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History of Pirates

History | 7-14 yrs | Interactive, Reading Pod

What is a Pirate?

When you think of the image of a pirate, an image of an evil seaman with an eye patch over one eye, a cutlass in his hand and shoddy clothes appears before your eyes. Well, these so-called ‘Robin Hoods’ of the sea really existed once and were very powerful in their times. The only difference was that unlike the real Robin Hood, most of them were extremely ruthless and committed the act of piracy just for their selfish gains.

The Brief History of Piracy

Piracy began more than 2000 years ago in Ancient Greece, when sea robbers started flocking around the trading routes. These sea robbers challenged all those who passed from there and looted them mercilessly.

Piracy was at its peak between 1620 and 1720. That is why this period is also known as the golden age of piracy. During this time, there have been different types of pirates, these being privateers, buccaneers, and corsairs.

Privateers were lawful pirates who were permitted by their government to attack and plunder the ships of enemy nations. The privateers in return shared their profits with the government.

Famous Pirates

Francis Drake was England’s most famous privateer who shared his profits with Elizabeth I, and was knighted for his services.

In the 1660s, Captain Henry Morgan, was commissioned by England to fight against Spain. Captain Morgan continued his ‘legal piracy’ for about a decade and shared his loot with England. Later he took retirement and lived out his days in honor, in Jamaica.

Buccaneers were pirates who operated from bases in the West Indies and attacked Spanish ships in the Caribbean whereas corsairs were Christian or Muslim pirates who operated in the Mediterranean.

Most of the seamen took to piracy in the hope of becoming rich and leading a better life. However, they had to abide by some stringent rules enforced by the captain of the ship. These rules were often strict and breaking them meant punishment by death. If a pirate was found stealing from his comrades or deserting during battle, he was marooned on a desert island.

Pirates used to think of innovative ways of making several modifications on their ships to obtain better speed and power for attack. They used to hijack the victim ships by jamming the rudder with wooden wedges so that the victim ship could not be steered and then used grappling hooks to board it.

The pirates were heavily armed with pistols, daggers and cutlasses, designed for violent hand-to-hand fighting. They also utilized homemade weapons, such as hand grenades made by filling liquor bottles with gunpowder and created smoke screens by lighting up yellow sulphur.

The merchant seamen aboard the victim ship tried to prevent pirates from climbing over by greasing their decks or throwing dried peas or broken glass on the decks. However, there was little that they could do to save themselves and had to eventually surrender.

Organized piracy and privateering was finally ended in the nineteenth century as governments of most countries increased the sea patrols and made piracy punishable by death. However, piracy has not completely disappeared. It is still flourishing from Sumatra to Somalia, and today’s pirates are quite different from the lovable rogues shown in movies such as ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’

7 Fun Facts about Pirates

  1. Pirates believed that wearing pierced earrings would improve their eyesight.
  2. Pirates believed that having women on board their ship brought bad luck. Women, therefore, had to disguise themselves as men. However, there have been some extremely powerful women pirates, such as Ching Shih, Anne Bonny and Mary Reed, documented in the history of piracy.
  3. They also believed that whistling on a ship would turn the weather stormy. The phrase ‘to whistle up a storm’ owes its origin to this.
  4. ‘Treasure Island’ is a popular novel written by the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson. In this book, we read about a pirate, Long John Silver and his constant parrot companion, ‘Captain Flint.’  This gives us a picture that pirates were fond of having pets on board. The truth was that the exotic pets like parrots were highly priced and very few pirates invested money in buying them.
  5. John Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart, was known to have captured the largest number of ships in his time. It is said that he captured more than 400 ships in a span of four years.
  6. It is rumored that famous pirate John Rackham created the skull and crossbones logo and flag, which is popularly known as the ‘Jolly Roger.’ He was married to Anne Bonny and was the father of two children.
  7. Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, was a notorious pirate who was pretty image-conscious. Before battle, he would dress smartly in black clothes, fasten a number of pistols to his chest and don a large, black captain’s hat. Then, he would put slow burning fuses in his beard and hair. The fuses burned slowly, giving off smoke, which enveloped Blackbeard in a thin blanket of fog. This made him look like a devil who had stepped right out of hell and his intimidating appearance made most of his victims simply surrender their cargo rather than fight him.

For more such interesting history articles and videos, go to History for Kids.