound the alarm, use the ship's lights to illuminate the vessel, and do anything else to make the pirates aware that they have lost the element of surprise

If the pirates approach the ship, the crew should first try to throw off any grappling hooks or poles before the pirates can board. Crew can also use the ship's fire hoses to deter pirates or try to push them overboard. However, experts discourage crew members from carrying firearms, since the presence of weapons can encourage attackers to respond with violence.

Once the pirates board the ship, the crew's first priority is to ensure their own safety. The crew should also try to stay in control of the craft and encourage the pirates to depart. You can read more about recommendations for surviving a pirate attack on the International Maritime Organization's safety pages.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Butler, Lindley S. "Pirates, Privateers and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast." The University of North Carolina Press. 2000.
  • Cordingly, David. "Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates." Random House. 1995.
  • International Maritime Bureau. "IMB Piracy Report, First Quarter 2006." March 31, 2006.
  • International Maritime Bureau. "Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships - Annual Report - January 1-December 31 2005." January 31, 2006.
  • International Maritime Organization. "Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Recommendations to Governments for Preventing and Suppressing Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships." June 16, 1999
  • International Maritime Organization. "Measures to Enhance Maritime Security." June 10, 2003.
  • International Maritime Organization. "Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships." May 29, 2002.
  • International Maritime Organization. "Reports on Acts of Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships." May 5, 2006.
  • International Maritime Organization. "Reports on Acts of Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Annual Report - 2005." March 22, 2006.
  • Johnson, Derek and Erika Pladdet. "An Overview of Current Concerns in Piracy Studies and New Directions for Research." Position Paper for the Piracy Panels and Roundtable at the conference: People and the Sea II: Conflicts, Threats and Opportunities. International Institute for Asian Studies and the Centre for Maritime Research. Amsterdam. August 1, 2003
  • Konstam, Angus. "The History of Pirates." The Lyons Press, 1999.