Language and History

A Roman historian named Polybius is thought to be the first to use the word peirato around 140 BC. It was later defined by Greek historian Plutarch as those who attack ships or maritime cities without legal reasons. Homer, in his novels the Iliad and the Odyssey, discussed sailors who fought on the sea out of greed rather than out of survival or defense. However, it was still unclear what a pyrate was. Scandinavian pillagers, for instance, were called Vikings and not pyrates even though they seemed to fit this definition. But they rarely attacked while at sea, porting before plundering, which may have made all the difference.

The term pirate did not solidify to how we understand it until the late 1600s as laws were to be passed against acts of piracy. In fact, the first international law was partially anti-pirate legislation. Still, sometimes it seems that piracy was subjective. The same way one side's patriot is another side's traitor, some pirates were considered beneficial and were offered harbor and aid by one government, and hunted by another. For example, Sir Francis Drake was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth of England to disrupt Spanish commerce from the New World. He was allowed to stay in any English port freely, though he would be killed if he stepped foot on Spanish soil. These types of pirates were called privateers. Letters of marque were given from one government and authorized a privateer to seize or destroy merchant ships from another government. Technically this wasn't piracy because letters of marque were recognized by international law. However, many privateers were hung in spite of this.

In the early 1800s with the addition of tougher anti-piracy laws as well as the build up of powerful imperial navies, such as Great Britain's and later the United States', piracy ceased to be a threat to international commerce and became a thing of legends. Although there is some piracy that still takes place, it is nothing like it was in its heydays of the latter 1600s and 1700s.

There would be a lot of fictional literature published, which would solidify pirates in legend, for example; Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Treasure Island. The most famous fictional pirate is Long John Silver. Most of our pirate stereotypes are taken from his character in Treasure Island (peg leg, eye patch, parrot on shoulder, etc.). Even the accent of the pirate was provided by Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in Disney's Treasure Island (1950), while portraying a salty Cornish sailor.

The word pirate did reemerge again in 1964 when a wealthy Irishman by the name of Ronan O'Rahilley started a phenomenon called pirate radio. To circumvent British broadcasting regulation, he setup radio stations on ships in international waters off the coast of Europe. The passing of Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in 1967, which made these activities illegal, really did nothing to stop their utter popularity. Today, even illegal land based radio stations are considered pirate radio stations.

Pirate gained an enormous amount of usage at the beginning of the information revolution. It originally was used to describe those who copied literature without paying for it. Information pirate now go on to describe theft of other types of intellectual property such as computer software, sound and video recordings.


A Pirate's life.

Life on a pirate ship was in a lot of ways like life on other seafaring ships at the time. The crew was made up of unmarried men, with very few exceptions. Their voyages would last from a few weeks to a few months. Although the daily operations of the ship were the top priority, they weren't all consuming, leaving quite a bit of free time. There wasn't much to do on a pirate ship while underway. Fights were common, even if there was no real grievance; they were conducted sometimes to break the monotony of the voyage.

Unlike other ships, the Captain was not necessarily all commanding. Although he was in charge during battles, most decisions that did not need to be made in haste were made by a democratic vote of the crew. Also contrary to other naval ships, food, water, and spirits were rationed equally between the officers and the crew. As loot was concerned, the Captain usually got a share and a half and the other officers got a share and a quarter. On conventional ships the Captain and first mate were usually the only ones that made any sort of money off the voyage, the crew being paid pennies a day along with their rations.

The stories of buried pirate treasure are just that, stories. Because pirates rarely left the life of piracy, their only real chance to spend their loot was at port on shore leave. They would drink, feast and fuck, spending fortunes in just a few nights of partying. Although some accounts talk of pirates raping female captives, raping maidens while at port was something most pirate captains did not tolerate. This was one of the few things that were punishable by death. For their erotic pleasure, there were usually an abundance of prostitutes who would oblige them for a piece of their fortune. Shore leave wasn't all fun and games, however. They would have to make preparations for the next voyage, which required every man to do some hard labor, loading supplies, scraping barnacles from the hull and mending parts of the ship.

Pirate Ships and Battle Tactics

What made a good pirate ship? Good pirates. Some Captains like large ships, which could ram or out gun most merchant ships. However, most preferred smaller ships that were fast, maneuverable and took less crew to operate. But when it came down to an engagement, what really won the fight was their use of psychology. More often than not, through use of fear, they terrified the crews of merchant ships into surrendering without fight. And when they did fight, they used fear to give them the few seconds of hesitation needed to make a kill.

Upon an engagement, pirate Captains rarely fired continuous cannon volleys or rammed their prey. The ships were too valuable to sink, and they would have to repair any damage they did before moving on to their next victim. Instead they would pull along side their quarry, boarding them with gangplanks or by swinging on ropes.

Unlike the Dread Pirate Roberts and other fictional pirates, most did not execute the entire crew upon a victory. Sometimes they would execute the Captain and other officers if they learned they had operated their ship with cruelty. Most pirates had served on merchant ships under cruel captains. And this was never so ceremonial as making them walk the plank. They were either killed quickly out of mercy or it was done torturously slow. Most prisoners were forced into joining the crew and helping the pirates. Those who refused to join were used as entertainment in various capacities before being thrown over board. Of those who did join, some even chose to continue as a pirate even after they had reached a port. For those who wished to part company, pirate captains were known to give them papers stating that they were force into helping the outlaws.

Pirate Weapons

Pirates are most commonly known for using short swords and in particular the cutlass. Although most pirates did use sabers and cutlasses, every pirate had a dagger. In addition to being a nice piece of steel to plunge into a man's chest, they were commonly used in day-to-day life on the ship.

Other than cannon, pirates used a variety of other smaller ballistics. Muskets were used sparsely, as they were very poor at close range. Shorter guns, such as the musketoon or the pistol were used more frequently. Actually, some pirates would carry three or four pistols with them into battle. In those days, guns were not quick to reload. It was nice to have a few backups in the 20 to 30 seconds it took to get a gun ready to fire again.

The blunderbuss was probably the pirate's most feared weapon. Its funnel shaped barrel allowed for its shot to spread out over a wide area taking any man in that range with it. Equal to the blunderbuss's devastation was the pirate's use of hand grenades. They were one of the first to use grenades in combat. The grenades were simply hollow iron balls stuffed with gun power, metal scraps, and sometimes glass or porcelain.

Pirates cared a great deal for their weapons. The maintenance of which was of very high priority, second only to the operations of the ship.

Pirate Standards

Each pirate captain had his own standard or flag in which he flew from his masts. Those that are most commonly identified as the pirate flag are Edward England and Richard Worley's standards, which display a skull with crossed bones. Similar to those two, John Rackham's (Calico Jack) standard had a skull with crossed cutlasses.

These standards were not flown constantly. Usually they were raised only as they were about to attack as a method to instill fear in their victims. The flag that frightened the most was a red flag. This meant survivors of the battle would not be given quarter, or better put there would be no survivors. It is thought that this is where the term Jolly Roger comes from, a bastardized version of the French joli rouge meaning pretty red.

Famous Pirates

Sir Francis Drake
John Rackham
Anne Bonny
Mary Read
Grace O'Malley
Black Sam Bellamy
Sir Henry Morgan
Captain Kidd
Bartholomew Roberts
Francois L'Ollonois
Jean Lafitte
John Hawkins
Israel Hands
Henry Avery
The pirate Mundaca

Dread Pirate Roberts
Long John Silver
Captain Hook



Thanks to The Content Rescue Team for bringing this to my attention!