Real Pirates - how evil

I got in a spirited debate recently with a friend about real life pirates of the blackbeard variety. (Not people committing piracy today, but the classic old ones like Blackbeard.)

My question is: how evil were they? How often did they kill and rape as opposed to stealing? Did they attack civilian ships, or military ships, or ships in some sort of merchant marine? How much of the time were they “privateers” acting under governmental authority during time of war?


Your question is framed so broadly it would take a very lengthy post to address, since piracy went on for hundreds over years and affected many areas of the globe. I can, however, give some information about the time period and area I know best, that is, the Caribbean from the late 1500s to the early 1700s.

Certainly some pirates were notorious for their cruelty, such as Francois l’Ollonais. When the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan sacked Panama City in 1671, he tortured the inhabitants with great cruelty to make them tell where they had concealed their wealth. However, while torture and wanton cruelty certainly happened, I don’t have the impression, from fairly extensive reading, that that was the general rule. Although pirates were pretty rough customers, they often may not have used more force than was needed to get what they wanted. They would not, for example, murder a crew for no reason. Exquemelin, who wrote an account of the career of l’Ollonais, although a pirate himself clearly thought l’Ollonais’s cruelty was excessive. Like most other groups of robbers, they were more interested in the booty than violence per se.

Pirates would normally attack only merchant ships that might be carrying a rich cargo. They would generally not attack a naval ship except in self defense. As for the question about privateering, it really varied a lot depending on the time period and location.

I understand that the Black Skull and Crossbones indicated that they would ‘give quarter’ if one surrendered

  • and a Red Skull and Crossbones indicated that one had no chance

One could argue that ‘official piracy’ existed as long as official ‘prize money’ existed

Most pirating in the Japan/Korea/China area was operated out of the Japanese island, Tsushima. My teacher in college said with some certainty that these pirates were mostly run by the head of the island, the So family daimyo–though the internet isn’t showing anything to back up that claim right now. At times the island operated as its own mini-kingdom, and at others as a sort of vassal-state to either Japan or Korea. Starting in around the 1550s, Japan decided to start practicing serious trade with Korea and using Tsushima as the headquarters for this, so after this point the amount of pirating declined and the So family became the center of trading between the two countries.

Going from what I recall from what my teacher said (and some speculation), I think that in the most part the pirates would just land, run in and grab stuff and then run away. They did take people prisoners as slaves, to be sold back in Japan. However, these were I think generally to be teachers or to be craftsmen, as they would know the techniques of the mainland–so while there may have been some rape, I wouldn’t imagine there to have been too much.

Given that Tsushima was almost its own country, I would imagine that to some extent their ships did operate almost as a navy, so probably did fight battles or do whatever needed to keep their position as the head-dogs in that area of the ocean.

Check out Peter Benchley’s book The Island (and not the gawdawful movie made from it) for an interesting but wholly fictional look at latter-day pirates. Benchley actually credits l’Ollonais as the founder of a pirate colony in the Turks and Caicos… and they’re not nice people. Not at all. But in a Dawinian sense, their microsociety seems to work pretty well.

Or less either, right?

However Captain Peter Blood was a gentleman through and through.

Some were so evil you’d have to pronounce eeeeeveeeeil, like the froo-it of the deveeeiil.

(Just watched So I Married An Axe Murderer on cable. :slight_smile: )

Seriously though, often whether you were considered a pirate depended on the nationality of the speaker. To the English, Sir Francis Drake was a great naval commander and explorer. But he was a pirate and a terrorist to the Spanish, who Hispanicized his name to “El Draque”, or “The Dragon”.

I recently saw a very entertaining program on A&E about PIRATES
Check it out if you get a chance.

IIRC, most pirates prefered to kill as few people as possible, since if you made it a practice to kill everyone you met, in the future, others would be more inclined to fight you, which just made things more difficult than they needed to be. If you tried to fight against them though, I understand they didn’t have any qualms with dispatching you for your troubles. Also, specialists on sailing ships, such as coopers and carpenters, might find themselves being conscripted onto the pirate ship.

Also, in addition to the POV aspect (ie: the English and Spanish with Sir Francis Drake), there were also legitimate Privateers who, once whatever war they were fighting in had ended, and their letters of marque were revoked, would just go into business as a pirate so they wouldn’t have to go back to being a merchant.

Another point one might make is that being a sailor in general was a very dangerous occupation in the 18th century. The number of ships that sank in storms, and the potential for fatal or crippling injury, even if the ship survived a voyage, meant that your average sailor might not see the added risk in piracy as all that much greater. The pirate crew might not have been “evil” so much as a bunch of guys who felt they didn’t have much to lose.

I just skimmed through some parts of my copy of Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of the Americas (there are variant titles for the same work), which contains several first-hand accounts by pirates themselves. The one I checked is by Basil Ringrose, about a cruise along the Pacific coast of South and Central America in the late 1600s. In general, when they took a vessel, they would loot it and take the more important officers and passengers prisoner to be held for ransom, and also sometimes shanghai skilled crew members like pilots. They then would turn the rest of the prisoners free with the captured vessel and water and supplies (sometimes with most of the masts cut so they wouldn’t be able to raise the alarm quickly). There were, however, some instances of cruelty, as when they shot a friar and threw him overboard before he was dead. On one occasion, Ringrose himself captured some Spanish prisoners and turned them over to his Indian allies. When he found out the Indians wanted to kill them due to their hatred for the Spanish, he allowed them to escape. The favor was returned by a Spanish commander when Ringrose was captured a short time later, and the commander found out what he had done.

