Man Knowledge: A Pirate Primer

by Chris on March 21, 2011 · 51 comments

in Manly Knowledge

Once again we return to our Man Knowledge series, where we set out to equip you with a deeper knowledge of various manly and interesting topics throughout history.  Today we set sail for the horizon, delving deep into a topic which has at some point captured the imagination of every young boy and grown man alike…pirates.  One look at the impact piracy has had on our entertainment industry, from literary classics such as Treasure Island to the billion dollar blockbuster movie franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, and our fascination with these terrors of the high seas quickly becomes evident.  But just who were these maritime marauders, really?  A look beyond the romance of the golden age of piracy reveals a starkly different, yet equally interesting reality.

“In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.”

-Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts

Piracy, in the imagination of the general public, has certainly been romanticized.  You can rest assured that J.M. Barrie’s Captain Hook or Disney’s Jack Sparrow have little in common with their forebearers.  So what were the real pirates like?  Two schools of thought offer vastly different images of piracy.  Some would portray pirates as black hearted scallywags whose only aim in life was to rape, plunder, and pillage the good people of the civilized world.  For them, piracy represented all the negative stereotypes of manliness run amok as these marauders roamed the high seas aiming to do little more than satisfy their greed and bloodlust.  Others, however, portray them as men of ideals who were simply unwilling to live the life that dry land offered, with a government over their heads and no money in their pockets.  From this perspective, they were the great rebels of their time. By taking to sea and living by their own rules, they hold the same kind of fascination–marked by a strange mix of both revulsion and admiration–we have with outlaws, gangsters, and the like.

Pirate or Privateer?

Understanding the difference between pirates and privateers is critical to understanding the subject as a whole, and this distinction is often overlooked.  For example, if I asked you who Captain Henry Morgan was, you would likely say that he was a pirate (or purveyor of adult beverages), but you would be wrong.  Morgan, who harassed the Spanish navy in the Caribbean in the 17th century, hoarding Spanish silver and creating many widows back in Spain, did so as an agent of the British government. As a privateer, he had been granted a letter of marque from the English Crown which essentially permitted him to commit acts of piracy against any and all Spanish ships with no fear of repercussion from England.  This agreement gave England an agent of atrocity in the Caribbean, and allowed Morgan his fair share of booty claimed from ships he captured.  Pirates, on the other hand, held allegiance to no government, and answered only to their own desires.  Authority for a pirate went no higher than the highest rank on the ship.  It is worth noting that many privateers did in fact turn to full blown piracy during times of peace, when no “legally obtained” booty was to be had.

In addition to this distinction, several other regional variants of pirates existed.  Most notable among these were buccaneers and corsairs. Buccaneers got their start as land based pirates who attacked Spanish ships in the Caribbean from islands bases on Hispaniola and elsewhere.  Eventually, their services were legalized by the British government, who issued them letters of marque for their deeds, effectively changing them from pirates to privateers.  Corsairs shared similar traits with buccaneers, being pirates turned privateers, in this instance in service of the French crown, not the English.

Going on the Account – Becoming a Pirate

Obviously, making the transition from law-abiding citizen to pirate was a conscious choice, but what was it that motivated men to choose such a lifestyle?  By the time a man turned to piracy he likely had years of sailing experience under his belt, either as a navy sailor or as a merchant mariner.  An honest life at sea was racked with hardship, as rotting rations, insufficient pay, and overwhelming workloads pushed many sailors to the brink.  Often, when a merchant or naval vessel was seized by pirates, the pirate captain would make an appeal to the captured crew for volunteers, and there were always takers.  As pirates, the new recruits would enjoy an equal share of any swag seized from captured vessels, and they no longer fell under company or government regulations.  To put it simply, a life as a pirate for many of these men offered freedom, although they had to sacrifice their scruples to obtain it.

The Articles of Agreement

Break the pirate code and you could be marooned on a deserted island.

