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.

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Who was who on a pirate ship?

Everyone on a pirate ship had a position and a role to play.

Being on a pirate ship was less strict than being on board a Royal Navy or a merchant vessel of the time - but everyone one had their duties and they had to be done.

This just means that different men had different jobs to make sure that

There was a command structure, and different men had different jobs to make sure that everything went smoothly.

Can you find out what people did on a pirate ship?

Check out some of the websites listed below to see if you can find the answer.

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What Did Pirates Eat?

Pirates went to sea for a long time and had a very hard time of it when it came to food. For the first couple of weeks there was meat, cheese, vegetables, eggs, and more. Chickens were kept for the eggs until they too were eaten. Cows were kept for the milk until the food supply was depleted and then they too were added to the table fare.

As the weeks and months went by, the food would spoil, rot, mold or go rancid.

Cooks would mask the taste of the rancid meats with plenty of herbs and spices. Vegetables and meat were usually pickled or salted to preserve the food. Ships on long voyages relied on biscuits, dried beans and salted beef to live.

For drinking, seamen chose beer or ale rather than water. Water did not last long on board before it turned slimy with green scum. A small amount of alcoholic spirits was sometimes added to a sailor’s water ration to kill the taste of the rancid water. This was called grog.

Rum, however, is the drink most associated with pirates as described in the book Treasure Island,  by Robert Louis Stevenson. Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented molasses. Because it was inexpensive to produce, it was very popular in the Colonies as well as the Caribbean.

In the story Under the Black Ensign,  by L. Ron Hubbard, the marooned pirate Tom Bristol and Lady Jane breakfast on boucan.

Boucan is a French word for smoked meat that was slowly cured on a grate over a fire. Hunters on the island of Tortuga would dry their meat and sell it to ships captains. After a while these hunters became known as boucaniers (“barbecuers”).

The boucanier or buccaneers soon realized that the Spanish ships they were selling their wares to offered more source of wealth than the money they received for the cured meat. So the buccaneers turned pirate and took to the sea, attacking Spanish galleons and ships. English authors later used the same word to refer to pirates from the Caribbean area and, hence, “buccaneer” is now synonymous with pirate.

So, avast, me buckos, celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day like a real pirate would—and enjoy a hearty barbeque. Arr!


https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/teacher-resources/stories-from-the-sea/pirates This website has some great film clips to watch. Great fun

Some pirate facts

  • The pirate Blackbeard was killed in a sword fight by a English naval officer in 1718

  • Pirates were very superstitious - for example they believed that wearing earrings would improve their eyesight.

  • From the 1500's Spanish galleons carrying treasure back to Spain from America were often attacked by pirates. One very famous example was Sir Francis Drake.

  • The Caribbean Sea was very popular with pirates because there are many small islands which gave the pirates places to hide.

  • In the 1650's, most pirates moved to a new hideout in Jamaica. A port called Port Royal was a wild place full of drunk pirates and runaway slaves.

  • Port Royal was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692.

  • Mutiny is the offence of the crew rising up and taking power from the captain.

  • A favourite drink of pirates was grog. Traditionally, grog was rum diluted with water or weak beer. It could be drunk cold or warm.

  • Blackbeard was them most feared of all pirates. He made himself appear ferocious during battles. He always had a least six loaded pistols, a cutlass and a musket with him.

  • Blackbeard wore a big feathered tricorn on his head. He had a large black beard and he would tie hemp into it and lit it during battle. He would also have lit cannon fuses ti3d under his tricorn. Anyone who saw him would say 'he looked like the devil'.

  • The most famous privateer was Francis Drake. He worked under secret orders from Queen Elizabeth the First.

Pirate Jobs

What do pirates do on board ship?

Every pirate ship was different, me hearty. But they all needed a crew, and each crew was a different size and made up of different people. The ships were nearly always over-crowded.

•In the Navy, captains and officers had military rank.

•There was always a big gap between common sailor and officer.

•However, on a ship full of murderers, bandits, and thieves, most decisions were determinate by voting! It may sound strange to hear of pirates voting!

•They had their own pirate ranks!

•On a pirate's ship, there was no such thing as a member of the privileged class.

•Everybody had same rights, and their roles and duties were appointed, only according to their abilities and knowledge.

I’m the Captain

•I think I am the most important person on the ship. But I was elected by the crew. My crew has to respect me, otherwise they will choose another Captain.

•I do know of some pirate Captains that were feared by all crew members. No-one would dare to elect another Captain on those ships.