I would highly recommend Exquemelin’s book if you want to have some first hand accounts by pirates themselves; also William Dampier’s A New Voyage around the World.

Interesting… a similar incident occurs in the (fictional) Horatio Hornblower book “Beat To Quarters”, with Hornblower hiding the Spanish officers from the Natividad in HMS Lydia’s cable tier and telling El Supremo that they were executed, so as to prevent their deaths at his hands. I wonder if C.S. Forester (who has been known to borrow from various historical accounts for his books) used the incident you mention as the basis for that in the book. :slight_smile:

As has been mentioned, there’s a lot of fiction mixed in with the reality- randomly killing people was an excellent way to get the Royal Navy or the Spanish Navy on your case, but simply robbing ships and letting them be on their way would be more of an inconvenience (albeit a potentially ruinous one) than anything else.

And to paraphrase thoughts mentioned before: “One man’s Naval Hero is another man’s Pirate”. :wink:

And the big question no-one’s asked is "Were Pirates more evil than Ninja? :smiley:

Wouldn’t an account written by a pirate himself serve mainly as self-justification? I see the same thing in the self-justifications of criminals today. “We won’t use excessice force” “We steal only from the bad guys/the oppressor/the country we are at war with” “Ooh, l’Ollonais’s is a bad guy, and a disgrace to honest pirates like us”. The same purpose is served with the occasional act of generosity, especially if it makes a good story, like the one about the Indians, Just plain PR. Such a story gets told again and again and people tend to forget the 99 bloody, but otherwise uninteresting cases of murder, theft and robbery.

Quite true, so all these accounts have to be taken with a grain of salt (or perhaps a large handful). Typically, someone like Ringrose might mention an act like the murder of the friar and then say that he wasn’t able to stop it because he wasn’t in command. Of course pirates were in the business of theft and robbery (and kidnapping for ransom). However, they were not in the business of murder beyond whatever killing was necessary to subdue their victims, nor torture beyond what was needed to get them to reveal where loot might be hidden. Certainly some pirates were sadists who might have murdered and tortured simply for amusement, but as has already been mentioned, this was not good business - it would lead to stronger resistance on the part of victims, and provoke a stronger response on the part of authorities.

It would have been rare for a captured crew and passengers to have been murdered or tortured wholesale (and certainly the cliche of being forced to “walk the plank” is almost entirely mythical). Crew members would generally either be offered the opportunity to jon the pirate crew, or shanghaied if they were skilled, or marooned, or given boats or a ship to make it to shore. Those who resisted or caused trouble might be killed. Officers or wealthy passengers would have only very rarely been killed, being too valuable for ransom.

As Colibri says, that’s quite a broad question. I just finished reading Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age by Marcus Rediker. It’s a fascinating book, Max; you should check it out.

According to Rediker, who looks at piracy in the Atlantic from 1716 to 1726, pirates would often ask the crew of a captured ship how the captain treated them. If the crew said the captain treated them badly, he could expect to have his ship destroyed and could be killed or tortured himself. Captains who treated their crew well could usually expect better treatment.

Rediker also points out that many pirates during this period had been involved in the slave trade before turning to piracy. (Some ex-slaves became pirates, but for the most part, he’s talking about white sailors who worked on slave ships.) There were cases where pirates captured slave ships; raped the women on board; and sold the slaves themselves.

There were definitely some eeevil pirates and some less evil, but it’s safe to say that pirates were not nice people.

If you’re a pirate, and you capture a boat out in the middle of nowhere, aren’t you better off stealing what you want to steal, and then sinking the boat and killing everyone, leaving (a) no witnesses, and (b) no evidence that a crime was ever comitted at all? To the outside world, the boat just vanished without a trace, which in the Olde Dayes, was common enough.

No one’s going to come after you for murder if no one knows anyone was murdered to begin with.

Of course of they did that, no one would ever know (unless a pirate later confessed), so we wouldn’t have any historical record of it.

This certainly may have occurred on occasion, but my reading does not suggest it was common, at least in the time and place I am most familiar with, that is the Americas from the late 1500s to early 1700s. Accounts by (reformed) pirates themselves do not generally confess to such acts, even under duress from other crew members, or accuse other pirates of doing so.

My sense of the matter is that pirates, like most other criminal enterprises from the James gang to Al Capone to the Mafia, were no more evil or ruthless than they needed to be. Pirates, though certainly amoral, were not particularly depraved, as such things go. They were ruffians, not mass murderers.

I know its a zombie, but pirates were very common also in the Indian Ocean, especially on the India, Yemen-Horn of Africa route. Over there while the rather large European contingent did often kill, killings by native pirates were rare. I wonder if there was a racial element, which would be absent in the Americas.

never mind.