Life aboard ship for a pirate was worlds apart from that of a navy sailor or merchant marine, but there were still regulations to follow and a code of honor to uphold.  Many different versions of pirate codes existed, and it is reasonable to assume that each captain had his own version.  Some common characteristics of all pirate codes were an outline of how any booty was to be divided, how a pirate who suffered a debilitating injury was to be compensated, and of course, punishment for improper conduct.  While there was not a great deal of rules on board ship, those that existed were strictly enforced.  It was not uncommon for those found in violation of the code to be docked their share of rations, whipped with a cat o’ nine tails, or even marooned.  Set your sights on the code of the infamous Captain Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, which paints an interesting picture of a pirate’s life at sea:

I. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity (not an uncommon thing among them) makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.

II. Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because, (over and above their proper share) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment. If the robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set him on shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere, where he was sure to encounter hardships.

III. No person to game at cards or dice for money.

IV. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck.

V. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.

VI. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death; (so that when any fell into their hands, as it chanced in the Onslow, they put a sentinel immediately over her to prevent ill consequences from so dangerous an instrument of division and quarrel; but then here lies the roguery; they contend who shall be sentinel, which happens generally to one of the greatest bullies, who, to secure the lady’s virtue, will let none lie with her but himself.)

VII. To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.

VIII. No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol. (The quarter-master of the ship, when the parties will not come to any reconciliation, accompanies them on shore with what assistance he thinks proper, and turns the disputant back to back, at so many paces distance; at the word of command, they turn and fire immediately, (or else the piece is knocked out of their hands). If both miss, they come to their cutlasses, and then he is declared the victor who draws the first blood.)

IX. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.

X. The captain and quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize: the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and quarter.

XI. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.

The Jolly Roger

Artwork by jdm77

Finally, no discussion of pirates is complete without some mention of the timeless symbol of swashbuckling, the Jolly Roger. Although there is no consensus on the matter, the naming of the pirate flag is believed to originate from the French jolie rouge, meaning “pretty red.”  This would refer to the common red flags used by numerous maritime marauders during the golden age of piracy which signified the intent to fight to the death.  Many others used a simple black flag, which carried the same meaning.  The more colorful pirates had custom flags, such as Edward Low’s famous skull over crossed bones, which has since become the standard.  More interesting flags contained frightening illustrations, such as Blackbeard’s skeleton devil stabbing a heart with a spear.  Black Bart Robert’s flag showed a man and a skeleton both holding an hourglass, representing the pirate’s comfort with the prospect of his coming death.

Unlike the pirates of modern cinema, true pirates did not fly their jolly roger at all times.  More often than not, pirates would fly “false colors” of a nation as a surprise tactic.  The pirate ship would sail close to a ship while flying matching flags, then raise their own colors at the last minute, thus creating a panic on board the ship about to be commandeered.  Often, the mere sight of certain pirate flags would incite a crew to abandon their ship without a fight.

Read our follow-up post: 5 Pirates Every Man Should Know

Now that you have some pirate know-how, do you think you would have been drawn to the life at sea?  What would your awesome pirate nickname have been?

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joan of Argghh! March 21, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Of course my name is already my pirate name!

Can I share a couple of links for those interested in more pirate knowledge?

I know the author of this historic littel primer of pirates and ships, Handbook of 50 Pirates. He’s a map and history buff and the book is very nicely done with unique documents and illustrations.

If ye would be a Good Pirate and make a living at it, go to the source. Max Hardberger and Vessel Extractions is looking for a few good men!

2 Harrison March 21, 2011 at 11:35 pm

Empire of Blue Water by Stephen Talty is a good read for those interested in this subject.

3 Mark March 21, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Ragnar Danneskjold. Greatest American pirate

4 CalicoJack March 21, 2011 at 11:55 pm

do i think i “would have been” drawn to the life at sea? i AM drawn to the life at sea — and currently accepting applications from those who’d like to join my newly formed band of marauders. we’re starting off the coast of the somali republic, and will probably work our way south towards mozambique. if you’re interested give me a shout out, and i can get you an application and set you up for an interview.

oh, and i’m also looking for a good parrot (should anyone have one they’re willing to part with).

5 Captain John Flint March 22, 2011 at 12:13 am

The website I added is a fun pirate name generator.

6 Captain John Flint March 22, 2011 at 12:13 am
7 Robert Weedall March 22, 2011 at 5:21 am

Considering scurvy, whipping, being surrounded by people who haven’t washed in weeks, mental instability and poor quality booze I would rather have shot myself in the face than become a pirate. The fact that pirate captains were about as stable as someone juggling olive oil coated chainsaws (blackbeards famous shooting of one of his own crew the best example) also doesn’t lead to a very good workplace environment.

