It’s a Pirates Life – Part 2

Here is the second part in a brief glimpse into the life of pirates.  I recommend reading part one if you get a chance.  In that areticle we discussed pirate dress on board ship and off, explaining the reasons for pirates wearing what they wear.  Today let’s talk about tactics.

If you have read other articles I have written you know where I come down on the Pirates vs Ninjas argument.  The biggest difference is in their tactics.  Ninjas love to move in secret and they love the covert, pirates use PR, drama and reputation as much as their actual tactics in battle, to win ship-to-ship battles on the high seas.

Let’s dispel a myth first.  The broadside was not a tactic used by pirates… very often.  Certainly, the navies of the world used broadside tactics against pirates but here is the question:  Why would pirates blow up a ship they were wanting to capture and potentially steal?  Pirates were known for their ability to trade up, think of them as the first car-jackers.  If they took a ship that was in better condition, or bigger then the one they were in, they would capture the ship,  ‘displace’ the crew of the ship that was captured and then sail away on a new ship (usually named the same thing as the old one – Blackbeard had so many ships called the “Queen Anne’s Revenge” that it isn’t funny).

When pirates spotted a ship on the horizon, they had to decide if they were going to sneak up on their prey or open up full sail and try to sprint to catch them.  usually they choose to sneak up on them.  They would run up the flags of the same country as the ship they had spotted and began closing the distance.  The other ship, thinking they had spotted a fellow countryman would shift their course to intercept.  The pirate ship, was a hive of activity below decks during this process.  They would have loaded the cannons with anti-personnel rounds.  This may have been official shot like canister or grape shot designed to work like a shot gun blast or it could have been odds and ends left below decks like nails and bits of metal.  They would also have chain shot loaded to disable the sails.  Chain shot being two small balls welded to a length of chain or just the chain itself.

When they were close enough to attack, the cannon doors would open the cannons were run out and they began to open fire.  The cannons swept the decks reducing the number of combatants on the other ship.  They would also strike their fraudulent colors and run up their Jolly Roger.  Even if the initial volley was unsuccessful, the ship the pirates were attacking would usually capitulate and surrender.  The legend of pirate attacks and the way they handled prisoners was such that merchants especially hoped by surrendering that they would not be killed and only have their cargo stolen. The pirates depended on those stories to keep the actual fighting and damaging of precious ships and cargo to a minimum.

This is the point though, the legend of the pirate attack was one that the pirates helped to foster.  Certainly some pirates were blood-thirsty.  They would kill prisoners and they would torture people but on the whole, they would much rather leave some of the people alive to spread the word.  As the stories grew, the pirates reaped the benefits.  When the black flag was run up the mast, merchant ships would certainly rather surrender quick and keep their crew alive then risk an attack by a group of nasty pirates.

In this way, PR became the main weapon of the pirate.  A very effective weapon that kept them from having to fight as much and turned their sea-going ventures into very profitable endeavors.