•When electing a Captain, my crew looked for someone who was capable of commanding and navigating a ship.

•I had to be able to show that I had courage and skill in both, sword and pistol fighting.

•My job is to take control in battle and make sure my crew follow orders when we are fighting.

•Did you know there were lady Captains too!

•Not that being in charge came with many rights - during a fight I could boss the crew around, I could also hit, stab or shoot anyone who disobeyed me. Plus I got more of the treasure we stole from any of the ships we captured, but that was about it.

I am the Quartermaster.

•After the Captain, I have the most authority on a pirate ship.

•I am the Captain’s right hand man.

•It is me that is in charge when the Captain is not around.

•I will punish the crew if they do not obey commands.

•It is I, the Quartermaster, who is in charge of the food and water supplies.

•I also received a larger percentage of any treasure captured

•Sometimes, when another boat was captured I would often receive it so that I could go off and be a captain of that ship.

I am the Sailing Master

•I am an officer in charge of navigation and piloting. (that means not getting lost).

•It is a very hard job because charts were usually not very accurate – and sometimes there were no charts at all.

•You needed a good education to do my job. If I was working on a non-pirate ship, I would have been paid a lot of money.

•I was forced to join this pirate ship and I will have to be content with my share of the loot that we pillage.

I am a Gunner

•I am the leader of a small group of men. These men operated the artillery. (That’s the large guns used on board the ship).

•It is my job to watch out for the safety of my men.

•Most of the time, I aimed the cannons myself.

•It takes years of practice to become a good Gunner on a military ship. It is even harder on a pirate ship. Why do you think that is?

•It’s harder to be a Gunner on a pirate ship because pirates didn’t want to destroy the other ship. Oh no! Parateswanted to disable the other ship so that they could board it and get all that lovely loot.

•For just one cannon to operate efficiently, four to six men were needed to aim, fire, reset, swab and load. It was not an easy job.

•We had to make sure that we were coordinating our efforts with the other gunners.

•To make sure that everything ran smoothly, the most experienced Gunner was elected as a Master Gunner. That’s me. As Master Gunner I was the one giving orders when the Captain wasn’t around.

•Even though we tried to be as careful as we could, accidents happened all the time. Canons could quickly overheat and we were often working in the dark or candle light with gun powder.

Powder Monkey

•Hello. I am a Powder Monkey and I am 12 years old.

•I help the gun crews.

•My job is very dangerous and I am often treated very badly by the other members of the crew.

•I don’t usually get paid and I am always being told that I am expendable.

•There isn’t much chance of me getting promoted – sometimes I feel like deserting.


•I am a junior officer – A Boatswain.

•I supervise all activities on the ship.

•If it is a small ship I might have more than one duty, but on a large ship I might have only one duty.

•My duties range from anchoring to naval provisions.

•I report to the Quartermaster or the Captain.

•The boatswain (usually called the bo’sun) was in charge of making sure the ship's rigging, sails, cables and anchors all worked well.

•I was also in charge of the ship’s stores, and listening to what the captain wanted done and telling the crew to do it.

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Surgeon (Sawbones)

•Not all pirate ships have surgeons, but my one does. And that’s me.

•I was a surgeon on land and I got taken on board ship. So now I’m a pirate.

•I help the crew with diseases and their wounds.

•We don’t really have proper medicines. That means that every wound could become a source of infection.

•I often have to do amputations when the wounds were very bad. This was in order save patient's life.

•Some ships that do not have surgeons would make use of the carpenter. The carpenter is a good choice because he would have the tools needed to do an amutation.

•Sometimes the cook would act as the surgeon.


•Pirate ships did not have professional cooks.

•I’m just an ordinary crewmember.

•Food at sea was terrible. The meat was rotten, the bread was full of bugs, and sailors often died from scurvy, a horrible disease which caused sores, rotting teeth and eventual death.

•But not always. Sometimes members of a pirate crew often ate the best food they had ever experienced. The lure of fine food was a strong recruitment tool for pirates.

•It was hard for me to cook on board ship. I often had just a metal box filled with sand, in which I would light a fire and heat preserved food. In rough weather, the fire needed to be put out, and men ate raw, salted beef.


•I fix the damage done to the ship during the fights and I plug any leaks that might appear.

•I would also strip down the ships the crew captured so they too could be used as pirate ships.

•I saved all my sawdust while I was fixing the ship so that I could sprinkle it on the deck during fights. It stopped the pirates falling over their own blood.

How did early sailors navigate the oceans?


Five pirate myths that are actually true.