Pirates resorted to torture for several reasons. First, they wanted to foster their ruthless reputation that no quarter would be given and no pain would be spared if victims didn't surrender without a fight. When a ship did succumb by striking her flag after receiving a warning shot across her bow, then its crew's immediate future likely would not include severe suffering. Ideally pirates wanted to avoid a bloody battle, with its associated risks of injury and/or damage to the prize. Second, vengeful pirate captains used torture as a means of revenge against authority, seamen of certain nationalities, and nations who may have demonstrated harm to their cause in the past. Finally, the most prevalent use of torture was to help pirates locate hidden valuables among the passengers and the prize.

Pirates wasted no time, energy or ingenuity in getting the information they sought from their captives. "Talk or be tortured" was an irreversible truth. All parties were fully aware that no one was immune to the hideous tortures that would result if the captive captain, crew or passengers refused to reveal the whereabouts of their ships' valuables.


One of the fastest and most effective pirate tortures was called "woolding"-named after the word used to describe the binding of cords around a mast. It required only a short length of rope or cord positioned around the victims head. The ends of the rope were secured onto a length of wood that would be continually twisted in a clockwise motion, thereby pulling the cord tighter and tighter against the victims temples until their eyes burst out of their skull.


Another familiar pirate punishment was to lock the victim in wrist and leg irons and toss them down into the ships hold-which acted as a temporary prison. This particular method was most often used on a pirate caught stealing from another pirate, or to make a captive reveal secrets. Sometimes the guilty would be clapped in irons on the ships deck, positioned there to suffer under the scorching sun or bear the brunt of the whipping wind and rain. Other times, the wrist shackles were replaced with cords of rope and the arms were pulled tightly to a crucifixion position and suspended from the rigging, leaving the victim painfully hanging around for repentance.


When pirates had plenty of time on their side and wanted to be a little more playful, but no less painful, they would subject their victim to a bout of "sweating". Similar to running a gauntlet, sweating involved having the pirate crew surround the victim around the ships mizenmast wielding cutlasses, swords, and sharp ship tools. The prisoner would attempt to run and dance around the mast as the pirates jabbed and poked and punctured him from all sides with absolutely no route of escape-all to the upbeat sound of the musician's violin.


The most common punishment for breaking one of the ship's Articles of Piracy was flogging-that is, being lashed with a cat-o'-nine'-tails across the bare back. The "cat" consisted of nine tightly wound and knotted strands of cord attached to a piece of wood bound in leather. Some psychotic pirates would weave fish hooks into the knotted cords.

The guilty party was secured either standing belly-up against the mast or lying prone on the deck grating. He usually received a sentence of a dozen strokes, administered by the ships quartermaster with the entire crew in attendance. In extreme cases, the entire crew participated by offering a stroke or two apiece. Just imagine the damage to a man's body generated by the flogging of 180 dangerous men! To make matters worse, the pain of the flogging was usually intensified by adding salt and/or brine to the open wounds.

One famous flogging occurred aboard Black Bart Roberts' ship, Royal Fortune, when one of his drunken crew members, Thomas Jones, cursed the captain for killing another drunken crew member. At this, the enraged captain drew his sword and stabbed Jones, who then threw Roberts over a cannon and beat him unmercifully. Following the fight, the majority of the crew voted that the dignity of the captain ought to be upheld on board ship. So once Jones' stab wound healed, he was sentenced to be tied to the mast and given two lashes by every member of the 180-man crew.


Whether a pirate's punishment involved flogging, hanging, or being clapped in irons, he should have considered himself lucky that he wasn't sentenced to be keelhauled or marooned. These fates were virtually equivalent to a death sentence. Keelhauling involved binding the condemned mans hands and feet with rope and then hauling or dragging him by the rope from one side of the ship to the other through the water. What's worse, he would be dragged under the keel of the vessel, where the razor-sharp barnacles clinging to the ships hull would scrape and tear the skin, leaving a painfully raw and bloody mess. The victim usually died immediately from drowning or shark attack, or days later from multiple infected wounds.


