Brutal Pirates Had Their Good Points, Historians Say


In the lore of Jolly Roger movies, Disneyland and Long John Silver, pirates were drunken, peg-legged bandits who made captives walk the plank and eat their own ears.

Now historians are taking a second look at the seafaring thieves, and learning many were not as brutal as people think.

To be sure, pirates were not generally nice guys. But at a time of tyranny in most countries, they elected their own captains, divided up their booty fairly, offered an early version of workmen’s compensation and gave black slaves a rare chance to live free.


“There was this extraordinary democracy among pirates,” said David Cordingly, author of “Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among The Pirates.” The book is one of several offering a revisionist view of pirates.

Artifacts such as rare African jewelry that was hacked apart to be shared equally seem to indicate a certain sense of fairness among pirates. New information is coming from the discovery of sunken pirate ships and research into court documents, government correspondence and statements by victims of pirate violence.

New research has revealed that pirates voted on most major decisions, such as whether to attack another vessel, or where to sail next.

Despite the revisionist movement, historians say buccaneers shouldn’t be romanticized, either. A favorite torture method was tightening a leather cord around a captive’s forehead until his eyeballs popped out of his skull. Crews that resisted pirate invasions often had their throats slit and were thrown overboard to the sharks.

“They were nasty, brutal and vicious people. But they lived in an age which was extraordinarily nasty, brutal and vicious,” said Kenneth Kinkor, a leading pirate expert.

In pirate society, everyone got their fair share of stolen loot, Kinkor said. Two shares typically went to the captain, 1 1/2 shares to the quartermaster and one share to each crew member. By comparison, captains of merchant ships often got 15 times more than the crew, who at times were left with almost nothing.


Pirates had a form of disability insurance centuries before it became standard. They were paid handsomely if they lost an arm or a leg in battle. If they were killed, their families sometimes received payments.

Up to a third of many crews were black, most of them former slaves, Kinkor said. They had the same right as white pirates to booty and the vote, and some were even elected captains by predominantly white crews.

“The deck of a pirate ship was the most empowering place there was for a black man during the 18th century,” he said.

Buccaneers formed their “floating democracies” largely in response to the injustices and cruelty they saw on merchant ships and societies back on land.

“It was a chance to break free. It was a maritime revolution,” Clifford said.

Barbarous behavior aside, pirates often treated prisoners decently to encourage other ships to surrender rather than fight to the death. There is only one documented case of pirates making someone walk the plank.

The 1984 discovery of the Whydah, a pirate ship that sank in 1717, forced experts to reassess their view of buccaneers, opening up “a whole new page in history that has never been seen before,” said Barry Clifford, a Cape Cod shipwreck salvager who located the Whydah off the coast of Massachusetts.


Last month, Clifford and a crew that included Maxwell Kennedy, son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, uncovered what they say is an even bigger find: a fleet of up to 18 elaborate French warships and pirate vessels that went down the night of May 3, 1678, after hitting coral reefs off Venezuela’s coast.

If confirmed, it would be only the second documented discovery of a pirate shipwreck in the world. Clifford expects it to yield a treasure trove of artifacts including swords, pistols, muskets, pottery, gold, medical supplies, navigational instruments and bronze cannons.

The disaster near Venezuela decimated the French navy in the Caribbean Sea and helped usher in the “Golden Age” of pirating, Kinkor said. The famed era of maritime lawlessness lasted from 1680 to 1725; at its height, 10,000 pirates roamed the seas.