And considering, why is armed robbery and rape automatically okay once conducted on the ocean? If anything you could compare pirates to a more disorganised and stupid Mafia gang.

8 Chris Homan March 22, 2011 at 7:36 am

Well, now that Robert’s killed the party, let me attempt to bring it back.

Would I have become a pirate?? Ultimately, no, but who among us hasn’t dreamt of it in our youth. Oftentimes, my childhood fantasies were filled with life at sea under the “Jolly Roger”, searching for buried treasure, burying treasure of my own, fighting it out with the good guys, etc.

9 Red Roger Rackham March 22, 2011 at 8:17 am

Thanks Capt John Flint for that link. Was fun to discover my pirate name.hahahaha

10 Gentleman's Black Book March 22, 2011 at 8:27 am

One thing I love about this site is that you read things that you would otherwise never come across. Logging on just now I had no idea I would be reading about pirates, but it was a great, and very interesting read.


11 Iron Jack Cash March 22, 2011 at 8:41 am

The truth is harsher than fiction, yes. We’ve romanticized the Mafia and Gangbanger lifestyle in very similar ways. We love to romanticize those that defy authority and live only on their own terms, uncompromising. In 10 years, I’m sure we’ll have similar stories of the Somali pirates.

12 Nathan March 22, 2011 at 9:59 am

I’m sure my pirate name would have something to do with my size or height (being 6’6″ 260-ish), but I don’t know what it would have been…i’m not that creative.

13 Bloody Sam Kidd March 22, 2011 at 10:30 am

Great pirate name generator!
The best non-fictional account of the pirate life I’ve ever read is Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly. It is a great read and well worth your time if you are interested in pirates.

14 Greg K. March 22, 2011 at 10:35 am

As a lifeguard and swim coach, I sometimes called myself Achim Abdul Akbar, the Pirate to amuse the kids and co-workers.

15 Michael A. Robson March 22, 2011 at 11:25 am

This is so freaking awesome! Why don’t they teach this scho— oh right.

16 Mad Tom Roberts March 22, 2011 at 12:32 pm

The only way I would have actually become a pirate was if my ship was commandeered and given the choice between piracy or back into the naval service. Mostly because I would have to have been pressed into naval service in the first place. So, given the choice between the bad rations, bad hygiene and bad pay of naval service or bad rations, bad hygiene and the possible decent share of the take with piracy? Scruples be damned!

17 Gary March 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm

IX. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.

So pirates had a workers compensation system well before the concept was developed in Germany.

18 "Doc Sixteen" March 22, 2011 at 1:36 pm

I really enjoyed reading this. There is so much of this world we’re convinced we’ve mastered, yet the sea remains as vast and mysterious as ever when you really think about it. Who among us here today would venture such a trip, without aid of diesel, GPS, and satellite communications?

Presumed villainy aside, such an adventure has quite the appeal.

Yo ho ho.

19 Baradoch March 22, 2011 at 2:35 pm

My name would have been Baradoch Brochanon,
If I had desired the pirate’s life.
I would have brandished gun and cannon,
And in each port a waiting wife.

But I choose to be faithful, and have a good heart,
True to God and my land.
I brandish PowerPoint, markers, and flip-charts,
And desire a wife at my hand.

20 Captain James Scoundrel March 22, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Any man speaks ill of a pirate has to face me cutlass in hand.

21 Tim Smith March 22, 2011 at 3:54 pm

An excellent modern work on mutiny and piracy is Marcus Rediker’s _Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea_. He maintains that seamen under the command of a tyrannical captain had only a couple of options. What we would call a strike is, by maritime law, mutiny. And since mutiny was punishable by death, there was really no reason not to go the whole route and set up as the employee-owned joint stock company we know as a pirate ship….

22 CPT Sam March 22, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Your pirate name is:
Captain Sam Kidd

Even though there’s no legal rank on a pirate ship, everyone recognizes you’re the one in charge. Even though you’re not always the traditional swaggering gallant, your steadiness and planning make you a fine, reliable pirate. Arr!
(Seem wrong? Try it again.)