Marooning was another drastic punishment doled out by pirate crews-usually reserved for cases of cowardly conduct, as in deserting the ship during battle or defrauding his crew of a proper share of the plunder. To be made "Governor of an Island" -or marooned on a deserted island with only a flask of rum, a flintlock pistol, some gunpowder, and one round of shot-meant a slow death from starvation, dehydration, and/or exposure to the elements...if the bullet wasn't used first.


The punishment for fighting between crew members was usually settled on land, where the antagonists were instructed to fight a duel with pistols at ten paces. If both pirates missed their first shots, they were to immediately resort to swords, and the first party to draw blood was declared the winner.


Probably the most legendary of all pirate tortures was the practice of making victims walk the plank to their watery grave. Unfortunately, there is no factual evidence that reveals pirates ever caused their prisoners to walk off a wooden plank extended over the ships side and into the ocean depths. The rumor persists that this creative torture method was supposedly favored by the Gentleman Pirate, Major Stede Bonnet, from Barbados. However, there is no report in any written account to substantiate the infamously popular tactic of making a victim walk the plank. On the other hand, there is a famous illustration by Howard Pyle of pirates making a victim walk the plank, and a scene in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, that have easily transformed fiction into fact.


A pirates life was not all drinking, gambling, whoring, and plundering. Piracy was a very dangerous calling, and pirates constantly died from drink, disease, accidents, infections, battle wounds, and shipwrecks. Considering the huge number of seamen sailing within the Brethren of the Coast, relatively few pirates lived long enough to die in perhaps the most inauspicious manner at the end of an Admiralty rope. But those who were caught by the authorities usually paid the ultimate price: "to be hanged by the neck till you are dead, dead, dead."

Hanging was the traditional official punishment for piracy in the Western Hemisphere. Huge, raucous crowds came to gawk when famous pirates were made to "dance the hempen jig." This colorful phrase (seventeenth-century slang for hanging) referred to how the pirates legs and arms would twitch after the body dropped and the neck snapped. Still dressed in their pirate finery of velvet and silk, a condemned man on his way to the gallows might be seen tossing silver coins or precious gems to the anxious crowd in a final act of defiance.

Two of the most celebrated pirate executions were of Calico Jack Rackam and the infamous Captain Kidd. Calico Jack was hung at Gallows Point (in modern-day Jamaica) in November, 1720, after being found guilty on all four charges of piracy that were levied against him. Like Captain Kidd's execution two decades earlier at Execution Dock in London, Calico Jack's body was hanged, tarred, and then hung in an iron cage from a gibbet on Deadman's Cay, where the rotting body would be seen by sailors as a warning against piracy.

Printed on handbills, in newspapers, and within royal declarations, the exploits of condemned pirates were described in detail-along with their repentant final words-for all to see.

Not surprisingly, the threat of hanging was something that pirates took very seriously. The following stanza from a ballad about Edward "Blackbeard" Teach-composed, printed, and sold on the streets by a young printers apprentice by the name of Benjamin Franklin-sums up the mindset of a pirate:

"So each man to his gun, For the work must be done, With cutlass, sword or pistol. And when we no longer can strike a blow, Then fire the magazine, boys, and up we go! Its better to swim in the sea below Than to swing in the air and feed the crow, Says jolly Ned Teach of Bristol."

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Did you know?

  • In 1684, the pirate Andrew Ranson was found guilty of piracy and sentenced to death by garrote. The rope around his neck broke and the town's friar believed his near-death experience was a miracle and demanded he be spared.

  • The pirate motto for going into battle was "iron and lead first, followed by steel." Start with cannon and musket fire and proceed to close fighting with cutlasses and boarding axes.

  • Pirates had workman's comp! Each captain took care of the injured by compensating crewmen for being maimed or losing a limb. And each captain had his own "rates:" loss of right arm, 600 pieces; left arm, 500 pieces; right leg, 500, etc.

  • The Castillo de San Marcos was built immediately after Captain Robert Searles sacked St. Augustine, Florida in 1668. Sir Francis Drake razed the city 82 years earlier.


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