23 Jason March 22, 2011 at 4:43 pm

I’ve long been fascinated by pirates and definitely could see myself as being one. I would have been the notorious and ruthless Captain Devil Shark ( I love sharks)

24 Claude March 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Pirates have become almost mythological. Like cowboys and knights. The real history is interesting, but i dont mind the fables too. Its just fun.

Would I ever actually do it? I dont think so.

25 Carter March 22, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Pirate knowledge is essential manly stuff!

It could be a good trip too, exploring famous pirate sites around the Caribbean. I’ll work on that.

26 Mike March 22, 2011 at 5:31 pm

I was so sad that I missed International Speak Like a Pirate Day this year. In real life, I wouldn’t be a pirate but as a character in Treasure Island (the book, not the movie, or muppets) I’d have taken on the name Mike the Red Darby.

27 Black Anne Kidd March 22, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Great article!

I don’t think I would have been a pirate back then…I get motion sickness!!

28 TheInvisibleSwordsman March 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm

You wouldn’t be wrong if you thought Henry Morgan was a pirate. He became a pirate when England and Spain agreed to peace because he continued to rob and pillage even though he no longer had permission from the English Crown.

29 Jason K March 22, 2011 at 10:22 pm

The history of pirating is long and truly rich. It goes all they way from waxing years of the Roman Republic with Pompey (contemporary of Cesar), all the way to a fledgling United States of America and the Barbary pirates. They had their own quasi-nation to which the greatest powers at the time paid extortion money. 1,700 years.

They were also true innovators- testing new ship designs, pushing the limits of seamanship, and dragging nations into the future.

Race and Creed did not matter on the ship. The captain was not a dictator. He ruled by the grace of the ruled and was often the man pictured lonely on the island.

All together now: 1, 2, 3, Arrrrhhg!


30 Carver March 23, 2011 at 12:18 am

My Pirate name would be simply “Carver” more notably for my ability to carve and fashion wood in the oldest traditions of carpentry. But like the “Ninja” who came to use faming tools in interesting and more pragmatic ways with ruthless effeciency it makes too much sense.

31 Isaac March 23, 2011 at 2:29 am

Having been in the modern Navy I bet being a pirate would have sucked 100x more, so I must decline the offer.

32 Douglas the Black March 23, 2011 at 9:39 am

We named my daughter Grace after Grace O’Malley.

33 Edward Teach March 23, 2011 at 9:59 am

One thing to remember about pirate ships is that the “Captain” was essentially an elected leader — the company President, so to speak. He commanded in battle and sometimes got an extra share, but he didn’t have the authority of even a merchant skipper otherwise. As to whippings, those were usually imposed by consent of th eother crew, not at the whim of the captain or mate. Often the quartermaster or bosun acted as the company’s treasurer or comptroller, and was as influential as the captain.

Privateers were run on more conventional merchant/naval lines. Fun fact: William & Mary College invested heavily (and profitably) in privateering ventures during the American Revolution.

34 Joe Gale March 23, 2011 at 10:03 am

I’m actually in a class right now called “The World History of Piracy” and pirates are a fascinating facet of society. There are a few problems wrong with this article, unfortunately. You should clarify that the pirates in this article are Atlantic pirates; Mediterranean pirates, African pirates, and Asian pirates were different in some areas than their Atlantic counterparts. Also, the only distinction between a privateer and a pirate is a matter of perception. You may remember the surprisingly accurate line from Muppet Treasure Island:

Now take Sir Francis Drake, the Spanish all despise him
But to the British he’s a hero and they idolize him
It’s how you look at buccaneers that makes them bad or good
And I see us as members of a noble brotherhood.

To the victims of privateers, they were pirates. To those issueing the letters of marque to them, they were still usually regarded as pirates but pirates on their side and under a limited amount of control. Yet it was this lack of true control that states eventually turned against privateering – at the time, it was a good way to wage economic war against enemies and supplement their smaller navy, but eventually the pirates were too troublesome to keep around.

35 Paul II March 23, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Sounds exciting (privateering, not plundering)

36 Gil March 24, 2011 at 1:53 am

If anyone wants to live the life of a pirate then why not travel to the coast of Somalia? Pirates still exist! Go forth ye swashbucklers!

37 Justin March 24, 2011 at 5:57 am

Yes I also would like to become a pirate, but I’m worried about conditions of occupational health and safety.

38 Tom Smedley March 24, 2011 at 8:46 am

A distant relation of mine, Samuel Smedley, became “the boy commander” when he took the helm of the 62-foot brig Defender at the age of 16. During a three-year period ending in 1778, he became George Washington’s most successful pirate, at least in terms of British tonnage pillaged. The Defender carried 16 six-pounders, 24 swivel guns, 100 muskets, 59 pistols, 51 cutlasses, 11 blunderbuss “murthers,” and two boarding hooks — sufficient to capture 13 ships and 600 prisoners. “Smedley was probably the youngest commanding officer in service during the Revolutionary War.” (source; an old newspaper column, “As Strange as it Seems” by John Hix)

You have to admit, free enterprise has its charms. If we were to issue letters of marque and reprisal against the Somali pirates, the problem would soon be solved.

39 Stephen March 24, 2011 at 11:26 am

It’s the same thing.

A filthy scumbag thief flying a government flag on the ocean (or wearing a government badge on the freeway) is still a filthy scumbag thief. At least real pirates had the courage to work independently and take responsibility for what they did instead of hiding behind government costumes to justify their crimes. When you take that which belongs to another, you’re a thief. No government flag can change that.

However, never one to ruin a good yarn, I still enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean and can’t wait for the new film. From a fantasy standpoint, piracy is a lot of fun. :)

40 Stephen March 24, 2011 at 11:27 am

“You have to admit, free enterprise has its charms. If we were to issue letters of marque and reprisal against the Somali pirates, the problem would soon be solved.”

Ditto that.

41 Lonejack March 24, 2011 at 3:24 pm

@ Stephen

“When you take that which belongs to another, you’re a thief. No government flag can change that.”

I agree. Over the centuries, kings, parliaments, presidents, trans-national financiers such as the House of Rothschild, and other government tyrants have plundered and murdered their subjects many orders of magnitude more than pirates ever have. Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot are prime 20th century examples. The recent bailouts, against the people’s will and at their and their descendants’ expense, of the “too-big-to-fail” banks, the very perpetrators of our current economic crisis, is history’s biggest heist so far.

42 Knuckle-Barry Grim March 24, 2011 at 3:25 pm


43 Tony Pivetta March 24, 2011 at 9:17 pm

My birthday is September 19th, which is also International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

44 P.M.Lawrence March 24, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Morgan, who harassed the Spanish navy in the Caribbean in the 17th century, hoarding Spanish silver and creating many widows back in Spain, did so as an agent of the British government... Eventually, their services were legalized by the British government…

No, he didn’t, and they weren’t. There was no British government then – it was before the Act of Union of 1707.

Mad Tom Roberts wrote:-

So, given the choice between the bad rations, bad hygiene and bad pay of naval service or bad rations, bad hygiene and the possible decent share of the take with piracy?

Under prize rules, naval service also offered the possible decent share of the take.

45 Captain Salty Seaman March 25, 2011 at 6:23 am

Aaaaargh aaaaarrgh aargh. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh aargh aargh aaaaaargh ya swabs.

46 Michael P March 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm

@Tony Pivetta For Int’l Talk Like a Pirate Day, I’m going to learn Somali…

47 Bartholomew March 25, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Do you always get your content from Wikipedia?

48 Chris March 25, 2011 at 5:57 pm

@ Bartholomew:

Nope, sure don’t. Didn’t in this case either, but thanks for reminding me to post my sources.

Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly

Villains of All Nations by Marcus Rediker

Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates by Robert Ritchie

Bandits at Sea – A Pirate Reader by C.R.Pennel

49 Clockwork March 26, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Yeah, Capt. Morgan was most certainly a pirate in his later years. check your sources.

50 Bloody Jack Kidd March 27, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Arrrrrgh I’ve got scurvy!

51 Scott April 5, 2011 at 10:58 pm

That…was awesome! This is one of my favorite AoM articles! I went to a bookstore and picked up a copy of Treasure Island, because after reading this article, I just wanted more pirates!

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